Following on from the piece on where now for the green movement I’d like to talk about UKIP. Let us start though by reviewing a bit of green history.
PEOPLE started out in 1974 with a clear idea of a set of problems confronting humanity and a route to solving them through creation of a movement that was grounded in an ecological understanding of the world. It became the Ecology Party.
The Ecology Party looked at the options for action and chose to largely pursue electoral success as a means of driving ecological thinking into the political discourse. It became apparent that people in general had little understanding, and thus little empathy, for the ecological way of thought, so when Paul Allen produced the first Manifesto for a Sustainable Society in 1978 it was vastly expanded from the 1974 PEOPLE manifesto which had focussed on ecological issues.
At around the time the name was changed to Ecology Party there was much debate as to whether the organisation should be a political party first or a movement first. Should we pursue electoral success (at all levels) as a vanguard for a diverse wider movement who will get behind us and support us, or should we work on building a coherent movement which will drive politicians from any appropriate party.
In the event the “vanguardists” pretty much won and for the last 40 years the Ecology/Green Party has pursued electoral gains with very limited success. For most of that time it has been seen by mainstream politics as clearly on the lunatic fringes of political thought with some interesting but totally unrealistic ideas.
It is true that during that time many of the original extremely radical ideas have been taken into the mainstream, and to some extent this may be due to the fact that there was a small political party making a noise about them. To some extent it may just has much have been because there were apolitical green organisations making a noise about the same issue whether through direct action or lobbying.
It is also true that through its membership the political green organisation has not been completely divorced from the wider movement – there have always been many people who belong both to the political wing and one or more of the green NGOs or activist groups. The vanguardist//fundamentalist split was not complete.
Whatever the details when we look at the actual progress over 40 years in achieving a recognition of ecological reality in the political discourse locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally it is painfully inadequate.
Almost all measures of negative impact of human activity on the wider ecosystem have not simply got worse over 40 years, they have got worse at an ever increasing rate. I don’t need to recite the problems, you know them (or if you don’t for goodness sake go away and do some basic reading on the state of the biosphere before you do anything else; I can say nothing useful to you and you have nothing of interest to say to me).
On the other hand around 1991 an organisation emerged that had a different single core principal – anti-federalist opposition to UK membership of the EU. Perceived as a lunatic fringe single-issue party, UKIP was born.
Within little over 25 years that organisation had achieved its principal aims. Along the way it achieved some electoral success – slightly more than the greens in that UKIP at their peak had 24 MEPs, 2 MPs and many more councillors than the greens and had become clearly the third largest party in terms of popular vote.
Of course there are many differences between these two lunatic fringe groups – but there are lessons for the greens to learn from UKIP’s success.
Perhaps most important is that right from the outset it was very clear where UKIP were sitting in the existing political landscape – they were parking their tanks very clearly on the Tories’ lawns and aiming their trebuchets over the battlements of the stately homes of England.
This enabled them to directly access and influence a pre-existing power base. The Tories suddenly found themselves in danger of having to fight on two fronts – the old Left-Right front, and a new attack from a completely different quarter.
At first this had little effect, UKIP like the Greens could be safely ignored. Once they started to gain a degree of popular support though they had to be dealt with. When the Greens had achieved a similar level of popular support in 1989, they were not a particular threat to one or other of the two major parties so both the existing parties could rapidly take on the outer clothes of greenness and fool the public into thinking that they no longer needed to support the greens. This was not possible with UKIP as their threat was far more to one party than the other and their core demand could not so simply be taken on board.
Labour didn’t need to do anything about UKIP as they saw them as a useful threat to the Tories. So Labour were completely wrong-footed when UKIP started attracting some natural Labour voters in the 2016 referendum.
Now we are touching on the second lesson that today’s greens need to learn. UKIP never compromised on their core position, and made it impossible for either of the main parties to absorb that position. The Greens failed to be hard enough, they failed fundamentally to stick to their guns and make demands that no existing party was capable of delivering. They failed to be a real threat to just one party, although when Labour had more or less completely capitulated to the neo-liberals since 2005 the GP did try to occupy the wider ground that Labour had vacated.
When Corby appeared this was shown as an obvious mistake – why on earth would anyone support an outsider on Social Justice when a favourite was back riding the same horse. .
If during the 1980s the Greens had very clearly targeted either of the big two parties’ territory (and they could have gone hard for an appeal to traditional one-nation conservatism and christian principles of looking after each other and the world, just as easily as using the three non-eco pillars of the German Greens’ four pillars approach to target the socialist left of the Labour Party) and stuck to essential demands for a simple core ecological principle – for example “leave it in the ground”, or “the polluter pays” – then perhaps we could have seen a serious start to transition to a post fossil fuel civilization before the year 2000.
That, of course is not where we are. It is said by some that UKIP were able to succeed because their core demand did not threaten the basis of industrial capitalism. Equally though it could be said that a core green demand for a post carbon economy need not (on the surface) have been seen as a threat to the status quo – plenty good money to be made by supplying the greens with the tools of their trade (to mis-quote Arlo Guthrie).
In practice UKIPs success may well turn out to be an existential threat to global capitalism as the Brexit outcome gets mixed up with the consequences of the greens’ failure (ie ecosystem collapse). By the same token it is now almost impossible to envisage a capitalist-friendly transition to a post-carbon civilization. That ship would have had to leave twenty years ago to catch the tide, now the ebb tide of our civilization is flowing ever faster and oil tankers can no longer be turned around in the stream of time.