Labour and the Greens have much to learn from each other- if they can find a way to co-operate
“To be at the heart of the progressive mainstream… one of our tasks is to learn the lessons of the green movement and put sustainability at the heart of what we do.”
So said Ed Miliband in a speech to the Fabians at the start of this year. Today sees the beginnings of a response to that call with the publication of a new e-book by Compass, Good Society / Green Society? The Red-Green Debate. The collection of essays hopes to stimulate deeper discussion between greens and the broader progressive movement, both within and outside the Labour party.
In one of the opening contributions to the book, Victor Anderson (former environment advisor in Ken Livingstone’s Cabinet) argues that these are auspicious times for red-green relations. Gone are the days, he writes, when socialists used to reject environmentalism as merely a bourgeois distraction; the state of the planet has got too bad to support that view any more. Instead,
“although social democracy still has more impact in the world than green politics does, the greens are no longer the poor relation in the dialogue that they once were, and they have a clarity which many on the left envy.”
Socialist thinking has been in decline for twenty years, but the green analysis has become sharper as the scientific evidence base for ecological problems has grown.
Yet does the left yet really embrace green ideas wholeheartedly? No, argues Compass chair Neal Lawson:
“the mainstream left in and around Labour has never been good when it comes to the environment.”
The reasons for this, he suggests, lie partly in the present imperative of tackling government cuts and partly in the Conservatives’ reversion from being green to true-blue. But there is also a much deeper reason:
“the fact that social democracy is in essence the politics of more: more wages and therefore more things to spend those wages on.”
While ‘a politics of more’ made sense for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, as the left sought to organise working-class communities to demand more from their rulers and employers, today
“class-consciousness has been replaced by consumer consciousness”.
The West is awash with material goods, the never-ending acquisition of which now distracts from securing wellbeing and finding other ways of being human. Consumerism also presents “a double bind for the left”: escalating environmental crises and the undermining of Labour’s traditional electoral base. In short, “the left needs a new game”.
If the left has failed to engage fully with environmentalism, perhaps greens have failed to fully engage with the left. The reason for this lies partly in the existence, for the past forty years, of a separate electoral vehicle for green hopes, the Green Party. Yet as Green Party member John Hare writes, there is certainly potential for future red-green Parliamentary alliances.
Though the era of European red-green governments waned in the late 1990s, the recent resurgence of the Greens in German regional elections has shown they remain a potent political force, and underlines the long-term decline of the SPD. While the UK’s first-past-the-post system protects Labour from losing much ground to the Greens:
“they face the same problem [as the SPD] of steady leakage of millions of voters (many of whom are not being lost to other parties, but are simply refusing to vote) and of having no distinctive and credible ideological identity. In the search for any of these, they might do worse than look to Germany and look for endorsement from the Greens. Offering a few parliamentary seats in exchange might be a deal well worth the cost.”
The book does not shy away from exploring areas of longstanding contention between reds and greens: two chapters exploring ideas around economic growth show many disagreements remain, but also that such arguments are far more subtle and complicated than they are often characterised, and deserve far more attention from all sides.
But areas of common ground are also emphasised. Deborah Doane of the World Development Movement and Ruth Potts of nef see the causes of gender equality and participatory democracy as being given a boost by:
“a green–red alliance, particularly in the context of UK political history, [which] would be uniquely placed to take this forward – because it draws on a history of mutualism, cooperation and inclusiveness.”
A contribution by the author of this blogpost suggests there are new ways both reds and greens could frame the way they talk about environmental and social problems that would better communicate their values – and mutually reinforce their own causes.
It’s to be hoped this book marks only the start of a richer, deeper conversation.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.