It’s spring conference season in the UK. A conference season with the added spice that we are only a couple of months away from a general election which appears to be the most open in living memory, if not of all time. The traditional two party system is under threat by insurgents from both left and right with the Tories and Labour apparently only having the support of a third of the electorate each. Massive gains have been made by the right-wing, populist
nutjobs folk from UKIP and the traditional Labour heartland of Scotland looks to be turning totally SNP yellow.
Amongst these parties is the most left-wing of these political insurgents, the Greens. The party started life as the People Party, changing to the Ecology Party in 1975, then the Green Party of Great Britain in 1985. In 1990 the party split into three to reflect their support for greater autonomy for the constituent parts of the UK; the Green Party of England and Wales (Which contains the autonomous Wales Green Party), the Green Party in Northern Ireland and the Scottish Green Party. They are far from a new party, or group of parties, and even scored some electoral success with 14.9% of the vote and third place in the 1989 Europen Elections (albeit with no MEPs returned due to the first past the post voting system).
What’s the point of going over all of this? Well, we are talking about a Green movement which has been around for 40 years without making any serious impact, barring that one blip on elections or polling. Until recently. The Greens in England now have an MP, Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion, and control the local council in the same town with a minority administration. They are regularly polling 5-7% at the moment, often pushing the Lib Dems into 5th place. They have also seen an enormous increase in membership over the last 12 months.
So, what’s the difference?
I went to the Scottish Green Party spring conference at the University of Dundee this weekend and everybody who was there will tell you what that difference is.
What I encountered in Dundee was the very reason I joined the party last September. I saw ordinary men and women who want to make a change in everyone’s life, but not in the way we normally see from political parties. Gone was the rhetoric of fear and blame. Gone was the talk of Britain’s place at the World’s top table. Gone was the pandering to big business. In its place stood real, practical ideas for making positive changes.
The first session I attended was about Europe. In that session I was involved in a discussion about the hot button issue of the day, the one which every party will address over and over again despite the fact that we are, if some are to be believed, not allowed to talk about it; immigration. What was noticeable immediately was that nobody was discussing immigration as if it was a problem which needs to be tackled. There was no mention of floods of eastern europeans, influxes of asylum seekers, benefits tourism or any of the other inflammatory terms used by many politicians. Instead we discussed a better way to treat asylum seekers, rather than just locking them up for an indefinite period for the crime of wanting to leave a life-threatening situation to live in a free country. We discussed how people are afraid that immigrants will steal their jobs because they are prepared to work for less, and how introducing the Living Wage of £10 per hour would disincentivise companies from actively recruiting abroad and exploiting foreign workers. We discussed how, instead of too much immigration, maybe we don’t have enough as we have a massive shortage of skills in the UK which we need to start addressing urgently within our education system. Gone was the fear and demonisation, in were new answers and new questions.
We looked at new ways for the economy to run. Oxfam’s Katherine Trebeck spoke of economic models which, rather than the failed system of trickle-down, worked for everybody. Businesses which were run by communities, co-operatives and workers whose main objectives aren’t profit for profit’s sake, but successful businesses working for the benefit and prosperity of all those involved and affected by them. An economy whose success isn’t measured by GDP, growth and the share prices of the biggest companies, but by how people’s lives are positively impacted by it. This brings to mind a line used by Bruce Springsteen during some of his live performances,
“Nobody wins unless everybody wins”
This is how an economy should work. Not by driving up profits and prosperity for the few at the top who then rig the rules in their favour, but by ensuring that everybody shares in the prosperity of a community. Everybody has that incentive to work for the good of all.
We heard how the term “fuel poverty” is a nonsense in a country where we have plenty of fuel. Where the term “food poverty”, seeing people rely on foodbanks, is a nonsense in a country where we have plenty of food. The problem is just poverty, pure and simple, and the way our economy and services are being run by repeated neoliberal administrations, with their eyes on graphs and figures rather than lives and people, have meant that poverty and inequality are rife in this, one of the richest countries on the planet. However, to challenge this is consistently attacked by the poltical classes and mainstream media. As Helder Camara said,
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
This is what need to change and it is what the Green Party are desperate to change, to beat the scourge of poverty.
The day was rounded off by a talk by the co-convenor of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie MSP. He did a fantastic job of showing the differences between the Greens and the other main parties. The fact that all of the other parties seem to want you to choose a least worst option, holding your nose in disgust as you put your cross in the box. We hear that if you vote Labour you’ll get UKIP, if you vote UKIP you’ll get Tory, if you vote SNP you’ll get Tory, if you vote Green in Scotland you’ll get Labour (UKIP’s MEP in Scotland, David Coburn’s, even suggested that if you vote Scottish Green you’ll get Sinn Fein, demonstrating a remarkable lack of knowledge of our electoral system). Tactical voting needs to stop. It’s time we actually voted for what we wanted, not what we don’t want the least. Decades of tactical voting, coupled with the unfair FPTP voting system have led to a complacency from the main two parties. He spoke of Ken Baker’s suggestion of a form of coalition between Labour and the Tories in order to keep the SNP from holding the balance of power, a suggestion which flies in the face of the principles of both parties; principles they both gave up many moons ago.
He also spoke of the failure of austerity. The fact that, due to the blind devotion to it, we have seen the slowest recovery on record. The fact that we have seen growing inequality as the poorest, youngest and women have borne the brunt of this. How we are looking to spent billions on the renewal of the morally reprehensible Trident, using that same politics of fear, despite cutting benefits and services where they are most needed. I have heard some defend Trident by saying we leave ourselves open to attack by ISIL or Putin if we scrap it. If this were the case, why have they not attacked Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, Canada or many of the other countries without a nuclear deterrent? In Putin’s case, maybe he just doesn’t want to. In ISIL’s case, maybe they don’t have the resources (and if they did, who would we use the missiles on? They aren’t an actual state). Do we really want to waste billions on a deterrent which appears to be deterring nobody, which most other countries don’t see the need for and would not be able to live with ourselves if we actually used it? I say no. So do millions of others. So do the Greens. We say that we need a much less confrontational foreign policy, one where we stop arming groups overseas who end up using those arms on us, one where we stop making enemies of people with a continued sense of self importance. We don’t need Trident, we need a new outlook. And we need to spend that money on maintaining services and benefits for those who need them the most.
He finished off by speaking of “the urgency of removing this austerity coalition, we have to bring it to an end”. And this is why the Greens have seen such growth. They speak with hope rather than fear as a way to deal with business as usual. They don’t, as I heard said about them recently, only care about talking to flowers and climbing oil rigs. The environmental issue is still there, at the heart of the Green movement, of course. However, the main topic of conversation wherever you were yesterday in Dundee was poverty and inequality; bringing people out of hoplessness and despair and empowering everybody to work together for the prosperity of all.
Are all Green policies perfect? No. Do I agree with them all? No. The thing is, these parties, the three UK Green parties, are parties who accept this. They accept their imperfections, they accept dissent within the membership and encourage open and respectful discussion, they accept that working with other parties on areas of common ground is the right thing to do. They also accept that those in power need to be held to account and are, more than anybody, prepared to do just that.
That is why the so-called Green Surge is happening. That is why they… we are getting louder. Something needs to change, for the good of us all. As the campaign slogan of the host branch, the Dundee Greens, says,
“Enough is enough!”