Should the left participate in the Greens or Labour? A debate between James McAsh and Peter McColl

I participated in a four-part written debate on whether the left should participate in Labour or the Green Party, alongside Peter McColl. It was originally published on the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory blog and then on Bright Green.

Part 1: We don’t need benevolent rulers, we need power for ourselves – James McAsh

Socialists in the UK who want to join a political party should join Labour. They should not be uncritical, nor have false expectations, but they should join nonetheless. There are four arguments for this, relating to efficiency, tactics, policy and class.

As far as efficiency is concerned activists who want to elect a left-wing MP will have greater success for the expenditure of less time and energy in Labour. The task of the Labour left is simply to influence the few hundred voters involved in each constituency selection process. To achieve the same in the Greens the left must not only win the selection but then recruit 10,000-20,000 Labour voters to win the seat.

From a tactical perspective it is clear that a moderate national swing from Labour to the Greens could result in no more Green MPs, but dozens of Labour seats lost to the Tories or Lib Dems. This could easily produce a Tory government. Tactically, a vote for the Greens can be disastrous.

These two reasons are important but well-rehearsed. Some would argue that the time and energy, and the short-term consequence of a Tory government, are worthwhile sacrifices for a Green Government (either as majority or part of a coalition) in the future. I disagree. My remaining two arguments seek to demonstrate that the election of a Green Government is not a desirable objective.

There is no reason to believe that, having taken power, the Greens would pursue a left-wing programme. This is my third argument and it relates to party policy. Green manifestos are currently to the left of Labour. But this is not a like-for-like comparison. A party’s policy is shaped by a range of factors, internal and external. The external pressures tend to be right-wing: for instance the need to finance campaigns or to win positive coverage from the right-wing media. As the Green party grows these pressures will intensify.

To counteract these pressures the left relies on internal democracy. But here too the Greens are deficient. The Greens’ party organisation has nothing like Labour’s link to the trade unions so the only ‘check’ on leadership power is the membership. As this grows, the more radical members will surely find themselves in an ever-shrinking minority.

This is not mere speculation. The record speaks for itself. The two most successful Green Parties in Europe are in Ireland and Germany. The former implemented austerity and the latter took the country to war in Afghanistan. Closer to home, the only Green-led council in the UK, Brighton, has slashed jobs and public services. A common rejoinder to this is that the Labour Party fares no better in government. I agree: the left should be critical and put pressure on the Labour leadership. But if a Green administration is not substantially to the left of Labour then why waste the energy needed to elect it?

The fourth and final reason is perhaps the most fundamental. The defeat of the Labour Party by the Green party would be a serious blow to the labour movement and to working-class political aspirations. In the narrow demographic sense, Labour is the party of ordinary working-class people, while the Greens are a party of the middle-class intelligentsia. But more significantly, Labour remains the collective expression of the trade unions. The unions hold just under 50% of votes at party conference, and provide the great bulk of the party’s income.

Even after numerous attacks from the Labour right, the party’s link to the labour movement is still significantly stronger than anything even proposed by the Greens. In fact, the 2010 Green manifesto included a pledge to prevent trade unions from donating to political parties. As it stands, trade unions have little influence in the Green Party and greens have little influence in the unions.

Ultimately, these class interests are the decisive factor. Even if the Greens could take power relatively easily and with no risk of letting the Tories in, and even if there was a guarantee that they would maintain their left-wing programme, to join them would still be a blow against collective working-class politics. One of the greatest tragedies of neo-liberalism is the emphasis on the individual over the collective. Electing a Green government, however charitable and philanthropic its leadership, would undermine the labour movement and the collective organisations of the working class.

Joining the Greens is a tempting option. You are surrounded by people with fairly left-wing politics and you will not be embarrassed by an unpleasant record in government. By contrast, the work in the Labour Party is often not rewarding. You have to engage with unpleasant ideas like dog-whistle immigration policies, the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, and military adventures overseas. But these reactionary ideas are current amongst the population in general and socialists must challenge them.

If you think that bourgeois democracy can work and that the job of the left is simply to win ideological battles, then join the Greens. But if you are a socialist, and believe that class-struggle is central, then participation in the Labour Party should be a crucial, if uncomfortable, part of your political activity.

Part 2: Progressives need a Party for Social Movements – Peter McColl

Green politics is the greatest threat to capitalism in the 21st Century. The attack on Green politics reflects this status. Capitalist elites, having captured social democratic parties over the past 25 years, need to find ways to capture or neutralise Green politics and the parties that it represents. The arguments about how capitalism has destroyed people’s lives and the environment that are required to sustain them have little to refute them. So instead, we see corporate funded climate conspiracies, attempts to turn green concerns into another mode of consumption and the promotion of middle class environmentalism. Sadly the Green Party hasn’t been immune to this.

It is important to note that Green politics is not just about the environmental issues that Green Parties have focused on more recently. The founding principles of the Green movement include commitments to Equality and Social Justice, for many Greens it is vital that these principles drive the direction of Green politics as much as environmentalism. Over the past 10 years there has been a fundamental shift towards a broad Green politics, rather than narrow environmentalism. The shift has been the work of a relatively small number of people. With more support in the party this shift will continue, and be strengthened. The adoption of policies such as the one allowing workers to make a compulsory purchase of private businesses and allowing them to be run as cooperatives shows Greens prioritising workers’ control. Greens in the UK have always opposed wars and are increasingly the only party opposing privatisation in England.

If you are on the left in the UK, there are many things you could do to change our politics. Street politics as practiced by UK Uncut, social movement politics like the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland and trade union activity are all important. Working in communities to politicise people through creating new community spaces and defending those that exist is equally important. And this pluralism should extend to party politics. In the UK, almost uniquely, the left has historically pinned its hopes on one electoral party, the Labour party. While there was serious Communist organisation in Trade Unions, this did something to hold the Labour party to the left. But since the collapse of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the early 1990s, the rigour behind the Labour Party’s ideological positions has diminished.

The New Labour project has substantially gutted the Labour Party, fundamentally undermining its internal democracy. This means that while left wing policies may enjoy support on conference floor, it is near-impossible to get a Labour Government to implement these policies. It is also difficult to get left-wing candidates selected, because of a vetting system that has greatly reduced the strength of the left. This means the efforts of leftists in the Labour party are always likely to be confounded. Whereas the left in the Green party is able to win arguments on conference floor, and have them implemented by parliamentarians.

For all of the talk of ‘winning the Labour party for the left’ it is hard to see how someone on the left could actually make a difference. And if Tony Benn and Nye Bevan failed in winning the Labour party for the left while the structures existed to do so, what chance do we have today?

It is important that there are leftists in all the progressive parties. But for too long the left has misunderstood that solidarity should mean conformism within mass parties. As at each election the number of left wing Labour MPs diminishes, the argument that the Labour party can be won back diminishes. As the Labour party chases UKIP voters with anti-immigration policies, and follows the Tory attack on those who rely on benefits by supporting caps on social security spending it is ever clearer that the left should seek to influence the Labour party from outside.

To contrast this with the progress made by radicals in the Green Party, where a significant and substantial shift to the left has been achieved in only 10 years with a relatively small number of activists. And when you see the impact this has on the Labour party, it becomes clear that the best way to promote left-wing politics is by putting pressure on from outside.

Two examples demonstrate how effective this has been: the candidates chosen by Labour in Brighton Pavilion for 2010 and 2015 are much closer to the left than other candidates would be allowed to be. Nancy Platts, the 2010 candidate beaten by Caroline Lucas was identifiably left wing, anti-trident, pro-immigrant and much more progressive than other candidates. The threat of Greens taking a seat is one of the few circumstances where Labour will select left wing candidates, rather than the assorted Blairites chosen elsewhere. Similarly, Caroline Lucas’ vital work on rail renationalisation has pushed Labour into a watered-down commitment to allow the public sector to bid to run rail franchises. Having a force to the left of Labour in Parliament creates political space for those in the Labour Party and labour movement to push the Labour Party back to the left.

In his piece, James sets out a number of reasons to join Labour. If you can’t join the Green for whatever reason, these may give some comfort, but for a whole variety of reasons they’re flawed. If you want to elect left wing MPs, join the Greens and fight for their candidates. You will make Labour chose leftists. If you think Greens are a party of the intelligentsia, join and change that: a democratic party allows change in a way Labour never can. If you think Greens need a link to the Trade Union movement, then join our Trade Union Group and argue for that link – there are many who will agree with you and, more importantly, with Unions.

Lastly, if you are concerned by Greens’ record in office, then look at the record of others. Of course there are things that could have been improved about the Green administrations James highlights. But it is worth noting that the German Greens did what they did in coalition with the Labour party’s German equivalent, the SPD. Any criticism of the Greens also applies to social democrats. In Ireland, the Irish Labour Party has made almost every mistake the Irish Greens did, and look set to be rightly punished by the electorate, just as the Irish Greens were rightly punished. In Brighton the Labour group on the Council could have helped Greens prevent cuts by supporting the Green budget aiming to reduce the impact of cuts. Instead they voted with the Tories to defeat the minority Green administration. I am no defender of the Greens actions here, but the comparison with what Labour or their sister-parties have done suggests there is no place for claiming Labour are any better.

UKIP have shown just how effective a party can be when it articulates a clear ideological position. Greens need to do this on the left, and in doing so pull Labour away from its pro-austerity, anti-immigrant, welfare bashing and create again a party that represents the interests of the working class. Given the lack of internal democracy in the Labour party, the most effective way to do this is through external pressure. That must mean that the Greens are the best home for those who want to pull Labour to the left.

The 2015 election will be the Greens best in nearly 25 years. The opportunity to create a real Parliamentary force to the left of the Labour Party is a vital chance to win Labour back and to ensure that we have action on social justice, environment and equality.

Part 3: The Green Party can never be a party of the labour movement – James McAsh

The greatest threat to capital – in this century or any other – is working class power. Social movements play a crucial role in building this power and in wielding it for social change. Electoral activity too can fulfil a useful function in augmenting class power and strengthening these movements. However, electing the ‘right people’ is no substitute for building our own power and our own movements.

Our most significant movement is the labour movement: the most powerful movement in contemporary society, and a representation of the potential of working class power. Thanks to the Labour Party’s organic link to the trade unions, participation in the two go hand-in-hand. In fact, they are often two sides of the same coin: the politics, structure and activity of the Labour Party will be shaped in part by the dominant ideas in the labour movement. When socialists argue for better ideas in the labour movement, or put pressure on the trade union leaderships to fight for their members, they cannot help but influence the Labour Party. Explicit and co-ordinated participation in both the party and the wider movement lubricates this process.

The Labour Party is the only political party in the UK where this relationship exists. Participation in all other parties is something that activists do in addition to their activity in other social movements. In the Labour Party the two merge: fighting for a strong, democratic, socialist labour movement is a fight for a strong, democratic, socialist Labour Party.

With no roots in the labour movement, the options open to the Green Party are more limited. In his piece, Peter puts forward two ways in which participation in the Green Party can achieve social change. The first is through direct implementation of Green Party policy. The second is by putting pressure on the Labour Party. I remain unconvinced that either method will be as effective as participation in the Labour Party.

Implementation of Green Party policy

Peter draws a stark contrast between an undemocratic Labour Party where left-wing conference policy is ignored, and a Green Party where arguments won at conference result in their implementation by parliamentarians. There is truth in his depiction of the former: a key task of Labour activists should be to fight for party democracy. But his portrayal of the Green Party bears no resemblance to reality: Green parliamentarians are insufficient in number to implement almost anything, and certainly not the more radical party policy.

Of course, this could change: over time many more Green parliamentarians could be elected. But there is nothing to guarantee a Green Party in this strengthened position would be any more left-wing than the Labour Party is today. In fact, as I argued in my first piece, the record of green parties abroad suggests that it would be no improvement whatsoever.

Peter’s response to this is to point to the record of Labour which, as I acknowledged before, includes much that is worthy of criticism. But this is an insufficient response. Left-wingers in both parties have two tasks: to put left-wing pressure on the leadership, and to win power for the party. The first task is bound to be easier in a small party like the Greens. However, a Green Party with more parliamentarians would presumably have a larger membership with more members close to the political centre. Thanks to Labour’s relationship with the trade unions pressure on its leadership would probably be more effective than on a comparably sized Green Party. The left-wing party member’s second task – of winning power for the party – is again easier for those in the Labour Party: left-wingers in the UK green parties have to slog endlessly before they are rewarded with the kind of betrayal their peers experienced in Ireland and Germany.

Putting pressure on Labour

Peter argues that external electoral pressure from the Green Party is the best way to promote left-wing politics in Labour. It is almost certainly true that this will have some impact, but I believe that Peter has grossly overstated it. He gives two examples to support his claim, one concerning candidate selection in Brighton Pavilion and the other concerning rail renationalisation. Neither example stands up to much scrutiny.

It is true that Labour’s 2010 and 2015 candidates for Brighton Pavilion, Nancy Platts and Purna Sen, are on the left of the party. But the strength of the Greens in the constituency is not the sole or even decisive factor in Labour Party selections. For instance, Platts has now been selected to contest the neighbouring seat, Brighton Kemptown, where in 2010 the Greens polled a mere 5%. Other winnable seats where Labour has selected socialist candidates include Salford & Eccles and St. Helen’s South, neither of which were even contested by the Greens last time. It is plausible that electoral pressure from the Greens can have an effect on Labour selections but there no reason to think that this is more significant than internal factors.

Similarly, it is true that the Labour leadership’s baby-steps towards rail renationalisation have followed Caroline Lucas’s election to parliament. It has also followed the policy’s rise in public support, and endorsement by the trade unions and a range of other party affiliates, for instance Labour Students and the Co-operative Party. There is no good reason to single out Lucas’s work for the change in Labour policy.

Transforming the party

All of my arguments rely on the Labour Party, and not the Green Party, being a party of the working class and the labour movement. Peter’s response is that Green Party democracy allows members to change that. Sadly, I cannot agree. In theory it may be possible to argue for a link to the trade unions similar to that which exists in Labour. But in practice, there is no sign that the Greens could forge a link to the unions that is anything like as strong as the Labour link is today, even after decades of it being attenuated by the right-wing of the party. The Green Party Trade Union Group, which Peter encourages us to join, proposes nothing like it.

This points to a broader weakness in Peter’s argument: democracy is essential but not enough. A party cannot escape its ideological and material constraints. If Green Party Conference passed a resolution to become a party of the working class and the labour movement, this would change nothing. It would still be a party of the middle-class intelligentsia. It would simply have become more delusional.

The labour movement and the working class need political representation. For all its flaws, the Labour Party fulfils this function. The Green Party does not and never will.

Part 4: Greens can take Social Movements’ lead in moving politics left – Peter McColl

Creating an economy for people not profit, ensuring equality for women, ending racism, stopping the destruction of our environment are all among the vital tasks facing the progressive movement. We must find ways to ensure we can support all these ends. And that must mean a politics that brings the movements arguing for change together with those who can make it happen both in and outside Parliament.

That requires political parties that can articulate the demands of movements through the political process.

When we engage in political action there are a number of important ways in which we can make changes happen. For me, as for many Greens, political action should not be limited to the sphere of parliamentary politics and elections. Our politics must draw from the progressive movements that have always driven social change. For much of the period after the industrial revolution that has been the trade union movement. But the changes the trade union movement have fought for and won are not the only significant victories. One of the key issues James raises is that of the need for a working class party with links to the trade unions.

But that’s not enough. We have a working class party with links to trade unions, so do many other western countries. Yet the solutions to the problems I set out above, while they may be closer, are by no means ready to be implemented. We need a way for progressive movements to ensure that changes happen. The social democratic parties have been weak on issues like women’s equality, the environment, and even workers’ rights for too long. There needs to be parliamentary and electoral pressure on these parties.

In the UK, the Labour party’s drift away from progressive politics has been helped enormously by the absence from parliament of a serious and organised progressive alternative. In countries where there are parliamentary forces that progressive movements can mobilise to ideological ends, we have another lever that can push progressive change. SYRIZA are the best example of such a formation, but the Front de Gauche in France have also been effective at pulling the French Socialist Party to the left.

While it is unclear what the mechanism for internal change in the Labour Party is, the only strategic option for those who want a progressive politics is to exert external pressure on the Labour Party. I’m still unclear, other than the call for more party democracy, or for more left-wing MPs as ‘ends in themselves’ how the 30 year long drift of the Labour party to the right is to be reversed. And even with a halt to the move to the right, even the Labour Party at the height of its progressive power didn’t publicly support workers on strike.

At the next election Labour is promising no reversal of cuts to legal aid, student fees of £6000 and hasn’t made any clear commitment to the de-marketisation of the NHS. I’m not sure why anyone on the left could or should ever vote for those policies, however working class the party advocating them is.

Of course, there is little stopping the Labour Party from changing its policy on these things. None of them are necessary to the politics we need to create. But the fact that the Labour Party leadership makes a new and disappointing policy announcement almost every day suggests that the outcome of voting Labour will not be the creation of a politics that delivers for people, but a politics that continues the corporate-led hollowing out of Westminster politics.

We must not lose sight of the achievements of social movements. Without the contribution of the women’s movement, environmentalists, anti-racist activists the Labour Party and trade union movement could not have achieved what it has. We must continue to build both within and outside the labour movement. While the labour movement must be an arena of struggle for activists, we need to ensure that wider forces act on that movement. And the same is true of the Labour Party itself.

In Scotland the student movement has achieved the abolition of fees, using the Scottish Green Party and SNP to push Labour into an announcement that it won’t introduce fees in Scotland, despite wanting £6,000 a year fees in England. This shows how social movements can use progressive elements in parliament to achieve social change. Without Greens this wouldn’t have been possible.

Until there is any mechanism by which the Labour Party can be made to act in the interests of those who founded the party, and who are meant to be its beneficiaries, it is hard to see how it can be won back. While there may be constituencies where voting Labour represents the best tactical choice to beat the Tories this time round, it must be the task of those who want a broader progressive politics to put pressure on Labour from outside the party. That means organising in social movements – we need a future that is radical, feminist and green. And it means building an electoral alternative to Labour. In many cases it will mean voting for parties, like the Greens, parties who articulate the policies and politics that the Labour Party was set up to represent.

Had progressives in Greece directed all their attention at Labour’s sister-party, PASOK, there would have been no SYRIZA government to make the case against austerity. While that may be in the interests of those on the right of the Labour Party, it makes no sense for the left. There is the opportunity for the left to win back the Labour Party, but it’s hard to see how that can happen without electoral and parliamentary pressure from the left.

And the long term interests of the working class and the mass of the people are best served by strengthening parties and movements that best represent those interests. That will mean a party that has the sort of left-wing policies and politics the Labour Party has long since abandoned.

The efforts of activists in the Greens will be rewarded with a party that makes the case for free education, equality for women and other excluded groups, for the retention of a social security system, for a massive house-building programme and for serious action on climate change. Having a party in which decisions are made democratically makes radical change much easier. The more votes for such a party, the more likely Labour will be to abandon its centrism and start to serve the interests of working people.

Working to build a Green Party of the left will create a buttress for social progress. Significant numbers of Green votes will help the case for a progressive politics, and create the necessary pressure for a radical leftward shift in the Labour Party’s policy and politics.