Should I renew my Green Party membership?

It’s due in a week’s time and, on balance, I’m probably not going to renew. I thought I’d say why.

I’m not annoyed or exasperated or anything, because I suspected this might be the result when I re-joined in 2015, (after a brief spell of membership in 2001). I wanted to give it a go, to show support and maye even see if I wanted deeper involvement. It seems that, even though I enjoy observing some aspects of the political game (yes, it is a game – it’s just that games aren’t always trivial), actual participation in it is not really for me.

Shortly after I joined in 2015 I blogged “what is the point of the Green Party?” After some general comments about the nature of the political process and the difficulty of achieving what you want within it, I answered my own question:

the point of having a Green Party … is educational. [in the broadest sense]

The point of the Green Party’s existence is to remind people of the wider environmental context of our actions. […] The mere presence of a Green party in boring old mainstream politics […] has the effect of making it feel legitimate to take the environmental context seriously. […] 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. I talked about the difficulty of getting anything done in politics, about the multiple pressures 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”

Is that enough?

I certainly didn’t join the GP thinking “one day we’ll have a green government, everything will be lovely and I can help it happen”. No, I (re) joined thinking that the party could play a dull but important part in changing the zeitgeist, so that the things that need doing about the multiple environmental crises stand more chance of getting done. Party political activity is most certainly not the only thing worth doing: NGOs matter, academic research matters, business matters, the arts matter, grassroots projects matter, personal choices matters. They all interact and it’s usually hard to see any one thing as the clear sole cause of something else – so they’re all worth doing and as a part of that there needs to be a green party, just as a presence in party politics, if nothing else.

This may be a viable argument, but it is hardly the motivation of a passionate party hack! I rejoined because I kind of thought it was patronising not to – kind of as if I would be saying “you lot of naive wonks over there can go and do boring old party politics and I’ll do something a bit sexier like working for an NGO”. I think I wanted to show to myself that I was willing to do things that I consider boring, which have no guarantee of success, but which still need to be done.

And also I do consider many GP members to be thoroughly admirable – and not just the old warhorses like Clive Lord, Jonathan Porritt and the late David Fleming (who I shall be writing about shortly).

A provocative thought

After a year or so of fairly regular reading of the party’s internal members forum, it obvious to me that, although it is definitely worth having green MPs, MSPs, AMs and – most importantly – councillors (localisation and resilience eh?), a lot of “what there is to do” in the Green Party is busywork. It gives the enlarged membership something to do. Back in the day when it had a membership of scarcely 5,000 it punched well above it’s weight. Now, with ten times that number, it punches slightly below it.

Not to mention the fact that some of the current membership aren’t particularly green. For them the environment is just one good cause along with all the others. Yeah, I understand the arguments: everything is connected, intersectionality, etc etc. But that’s ineffective as strategy: ‘we have to have utopia all at once, everything’. It’s like attempting to hitch-hike with twelve of your best mates. No one is going to pick you up, even though each of you might have easily got a lift on their own, from twelve different people. The green party has to be about the environment. That is because, in the sphere of mainstream politics, no-one else is saying what needs to be said. Unfortunately, in their attempt to secure a foothold in that very mainstream, the green party seems to have stopped saying it as well.

Of course I do recognise that that there is a bit of a conflict in what I think is the exemplary, leavening, educational role of the GP and the fact that it is a political party. As a political party it has to play the game of appearing to want to be just like all the others – it has to don the uniform so to speak. All the tedious administrative stuff has to be done to get people elected, it has to have a reasonable policy spread.

I don’t pretend to know the answer to this – as with most things in life, it’s a balancing act – but as it stands, I almost feel as if I don’t have enough opinions to be a member of the party in its current configuration. The whole conference-policy thing is an energy-sink. It spins on its own little axis and doesn’t have any impact on anything: the greens are never going to form a government (but that doesn’t matter) so why spend all this time arguing over fine detail of legislation which will never be enacted and which doesn’t have anything much to do with the environment anyway? And how did a party with a fair old squirt of anarchism in its mix end up sounding so bossy?

I did think (but I’ve sort of changed my mind on this), that one of the functions of the green party might be to act as a thinktank, to generate ideas – not necessarily ideas that become enacted but ideas that form part of the conversation, and maybe feed into other work. But the mechanisms of policy development seem to be too unfocused for this to happen usefully – and the connections – to academia, to NGOs, that I would have expected, don’t seem to be there either. But maybe there’s a reason for that – it is pretty much entirely self-funded and therefore maybe just a bit amateurish (which can be both good and bad). Dunno.

Might I renew despite all this?

Weeeeelllll possibly – though I wish I could remain as a local member only – I suppose that I don’t want to sever my connection entirely. I’ll slightly miss the …errr.. anthropological aspects of seeing inside green party culture (bit grand to call it ‘culture’ but you know what I mean). Dunno. Haven’t finally decided yet. Might be prepared to help out at next election. Genuinely undecided (that’s not an invitation to try and persuade me btw – in the unlikely event that anyone has read this far).

And yeah, I’ll still vote green. As Clive Lord put it, “Where Else Is there”?

The Green Party – further thoughts #2

How are the bees in my bonnet doing?

I’ve previously given the reasons I (re)joined the green party – basically:

“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.”

Tom Chance recently said something similar, and with the authority of actually having worked for elected green politicians in the London Assembly:

“It’s widely assumed that the Green Party isn’t needed now that other parties take ‘green’ issues seriously. It’s also often argued within the Green Party that we shouldn’t focus too much on ecological issues for fear of reinforcing the impression that we’re a single issue party.

But in my experience, it was all too often necessary to have a Green politician in the room to get ecological issues raised, and all too important for them to take those opportunities.”

It is because that particular bee is still buzzing that I chose to renew my membership.

The other “bee” is that, as I said in one of last years posts, the Green Party is not “left-wing”. Party luminary (I suspect he’d be amused by that description) Rupert Read seems to agree with me, though with rather more philosophical depth. Unfortunately we seem to be in a diminishing minority on that one.

The Clive Lord tendency

The Green Party had a leadership election recently. I gave my first preference vote to Clive Lord. He’s an elder of the party, almost a founder member, and I voted for him because he has rather similar bees in his bonnet. He stood for election, not with any serious hope of winning (he’s now in his eighties), but as an opportunity to send those bees out to forage.

His blog is worth reading and I have been gratefully enlightened by his arguments in favour of the Citizen’s Income (or something which amounts to it) as a means of creating the fairness which would be necessary for a steady-state economy to be acceptable. Here is his pitch to voters in a by-election (which he claims did actually work on well-off ‘natural’ conservative voters):

“The Green Party was formed to deal with things like climate change, but there are powerful vested interests delaying this. There will have to be a much fairer society if we live within the Earth’s limits, so the only thing we can be sure of is that people like you will pay more tax. But what you will get for your money is a planet fit for your grandchildren.”

He is also quite clear that the Green Party has “lost it’s way”, losing it’s specific environmental-limits-to-growth focus by opening its doors to any and every worthy liberal cause. It’s a toughie that one – worthy causes are of course worthy and who could refuse them a home? Except that … well, one thing that has become clear to me recently is that I am an anti-utopian and that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. In a practical Green Party context this means that it is important that the social justice tail does not wag the ecological dog. I do genuinely find this a difficult conclusion, and I have havered over it, but what decided me is the following thought.

Accepting quite how deep in the soup we are is difficult, painful really. A good life is still possible for everyone on earth, but it cannot be the same kind of good life that is now enjoyed by most in the developed countries. There is therefore, even in some people committed enough to go and join a political party which titles itself “green”, an unconscious tendency to shy away from how bad things really are, and a welcoming of displacement activity. And what better displacement activity than social justice causes? Particularly as, (see earlier) a sustainable society, to be even tolerable, let alone pleasurable, has to be above all fair and reasonably equal.

****

Last word to Clive:

“I have often said I cannot leave the Green Party, I have nowhere else to go. That remains true, but it does need putting back on the rails.”

Oh dear.

The Green Party – further thoughts #1

How much has it changed?

I’ve now been a member of the Green Party for a little over a year. My original intention was to be a fairly passive supporter – most members of most political parties are just that, joining to lend a little financial and moral support to something they consider worthwhile. My earlier post explaining why I considered the green party to be worth supporting was based on my brief membership of the party at the start of the century, (I’d known about the its existence since it was called the Ecology Party and Jonathon Porritt was active in it, but I’m not a “joiner”. I philosophically disapprove of my reluctance to get stuck in to things, so I’m trying to work on this). Since I re-joined I’ve been pootling around the party’s online forums, reading the personal blogs of random party luminaries and footsoldiers, have attended the national conference and one meeting of my local party. I’m still rather undecided how much proper involvement I want to have.

The Green Party has changed in several ways. The most unexpected thing is the size. At the start of the century the membership was around 5,000 and now it is around ten times that, with a proportionate rise in the number of active members. So the conference now looks superficially exactly like all the other party conferences (though there is still a one-minute silent “atunement” before the opening of voting sessions). Structurally, there are now enough members to support a whole bunch of sub-groups. Back in the 70’s, the tiny Liberal party had a notoriously hot-headed youth section, the Young Liberals, who always seemed to be getting themselves into trouble. The Young Greens seem lively enough to be capable of occupying the same cultural space (though so far no headlines) – or perhaps they’re really fulfilling the same function as the Young Conservatives famously used to (i.e. finding partners).

One thing that has not changed, but which has arguably become unworkable in the enlarged GP is the policy process. This is famous for being entirely run by members and voted on, live, at each conference – in principle anyone can submit a policy motion. Motions which pass get added to something called the Policies for a Sustainable Society (PfSS to its friends), which is not the same thing as the manifesto. I did read a big chunk of PfSS prior to my previous short-lived membership, to check if it was sufficiently aligned with my opinions on science and whatnot, but a brief glance at the 2016 version was enough to put me off repeating the exercise. It seemed bigger and vaguer than I remember, though it could just as well be me who has changed. At any event the PfSS is a large sprawling mess and if I were an elected Green politician of some sort (I’ve absolutely no ambitions there, but if I were), I reckon I would pretty much ignore it. I was therefore interested to see, from this post on Tom Chance’s blog that it was indeed largely irrelevant to the Green Group in the London Assembly. I do wonder if the unacknowledged point of the policy process has become to give people something to do in a party with relatively little real power. I could certainly see a sort of think-tank function as a useful aspect of the GP, but it looks less like that than a mere energy-sink.

The Green Party had a leadership election recently and that will form the starting point of my next post.

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.

Footnotes

(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.