At the start of the recent election campaign I referred to 1974 for a possible lesson from history – well here we are then. Unfortunately not the full February 1974, but pretty close.
The thing to focus on now from an ecology point of view is what happened to the political Green party, and where the broader green movement needs to go now politically. Things are becoming so much more urgent on the Ecology front that we really cannot afford to mess up any more opportunities.
The reasons for the GP’s disappointing result are several, and they interact so it is no good simply saying “we woz squeezed”, or “the campaign was crap”, or that the leadership spent too much faffing around on “progressive alliance” – all of which I see today on social media. You have to look at what’s underneath these things and what links them.
Perhaps a useful place to start is with the political compass charts I used in the Green Compass article.
The one on the left (or on top if your screen is narrow) is from 2015, and the one on the right is from 2017. (all images from the PoliticalCompass site, click to see full size)
The striking difference is the movement of Labour.
Since about 1992 (when John Smith took over as leader continuing the reforms Kinnock had started. Blair then accelerated the process after Smith’s death in ’94) Labour has been firmly in the economically free-market, socially authoritarian quadrant. The Green Party has remained consistently economically towards the state-control end and socially libertarian throughout the entire period.
As an aside this is what you would expect from a party that was built on a solid philosophical basis – the Green’s economic and social positioning flows from its ecological principles, so not surprisingly its place on the political compass chart hasn’t changed much. (The party’s position on the Green Compass has shifted though, but that’s another story.)
So since 1997, and especially in the last ten years once the doors of perception on the Blair-Brown position finally were opened for all, the Greens have occupied a unique position on the political compass chart.
Remember, however, that this chart only plots the two axes of economic and social positioning. The degree of state intervention favoured on each of these two dimensions. This says nothing about ecological positioning – to what extent to you believe humans should have a privileged position in the whole earth eco-system. The Green’s position on economics and social matters flows from their underlying ecological philosophy (see the party’s philosophical basis – as another aside for me this is the most, or only, valuable policy statement from the Greens), but there is no a-priori reason why another party should not occupy exactly the same economic and social space with a very different view of humanity’s place in the world.
So up until Corbyn-Labour the Greens had had a clear space in which to operate that enabled them to have something distinct to say in the areas in which most political discourse is conducted in this country – economics and social issues. Ultimately this gave us Green MEPs (earlier thanks to d’Hondt), then a Green MP and finally in 2015 the best national election results since the 1989 Euros (and the best general election results ever)
During this period the party increasingly placed emphasis on its position on social justice and economics rather than ecology (and to a lesser extent peace/non-violence). This enabled the party to finally get its voice heard on the political agenda because it was saying things about the main topics on the agenda that no other party was saying. In a future post I will explore the relationship between the four pillars and their effect on the UK green movement, for now lets just note that in the absence of any other party taking a similar position on key elements of the four pillars the Greens do well by promoting them in line with the agenda of the day (which is usually dominated by economics).
Now in 2017 we suddenly find Labour back in its old stamping ground as a (the) socialist party in the UK. Despite some attempt to focus on the environment a bit which attract some brief media attention (another aside – we really should stop talking about “the environment”, this is an irredeemably anthropocentric conceit). It should be no surprise that the green vote slumped – quite apart from “get the tories out” (a really negative idea) anyone who had previously voted green as a result of the social and economic positioning (and these are the dominant themes on the political agenda once you take leadership personalities out of the equation) was bound to switch to Labour this time – and will stay there next time so long as they are the dominant issues in their minds.
The Greens did well in 2017 to hold on to their 2% core vote (more or less unchanged in 40 years). The only surprising thing is that the Liberals made a similar mistake and held on to their slightly socially authoritarian and economic free-market position – the exact same position that took them into coalition with the Tories and saw them punished in 2015. If I was them I would be looking for a much more libertarian position and occupying a distinct position in the bottom right quadrant – that could have delivered them a healthy balance of power at least and made them politically relevant.
So what on earth can we do to get Ecology into the political agenda. Labour now pretty much shares our position on social justice, the aspects of economics that get debated (we are distinct in taking a no-growth position), moving closer to us on peace (it’ll be interesting to see how long their commitment to Trident survives). Ecology remains our distinctive pillar.
I suggest that the key is going to be to ditch the “vanguardist” approach of pursuing electoral success as a single Green Party. What is needed now, possibly in parallel with a political Green Party, is a Movement for Ecology that is political, but not party political.
The objective would be to work with any other party to ensure that in every constituency there is one candidate who is a member of the movement and is committed to the aim of shifting government into pursuing only ecologically sustainable policies. It would accept the FPTP system as a given for now, and aim to recruit candidates from any party in the order in which they appear to have popular support in the constituency.
The role of the Green Party, as the little brother, would be to put up candidates only in those constituencies where there was no mainstream candidate committed to the agenda.
This is a movement, not a party. In addition to political parties we would aim to engage with “environmental” organisations who are currently crippled by recent legislation from actively campaigning. Providing a bridge and enabling their voice to be heard during a future campaign.
A lot of detail needs thrashing out as to how this might all work, not least working out what exactly are the commitments that candidates are expected to sign up to, and what sanctions exist if they fail to deliver.
The key idea is to create a political organisation that is not a political party, to address the fact that ecology is body of ideas that is not currently represented in our political discourse.
We have spent 40 years trying to insert a political party that represents ecological thinking into the system – perhaps this was a bit of a mistake in a society that is dominated by bi-partisan politics and a winner takes all voting system. What we actually need to do is inject ecological thinking directly into the existing political system.
Ultimately this may (should) have the effect of blowing apart the existing system and creating a new political space – but that is for the future to decide. For now it is either politics as usual, with no ecology, or try something different.
As my anonymous friend said on here yesterday:
“We need to keep fighting as hard as we can to stop the acceleration of the situation toward utter calamity. We need to fight ‘holding actions’ against the destruction of the irrecoverable (e.g. species); we need to stand up for precaution, long-termism and care for the future; we need to reduce the worst of our collective impacts. So there is still a clear – a vital – role for being involved in (for instance) electoral democracy — and for trying to stop its further erosion. If we hand over look stock and barrel to the forces of political-economic insanity and corruption, then, in simple terms, we reduce the chances of our survival through the coming maelstrom.”
How most effectively to remain involved in electoral democracy is a problem for us all, and especially for the Green Party. Simply repeating the same under-resourced actions of the last 10 general elections are not going to cut the mustard.
(see also Movement for Ecology post on here last September)