Greens boost votes in locals: But are they the left alternative we need?
Starmer’s electoral wipeout on May 6 has dominated headlines. But another noteworthy trend can be clearly seen in the boost in votes for the Green Party in England, winning a 140% increase in council seats from 63 to 151. The Scottish Greens managed to boost their numbers in Holyrood from 5 to 8 MSP seats, putting the question of a new potential ‘Green surge’ on the agenda.
The party, while receiving vote increases in areas like Stockport, the Wirral and Tyneside, got its most significant boosts in Bristol, where they more than doubled their numbers on the City Council. In Sheffield, their efforts resulted in them unseating the now-former leader of the council, Bob Johnson.
Boosts in support for the Greens is not unprecedented. For one, this is a global phenomenon, with the German Greens currently running as the favorite in the upcoming German Parliamentary elections, ahead of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. In Ireland, the party benefited from a significant boost in the polls, which has now resulted in them entering government with the Fine Gael (FG) and Fianna Fail (FF) parties.
But as many will remember, this was also the case in Britain in 2015, when the party’s membership rose significantly and their profile was boosted.
At that time they received up to 8% in some opinion polls. The Greens in Britain present themselves as a progressive, left-wing anti-austerity force. In the pre-Corbyn era, this led many, especially many young people, to look towards them as an alternative to the dire choice between Ed Miliband and David Cameron.
In some ways, these events were a precursor to the later rise of Corbynism – they demonstrated the thirst that existed for an alternative to pro-austerity politicians. But today, with the Labour Party in disarray under Starmer’s counterrevolution, it will come as no surprise that many people have understandably looked back towards the Greens as offering a potentially viable alternative.
The Greens’ reputation as being a middle class party has some reflection in these results – for instance in winning council seats in areas like the Isle of Wight, Suffolk and East Sussex, gaining in formerly-safe Tory wards. But also what is striking about these results is the headway made by the party in areas like Hillsborough (Sheffield), a traditionally working class area in the North of England, where the Greens massively boosted their share of the vote. Contrary to the North having uniformly ‘gone Tory’ like the media presents it, this shows that, while workers (rightly) have no trust in Starmer’s Labour to give them a voice, many either will not vote at all, or look for what could be seen as a left alternative.
We also shouldn’t forget the impact that struggle can have on election results. While the 2019-2020 Youth Strike 4 Climate movement is currently facing something of an ebb, the heroic example set by protesting school students has helped force the issue of climate change onto the agenda as a serious topic of political discussion. The Greens have predictably been main beneficiaries of this among young voters, as reflected in the newly-elected Green councillor Lily Fitzgibbon in Bristol, who has been a leading Youth Strike activist, organising the demonstration around the visit of Greta Thunberg to the city last February, in which members of Socialist Alternative took part.
Greens in practise
These results will make many ask: Are the Greens a real left party?
Certainly, in their current programme, there are a lot of progressive and left-sounding policies, for instance endorsing a Green New Deal with pledges to decarbonise by 2030.
This is twinned with some popular anti-austerity policies, including votes at 16, a £12 an hour minimum wage, along with verbal commitments to “Reversing austerity and funding our public services, tackling discrimination, ending the war on drugs, restoring our natural environment and making wellbeing the focus of our economy.”
So far, so good! Socialist Alternative would welcome the election of anybody who is prepared to fight for policies which stand to benefit working-class people. But, positive though these policies are, the Greens fail to connect them to the need for a fundamental break with the capitalist system. This means that, without being linked to a socialist programme and a strategy to mobilise the working class to fight for it, they are ultimately insufficient to tackle the climate crisis. What is needed is not just incremental reforms ‘around the edges’ of the system, but to target the colossal wealth of the ruling class, along with the major monopolies that dominate the economy. It is well known that 100 companies worldwide are responsible for 71% of CO2 emissions. The reality is you can’t control what you don’t own. If we aren’t going to nationalise these companies and run them under democratic workers’ control – necessary as the first step towards a socialist plan of production to meet the needs of people and the planet – then how can we trust that they will take serious steps, beyond PR stunts, to decarbonise, or that we will have any say in how we they do so?
Mote important than what politicians say, is what they do – especially when in power. It’s therefore instructive to draw on past examples to understand what the real political character of the Greens, in Britain and internationally.
Although the England and Welsh/Scottish Greens have never had the experience of officially entering into national governments (let alone making them) they have done so elsewhere in Europe – most significantly in Germany. And unfortunately in many cases, contrary to the progressive language of these parties, this took the form of getting into bed with outright capitalist parties.
This remains the case in Austria, where the Greens have entered into coalition with the right-wing conservative Austrian People’s Party. Although this hasn’t resulted in any serious action on the climate, it has meant the adoption of racist policies inherited from the far-right, including bans on the wearing of the hijab and continued deportations of refugees, all with the complicity and participation of the Greens.
In Ireland, where last year’s general election resulted in a deadlock, neither of the main capitalist parties FG and FF could govern on their own, resulting in a coalition of two, with the Greens’ participation! This decision to enter into government with the two main political representatives of big business and the Catholic Church in Ireland marked a real betrayal of the mass movements that have propelled them to where they are today in many countries.
While the Greens will present this as a matter of them entering to ‘put pressure from the inside’, as well as placing the climate above ‘ideological purity’, this does say something about their real priorities. Entering into government with forces that preside over the housing crisis, over low pay, or over rotting healthcare systems does nothing to protect the environment and is the opposite of how you build the kind of united working-class movement that’s necessary to fight for action on climate change.
Are the England and Wales/Scottish Greens different?
While the Greens’ current leader Jonathan Bartley dismisses claims he would support an electoral pact with the Lib Dems, the record of his party suggests otherwise. In the midst of the Brexit crisis in 2019, when the overwhelming task facing workers and young people was bringing down the Tories while opposing the capitalist EU, Caroline Lucas – the Brighton MP with a popular record of campaigning herself, came forward with a blatant policy of class collaboration. Her proposal was for an “emergency cabinet of women” to “stop the dangerous pursuit of a crash-out Brexit”. Quite tellingly, this cabinet proposal included Tories, Lib Dems and Blairite Labour MPs. It doesn’t require much to figure out how such a formation would be unable to provide an answer to the questions facing workers and young people in terms of jobs, pay and living conditions – let alone in tackling big fossil fuel interests which enjoy extensive links with the Tories!
This practise of claiming left and progressive credentials while dropping these commitments in practise has an even deeper history though. In 2017, when the Corbyn movement was going on the advance, a marginalised Green Party’s line of attack came clearly from the right, in attacking Corbyn for failing to form a ‘progressive alliance’ with the Lib Dems, in the form of an electoral pact leading presumably to a coalition government to stop a Tory Brexit. All this despite the fact that only 2 years earlier, the Lib Dems had been themselves propping up the Tories! By approaching this issue from the right, the Greens revealed their true colours.
This approach of class collaboration and striking deals with establishment forces for a seat at the table will not advance the climate movement one step. As such in Scotland, their increase in Seats could ultimately be undone if they are to enter into government with a minority SNP administration, particularly after their years-long record of backing SNP austerity budgets in Holyrood. This was also the case in Brighton, where in control of the City Council, they oversaw years of cuts to services such as adult social care, children’s services and housing, meanwhile weaponising the anti-trade union laws against the bin workers’ strike of 2013.
We are entering into a period of unprecedented capitalist crisis. While the ruling class relies on governments pumping unprecedented amounts of public money into the economy to keep the system afloat, workers will ultimately be forced to pay the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic. And given that there are clear links between the Covid-19 pandemic and capitalist food production which is also harmful to the environment, it is clear that the various social crises and climate crises we face have their root in this system.
So it comes as no surprise that many in this election have cast their vote for the Greens and will most likely continue to do so. Many of these voters will also be instrumental in building the resistance in the coming years. With demonstrations outside the UN COP26 Climate Talks in Glasgow in November in the woodwork, it is clear that we and our movement will need a political voice of our own, which clearly will not be provided by Starmer’s Blairite ‘opposition’.
But also, for their promising words, the Green Party’s politics lacks the struggle-based approach that will be needed to force radical climate action and confront the big business interests driving environmental destruction.
We will ultimately need a new and radically different sort of party – one firmly on the left and based around mass, working-class struggle rather than restraining itself to electoral politics. Only through this could we fight for many of the policies that we need – such as public ownership of energy companies, banks and key industries to rapidly decarbonise, mass insulation of homes and public house building, electrification of all railways and the provision of free and widely available public transport.
Tackling the climate crisis means confronting it as a capitalist crisis and fighting for a socialist alternative. If you agree, join us today!