Britain: Greens surge on back of anti-austerity anger

Rail union RMT president Peter Pinkney with Greens MP Caroline Lucas. Pinkney is standing as a candidate for the Greens, who sup
Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Green Surge has hit Britain. Thanks to an ongoing growth spurt, the Green Party of England and Wales has now hit 54,000 members, on top of nearly 10,000 members in the Scottish Green Party.

Opinion polls put the party on the rise, frequently beating the Liberal Democrats, who are governing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Greens now have more members than the far-right anti-immigrant UK Independence Party (UKIP), whose growing support has generated much media attention.

British politics is changing, the Greens are part of this. The Green Party's success has been built by moving to the left.

The most obvious manifestation of the Green surge has been large rise increase in party membership. At the start of last year, membership in the The Green Party of England and Wales was about 14,000. This grew to 34,000 by the end of the year.

Membership growth this year has been explosive, with nearly 20,000 members signing up in January. On several occasions, the party website broke down and at one point, people were joining at a rate of one every 10 seconds.

Combined with the Scottish Greens' 9500 members, across Britain the Greens now have 65,000 members. At present, the party has one member of the British parliament, Caroline Lucas in Brighton. But it is planning to contest 500 seats out of a total of 650 in the May 7 general elections.

History

The Green Party was founded in 1973 and initially called PEOPLE — without the word “Party”. Several leaders were former members of the Conservative Party and its inspiration came from the Ecologist magazine's manifesto document “A Blueprint for Survival”.

Social justice, peace and grassroots democracy were party values from its early days, but a Malthusian concern with population and economic growth were dominant. In the 1970s, advocates for a left green perspective were more likely to be involved with the Socialist Environmental and Resources Association (SERA).

By 1979, PEOPLE had been renamed the Ecology Party, won new members such as See Green author Jonathon Porritt and discard much of its conservative elements. The 1980s, influences such as the then-left-wing German Greens and social movements against nuclear weapons and power moved the party in a more radical direction.

The creation of Green CND and a non-violent direct action wing of the party added to a more vibrant, activist dynamic. In 1989, now renamed Green, it won 15% of the votes as part of an early green surge. The Green vote declined sharply, however.

The decline occurred because of a combination of internal divisions a lack of electoral opportunities. In the late 20th century, the Labour Party's to the right under Tony Blair led to the Green Party recruiting many former Labour members.

In turn, constitutional changes including the creation of a Scottish Parliament, Greater London Assembly and a shift to proportional representation for the European elections allowed the party and the now independent Scottish Greens to make electoral gains.

Green surge

Adam Ramsay, a long standing activist on the party's left, noted 13 factors that fuelled the “Green surge” in a January 15 Open Democracy article.

One of the most significant has been the radicalising and re-energising of Scottish politics, which Ramsay led to growth for both the Scottish and English/Welsh Green parties.

Ramsey said that after Scotland's independence referendum, in which the Yes campaign won about 45%, “the Scottish Greens grew from 1,800 members to 7,500. But it wasn't just in Scotland. There was a significant surge in Green support in England and Wales that week too.

“As one new member in Oxford put it to me, they and their partner had been students at Glasgow university. They were excited by the radical independence campaign, ‘Green Yes’, and the broader Yes movement. That's what inspired them to join.”

While the referendum was lost by pro-independence campaigners, the SNP, Scottish Socialist Party and Scottish Greens, all of whom supported the Yes vote, enjoyed a huge growth in membership.

The independence campaign became a call to break the neoliberal consensus of Britain's Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats and inspired anti-austerity activists across Britain.

Opposition to austerity in Britain has been wide spread, but frustrated. Student protests and the emergence of the Occupy movement 2010 and '11 mobilised anger, as did a number of trade union organised marches.

However, the opposition Labour Party has broadly supported the right-wing Con-Dem governing coalition's demand for cuts. Labour has struggled to move beyond the legacy of Blair, who supported George Bush's invasion of Iraq and introduced many market-based policies.

The far left in Britain, with the partial exception of the anti-war Respect Party formed by George Galloway, has been unable to build on frustration with Labour. With the largest far-left group, the Socialist Workers Party, suffering a crisis over its handling of rape allegations, attempts to create a new left-wing alternative to it have faltered.

Neither Left Unity, backed by renown left-wing filmmaker Ken Loach, nor the Socialist Party-backed Trade Union and Socialist Coalition has so far had a major impact.

In Latin America, opposition to neoliberal policies led from the 1994 Zapatista uprising to the election of the “pink tide” of left governments. But this revival of the left took new forms.

Traditional far left parties in Latin America seem to have been less important that heterodox social forces influenced by radical social movements, indigenous mobilisations and liberation theology.

In the shape of groups such as the SNP or the Greens, political parties outside the traditional left have gathered support from those opposed to the mainstream market-based austerity consensus.

Elsewhere in Europe, opposition to the status quo and demands for radical change have also manifested itself in new ways — whether the Pirate Party (briefly) in Germany or Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.

Left shift

There is some debate over how left the SNP actually is. The SNP has, at least, rejected austerity and has a long record of supporting a nuclear free Scotland. The Greens have also shifted left, a key factor driving the growth in support.

Green Left is an ecosocialist and anti-capitalist network inside the Greens that was founded over a decade ago. Leading members of Green Left have helped push the party in a more radical direction. Romayne Phoenix, the Green Party of England and Wales trade union coordinator and chair of the anti-austerity Peoples Assembly, is perhaps the most significant figure.

The election of Green Left's Will Duckworth, a working-class activist and councillor from Dudley in the West Midlands, as Green Party deputy leader 2012 also moved the party further left.

But the greatest pull to the left has perhaps come from the growth and radicalisation of the Young Greens in the aftermath of the 2010 student protests. Also, many leading figures in the party outside of the Young Greens, including the party leader Natalie Bennett and the Greens one MP, Caroline Lucas.

Most recently, the Greens supported the new SYRIZA government in Greece, called for a “wealth tax” and campaigned for the railways to be re-nationalised.

A joint anti-austerity statement has been signed by the three women leaders of the Welsh national party Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Green Party.

Support for non-violent direct action, with Lucas being arrested at protests against fracking and Bennett supporting protests for a living wage, has been another feature of an increasingly confident and radical party.

Recent successes have also been accelerated by better party organisation and grassroots social media campaigns bypassing the British media, which has traditional shown almost no interest in the party or the wider left.

Media debate

The BBC's traditional party leader’s debate ahead of the general election has excluded the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru. Anger at this, in a context where UKIP leader Nigel Farage has been included, has been another factor driving membership growth.

Debate organisers eventually gave into the weight of public opinion and agreed that Bennett, together with Plaid's Leanne Wood and the SNP's Nicola Sturgeon, could take part.

The Green Party has also gained a boost from the announcement that rail union RMT president Peter Pinkney would stand for the Greens in the seat of Redcar. This decision by Pinkney, previously a TUSC supporter, is a sign of a wider dialogue between the Greens and trade unionists.

Explaining his decision, Pinkney said: “Labour is no longer the working class party. They have betrayed us time and time again. They should remember that it was the unions who formed the ‘party of labour’ not deny our links.

“The radical Labour Party of 1945 is long gone. No longer do they champion nationalisation, social housing, the NHS, education etc, they are a sort of reddish Conservative Party.”

The Green Party is focussing its campaign on re-electing Lucas in Brighton and on up to 12 other seats where its support is strong. While Green parties across Europe have made parliamentary gains in recent, the Green Parties in Britain have find it far tougher to do so, partly given Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system.

The largely right-wing British media and a weak wider left have also make it harder to challenge the British establishment. Those of us who have been advocating an ecosocialist direction for politics in Britain can point to some encouraging indicators, but there remains much hard work to do to achieve real progress.

[Derek Wall is international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales.]

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