The Green Question
We live in a period where it is necessary to think seriously about power and how to build it. Thankfully, the contemporary Left seems to have moved past debating whether to engage in parliamentary politics. The answer to that question has been answered decisively, the retreat of the Left from national politics has historically only served to marginalise our ideas and sever our relationship from the mass constituency required to realise our political vision. So to that point, the Left cannot cede the space, regardless of how unsavoury or difficult it is to engage in the democratic process to contest elections, it is a necessity.
Rosa Luxemburg put it simply and succinctly, contesting elections gave the Left a “mass character”. The challenge she warned was to chart a passage between the “abandonment of the mass character, or the abandonment of the final goals”. This was and remains the risk embedded in electoral politics.
The Fading Worker’s Parties
The trajectory of Labour parties both in the United Kingdom and Aotearoa, New Zealand where I am writing from embody this risk. Both our Labour parties were able to give the worker’s movement mass character in the 20th century but fell into the trap of abandoning the final goals. At this current juncture, neither of our Labour parties are fit for purpose, if you understand the purpose of the Labour party to represent the interests of working-class people. Both have drifted far away from this and transformed into moribund political vehicles for opportunists and careerists. As I have written elsewhere, Jacinda Ardern despite her glowing international reputation is far from a progressive standard-bearer. In the United Kingdom, the Corbyn experiment which heralded hope that the Labour party could once again become the party of the many and not the few has been squashed. The counterrevolution has been swift and brutal. It seems Keir Starmer’s most pressing priority is to suppress and expel Labour’s previously insurgent left. These developments have led many on the Left to consider the possibility of other electoral vehicles. In this article, I will not attempt to settle the strategic or political debate about the political utility of the Labour party for working-class politics. This is a live debate and there are no final answers. However, the long-term decline of social democratic parties, the result of their betrayal of their traditional working-class constituencies and their capitulation to capital in Western politics does require us to explore other potentials.
One such potential vehicle are Green parties. Green parties have long been an alternative home for those disaffected by mainstream political parties. The potential of this third option has often been dismissed with asinine arguments about “vote splitting” or our obligation to vote for the “lesser evil”. These arguments have no purpose other than to discipline voters. They also tend to ignore the history of electoral socialist parties who first emerged as an alternative third option in two-party electoral systems but eventually displaced formerly dominant parties.
That said the biggest difference between the United Kingdom and New Zealand’s political system is our electoral systems. New Zealand’s electoral system is proportional, this means representation in parliament is decided by not just by which candidate successfully wins in an electorate but also party candidates based on the percentage of votes awarded to a party at a national level. Our proportional and representative system allows for minor parties to win seats in parliament provided they either win an electorate seat or achieve five percent of the vote nationally. This means there is little risk of splitting the vote. Since the introduction of proportional voting, minor Left parties have been able to consistently win representation in parliament. This makes breaking away from the Labour party easier in New Zealand, however as I pointed out above the United Kingdom’s First past the post system by no means makes it impossible. In an era of looming climate catastrophe, with the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming plainly stating that averting disaster and limiting global warming to 1.5ºC “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, it seems prudent and necessary to ask about the possibility of other political vehicles for social transformation, beyond Labour and the Tories. We need a mass-based environmental/green politics to avert disaster. That leaves the question could Green parties be a vehicle for Left politics?
Is Green Politics the answer?
The answer is no, at least not in their current iteration. It is hard to generalise as some Green parties are more progressive than others, yet at the core of contemporary green politics is an urban middle-class sentimentality that cannot appeal to wider constituencies. Green parties across the West are only loosely affiliated and tend to have little formal relationships or connections with one another. This is in stark contrast to electoral socialist parties who historically have enjoyed strong international affiliations. The disparate and disconnected nature of Green parties mean it is hard to universalise about their political potential. The commonalities and the limitations of Green parties in the West tend to lie in their origins. Environmental issues and concerns around capitalisms degradation of the natural world in the service of profit began to enter mainstream political debate across the West in the 1960s and 70s. At the same time, social and countercultural movements emerged which spoke to these issues and more. Most Green parties can trace their genealogy to the social movements of this period. Academic Christine Dann describes Green parties as “having arisen to contest the negative environmental and social consequences of the global expansion of capital”.
“Greens are neither to the left nor to the right – they are in front”.Petra Kelly, Founding Member of the German Greens
The first national-level environmentalist party the Values Party emerged in New Zealand in 1972. The contemporary New Zealand Green party map its origins to the Values party. The Values party and other environmental parties which emerged in its stead marked a conscious turn away from the class politics that dominated the social democratic era. This turn away from class politics resulted in movements and political organisations like the Values party becoming cause and issue-focused. The redistributive aims of electoral socialists were side-lined. Dylan Taylor notes that these new movements tended “towards goals that recognised identity or different ways of being” and further “notions of solidarity with the working class and putting differences aside in favour of achieving common goals were challenged”. For many socialists, the result of this turn away from class was the fragmentation of the Left.
In my view the historical record has proven socialist critics of the turn away from class correct. The fragmentation of the Left following the collapse of social democracy left it unable to articulate an alternative to neoliberal capitalism. While this might seem like ancient history, these developments continue to inform and limit contemporary political possibilities. It is decidedly relevant when considering the potential of Green parties to be vehicles for socialist politics. I would argue that Green parties across the West suffer from a lack of coherent ideological orientation. This lack is pronounced in certain kinds of narrow Green politics which regard environmentalism as divorced from ideology and politics. This is seen in the famous and repeated refrain by the founder of the German Green party Petra Kelly that “Greens are neither to the left nor to the right – they are in front”. The notion that environmental politics can somehow escape the class cleavages wrought by capitalist society, that it is not necessary to pick a side and oppose capitalism, an economic system predicated on infinite growth on a finite planet is absurd.
Green shoots in New Zealand
One only has to look to examples of Green parties going into coalitions with right-wing parties in Ireland and Germany to see where this narrow apolitical environmentalism leads. In contrast, while the New Zealand Green party has at times been guilty of this type of apolitical environmentalism, a curious set of political and historical developments have rendered it one of the most progressive Green parties in the West. Indeed, the New Zealand Green party is currently the only nominally progressive voice in our parliament. The progressivism of the New Zealand Green party is partly the legacy of their membership in the Alliance, an alliance of four minor Left parties who merged in 1991 to contest elections under a unified banner. The Green party’s decision to enter into the Alliance was a controversial one within the party and a sizeable minority opposed the decision. Eventually, this led to a splinter, with members who believed that the Alliance was too Left-wing and the Greens should focus solely on environmental issues leaving the party. In hindsight, this meant that the Green party through historical circumstances became dominated by the Left faction. While the party eventually departed from the Alliance to stand their own candidates, their membership had created cross-pollination with other minor Left parties and a strong progressive foundation. When the remaining members of the Alliance went into government with the fifth Labour government and supported New Zealand’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan, the party lost a lot of support among sections of Left voters and eventually collapsed. This left the Green party as the only Left party standing. It is this political reality that has kept the New Zealand Green party to the left of Labour and distinguishes them from other Green parties.
In the last decade this has begun to change, with the Green party undergoing what former Green MP Sue Bradford characterises as a “rightward drift”. This was evident in the election of James Shaw to the position of co-leader in 2015. Shaw put himself forward as a decidedly centrist candidate, promoting business sustainability and fiscal responsibility. While there remains strong progressive voices in the Greens this shift is concerning. The New Zealand Green party while more progressive than other Green parties continues to demonstrate an inability to articulate itself as an unashamedly Left-wing party. The Green Party instead reflects an urban liberal sentimentality. Even when promoting progressive causes it suffers from trying to be everything all the time, the legacy of the issue and caused-based politics which eschewed a cohesive class politics. Their recent decision to go into supply agreement with the Labour Party, despite having a clear opportunity to provide Left-wing opposition to the government is also disappointing. The fragile ideological foundations of “green” environmental politics, a tendency that often describes itself as neither “left nor right”, leaves it unable to meet what this moment requires which is an environmentally conscious class-rooted organisation.
The New Zealand Green party even at its most progressive struggles to articulate an alternative vision for Aotearoa. There are some fantastic advocates, organisers and politicians in the Green party membership and caucus but overall they are weighed down by the contradictory, unstrategic nature of Green politics which is often short-term in its thinking and entirely issue-focused. What is missing is class politics and a long-term working class agenda. If Green parties were to meet this moment, they would need to stop trying to be everything all the time, reflect on the condescending liberal sentimentality of their so-called progressivism and embrace an class-rooted environmentally conscious agenda that delivers for people and planet. On a positive note the democratic nature of the party in New Zealand means the possibility of the Greens transforming into this remains a possibility. At the end of the day what is evident is there is no easy exits or alternative already existing viable political vehicles for working politics in Aotearoa or the United Kingdom. It is up to our generation of socialists to build it.