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Issue 41, September 1999

Britain's Green Party

IN ANOTHER SIGN of the break up of old politics in Britain the Green Party has had a modestly successful set of elections this year. They gained an MSP in Scotland's new parliament and two seats in the European parliament, for the first time ever.

In the Euro elections, on a very low poll, the Greens gained 5.8% of the vote across the UK, their highest regional vote being 8.3% in the South West. They held all the council seats they were defending in May and won five additional seats. They now have 27 councillors across England and Wales, from Devon to West Yorkshire, with the largest concentrations in Oxford (four district and two county councillors) and Stroud (four district councillors). If MPs were elected to the Westminister parliament on the same basis as in Germany, then a national vote of 5.8% would give them between 25 and 30 MPs.

The Greens vote is the result of growing disillusion with New Labour and a steady growth in concern about environmental issues. When the areas of their best vote are considered, it seems that their main support is from sections of radical white collar and professional workers, many of whom voted New Labour in 1997 but have been disappointed with the government's failure to be fundamentally different from the Tories. Opposition to genetically modified food also boosted the Green vote.

The Green Party has a programme far more radical than New Labour. As well as many polices specifically on the environment, it has social policies including opposition to the privatisation of council housing, a guaranteed income for all (a 'citizen's income'), and a progressive taxation system.

This is not a full account of the Green Party's aims and policies. There are debates within the party - on attitudes to the European Union; on how much emphasis to give to social and economic issues compared to how much on what are seen as environmental issues; and between a more radical, broadly socialist trend, and those who are in favour of a 'green' capitalism. Some also believe in an alternative economy that is neither socialist or capitalist.

The Green Party, where they have won seats, have not been solely an electoral party - in Stroud, for example, they organised an anti-GM food demo of 500. There is, however, some separation between the Green Party and environmental activists, many of whom are not members.

  With mounting disillusion with New Labour, and with the Liberals staying in bed with them, the Green Party will probably continue to develop a local electoral base. But on local councils, and in the Scottish and European parliaments, the Green's representatives will face the same dilemma as the German Greens; whether to stick to principles or to become establishment politicians.

Britain's Greens are more radical than their counter-parts in Germany and France - they opposed the war in the Balkans, for example. But this, to date, is more a product of their lack of proximity to power than a thoroughgoing programmatic critique of the Euro-Green experience.

Bill Hopwood

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