SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 162 October 2012

A new Green road?

SEPTEMBER SAW the election of a new leader of the Green Party of England and Wales to replace Caroline Lucas. The Greens’ only MP, she stood down to ‘let others develop a national profile’ after leading the party since 2008 when it first decided to have a formal leader.

The victory of Natalie Bennett, a former editor of the Guardian Weekly, provoked some commentary about a shift to ‘practical politics’, with The Guardian itself contrasting her to "idealistic rivals such as Romayne Phoenix" (4 September). Bennett defeated ‘Green left’ candidates Peter Cranie and Romayne Phoenix after transfers, including the majority of supporters of the fourth candidate, businesswomen – and Jaguar car driver – Pippa Bartolotti. But really this was not a contest of competing ideologies, fought out before a mass audience.

Firstly the actual numbers involved were very small. While the Greens’ registered membership has risen from 7,553 in 2008 to over 12,000 now, those voting in the leadership contest only increased by 358 in four years (from 2,769 in 2008 to 3,127). What does this say about the activism – this was a postal ballot – of Green Party members in a time of anti-austerity struggle?

Moreover the ‘Green left’ standard-bearers were not especially ‘left’ in practise, notwithstanding The Guardian’s assessment. Romayne Phoenix was a councillor in the south London borough of Lewisham from 2006 to 2010, part of a Green group of six on a ‘hung council’ where Labour had the biggest group but no overall majority.

The Socialist Party also had two councillors in Lewisham at this time. While the Greens voted more frequently with the socialists than the other parties did, they sided with Labour, or abstained to help give them a majority, on key votes on cuts in council services, public transport, council homes privatisation, and resisting academy school expansion. (See: for a full record of this period.) Of the four statutory budget-setting meetings Romayne Phoenix attended she voted against a cuts budget twice, for a cuts budget once, and abstained once.

The Lewisham experience – and the even greater test since of the Green-led Brighton council failing to resist the Con-Dems – highlights why the Greens are not an alternative to the now capitalist Labour Party.

The Greens have a list of radical policies to the left of Labour, from free social care for the elderly to renationalisation of the railways. But they are not a party based on an explicit socialist opposition to capitalism – socialism being the generalised political expression of working class interests against those of the capitalists and their system. They have no ideological anchor therefore against the pressure from the capitalist establishment – articulated in The Guardian’s editorial call to ‘be realistic’ – to follow the logic of pro-market policies, in local councils in Britain as in government coalitions in Europe.

But nor do they have a class anchor, not having emerged as an expression of the political interests of the working class or based on working-class organisations, in particular the trade unions.

This is not to say that the Greens do not want union backing. Romayne Phoenix argued in the leadership election that trade unions "should see the Green Party as a natural home because all our values and priorities should appeal to them", while Peter Cranie wanted them to be "a potential source of support", including financial backing (The Guardian, 30 August).

But this is the wrong way round. The working class already has its own organisations, above all the trade unions which – notwithstanding the right-wing bureaucratic leadership of many – are still the biggest ‘voluntary organisations’ in society. Trade union membership, at 27% of the workforce, is greater than the 11% union density in 1900 when the Labour Party was formed, for example. But the predominant political fact of today, given Labour’s transformation, is that workers do not have their own organisation for political representation. The question is, what does the working class need to do to establish a political party that it itself controls?

With a fighting leadership trade unions are capable of drawing in presently unorganised sections of the working class and the middle class too. While just 12% of 20-24 year old workers are in a union, for example, 51% of 18-24 year olds supported last year’s June 30 strikes, according to ICM (The Guardian, 2 July 2011), against 24% who thought they were not justified. The willingness to look to the unions for a lead against the austerity onslaught has only increased since then.

But to provide a lead requires unions to create their own political voice, a new workers’ party – not to line up behind either Ed Miliband or an ex-Guardian editor new Green leader.

Clive Heemskerk


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