A prominent Brighton blogger, Dani Ahrens, recently posted a piece reporting that she had signed up as a Labour supporter in order to vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour party leadership election – from the perspective of someone who has publicly supported the Green Party. It’s a sentiment that closely matches comments by Caroline Lucas about how she would like to co-operation on the Left to defeat austerity, faced with the Tories’ unexpected election victory in May.
I’m not going to comment on the system that allows non-members to sign up as supporters and to get a leadership vote, except to say that, open to abuse as it is, it’s not really a satisfactory response to the old days of the Union vote in which Union members of all parties and none were counted as supporters. There are safeguards, and it is possible for supporters to be challenged.
I’m more concerned with the assumptions behind the apparent support of many Green Party activists – especially on social media – for Corbyn, and the wider issues around left unity. Yes, I want to see a strong, united left making a really powerful stand against austerity – especially at a time when events in Greece are reminding us that austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity. But there is a deep-seated hypocrisy when Greens who have long regarded Labour as “the enemy” – not least in Lucas’ own Brighton Pavilion constituency, where I lived until recently – suddenly rediscover their links to Labour. It is one thing for Lucas to preach unity on the left, but another when her aide Cllr Alex Phillips argues that her party’s aim must be to “create havoc” for Brighton’s recently-elected Labour administration.
You cannot have it both ways. You cannot preach left unity if the raison d’etre of your party is to undermine and replace the principal party of opposition, at a time when the party of Government is pursuing a feral, ideologically-driven version of austerity. Greens who support Jeremy Corbyn need to decide what they want to do – are they happy to grandstand from the sidelines, or will they re-engage with Labour and undertake the heavy lifting of arguing the case for radical policies within the Labour Party – as some of us have chosen to do?
It’s a more pressing question when you consider the track-record of the only Green local administration in Britain – one whose leader famously claimed that 40% child poverty in East Brighton was “on target” and which consistently directed resources away from the poorer periphery into the affluent centre of the city; which dismissed Labour’s plans for a fairness commission as an irrelevance; and which famously presided over a catastrophic decline in the city’s recycling rate.
It’s really about entitlement. As a Labour candidate in an affluent Green-held ward in last May’s council election, I heard Green supporters talk incessantly about Iraq – I’ve personally been accused of being a warmonger and a child-murderer – while, a couple of miles away, in the parts of the city where Greens never went, thousands of their fellow citizens were dependent on food banks (and, yes, I’ve heard Green Party supporters describe food banks as a “lifestyle choice”). Yes, Iraq was a disaster – but ten years on there are other pressing issues too, with the poorest and most vulnerable in society taking the biggest hit. My question to the Greens signing up to back Corbyn is – are you willing to come out from the bunker and get stuck in to the serious business of defeating this appalling Tory government and the ideology that sustains it?
What we simply cannot afford any more is the entitled evasion of “you’re all the same”. Yes, you can argue that there are some Labour leadership candidates who cannot see beyond the Tory frame. And, while I don’t want to get into arguments about Green votes costing Labour seats (because I believe – in contrast, I might add, to the tenor of Caroline Lucas’ re-election campaign – that votes on the Left have to be earned and are not owned as a matter of right), Greens need to consider what the outcome of the recent election tells us about the risks of fragmentation on the Left. I now live in Wales, where a Labour government has retained EMA, introduced free prescriptions, where there is no PFI and where the poorest children have had the boost of Flying Start in addition to Sure Start – and in which the Labour authority in my new home city of Cardiff achieves recycling rates beyond the imagining of Brighton’s hapless former Green administration. Not only does Labour achieve when it remains true to its roots, but the unique coalition that is the Labour party – of trade unionists, social democrats and democratic socialists – has been the most powerful engine of progress British politics has ever known. And it still can be.
I’m voting for Jeremy Corbyn because – although I believe he will not win – we need to reassert the democratic socialist voice in the Labour Party, and challenge the language and mindset of austerity. Greens who become supporters, vote Corbyn and then return to their bunker will only damage that. The fact is that electorally, only Labour can challenge the Tories right across the country – are the Greens who back Corbyn willing to do the decent thing and work for genuine unity on the Left – by fully backing Labour?