What is the point of the Green Party?

I’d like to explain why I think it worthwhile to support the Green Party. (I’m not in any way suggesting that you do so as well, simply explaining why I do).

I’m really not a political beast (not even a small, cute and furry one), but I seem to have acquired the habit of watching BBC2’s The daily politics. This started when I was following the Scottish independence referendum, but I continue to find it amusing. Anyway, there was the Lib Dem conference, and someone (Tim Farron, I think) made some big defence of the Lib Dem involvement in a Conservative coalition by saying that he was in politics to change things and therefore there was no point in not being in power.

I kind of take the first point – that a desire to “change things” attracts people to politics. (But even that is an oversimplification 1). But the point I want to take issue with here is that there is no point in not being “in power”, because I do not think that you have to be “in power” to help “change things”. Conversely being in “in power” actually gives you less real power than you might imagine.

We have this gleaming notion of “leadership”. Some of us, from outside the centres of power, seem to imagine that if we could only get inside that command room, all we would have to do is screw our “political will” to the sticking point, enact our enlightened laws (“forcing them through” if necessary) and we would have “made the world a better place”2. Naive to say the least. There are considerable constraints, both local and global on what can be done; nothing at all can be done without compromise, tradeoff, payoff and payback; laws have unintended consequences, people find ways to avoid obeying them, enforcement requires resources that can’t be spared, the police drag their feet; business and finance defend their vested interests with vigour; the rest of world has its own stake in what the UK does and will apply all sorts of nasty pressures; and nobody whatever has the slightest compunction to play fair. If politics were a game of rugby it would be mostly a series of very muddy scrums.

And then, less obviously, there are all the subtle social psychological effects that come into play. On gaining official “power” you will be surrounded by, and have to deal with, a new bunch of people with different ideas and assumptions. All normal human beings (even politicians – perhaps especially politicians, because they are, maybe, less than averagely self-aware) will modify their behaviour in response to those around them. “Behaviour” includes beliefs of course. It’s a bit mean to call it “selling out” because it’s just natural human behaviour – we are deeply, deeply, social beasts.

I’ll go further. There isn’t a single thing that causes change. It is difficult-to-impossible to enumerate all the causes of what happens. We cannot possibly predict all the consequences of political actions – they ripple out down the years, interacting with other actions which we haven’t seen coming. Whatever nice plan you have (“we could meet all the worlds energy needs if only we spent enough money on …”) you can be sure it won’t work out quite as you thought. On the other hand, silk purses do sometimes emerge from the sows ears of apparently disastrous decisions made by other people (a reason to not get too downhearted even with the 2015 election result).

What would happen if a miracle happened and a Green government was elected in 2020? Less than you’d hope. More skilled political operators (and politics is a skill, requiring both natural aptitude and practice) would run rings around our poor wee lambs. The first Green government would most likely disappoint the hell out of its core supporters and I’d give it less than a month before the first cry of “sellout!”.

What would happen if a slightly lesser miracle were to happen – in fact not a miracle at all really – and a couple more Green MPs were elected in 2020? More than you’d think – though it would not be spectacular. I shall now answer the question which forms the title of this post and say that the point of the Green Party – that is to say, a separate group with all the tedious administrative gubbins that political parties have, not just green-minded politicians affilated to the traditional groupings – the point of having a a Green Party is educational. Not in a teachery, giving-the-facts-and-explanations sort of way (we’ve had eco-education till its coming out of our ears and see how much good that has done), but in a much broader sense.

The point of the Green Party’s existence is to remind people of the wider environmental context of our actions. That context is certainly wider than the jolly politics and media game, and even wider than the national-pride and diplomacy context. The mere presence of a Green party in boring old mainstream politics – having councillors, MPs, MEPs MSPs, Assembly Members, Lords – has the effect of making it feel legitimate to take the environmental context seriously. It gives salience to the wider physical context in which all the fun of finance and politics and business and trade and art and shopping and human life in general takes place. Green ideas will sound louder because some of their proponents are willing to play the game of mainstream politics.

That might sound an insubstantial gain but I don’t think it is. A couple of paragraphs up, I talked about the difficulty of getting anything done in politics, about the multiple pressures and determinants on one’s actions. One of those pressures is the surrounding ‘talk’, the environment of ideas. More Green politicians around changes the air, makes certain actions more possible, others less, makes some things more sayable.

The thing that sparked my own interest in green issues was the so-called fuel crisis in 2000. This was surely a ‘teachable moment’ as regards fossil fuels yet the government made no mention of the connection between fossil fuels and climate change. None. Despite Kyoto and nice-sounding blah about the environment. They could still have given in to the hauliers, fine, all it would have taken is one line in a speech to draw modest attention to the fact that we can’t go on like this forever, something will change at some point. But no. not a sod. Unbelievable. If we’d had a Green MP then you can be sure it would have got some air time.

(That was fifteen years ago. I’m really not an optimist y’know).

The ‘official’ Greens are unlikely to get much credit for the good that they do in this way (there’s a suitable quote from the tao te ching that I’ll leave you to fill in for yourself) – but that hardly matters, does it?


Added 2nd August 2016

I’m delighted to say that I’ve come across another, more substantial, reason why it’s worth having a green party. At the local council level, a green majority could actually enact real, green, things in the housing and transport areas.


(Oh I love footnotes – it’s like eating the crumbs after a slice of fruitcake)

1. “I’m in politics to change things” – you hear it said, and it sounds grand, but is it always true? First, you could quite legitimately be in politics to prevent things from changing. Second, it’s quite clear from the politicians I’ve actually met (admittedly this was mostly in their embryonic stage, when we were students together) that, whatever they say, they are attracted to politics because they just like the kinds of things you have to do to be in politics – they simply enjoy doing politics, playing the game, in it for the craic (doesn’t that explain Boris?). Whatever they might imagine, their opinions have a degree of negotiability (as is the case with all of us). Anyway, the point I want to take issue with here is that there is no point in not being “in power”, because I do not think that you have to be “in power” to help “change things”. Does this also apply to people involved in less conventional forms of politics? I rather suspect it does, at least to some of them.

2. I don’t really believe in “making the world a better place” – I think the thing to punt for is “making the world less bad than it otherwise would have been”. This is a serious point which I might expand on in a separate post.

The Green party is not “left-wing”

As I have recently re-joined the green party (after around fifteen years) I’d like to say a quick word. I was actually hoping to attend the conference but other things got in the way this year. I’m not really an activist type, and I’m still seeking to become the sort of person who is prepared to express their complicated political opinions to random strangers (which is mostly what practical politics seems to involve). I always imagine that random strangers will think I’m stupid and I’ll feel crushed. Pathetic, but there we are.

Anyway, a good part of the recent increase in green party membership is, I suspect, from disaffected labour supporters fed up with the fact that the labour party appears to have shed all its significant differences from the conservatives. The greens were the nearest thing they could find to what they wanted – a party which doesn’t believe that the market always knows best (it sometimes does – but not always), doesn’t believe that big-and-agressive is always better (it sometimes is, but not always) and so on.

Now that Jeremy Corbyn, who does hold significantly different opinions from the alleged neoliberal consensus (but he  is surely not “hard left”, c’mon), has been elected, I imagine that they’ll go back again. This is fine. Political parties are tribal and it must have hurt them to have left in the first place.

The green party is not a left-wing party.

The green party is the party of physical reality. That’s why it used to be called the ecology party. The natural world is its own thing, can’t be wished away, and ultimately we all depend on it. You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, we can’t meet “carbon targets” and expand fossil fuel production, etcetera etcetera etcetera. As such, the green party does not sit on the single left-right axis. ( “left” and “right” are not straightforward terms in any case).

At any given time, by a sort of psychological parallax effect, the green political stance can appear to be aligned with the left-right axis. Depending on the current political landscape it can appear to be a part of the either “the left” or “the right”.

At present, because of the way the “right” currently defines itself (sometimes called “neo-conservatism”), the green party looks like it is on the left. Amongst many other things, the green political stance reminds us that people are co-operative as well as competitive and that fairness is important – this modest observation of human behaviour and desire is currently pooh-poohed by the “right” which seems to hold that the only driving force in human affairs is competition, that might is by definition right, that being rich is an indicator of intrinsic virtue and so on.

But there are some definitions of “the right” which are compatible with green thinking. “Conservative” and “conservation” are closely related words. A wariness of utopian schemes (partly  because of the modest observation that people are competitive as well as cooperative) and a reluctance to change things too much, or too quickly (because you probably don’t fully understand what you’re doing),  both sit very well with green thinking. It is possible to imagine a different political landscape where a green party would look as if it belonged to the right.

The above two paragraphs suggest that not only are the greens the party of physical reality, they could also be the party of psychological reality.

So the green party is not “of the left”, even though at the present it looks as if it is. It is important that it doesn’t think of itself a natural “part of the left” because getting sucked too far into the crude “left-right” way of thinking will neutralise any good that having a green party might do.

And what exactly might that “good” be? Next time.