The absence in Red Toryism and Blue Labour thinking around personal liberty, social mobility & environmental awareness can be filled by a Green Democrat vision.
Cllr Matt Follett (Green Party, Hanover & Elm Grove ward, Brighton & Hove City Council) is a criminologist at the University of Brighton; he developed one of the country’s first undergraduate level courses on green criminology. During 2009 and 2010 he was national policy co-ordinator for the Green Party and a policy and electoral strategy advisor to Caroline Lucas. During the 2010 general election he chaired the successful Brighton Pavilion campaign team. He is a member of the Co-operative Society and Compass.
In this article, Cllr Follett looks at the political spectrum, and asks what it means to Greens…
The most important issue in the new political and economic climate facing greens, social liberals and social democrats is how to face the future without wanting to shelter in the past.
Recently there have been interesting developments in what we might call ‘anti-neo-liberal’ thinking, or perhaps more accurately ‘progressive communitarian’ thinking.
These intellectual and political developments are best exemplified by the thought provoking, and politically challenging concepts of what has been called ‘Blue Labour’, championed by Labour party thinkers like Lord Glasman and Jonathon Rutherford, and the ideas put forward as ‘Red Toryism’ by the conservative thinker Phillip Blond.
There is much in the outpourings under these umbrella phrases that deserves to be thought about, and even agreed with, by activists at the centre and left of centre of politics. However, there are flies in the ointment.
Blue Labour’s approach – epitomised in the phrase ‘faith flag and family’ – does not augur well for those who celebrate victories in feminism, ethnic diversity and gay rights over the last 20 years. Alongside this symbolic use of nationalism is a narrowness of culture and an intrinsic wistfulness for days gone by.
Jonathon Rutherford, claiming that “the future is conservative”, has accused Labour of having “stopped valuing settled ways of life” and implies to some degree that part of the problem with modern liberal thinking is “an affirmation of racial and cultural difference, and a celebration of novel experience”.
Red Toryism is also flawed as Phillip Blond asks us to reject “social mobility, meritocracy and the statist and neoliberal language of opportunity, education and choice”.
“Because this language says that unless you are in the golden circle of the top 10 to 15 per cent of top-rate taxpayers you are essentially insecure, unsuccessful and without merit or value.
“The Tories should leave this bankrupt ideology to New Labour and embrace instead an organic communitarianism that graces every level of society with merit, security, wealth and worth.”
No environmentally aware person is going to walk away from a phrase like organic communitarianism without a second look – if for no other reasons than it sounds like a fancy name for a farmer’s market – but Blond too easily dismisses social mobility for any social liberal or social democrat to sign up to this thinking.
He is right that left and right can both have patronising approaches to the poor – but the idea that the aspiration to better oneself, whether that be educationally, in terms of financial security, or even solely in terms of personal development, is somehow damaging to one’s self esteem seems to me to be pre-modernity thinking at best.
So there is an absence of personal liberty and social mobility in Blue Labour and Red Toryism respectively that is problematic. There is also an absence of environmental awareness in both these approaches due to the backward looking nature of their respective enterprises. I think most progressives recognise environmental awareness is a key part of the future of our country, be that economically, politically, or socially.
It is this environmental awareness that has the capacity to make social democracy future rather than past orientated. I think environmentalists and social democrats, where they are prepared to be liberal enough, can have a shared position that is future orientated – a position where greens and social democrats can coalesce. I call it a ‘Green Democrat’ position. And it is the absence in Red Toryism and Blue Labour thinking around personal liberty, social mobility and environmental awareness that a green democratic vision seeks to fill.
Key signifiers of a green democrat position are, in some ways best exemplified by the transition town movement. Although the movement is deliberately non associative with political parties this reflects the pluralist political nature of a green democrat position.
As put by Madeleine Bunting in 2009:
“Transition lays the challenge squarely at the door of everyone. This is too big and difficult for government alone to tackle, too overwhelming and depressing for individuals to face alone.
“At one level it works as a way of regenerating social capital, building up relationships with neighbours, working out how to collaborate again on common interests – community gardens, recycling, waste and strengthening the local economy.
“At another level it is about educating people about the challenges of peak oil and climate change, but the mobilisation and consciousness-raising is directed towards optimism and hope, not despair: how can this community use its skills and imagination to build its future?”
It is this last point that gives green democracy its vital difference as a political project – it is future orientated and pragmatic.
Green democracy includes recognising the value of a strong local and national economy. A green democrat position can’t be accused, as could some in the green movement, of not recognising the value of being enterprising, of economic and social aspiration. Green democrats would recognise that government has lagged behind the business sector in creating a more environmentally sustainable future.
It is the business sector that most clearly has an answer to the following question: “What future is there for a British industrial sector that isn’t green?” The answer is that there probably isn’t one and the business community has been quicker to grasp this than many.
Green democrats would recognise that a future that doesn’t either leave people behind in the currently dysfunctional form of capitalism, or keep them in their place in a patronising relationship with a centralised state, is a future that makes for a thriving society and economy.
A future where local decision making and ‘environmental entrepreneurialism’ is vibrant; a future that allows us to enjoy the fruits of a new greener economy and also a broader, more fulfilling prosperity beyond the narrow confines of GDP.
If you agree that we should not seek a future that tries to find a fixed way of living, a static future if you will, and instead we should look for a greener and more collectively enterprising society – a more dynamic future – then you are a Green Democrat. Ed Millband, Nick Clegg and Caroline Lucas have all made some noises in this direction but it is not clear yet which party is most willing to inhabit this ground.
You might currently be a member of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, or the Green Party, or no party at all – but come election time the party that best represents this thinking is surely the most deserving of support.
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.
• Glasman calls for a break from ‘viagra or vivisection’ (that’s growth or cuts, to you) – Carl Packman, February 10th 2012
• Is a ‘green populism’ possible, and can Labour help foster it? – Guy Shrubsole, September 26th 2011
• Nomination for most influential left-wing thinker of 2010/11: Maurice Glasman – Daniel Elton, September 22nd 2011
• Cameron’s neglect and Tory sentiment must not neuter energy bill – Caroline Lucas MP, May 14th 2011
• Is the Green Party now the natural home for disaffected lefties? – Matt Owen, September 18th 2010
• Our litmus test of the state of UK politics today – Left Foot Forward, September 9th 2010
• Progressive Conservatives present the “mutual executive” – Roland Marcelin-Horne, July 17th 2010