Green Party leader Natalie Bennett with other prominent party members. Picture: EPA Green Party leader Natalie Bennett with other prominent party members. Picture: EPA

The surge in membership of the Green party shows that British politics is not marching to the right – James Meadway looks at the implications for the Left

Over the last few weeks, the mainstream press has finally woken up to something that has been bubbling away in British politics for at least the last year. The “Green surge” is upon us: party membership has more than doubled in six months, and now stands at 47,000 in England and Wales alone, while it is polling at record levels, significantly above the Lib Dems. Their attempted exclusion from the televised debates, far from breaking the roll, seems to have only added impetus, with 2,000 people joining in just 24 hours last week. Anyone active on the British left will know someone who has joined the Greens in the last year.

We should be clear: the upsurge in Green Party membership is a positive development. Their eclipsing of the Lib Dems, in particular, should finally put paid to that party’s position as a sponge for well-meaning and vaguely leftish aspirations at election time. For all those looking at (for instance) Ukip’s membership and deciding it will take a generation to “rebuild the left”, the whole country now marching smartly to the right, it is a standing rebuke: the left is being rebuilt as we speak. And for those currently sniffy about the “middle class” and “petit bourgeois” Greens, evidence that a significant majority of Green members earn below the national average should at least give pause for thought.

It’s true that the party was set up by a group of ex-Tories. Early candidates for what became the Green Party argued for immigration controls and “traditional” roles for women. But the Green Party today is decades, and many arguments and mutations, away from that. Greeted with horror by the Telegraph, their platform is by some distance the most radically anti-neoliberal of any major party contesting the upcoming election. On the crucial issues of immigration and austerity, there can be little (on paper) to find serious fault. And over the last few years, with Brighton MP Caroline Lucas joined by party leader Natalie Bennett as their two most high-profile figures, the Greens have made consistent efforts to position themselves as a credible left opposition to what Tariq Ali has usefully coined the “extreme centre” of mainstream politics. The consensus that has dominated British politics for the last two decades is meeting its first truly national electoral challenge.

Against the consensus

The Green’s rise is the product of two primary factors. First, anti-consensus parties have been growing rapidly across the board. The SNP has seen its membership rise to close to 100,000 since the campaign. On the right, Ukip membership has risen to around 41,000, higher than its 2004 peak of 25,000. Throughout Europe, it is parties to the left and right of the centre ground that are making the running, from the Front National in France, to Syriza in Greece.

The period since 2008, of a neoliberal response to a neoliberal crisis, is beginning to drag out some long-suppressed tensions in European societies. One of those is a growing lack of trust, and indeed contempt for, the extreme centre of neoliberal managers and their political parties. When, crudely, neoliberalism delivered the goods for most (even if only on borrowed time), it could be passively supported. When living standards are falling, the future is uncertain, and yet a lucky few can still be found adding substantially to their wealth, that support can crumble.

There is an important counterpoint to this development, however. Both Spain and Greece, where the recomposition of the left is most apparent, and where the old centre looks the most tired, have seen the appearance new centre parties, To Potami in Greece and Ciudados in Spain. Neither currently enjoy support on anything like the scale of the older liberal parties achieved, but both are rising in the polls. To Potami is currently in negotiations with Syriza over future agreements, insisting on sticking to a (marginally less crazed) version of the Troika’s austerity plans in the name of “pragmatism”. The centre can be weakened, but is perfectly capable of rebuilding itself, a point we will return to.

Previous surges

Second, we need to put the surge in historical, and specifically British, perspective. The Greens’ membership is now above the Lib Dems. But it still about one-third of either Labour or Tories in England and Wales, and about the same proportion in relation to the SNP’s membership in Scotland. Party membership in general is still enormously down on its post-war peaks, when, by the early 1950s, Labour claimed over 1m, and Tories over 2m members. (The graph below is taken from the House of Commons survey.)

Graph: Party Membership

Of course, it is the dynamic that matters – the Greens’ growth over the last 12 or even six months has been precipitous. Interestingly, however, both Tories and Lib Dems have reported some recent membership increases – just on nothing like the same scale, and nowhere near enough to reverse the long-term decline in both. (Tory membership has roughly halved since Cameron became leader.) Labour’s membership, after a blip upwards around Ed Miliband’s election as leader, has stabilized around the 190,000 mark for the last five years.

It’s the Labour membership that should most interest us here. The historic party of the British left has, in the past, been able to mop up anti-Tory, left-wing sentiment very effectively, irrespective of its leadership at the time. Historically, when this has occurred, this growth has been driven by the left on the ground, and by the leadership tilting towards the left. Labour’s surging WW2 membership was built around expectations of what a post-war government could deliver. Harold Wilson, one-time Bevanite, saw a far less significant but nonetheless real increase in membership in his early years as leader, prior to entering office. Following the defeat of 1979, Bennism saw an influx of left activists to Labour and, after the damaging SDP split, Labour membership rose somewhat in Thatcher’s second government, particularly during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. (The drop over 1979-1980 is due to a change in the recording of members.)

The most recent of these surges helps define the context today. It is now almost beyond comprehension, but Tony Blair oversaw the biggest increase in Labour membership since the 1940s. Between his election as leader in 1994, and his entry into Number 10 in 1997, Labour Party membership rose from 305,000 to 405,000. It declined every year he was in power, and fell similarly for his hapless successor, Gordon Brown.

Blair’s upturn, though, has quite a different dynamic to those seen previously. If previous Labour upturns had been dependent on the left, particularly amongst younger members, and matched by a leadership prepared (or presumed) to pitch also to the left, Blair’s was a surge against the left – whatever the intentions of those joining. Certainly, he would rely on activists, historically on the party’s left, to keep the faith and act as footsoldiers in election campaigns. But New Labour’s entire strategic vision was to drive the party as hard as possible into the presumed “centre ground”.

If the 1990s had followed the previous pattern, that anti-government, anti-Tory sentiment should have fed not just into a rise in Labour Party membership, but into a strengthening of the Labour left. It did not; to all intents and purposes, the left of the Labour Party has been in a state of decline ever since. The Labour left could not recruit significantly out of the Iraq War protests: why join Labour when it was a Labour government invading Iraq? And on the evidence of the most recent leadership elections, its historic base in the party membership has decayed beyond rescue. The party members, in the UK in 2010 and for Scotland last year, voted on both occasions with the Parliamentary leadership for the continuity Blairite candidate. It was only the votes of trade unionists that managed to finagle Ed Miliband into his current role – a result that has left him permanently weakened as leader.

The missing Labour left

There is, in other words, a hole in British politics where a reinvigorated Labour left should be – if, that is, decades of neoliberalism had not hollowed out working class organisations and thrown the social democratic left into a kind of ideological tailspin. In Scotland, the SNP has moved with great aplomb to plug the gap, exploiting the peculiarities of devolution to position itself on Labour’s left as the defender of the welfare state.

For England and Wales, no such option exists. As Ady Cousins has thoroughly demonstrated, the historic organisations of the working class are a pale shadow of their former selves, with strike days at record lows and union reps’ time now dominated by individual case work, rather than collective representation. Neoliberalism has, in general, acted to strengthen the bureaucracy against collective organization, as I argued here, most notably through the Conservatives’ anti-trade union legislation. All this can combine to make arguments counterposing the Labour Party’s historic ties to the organised working class against the Greens’ lack of such links seem a little stale. What do those links matter, it can be argued, when trade unions often seem barely able to defend their own (shrinking) membership? What use are those links when, despite the unions’ pleas, Labour remains committed to austerity? And of course most of us can think of individual trade unionists who are members of the Greens.

Labour cannot be wished out of existence

But those links stretch beyond the merely institutional. Labour has dominated the left vote in this country since the General Strike, and the broader working class vote since the 1940s. Generations have voted Labour and, today, millions will still be voting Labour in May. They will do so, in the main, for the simple reason that of the two historic options for government, one side will broadly claim to defend working class interests, and the other side will not. One side in office has attempted to do so, the other side never has. Current debates over the NHS exemplify this longstanding good sense, and that history and experience will not be forgotten overnight. Even in recent years, it was New Labour in office that increased funding for the NHS after decades of Tory squeeze. It was New Labour who introduced Education Maintenance Allowance and Sure Start. And it was New Labour that finally brought in a minimum wage. All this counts; it is precisely this history that Gordon Brown drew on to no little effect in both the closing weeks of the 2010 election, and last year’s independence referendum. However weak the shield may be, it is better than no shield at all.

If that experience is challenged in a serious way, we can expect that support to change. James Doran has written an excellent essay on the potential “Pasokification” of Labour, in which, just like the Greek Pasok, a weakened social democratic party attempts to implement austerity and is destroyed in the process. Granted, Pasok and Greece are extreme cases, but Kevin Maguire, in the Mirror, has gestured at the same argument. We are, at present, around 20% of the way through the proposed spending cuts. There is 80% still to come in the next four years. If actually implemented, this will take Britain to a level of public spending, as a share of GDP, last seen in the 1930s. Labour’s (somewhat vauge) spending plans ease off on George Osborne’s lunacy. But they stick to the broad line of march, and the situation will be all the worse if they end up in a coalition with the Lib Dems. (Or, for that matter, the Conservatives.) The pressure on Labour’s union backers to make a more serious – if not yet complete – break with the party could be immense. The fallout from the Falkirk selection row has already placed the relationship under serious tension in one, decisive, union. The Blairite true believers may well want to ditch the link, in any case, and their hand would be hugely strengthened if Miliband fails to make it through the black door in Downing Street.

There is another, specific, feature to Labour’s historic support that is critical here. No effective strategy for rebuilding the left in Britain can be found that is blind to its context as a decaying former Empire. This decline has two, immediately relevant, impacts. The first is the continued existence of a large, and aggressive, British military, far in excess of a small island’s plausible “defence” needs, and its attachment to a superpower. And, as the obverse of that Empire, the second is the specific forms racism has taken in Britain. It took a long struggle in the labour movement to break it from overt forms of institutional racism. (The first Black Labour MPs were not elected until 1987.) The legacy of that struggle is the ongoing attachment of Black and Asian voters in this country to Labour. It took the “war on terror”, a hideous fusion of Britain’s poodle militarism abroad with new forms of racism at home, to seriously break even a section of loyal, mostly working class BME Labour voters from supporting the party.

But there is a serious tension here for the Greens. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, a Green London Assembly member could be found promoting a petition that demanded WH Smith stock racist satire; the national party reproduced a dreadful statement from the French Greens on the “barbarians” threatening Europe; and its two national leaders maintained a studied silence on the whole business. Green Party members have played an active role in the anti-war movement, right the way back to 2001, and Caroline Lucas is one of the few MPs to oppose the replacement of Trident. But there is clearly a tension here, which may well become all the sharper, between the good left instincts of many Greens, and its liberal inheritance.

Rebuilding the centre, or rebuilding the left?

The inheritance of the Greens is, of course, contested. For the European Green parties, something of a common pattern emerges: the radical left, often from Maoist or anarchist backgrounds, established Green parties as the natural political expression of what are sometimes labelled the “new social movements” of the late 1960s onwards, including, particularly, the environmental protest movement. In the theorizing of the time, often of an overtly “post-Marxist” bent, these new movements were the natural progression from the earlier, economic, protests movements embodied by the trade unions. Wealthy societies had no need to bother with merely material concerns, but could now seek to redress “post-material” on issues of identity and concern for the environment. Class, or anything relating to a specific politics of class, could be (indeed should be) quietly junked.

The ultimate political expression of this tendency is the most successful Green Party in Europe, the German Greens, who first entered government in 1998 and whose history is superbly told in this recent (and essential) New Left Review article by Joachim Jachnow. Starting on the radical left as an “anti-party party”, the Greens, through a series of disputes that crossed more obvious left-right divisions (telegraphed as “Fundis” versus “Realos”), found themselves occupying a vacant niche in German politics: expressing the desires of the comparatively well-off middle class, socially liberal, politically conscious, but disinclined to support the concerns of the traditional labour movement. The Greens had become neoliberals, but neoliberals with windfarms. Green voters are, on average, the richest for any German party. The Greens enthusiastically supported the Agenda 2010 attack on the welfare state. Green Foreign Minister and former anti-imperialist streetfighter, Joschka Fischer, became a cheerleader for the Luftwaffe’s first bombing campaign since WW2. And the Greens, a party built perhaps above all else on anti-nuclear opposition, supported the extension of Germany’s nuclear power programme.

It’s a record that will make many Greens elsewhere today shudder. But there is more to this than the familiar parable of betrayal as power beckons, as Jachnow argues. The debates inside the Greens mattered, and established the party’s direction. In the end, during a period of relative economic stability – even with reunification – the Realos’ politics could hold a more immediate appeal to a layer of German society that was unattached to the (still socially significant) German trade unions or the SPD. It was only after the direct experience of the SPD/Green coalition that a serious splinter in the SPD was formed, leading to the creation of Die Linke.

On a rather reduced scale, something similar lurks behind the sorry tale of Brighton council, where the Greens managed to provoke a full-scale strike with Brighton’s binworkers. This was less due to either malign intent, or “selling out”, than a complete lack of familiarity with trade unions or working class concerns in general, combined with naivete and inexperience. The council’s first cuts budget, passed by the Greens and presented by the leadership as proof of their suitability for office was of a similar piece, with the Greens unable to outmanoevre Tory and Labour councilors on the issue. The latter issue is perhaps less telling; this is not the 1980s, Britain is now one of the most centralized states in the developed world, and the actual capacity of councils to do anything much is profoundly constrained. (Councils that do attempt anything even a little beyond these boundaries, like Tower Hamlets, are first smeared and then later closed down.) Still, in both cases it is the lack of a clear class politics or an obviously working class base that enabled them to make decisive errors. In a similar vein, Greens in Leeds could be found, from 2004 to 2006, supporting a Tory local council. And the Greens’ original candidate for Ipswich this year stepped down, claiming the local Tory MP was a good representative of local concerns. There’s an elementary class politics missing here, and no obvious means by which it could be brought to bear.

The tension for the Greens nationally will be somewhat different. The Green surge here is driven, as argued above, more by the absence of a properly functioning Labour Party – or something resembling it – in the presence of austerity than it is by the factors that drove the formation of the German (and other) European Green Parties, or by the local factors behind Brighton and other Green Parties. The German Greens today are in the doldrums, pointedly failing to adapt to post-2008 politics. The sheer weight of the UK Green Parties’ new membership, recruited on a broadly anti-austerity basis, will bring itself to bear on the existing membership and structures. It’s just not so clear, in the absence of organization amongst those new members, whether they will be in a position to shape the party. At the first national conference after Brighton’s cuts budget, Greens voted by a two-thirds majority to support their councilors’ decision. And with the prospect (still distant, but plausible) of the Greens having some decisive role to play in the formation of the next government, the pressures become more intense.

The Greens’ ideological commitment to decentralization plays its own part here. This has meant in practice that, for example, there was little that could be done about the erratic behaviour of Leeds’ Greens in backing the Tories. In the absence of class as a political reference point, however distorted, the Greens are wide open to varying interpretations of their core agenda. A set of faultlines have made themselves apparent in the party, post-2008, along lines that differ to the traditional Realo/Fundi split. As Adam Ramsey’s useful short history argues, the key debate was over the November 2007 creation of a single leadership post, as opposed to the Party’s earlier “principle spokespeople” positions. This was settled to the Realo’s favour, in creating a single leader, but the removal of an internal dispute enabled the formation of a left, drawn from both Realo and Fundi sides of the party, that was able to push the party leftwards with some success in the aftermath of 2008. Ramsey argues the divide now falls on left/liberal/deep Green lines: that is, lines more amenable to a traditional left-right division.

As the Greens find themselves closer to power, those tensions will become more apparent. Even in an extreme situation like Greece, it has been possible for the centre ground to attempt to reconstruct itself – and the centrists of To Potami may yet prove decisive in the elections. The Green Party contains both the seeds of a radical left, and the seeds of a new liberal centre. It is not predetermined which should win. And that, more than anything, imposes the requirement on the rest of the left to work as closely as possible with the Greens in practical initiatives: opposing austerity; the environmental movement; the housing campaign. This is how best to support those on the left inside the Greens, and push back on the liberal pull.

The new Greens and the “middle class”

The new members will be decisive in the outcome here. The hard evidence as to who these people are is not yet available. But can draw a partial picture with what there is. Greens familiar with the situation have suggested that, whilst the first part of the surge saw many ex-Lib Dems signing up, more recently the balance has swung towards former Labour supporters. Support amongst 18-25 year olds is very high, but, equally, support from the young is likely to be pulling down substantially the average income reported in the survey above. Rather anecdorally, it is possible to surmise that the Greens are attracting, in the first instance, a relatively familiar social layer: of the young and largely university-educated: what would be, in normal circumstances, the classic next generation of the middle class.

But these are not normal circumstances. The Greens are growing after, rather than before, 2008. The “graduate without a future” is a real person and it is not possible to assume that, on the basis of youth and higher education alone, anyone is destined to find themselves a stable position in society. Precarious work, rented accommodation, and a student loan are a more likely immediate prospect than permanent employment and a mortgage. This isn’t a traditional working class, either by occupation or by attachment to the traditional institutions of the working class. But nor does it resemble the middle class formed over the last few generations, often tied to a public sector employment that is now being mercilessly squeezed.

This layer might, once, have formed something of a stable bloc of Labour and, in a minor fashion, Lib Dem voters and members. Britain’s middle class looks perhaps shakier than they have done for generations, at least since the outlines of the post-war settlement were put into place. The social situation is wide open, and, with austerity imposed for the foreseeable future, unlikely to stabilize before the end of this decade. The political possibilities, then, are also open – and more so than some on the more traditionally-minded left will give credit for. The Greens are not simply providing a left substitute for the Lib Dems, although that (in itself) would be a welcome development. There’s a more complex process at play here, as the capacity of British society to reproduce a middle class becomes increasingly dependent on its housing market, rather than its business investment or its state interventions.

The way forward

There are two critical issues that emerge. The first is purely tactical, and short-term. It has been necessary, over the last few years, to as far as possible build coalitions of those opposed to austerity without paying too much attention to party membership. The People’s Assembly was put together on this basis, as have been any number of local anti-cuts activities. That principle will have to carry through to the election. There are anti-austerity Labour candidates standing across the country, and in some constituencies they are directly opposed by Green candidates. On the other side, as the behaviour of some prominent Greens has demonstrated, it is not possible to call for a blanket Green vote. Votes and support will have to be considered on a case-by-case, constituency-by-constituency basis. It may be useful to draw up a charter for aspirant MPs to sign, with some barebones anti-austerity politics. In general, given the presence and disciplining effect of the labour movement, it will be better to support a left, anti-austerity Labour candidate over a Green representing far more of an unknown quantity.

This situation, however, is unlikely to be sustained for long – scarcely past the general election. Our medieval Parliamentary electoral system is a valley of death for smaller parties, and so it is unlikely the Greens will advance much beyond their existing MP – although many possibilities clearly exist. (If nothing else, the chaos produced from a collision between a public wanting to vote for many parties, and a system designed to allow for two-and-a-half should dramatically reinforce the argument for genuine proportional representation. On the grounds of stability alone, it may dawn on the main parties as a decent proposal.) Of course, even a small selection of MPs does not prevent them having a serious influence on the result, or shifting politics in general. The tensions highlighted inside the Green Party above, however, are liable to bubble up once it faces more urgent questions of power.

Equally, though, there does not seem to be much chance of the Labour Party pulling through the next 12 months without hitting a major, perhaps existential, crisis. If Ed Miliband forms a government, Labour is committed to austerity that will lead it to a direct confrontation, one way or another, with its own supporters. This has the potential to shake the party to its core, more so than Iraq. If Ed Miliband does not form a government, there appears to be very little that would prevent the Blairites making one final pitch for absolute control – reducing the trade union influence to the barest minimum, ditching all remaining traces of socialism from the party, and perhaps taking the curious mutation of yesterday’s Italian Communist Party into today’s Democrats as a model.

And of course no serious assessment of the future should exclude the possibility of Britain’s imperial legacies – the City of London, and its militarism and racism – producing further economic and social turmoil domestically.

The tragedy for left here, and in England especially, is that it is now divided between two organisations – leaving aside the Pick n Mix of the far left. There are any number of Labour members and voters hugely to the left of its leadership. And there are now large numbers of Green Party members who aspire to a different politics, but who are not organized themselves and are in a party with no obvious levers to turn it towards class politics.

Natalie Bennett has said she looks to Syriza as an example. The Greens in Greece have now signed up to the Syriza list, recognizing the overwhelming need to form an anti-austerity government there. As a medium-term aim, such a party should clearly be regarded as an essential here. Crudely, the prospects of either reforming Labour, or transforming the Greens, now look much less likely than the prospects of establishing something new in the future. We are either doomed to go through round after round of Labour governments delivering less and less, and Tories pushing more and more, or we break British politics open and create a new party of the left. And the advantage of Syriza remains precisely that it is (for now) open to radical arguments: on the need not just for anti-austerity, but for anti-capitalism. Class politics, argued with reference to 2015, rather than 1975 (or 1915) – meaning opposed to austerity, socially liberal, and concerned for the environment – will be key in pulling such an organization together. What organized socialists do now makes a difference for later.

Organisation matters

The different tensions within the Greens are likely to make them more susceptible to pressures to conform than other left parties. Indeed they have less internal resources to resist such pressures than either Syriza or even the Labour Party. There is a left wing ballast in the trade union movement and in Syriza a solid Marxist left. The UK Greens have no such internal structures and, moreover, a whole section of the party that actively seeks to conform to the established order.

This would not matter much if it were only a question of who to vote for, Labour or the Greens, on the day of the next election. But the Greens are making a bid to pull many activists from the social movements into a long term political commitment to their party. The tension that functions inside the Greens, roughly between the liberals and the left, on the need to reign back in on radicalism and operate solely on the basis of electoral politics, can then start to reproduce itself across the broader movement. There is a need here for socialists to present an organized alternative, rather than acting as individuals, in such circumstances.

Much of what is good in the history of the labour movement in the last generation has been achieved by a particular combination of radical left or revolutionary organization, wider political forces, and broad campaigning mobilisation. This alliance is what built CND, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, defeated the Tory anti-union legislation in the early seventies, constructed the Anti-Nazi League that defeated the National Front in the late seventies, delivered solidarity for the Miners’ Strike, defeated the Poll Tax and built the Stop the War Coalition. It stands today behind the People’s Assembly, the most effective national anti-austerity movement. The Radical Independence Campaign would not have taken the shape it did without a similar alliance.

Broad participation was essential to build these movements. But they were all, equally essentially, brought into being and sustained by Marxist revolutionaries of one kind or another from a variety of organisations, among them the CP, the IMG, the SWP, the SP and, latterly, Counterfire. And, of course, beyond the practical contribution, there has been valuable analytical, theoretical and educational work done by organised Marxists. There is a critical role here for radical organization, for as long as those so organized are able to work in broad movements and understand today’s political context.

For now, the challenge is to hold together the joint organisations that currently exist on the basis of specific campaigns like the People’s Assembly. The question of broader political organization for the left will not be settled this side of the election, and, in truth, is a question ultimately of what happens in and around the Labour Party. But the Green surge shows just how open the situation already is. The challenge is in making that opening wider yet.

James Meadway

Radical economist James Meadway has been an important critic of austerity economics and at the forefront of efforts to promulgate an alternative. James is co-author of Crisis in the Eurozone (2012) and Marx for Today (2014).