The Greens, chaotic as they are, give a lesson to the main parties
The Observer, By Will Hutton
British Greens have not had to sort out priorities or be practical, but at least they have political integrity and heart
Political education of British troops between the end of the war and the famous July 1945 general election was extraordinary, according to my late father, a member of the forces’ educational team. The troops did not want to hear Conservative and Liberal plans. They only wanted to hear about full employment, a welfare state and making the economy serve the people. It was a collective, unstoppable grassroots roar.
Seventy years later, there is no parallel roar, no overarching programme of either left or right that appeals to the majority and, even if there were, there’s little or no trust in politicians’ capacity to provide anything on such a substantial scale. Compared to 1945, our fiscal situation is a doddle: the national debt is proportionally very much lower. Yet the discourse is that any ambition to act collectively, to use the state or spend public money to pursue great goals is off the agenda.
The sole option is to rein back any collective ambition. “Credibility” in economic policy is about the degree to which the serious politician conforms to the suffocating mantra of prioritising public debt reduction above any other aim, which by some strange osmosis will address the country’s other dysfunctions – growing unfairness, low growth, falling real wages, already hard pressed public services and, above all, the lack of a shared vision of what a good society looks like.
The startling rise of the smaller parties’ membership and opinion-polling presence in part reflects people’s instinctive rejection of what in reality is both democratic and economic nonsense – and a hunger for political activity that is grounded in some vision. Ukip’s membership soared to some 42,000 by late last year – challenging the Lib Dems’ membership of 44,000 – but has recently slowed right down. Visions rooted in bigotry ultimately don’t appeal to the English. The SNP’s membership surged to more than 90,000 after the referendum on independence, but again has slowed down as the referendum’s animating memory recedes.
The party that is now riding the tide is the Greens, whose membership last week broke the 50,000 threshold, making it Britain’s fourth biggest political party. It is an important political moment. All these minor parties, whatever your view, at least dare to have visions of an alternative future. For the Greens, it is less ecological sustainability and an impending planetary crisis that is attracting new members, although most people concede the case even if not with the same zealotry. It is more the wider perception that the Greens dare in the name of a better society.
In some respects, their programme is no more outlandish than Labour’s in 1945. The Greens want to organise public policy to support, systematically, a vision of living a sustainable life. They propose nationalising the railways, taking the NHS back to its public benefit roots, obliging employers to recognise trade unions and doing all we can to limit climate change. This prospectus may never be attractive to the majority. But it has a political integrity. Yet it also means a scrutiny for which the party is ill prepared. Last week, Andrew Neil skewered Green leader Natalie Bennett on Sunday Politics in what has become a mini YouTube hit. By roaming over the Greens’ website, Neil was able to expose apparent absurdity after absurdity.
Abolishing the jobseeker’s allowance would only raise £3bn of the £272bn price tag for a universal minimum citizens’ income – one of the Greens’ flagship policies that they say will provide both fairness and reconcile people, they hope, to the necessary shrinkage of the economy as their aggressive sustainability policies start to work. An annual wealth tax on estates over £3m could never raise £45bn a year to fund a third of NHS spending, as the Greens claim. And who would arm any British defence force, however modest, after Britain’s withdrawal from Nato and cancellation of Trident, if the arms industry was converted to windmill manufacturing? Was Ms Bennett in favour of abandoning all immigration controls? By the end, she was in retreat across the board.
The Greens’ policy website is in some respects rather admirable: every progressive cause is included – from removing the charitable status of private schools to preventing the exploitation of au pairs. They even require every restaurant to provide every table with a jug of tap water. Trains must devote more space to carrying cycles, a policy this cyclist finds appealing.
It is a wishlist from a succession of party conferences over the years, but it is equally obvious that the tough arguments over priorities and internal coherence that can split political parties have never been had. Should the drive to sustainability go so far as to risk a shrinking economy and declining living standards, as the policy document declares? Or could Green policies be so designed to be consistent with growth and rising living standards, as I would argue? Labour even in triumphal 1945 knew where to draw the line. The Greens in 2015 are purist, full-on maximalists.
Germany’s Green party grew to maturity a generation ago, but then Germany has a political system that, by allowing the prospect of power much sooner with lower shares of the vote, forces realism on parties much sooner. For 30 years, British Greens have known they are reflecting an important cultural and political movement, but have also known that a first-past-the-post electoral system means that they are unlikely ever to win more than a few council seats and perhaps a couple of seats in the House of Commons. They have not had to sort out priorities or rank the practical before the impossible. They can just bid for everything and make wild assumptions about where the money will come from. Tough questions won’t be asked.
But first-past-the-post has one advantage: when the challenger party reaches critical mass, its purist momentum, however inconsistent its detailed policies, has a catalytic impact on the major parties whose majorities suddenly become threatened. Labour has sought credibility from the centre-right consensus so much that it has become detached from its crusading roots. It is true that it stands for more than the Tory goal of balancing the books, reducing the state to 1930s proportions, so reducing a political party to the standing of a mean provincial firm of accountants. In this respect, there is an existential divide between the main parties.
However, because Labour does not vow to repurpose business and reshape the workplace to create a great society, the division is disguised. Politics is about workability and coherence. But the sudden rise of the Greens is a vivid reminder to our political class. Without heart and great animating goals, even momentous choices appear to collapse into managerialism. Democracy deserves better.