Seven years ago the election of Caroline Lucas as a Green MP gave hope to thousands who had found themselves politically homeless in the face of a New Labour/Tory/Lib Dem consensus for globalisation, privatisation and austerity. Green Party membership grew rapidly, reaching a peak with the Green Surge before the 2015 General Election. This influx included many former Labour Party members and the subsequent growth of the Green Party Trade Union group and the Green Left, which were influential in changing party policy. A change which gave equal weight to social justice and environmental justice so that the party could fight the 2015 general election as an anti-austerity party – gaining a record one and a quarter million votes.
The Green Surge saw tens of thousands of people join the party as part of a mass anti-establishment mood which did not stop with the Green Party; within months an even bigger wave had swept Jeremy Corbyn into the leadership of the Labour party. This inspired many Green Party members to join or rejoin Labour in 2016 although most were sorry to leave. As one Brighton member said “Difficult but has to be done.” Another said “it`s a long shot but is what I have been looking forward to for nearly 30 years - a real socialist party with a couple of dozen MP`s and 100,000 members or more.”
That perspective - of a Labour split - seemed the best outcome we could hope for. After news of the snap General Election an article by Graham Bash appeared in Labour Briefing headed “Against the Odds”. Although he said Labour still had a chance the rest of the piece was a list of reasons – media attacks and ridicule; hostile and backstabbing PLP; decades of defeat since the miners strike; dissension within Momentum etc. – which seemed to virtually admit defeat. Six weeks before the election it was hard to disagree with him, which made the election outcome all the more remarkable.
The combination of a radical manifesto, a brilliant tactical campaign and Jeremy Corbyn`s positive and “steady under fire” leadership was able to capitalise on Theresa May`s arrogance and deprive the Tories of the majority they had taken for granted. Corbyn and McDonnell may not be magicians but they did do two impossible things before breakfast – win back many Labour voters from UKIP (without pandering to xenophobia) and win seats from the SNP in Scotland. Corbyn is now being described as “battle hardened” which is fair enough and “fireproof” which is just silly. The battle for the Labour Party has only been paused and will continue shortly.
“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party”
so ran the old typing training exercise (even though most of the trainees were women !) But the question now facing us is – Which Party ?
The Green Party ? No doubt the autumn conference will be largely a post mortem on the abysmal election result for the Greens. Many activists, the very people who attend conference, have left to join Labour which leaves those who favour “returning to our green roots” – ie ditching our social justice policies - in a stronger position. Caroline Lucas will probably win the day but what then ?
I wrote in a recent issue of Watermelon that “election success [for the Greens] has been steady but modest and at the present rate it is crystal clear that it will be climate crunch time before the party gains any real influence in government.” That day now seems further away than ever and a disturbing pattern can be detected over time. At succeeding general elections various seats have been tipped as possible Green wins – Lewisham, Cambridge, Norwich etc – yet ten years later Green candidates in all these seats lose their deposits.
Before the general election, a Green Party councillor commented that “we are right to keep our Green Party identity as the Labour Party has a long way to go and the Green Party needs to be there in case Corbyn is defeated”. Of course, the Green Party is not going to go away; indeed, as the effects of global warming become more evident the party is bound to attract new support. But action on climate damage is needed now – and that means action at government level.
The Labour Party ? It is a plain fact that any progressive government will be Labour led and it is now realistic to talk of such a government being elected on a radical agenda for change. A Green parliamentary candidate, (who joined the Greens fifteen years ago at uni and has never been in any other party) has said “Labour`s success is needed if we are going to implement policies to protect the environment because at the moment big business has the whip hand, and as long as it does, nothing is going to change”. He told press reporters “[this is] a once in a generation – maybe once in a lifetime –chance. It`s time for everyone who wants change to rally around Jeremy Corbyn”
A Labour Party committed to a radical social transformation will face huge challenges from the media, the establishment and not least from the right wing old guard within the party. To stand a chance of success they will need the support of a massive broadly based social movement on the ground right across the country. A “former Tory minister” told the “Observer” last week “You can see real anger. Labour many not be able to form a government without an election, but they could get people out on the streets.” Sections of the ruling class must be thinking that it might not be a bad thing for a Corbyn led government to be plunged into the unholy mess of Brexit and crash and burn; they could then come back with a new set of Tory mouthpieces.
This seems to me to be a critical moment. At this point we need to back Corbyn. Whether by working in the broader social movement on the ground or by actually joining Labour - that is a judgement call for each of us to make. Good luck.