13 Sept 2013

Where next for the Green Party?

Green Party conference opens today in Brighton.  Brighton has been at the forefront of Green Party electoral success, electing our first MP Caroline Lucas and first Green Party local authority.

However, it provides serious challenges for the party. 

Caroline Lucas has made a significant impact on the political system in Britain. From her arrest for opposing fracking to her passionate speech against war in Syria to her Private Members Bill to renationalise the railways, she is often a lone voice against austerity and neo-liberal economics. It is difficult for the Green Party of England and Wales to win seats at Westminster, given the first past the post system, so every Green Party member knows that the most significant task they face is to ensure her re-election. At the same time, the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour Party machines are desperate to remove her. 

There are few firm voices in Parliament advocating ecological sanity, peace and opposition to the cuts agenda.  All on the left, not just those of us in the Green Party, need to support Caroline. Indeed, with Ed Miliband still committed to Tory cuts, it is essential that an alternative to austerity is present.

Opponents of the Green Party find it difficult to challenge Caroline’s record, but instead focus on the Green councillors' record in Brighton and Hove.  While some claim that trying to create socialism in one country  is impossible, none of us should dismiss the challenges involved in bringing in green policies in one city or town.  It is of course the worst possible time to be in local government, with life threatening cuts and  restrictions imposed by Eric Pickles. Also, the Greens run a minority administration and could be outvoted at any time.  Criticism of Green councillors in Brighton and Hove can be seen as a way in which opponents may suffocate the Green Party as  a resurgent force on the left of British politics.

 So how should Brighton and Hove Green Party councillors proceed in this uniquely difficult climate?  There are no easy answers, of course, but there are indicators.  One approach  is to advocate careful management even  if this means cuts.  This is logical, because as one minority council administration, resistance strong enough to fight the Tories and win looks unlikely.  At least in the Green Party there is a contrast with Labour, in that Labour councillors up and down Britain have been threatened with expulsion and sometimes removed if they advocate no cuts budgets.  In the 1980s Liverpool and other left wing councils stoutly resisted Thatcher, but in our decade left wing Labour councils who might provide solidarity with other no cuts administrations are a historical memory, like King Arthur or Boddicea.

Yet there is a point where we Greens become caretakers for catastrophe, managing as best we can, delivering cuts as compassionately as possible, showing perhaps that we are just as efficient or even better managers than councillors from other parties.  Yet the shit is increasingly hitting the proverbial and alternatives which are both  radical and  practical are essential.  Better delivery of policies that nevertheless bring misery is ultimately unsustainable.

The situation in Brighton and Hove reminds one of the travails of Labour governments in the 20th century.  When they tried to be good managers, to stop frightening the horses, to join perhaps the establishment and show they were safe pairs of hands, they, to be blunt, fucked up.  When Labour thought outside the prevailing wisdom they made real and effective changes.  Many of us would argue that the Greens risk being tamed, becoming another political animal too docile to challenge the power hungry corporations and militarist political establishment.  All Greens should remember that in the 1930s the Labour government embraced the Gold Standard, swallowed the conventional political medicine and embraced austerity.  Ramsay McDonald’s  policies nearly destroyed the Labour Party and his name spells the word ‘traitor’.  In contrast, the introduction of the NHS by Atlee’s 1945 Labour government provided something we all love. Business as usual for the Brighton and Hove Greens may simply be a recipe for defeat, if it appears to local Sussex voters that we are the same as the big three pro-austerity political parties but merely more efficient at delivery.

There are no easy answers for anyone in local government, resistance has to be built however difficult this may seem. Imaginative responses to the cuts are needed.  This weekend I am supporting Green Party proposals at our National Conference for a Progressive Council Tax.  This can be introduced in Brighton and Hove - the principle is simple, and it is legal.  Council Tax would nominally be raised to ensure the Council could protect its services, but  but about 80% of payers would actually receive rebates that amounted to a cut in their payments.  The minority at the top of the income scale would pay more so that money can be found to preserve front line services.

It is not a panacea, it will require a referendum, and on its own it is no substitute for Labour, the Greens and the trade unions up and down Britain taking on the government in a unified fight.  PCT requires detailed examination to iron out problems like shared households, however it is essential that the party does not close down this option and votes to further explore it, and any other means to practically challenge cuts and austerity.  

Derek Wall

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