DURING THE BLAIR YEARS the Green Party started to break out of the old Ecology Party niche, with its emphasis on lifestyle choices, and opposed both the Iraq war and New Labour’s economic policies. After the 2008 financial crash, this process accelerated and attracted many who had been politically homeless in the face of the New Labour/Tory/Lib Dem consensus for globalisation, privatisation and austerity. In 2015 the party had its best ever general election result - fought on a social justice and anti-austerity agenda. Membership peaked at 68,000.
Some say this Green surge helped to open the door for Corbyn. Many of the Greens’ 2015 policies were in Labour’s 2017 manifesto and activists who joined the Greens from Labour returned to work for a radical Corbyn-led government. The notion that such a government was now a real possibility focused the minds of many other Green members. Was supporting Labour now a more realistic vehicle for radical social change than just voting Green? Obviously Labour had the potential to be more effective, but only if the left won the battle in the party and its green policies were prioritised.
Despite these caveats many did join Labour. Nearly 40,000 left the Green Party during 2017-18 including many experienced activists. The current membership of 37,000 reflects a newer influx, attracted by the leadership’s People’s Vote on Brexit stance.
In 2013 the Green Party conference decided to define the party “as a party of environmental and social justice, the two elements being inseparable”. The loss of many on the party’s left since 2016 led to calls to scrap the social justice dimension. The days when Natalie Bennett could tell conference, “Ask not what the trade unions can do for us, ask what we can do for the trade unions!” were over. The leadership were unsure how to position the party - amply confirmed in 2017 when the Greens lost 700,000 votes, mostly to Labour.
But in 2016, the party concentrated its efforts on ‘Yes to the EU’ - a shift from the historical position of favouring localism to ceding control to centralised, unaccountable blocs.
The Leave result in the EU referendum was entirely predictable: the government having handed voters a cudgel, millions took the opportunity to bash them with it. The class nature of the Green Party is important here: it has a far higher proportion of academics, professionals and middle class members than other parties - the very people who were horrified by the result. So no big surprise that the party piled onto the People’s Vote bandwagon with enthusiasm, making it a top priority.
The shock of Brexit resulted in a series of missteps. The 2018 Autumn Conference spent more time wrangling over internal organisation than debating political challenges. The membership at large had little interest in the internal referendum to agree the changes. Party resources had to be fully mobilised to harvest enough votes for a 16% turnout and avoid an ‘egg on face’ outcome.
The Green Party has some of the trappings of an NGO - a well-paid CEO and a culture that favours outsourcing of tasks to ‘professionals’ and fundraisers rather than using the skills which members offer voluntarily. These same members are bombarded with financial appeals to support a new head office bureaucracy, few of whom are directly elected.
The direction is reminiscent of New Labour when policy forums, attended by a minority of councillors, wonks and spin doctors, made policy, and conference became little more than a rally. A new Green Party political strategy document says, “research has shown that the party does not ‘own’ an important and popular policy in the eyes of the electorate. We will undertake further research to help us identify which of our policies might fill this gap.” If only George Orwell could comment on these immortal lines!