Wednesday, May 17, 2006

 

The Green Party and the Local Elections

With Mr Cameron’s ambitious attempt to seize the green mantle, a continued firming-up of the small but awkward Green Party vote on May 4th, and now Mr Blair’s macho commitment to nuclear power, environmental issues have rarely been further up the political agenda. For Liberal Democrats who’ve been plugging away on the green agenda for years, it’s ‘Be careful what you wish for’; the only party not being talked about is us. No wonder one of the big debates that the local elections sparked up in the Lib Dem blogosphere is how to tackle (trans: obliterate) the Green Party.

Liberator published an article of mine on what to do about the Greens a couple of years ago – I won’t repeat it all here, but I wrote it after Lib Dems topped the poll in my patch but won only 7 councillors to Labour’s 11. The small, ‘ignorable’ Green vote never had a hope, yet if we’d attracted it instead, we’d have more than doubled our seats to 15. We’ve all spent so long fighting to make the two-party battle a three-party one that it seems unfair to have to watch over our shoulders at fourth, fifth and sixth parties. The truth is, though, that among the smaller parties jostling for position, one is both a problem and an opportunity for us.

We used to attract protest votes on any old thing – now we don’t, probably for two reasons which are both good and bad: we’ve been more successful, so we look more establishment and don’t get so many anti-establishment ‘give them all a kicking’ votes; and we’ve got more of an ideological profile, which is bound to turn some people off. Liberal Democrats can’t in all conscience sound remotely like UKIP or the BNP, and while in many ways Respect is trying to hoover up some of the voters we’re after for their opposition to the Iraq War, we shouldn’t try to ape Mr Galloway’s hysterical demagoguery (let alone their peculiar brand of theocratic Trotskyism). Of all the ex-Labour voters likely to share similar views to ours, we should go after the Greens.

This hasn’t just emerged on May 4th – the example I quoted was from the 2002 London locals, not this year’s. It’s become an uncomfortably reliable pattern: their local results show their effect as spoilers where they manage to try; in every PR election, Greens are polling strongly to the detriment of the Lib Dem share, where it’s difficult to show them as a wasted vote; and a small number are now sticking with them even at a General Election, where they grow even when squeezed. The Green vote seems to be tidal, coming in further under proportional representation and falling back without it, but each time finishing a little further up the beach. It helps that the media give them an easy ride and report uncritically the most misleading Green spin instead of treating their spurious claims with the same cynicism as the rest of us (look at the way Green gains to, oh, still not 100 seats nationwide received better coverage than the Lib Dems holding 4,700). Even they recognise that their main job is to eat into the votes we’d normally expect, if their record of spending more time attacking the Lib Dems than any other national party does is anything to go by.

I’ll return to what to do about the Greens on a national level in a later post, but first I’m breaking my usual habit of making everything up as I go along by presenting a digest of the analysis from fellow Lib Dem bloggers, most of which I agree with and which – if you missed it first time round, as I did until catching up at the weekend – is food for thought (I hope they won’t mind some selective reprinting).

It springs from a discussion kicked off by James Graham in which he notes that “In numerous wards, the Green vote made a difference between who won and who lost”; adding to the results I noted in 2002, Anders Hanson comments on the rise of the Greens costing us seats in Sheffield, and one of the comments to Richard Huzzey from a Lib Dem in Merton volunteers the same effect again. Angus J Huck comments to James: “A fresh menace is the Green Party. A vastly increased Green vote cost us control of Islington, and probably other places, too. We need to know why people vote Green and what we can do to get them to support us instead.”

Former Green Party activist Joe Otten picks up the ball to ask why people vote Green and what we can do to get them to support us instead, offering his analysis of the Green Party rather than just Green support:

“It is essentially socialist, albeit not "central planning" but "local planning". Solutions to almost everything involve more government spending and more regulation… Hostility to trade, and in particular an impractical vision for third world development that would achieve very little. (The desire to support development is genuine.) The evidence is that trade and prosperity go together, and evidence beats dogma in my book. Opposition to medical research on animals. I am clear that benefits to humans, and for that matter to other animals in the long run make this research a morally good thing…

“At the heart of Green thinking there are more problems. Ambition for spending on public goods and redistribution is not reconciled with a shrinking pie as the private sector is squeezed. There is considerable hostility to science, from various philosophical perspectives. Yet it is science that makes environmental problems comprehensible, and scientists who have led the way. "Conventional" progress is rejected, but there is little clarity as to what to replace the idea with - giving a somewhat directionless culture to an appropriately leaderless party.”
His answers to ‘So why do people vote Green?’ include “to send a clear message that the environment should have more priority; if you are a socialist; as a protest vote; in response to good local campaigning; if you actually know and agree with the policies.” He thinks people voting for a socialist alternative should be left to do so, but “As for the rest - we need clarity. Clear and effective green policies, not one snippet per page of the manifesto, but few, simple, substantial commitments. We need to make the case for trade - that millions of lives are at stake worldwide if development is impeded by anti-traders. We need an optimistic vision of the future.” He also says in response to a comment that “All I would expect from us is an honest and principled position, and to point out the moral shortcomings of the Green position.”

Richard Huzzey, who faced the Greens in his central Oxford ward, continues the chain on ‘Beating The Greens’, agreeing with Joe’s piece and applying his own experience of Greens as an established force in Oxford:

“The Green party has a tiny vote from people who actually want to vote for eco-communism. However, for the vast majority of people who vote Green, it seems to me that they think they're ticking a box to say "I care about the environment". It is frustrating for Lib Dems that we talk so much about the environment, but rarely get any media coverage or credit for doing so, simply because the press have historically found it a boring topic. But… an authoritarian, apocalyptic response from the Greens will score very poorly with most voters, compared to Lib Dems' attempts to green modern life through smarter solutions.

“On a second point: those who vote for the Greens to express their passion for environmentalism will often do so because they think a single-issue party is the best way to do that. The irony, as Joe notes, is that the Greens are not a single-issue party. They have a vast hinterland of extreme and unsettling policy, which goes unnoticed, I'm sure by most of their voters.

“There is a danger of sounding overly-partisan and bitchy in attacking the Greens in this way. Indeed, "when people know what they're really for, they won't vote for them" is a taunt often made against Lib Dems. However, I do think the Greens occupy an unusual position, in that people vote for them in the belief they are prioritising a single issue, rather than actually choosing a political party, with its own political economy and policy positions.”
Stay tuned for what I think we should do about all this…

Comments:
Then we need to create a step change in environmental policies - show we, not the Greens (cos they don't) understand and are prepared to address the underlying causes of pressure on our environment.

I'm sick to death of park and rides and recycling shcemes. None of this matters one jot without economic changes - ones that are already part of our party's history.
 
I'm sure that this will go under the heading of 'he would say this wouldnt he' - but I find your comment mystifying, Jock. You're criticising the *Greens* for not talking about the damage done by our economic system?

You belong to a party that holds the effectiveness of market solutions as an article of faith! I belong to a party that contains numerous anti-capitalists and states clearly in its Philosophical Basis that the current economic system is causing environmental destruction....

Oh well, good to see so many Lib Dem bloggers talking about the Greens, even if it is in such an unflattering way. If you guys really start addressing the root causes of environmental destruction as a consequence of people increasingly voting Green, that can only be a good thing.

Best wishes,

Matt
 
Strange absence of actual Lib Dem achievements on the environment in your blog, and much more about tactical considerations. Maybe people vote on the record of local Greens. Ming walked into a Green ambush in Norwich where the Greens are on the ascendancy, and he doesn't inspire environmental confidence.

The local Lib Dems are supporting an incinerator, they sold off over 75% of the airport to private shareholders (enabling them to bypass the council with special resolutions) and earlier this year the Lib Dem County Council Transport Spokesperson in Norfolk resigned, having been exposed by the Greens (to the satisfaction of the Standards Board of NCC) in having deceived the public over the environmental impact of the Northern Distributor Road proposals.

If the Greens then take 4 seats from you in Norwich, why such surprise? If you want the "green" vote you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Your analysis is good in other ways and like Matt, I really hope the Green vote forces you to up your game.
 
Matt, it is a total cop-out to simply blame "the system" for environmental failures or any other kind of failures. If you have real solutions, you can be a lot more specific.

Obviously taking away economic freedom and imposing planning will appear to be able to serve any particular end very well.

But our needs are diverse, and we are not ready to give up everything the community (pronounced "state") doesn't think is good for us.

The Green Party is in fact too averse to talking specific workable solutions, prefering your vague generalities. In fact, global warming can be solved, at some cost, with renewables etc. Air quality can be improved, at some cost, with tighter regulation on emissions and/or taxes and tradeable allowances. Rainforest can be preserved, at some cost, by buying it up, etc. I could go on. These are all simple, legitimate policy questions.

The "anti-capitalist" position is that this is all impossible without communism (paraphrasing). Frankly this does a huge disservice to the environment.
 
Joe,

I appreciate 'no zealot like the convert' and all that, but what you're saying simply isn't true. The environmental crises we face *cannot* be solved simply by a few more pieces of regulation here and there and an absurd faith in the market. Capitalism is based on the growth principle. We cannot KEEP growing our way out of environmental problems. Renewables can go *some* of the way towards solving climate change, but not all of it - what is needed (and what Blair cannot, under any circumstances mention - hence nuclear) is a reduction in demand. Which, under capitalism, leads to a recession. Talking, as Lib Dems do, in airy terms about 'smarter solutions' is simply to avoid the elephant in the room.

We live on a finite planet. Capitalism needs infinite growth.

You can shout 'communist' all you like, but unless you address the serious flaws within the market system (a complete inability to deal with environmental or justice externalities, a dependence on growth, a tendency towards monopoly etc) then you will have your head stuck as far into the sand as the proverbial ostrich. Just because a system is the status quo doesn't make it right.

Your criticism of the Green Party for not having solutions doesn't fit well with your claim that we refuse to put forward specific policies. We either have solutions but *you don't like them* or we don't have solutions. My suspicion is that the former is true - which is fair enough - but at least be honest enough to say that, rather than claiming that we don't have policy...

Matt
 
For me, the most unattractive characteristic of the Green Party is the hint of anthropophobia that is shot right through its policies and pronouncements.

For many Greens, it isn't the SYSTEM which is the problem, it is PEOPLE.

In fact, there is a sense of religious puritanism in their attitudes. People don't deserve prosperity. Consumption is morally wicked, and only to be expected of a species burdened by original sin.

Not surprising, is it, that the Green Party has attracted afficionados of the eco-right: the Goldsmith clan, John Aspinall, etc?

Aspinall said that much of the population of the Third World needs to die of starvation to save the planet. Green Party policy would, of course, achieve this.

David Icke (once a national spokesman) calls the Greens the "robot radicals", useful idiots manipulated by the establishment. I'm not sure how true this is, but it is certainly the case that Greens have been at the forefront of the campaign to smear Icke as racist and anti-Semitic.

Many years ago, I had a somewhat unsatisfactory discussion about conservation issues with a Green Party activist. He was most contemtpuous of my concerns about the destruction of hedgerows and ancient woodland. Indeed, he said he favoured the digging up of much of the East Midlands to extract coal. "We're not pretty-pretty environmentalists," the puritan intoned. Obviously not. Hedgerows and ancient woods benefit people, so that must be bad.

(This particular Green was subsequently convicted of possessing indecent photographs of children.)
 
Matt,

I've responded in detail to you here

Joe
 
Thanks for posting, and particularly to Matt and Peter; you may regard it as "unflattering" that you're talked about on Lib Dem blogs, but as all Lib Dems know, when other parties talk about you it's a sign you're doing well enough to make them uncomfortable. I just aim to arrest that, that's all ;-)

Peter, the reason for the lack of Lib Dem achievements in this one was, er, because it was an article about the Greens instead, and even someone as long-winded as me can't fit everything into every article. I have mentioned rather more about the Lib Dems - including how to find out in detail about how marvellous green many of our councils are - in today's piece, which is quite detailed (and has rather exhausted me!). I don't know if you're a Green Party member, but if so, doesn't your answer fail to answer the points raised about them - which was the subject? Incidentally, thanks for saying you liked my analysis; did you mean this article, or in general?

As to the Lib Dems in Norwich… You may be right, but would you forgive me if I'd want to know more before making up my mind? Though we always need to stay on our toes, it's possible there are other facts, other options or fuller explanations to consider that a commentator from another viewpoint may not have advanced. For a party that pays lip service to local decision-making, it does frequently come across that the Green Party is all in favour of local decision-making as long as every locality comes to exactly the same decision ;-)

For the sake of argument, though, let's say you're entirely right and some Lib Dems haven't been brilliant. Well, that'd be a shame, but a huge number are better. No party is ever going to be perfect, and you should judge any party in the round rather than just picking the odd ones out; should the Green Party ever rise from 89 councillors in the country to 4,700, I'd put good money on how easy it would be to find Greens who make the wrong decision. Even so, if you want to cherry-pick hard cases, Angus has still found a couple for you…
 
I am a Liberal Democrat and I am uncomfortable with those like Joe who seem to want to impose a duality on everyone, either you are a free market capitalist or a communist. Many of us have a critique of capitalism - there is a lot to criticise even from a liberal point of view, but that does not mean that we have an equal and opposite Utopia waiting to haul in its place. Even from Joe's perspective, I cannot imagine he would abolish all regulation, or abolish the state completely. There are many kinds of capitalism, and at the very least I would hope we would reject the US model that the other parties currently support.
I think likewise with growth. Many Liberals other than Joe have recognised the problems with infinite growth in a finite world, and I would submit that the only position that makes sense is that the only growth we can possible support is that which is ecologically sustainable. This is a difficult truth that every ideology will have to increasingly confront.
To lump together the Greens with the radical right as someone else did is simply absurd. I do not know if the Goldsmiths or the Aspinells were ever Green party members, but if they were they must have been very uncomfortable with the policies of the Green party which has always been a radical left wing party.
The fundamental problem is that the electoral system forces Lib Dems and Greens to be competitors and we are constantly undercutting each other's vote to the benefit of the other 2 parties.
The Greens cannot concentrate their vote enough to benefit from the current electoral system, and taking votes away from the Lib Dems - as they do more than anyone else - ensures they are simply shooting themselves in the foot.
It is a shame as I would hope to see under pr a Green/Lib Dem coalition, which at least would be better than on with the other parties.
 
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
 
Left Lib, you have me all wrong. Follow the link in my comment of May 17th for more details.

It is the case that at least one of the Goldsmiths was a Green Party member for quite some time. I am forgetting the lore now.

Derek Wall's book/pamphlet if you can find it "Weaving a Bower against endless night" is good on Green Party history. Derek himself is a Marxist and mistaken in so many ways.

The early Green/Ecology Party has been anti-immigration, pro-nuclear, you name it. A veritable Veritas of its time.
 
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