Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay, October 2022 Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay, October 2022. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Many people repelled by Keir Starmer are looking to the Green Party as a left alternative. Kevin Crane investigates their policies and finds them falling well short of what socialists demand  

In this very odd and rather bleak general election campaign, minor parties are an unusually big story, even if that it’s in part because there is so little to say about the miserable offerings from both Tories and Labour. Although the media, due to its usual political biases, is desperate to talk up the right-wing Reform UK, it has been unavoidable to note that the Green Party of England and Wales is having a big year. Polling data suggests the party may finally win more than one seat in July, and it has managed to run candidates in literally every constituency in the two countries (the Scottish Green Party is a separate organisation).

Multiple factors are bolstering the Greens’ support: the main parties are completely failing to take climate change seriously as an issue, Keir Starmer’s relentless attacks on the left are driving socialist voters away from Labour and, most urgently, its stance on Gaza is to be pro-ceasefire and to oppose sending Israel further military aid. The party’s support is still very diffused around the country, but it did well again in this year’s local elections, and it has stronger-than-ever polling in the small number of seats it is genuinely targeting to win. 

The Greens are guaranteed to scoop up a significant number of leftwing votes, probably mostly in protest against Starmer’s disregard for human rights. A big name doing just this is Jeremy Corbyn’s former Labour General Secretary Jenny Formby, and others may well follow.

Some on the left – notably formerly Corbynite social media groups and prominent leftwing commentators like Phil Burton-Cartledge – have gone further and become highly enthusiastic for the Greens as a party. We have been in similar situations before, in which either or both the electoral potential or socialist credentials of the Greens have been heavily talked up. Claims about the party as one of the radical left needs to be analysed critically, particularly because the Green Party itself doesn’t really make them.

Taking people at their word

Like every party, the Greens put their manifesto out online, so there’s no need to speculate about the politics they’re running on. If you take the time to read the 2024 manifesto, the first thing that will strike is that it’s quite long and contains quite a lot of policy detail that could probably have been left out without losing much. Green Parties around the world have a conscious strategy of stressing a respectable and serious image whenever they are doing well electorally, and that seems to be where the England and Wales party is at right now. The messaging is well to the left of the Labour manifesto, but that is neither any surprise nor saying very much.

The content can fairly be described as social democratic, and in parts seems consciously modelled on some of the ideas that were popular within the Corbynite movement. There are many paragraphs about bringing energy and so on into varieties of community ownership, which really recall the sort of things that were coming from John McDonnell’s office at the time, but much of which feels unnecessary when it follows this passage:

We commit to immediately bringing the railways, the water companies and the big 5 retail energy companies back into public ownership. Public investment would buy equity in these public utilities, ensuring they are to serve us all, rather that to increase the wealth of shareholders.

Honestly, the above mostly does the trick on utilities, and there didn’t need to be five pages of text on this. In fact, in places where the Greens do flesh out what they mean, they actually introduce potential weakness, such as here where they focus on the railways:

Train companies to be gradually brought back into public ownership, as existing contracts expire and rolling stock which is currently owned by leasing companies needs replacement.

This attempt to sound well-thought out is a mistake, as it does not make clear the very significant difference between train operating companies and rolling stock companies, and unwittingly invites the same future clashes with rolling stock owners (i.e. exploitative investment funds) as Labour’s policy!

Less frequently more

The section on employment and trade union rights is pretty short, but it’s fine from a left perspective. The various promises that Angela Rayner has made to trade unions, and then been watering down to homeopathic levels, are actually here in full. So, at least a political party at this election is advocating getting rid of Thatcher’s laws.

The housing section is, by contrast, very long and points to some of the problems that I suspect the English Greens are going to run into as they continue to grow. The party has actual office in local government in a variety of locations, and you can see the resulting pressures in the mulchy quality of the text. On social housing for instance:

Our priority would be to increase Council and Housing Association provision of homes offered at low ‘social rents’ to 150,000 new homes a year, as soon as possible. We will end the ‘right to buy’ so that homes continue to belong to the communities who funded them and available to those who need a warm, secure home. Elected Greens will push for these new homes to be delivered through various measures, including new build and refurbishment.

This isn’t actually at odds with what the mainstream parties argue in the abstract, and is suggestive of trying to balance contradictory pressures from diverse social bases. The party’s voter appeal is stubbornly middle-class: even where it has urban bases, such as Brighton or Bristol, its councillors are still clustered in ‘gentrified’ neighbourhoods, rather than the most blue-collar estates.

The target of increasing housing is also paired up with a hardline protection of ‘green belts’ around towns, with the implication being the latter comes first. This is more of a Tory/Lib Dem policy than anything from the left. Something may well have to give with these goals, and sooner rather than later since Green councillors actually do make these decisions. That is not true of the areas where the party is more clearly leftwing, like utility ownership.

The text proceeds to gives fairly equal weight to support for social & private tenants and owner-occupiers, particularly assistance with enhancing the thermal and energy efficiency properties of the home. There is also some technical detail about how to assist local authorities and housing associations in buying properties. What there isn’t is any discussion about big landlords and big freeholders: it feels like a slightly similar omission to the railway policy, not engaging with how much big money asset management capitalists are the primary obstacle to progress.

Good politics stopping at the border?

As mentioned, the Green Party does have a vastly more humane and sensible line regarding Palestine than the big parties. However, the wider foreign policy of the party is not such a great read, before it even gets to Palestine it adamantly states that it will:

Continue to support Ukraine as it resists Russian invasion.

The Greens took this stance as soon as the war started two years ago, along with basically all their sister parties across the continent, particularly the governing German Greens. The thing is, two years is a long time in both politics and war, and while it was fully understandable – however unwise anti-imperialists found it – to take this position then, it is somewhat shocking that the English and Welsh party hasn’t shifted an inch or opened up the question of how peace can be achieved in Ukraine. It is clearly still assuming that this catastrophic conflict could potentially end with a Ukrainian military victory, which few rational commentators honestly believe. Failing to engage with the need for negotiations is just daft at this point.

The wider issue here is that the Greens have moved rightwards on foreign policy. The worst part of the manifesto follows:

The Green Party recognises that NATO has an important role in ensuring the ability of its member states to respond to threats to their security. We support the principle of international solidarity, whereby nations support one another through mutual defence alliances and multilateral security frameworks.

However, that doesn’t mean we think NATO is perfect—far from it. We will work within NATO for a greater focus on outreach and dialogue to support global peacebuilding, based on democratic and inclusive values.

This is liberalism at its absolute most deluded. NATO is a transmission belt for the aims and objectives of the American military-industrial complex: no-one is going to work within it to pursue some other set of objectives. The best thing you can say about this is that that it’s the same terrible position Labour has, but being wrong about things Labour is also wrong about is not a defence. 

What really beggars belief is that at the back of a document that has lavished thousands of words on how to reduce the environmental impact of every aspect the economy suddenly has nothing to say when it comes to the most terrible pollutant of all: war. The Ukraine war has been an ecological disaster, with enormous damage being done by both sides. The single worst act, however, was carried out by the West – the blowing up of the Nordstream pipeline. The intentional failure to investigate that outrage was NATO cooperation in practice, because the affected countries would not contradict US directives. There’s the ‘democratic values’ of NATO.

The most warlike Green Party is, as mentioned, the German Greens, and they should be serving as a good example of what the reward for putting greenwash on American khaki actually is. They’ve just been trounced in the polls, along with their equally belligerent Social Democrat allies, by the fascist AfD.

The rest of the foreign policy section is weak too. The Greens cling to the idea of restoring Britain to EU membership and justify this with the same arguments for doing so that didn’t persuade millions of people eight years ago. Shockingly, they praise the EU’s ‘free movement’ with no acknowledgement of the body’s role in repressing and excluding refugees. In fact the word ‘refugee’ appears only once in the entire manifesto, and is mentioned only in passing, so anyone hoping for radical policies in that area won’t find them.

A protest vote is one thing

Labour is all but guaranteed to win the general election in July. It will do so with a very low percentage of the overall vote, a laughably inadequate policy offering, and a contemptible, racist bully for a leader. These are pretty much the strongest possible conditions for socialists to lend their votes to other parties.

Options for making protest votes have actually never been higher. We’ve got former Labour MPs/candidates like Jeremy Corbyn and Claudia Webbe running on a radical basis. There’s a raft of other independents standing primarily to highlight Palestinian rights. You can also give a vote to George Galloway’s Workers’ Party (if you haven’t been put off by the performatively ‘conservative’ social policy) or the much weaker Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition, if they’re in your constituency. However, even if none of the above are standing in your area, the Greens have guaranteed that you can choose to vote for them.

Giving your vote to the Greens, whether as a public figure like Jenny Formby making a point or just an ordinary person not wishing to vote for a Starmer-supporting Labour candidate, is perfectly rational. The Greens are making economic arguments that are better than those of Labour, and also more popular with the public when taken as singe issues. It may well be possible for additional Green MPs to play a really positive role in the fight against exploitative water and power companies, and we should be fully open to such united front work.

The idea that the Greens are a party that we join and try to work through, however, is a different matter. It is not a radically socialist party and makes no pretence to be. Its attitude towards public ownership stops at the ‘natural monopolies’ line that Old Labour used to, and this wasn’t even enough in the post-Second World War period. They are not prepared for confrontation with the big land capital and asset management interests that drain wealth out of our economy. Their naïve attitude toward NATO and the EU is simply the most obvious expression of a failure to recognise the links between capitalism, imperialism and environmental damage.

If you do see the fight against inequality, war and climate change as being one of a fight against capitalism then, beyond election day in July, you ultimately need an anti-capitalist party. The Green Party fundamentally is not one of these, and it doesn’t pretend that it is. It doesn’t do the left any favours to pretend otherwise on the Greens’ behalf.

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