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Labour and the Greens: some philosophical differences

This post first appeared on the Labour Hame website.

The headline story of the 2015 General Election, both here in Scotland and across the UK, continues to be the seemingly inexorable rise of the SNP. Much has been written about what, if anything, Scottish Labour can do to turn back, or more plausibly, simply contain, the nationalist tide.

There has been somewhat less commentary on another challenge to Labour’s precarious core vote: that presented by the Scottish Greens. I know I am not the only Labour canvasser to have spoken to many former supporters intending to switch to the Greens, especially in those liberal, bohemian urban areas that used to be Labour strongholds. Or to have noticed a significant spike in social media likes or retweets for the latest Green initiative.

It isn’t hard to work out why. The referendum campaign gave effective communicators such as Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone a national platform to make a distinctively Green case for independence. And the party has made good use of its continued involvement in the ongoing Yes movement to sell a set of policies that seem to reference every conceivable progressive cause.

Browsing the Scottish Green’s website, or leafing through the party’s 2015 manifesto is, for the political idealist, rather like opening a particularly delicious box of chocolates. As if all of the best bits from the entire Verso Books catalogue had been condensed into a single, slim, impossibly rich prospectus. The Green programme includes:

  • a new Green economy focused on renewables to meet the challenge of climate change;
  • the ending of austerity through a Keynesian Green New Deal;
  • the introduction of an unconditional Citizens Income to replace means tested benefits, paid for through new wealth taxes and a crackdown on tax avoidance;
  • the promise of an energy efficient social housing boom;
  • blanket opposition to TTIP;
  • a £10 minimum wage;
  • a fracking ban;
  • the decommissioning of nuclear power;
  • no renewal of Trident;
  • the abolition of the House of Lords and the introduction of PR;
  • the strengthening of local government;
  • renationalisation of the railways.

For the left-liberal middle classes the party’s attractions are obvious: moral seriousness; a willingness to name and confront the deep issues facing Scotland, Britain, and the rest of the world; a high-minded political programme; and a sense of freshness and intellectual adventure.

One of the more memorable banners seen during the turn-of-the-millenium world trade protests read ‘Let’s replace capitalism with something nice’. The Green Party proposes to replace neoliberal austerity with something very nice indeed: the step-by-step transformation of Scotland and the rest of the UK into an idealised Greater Copenhagen: a bicycling nation of generous public spaces; innovative modern architecture that blends seamlessly with the vernacular; fashionable coffee shops; world renowned restaurants; popular political participation; well lit open plan working environments; and great TV – all circled by gleaming fleets of whirring wind turbines shimmering on a blue horizon.

Certainly, there are worse Utopias.

The Scottish Greens enjoyed a post-referendum bounce that, in relative terms, was of similar scale to the SNP’s, their membership leaping from 3,000 to around 8,000 in the space of weeks. Scottish Labour needs to respond.

Recognising the Green contribution

Any credible reply must begin by acknowledging the Green Party’s undoubted appeal. Let me list just five of the important contributions the Green movement has made and continues to make to Scottish, British and international politics.

A voice in the wilderness

The Scottish Greens are part of a wider environmental movement that has refused to allow the world to forget the potentially devastating environmental and social consequences of climate change caused by the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels. Green activists have worked tirelessly with – until relatively recently – little success to make clear the pressing reality of global warming to a political establishment and apathetic public that would have preferred to look the other way.

And Green parties and think tanks have developed many concrete proposals for redesigning our economic and social infrastructures for sustainability that have become mainstream: all but the most conceited economic libertarians now recognise the urgency of limiting carbon emissions, developing renewables, promoting green consumerism and developing a clean transport infrastructure.

Democratic participation

The Greens have long recognised the urgent need to redesign our political institutions and economic systems to facilitate greater democratic participation. Last year’s flowering of Scottish democracy highlighted just how moribund our political process had become. Greens have argued for many years for the devolution of political authority, not just from Westminster to Holyrood, but further downwards to local government. And they have championed the extension of the democratic principle to the realm of economics, advocating the extension of workplace democracy through promotion of cooperatives and mutuals.

Civil liberties

The Greens have always been alert to the authoritarian tendencies of successive governments of both the left and the right. Their manifesto commitment to a Digital Bill of Rights recognises the capacity internet technologies affords the state for unprecedented surveillance and interception of emails and phone records.

Peaceful conflict resolution

The Green emphasis on the primacy of dialogue as a means of resolving international conflict is not without its utopian element, but it stands as a reproach to an international community too ready to resort to force as a first option, as evidenced by Iraq, and nearly, again, in Syria.

Political imagination

The Greens aren’t afraid to dream: to face up to the scale of the world’s gravest challenges – whether climate change, overpopulation, overconsumption, or creeping authoritarianism – and propose bold policies commensurate to the scale of the problem. A willingness to suggest imaginative solutions to seemingly intractable difficulties is a mark of any progressive party worthy of the name.

Labour’s response

How, then, should Labour respond? What can we offer that might persuade the radical voter attracted to the Greens to give us a second look? I want to suggest three fundamental ways in which Labour differs from the Greens that might give the thoughtful Green supporter pause for thought.

Idealism and pragmatism: a necessary tension

Labour is a progressive party that, for most of its history, has been burdened with the responsibility of the real prospect of power. The party understands well, through long, bitter experience, the necessity of tempering idealism with pragmatism, the willingness to compromise required to translate the dream that another world is possible into a practical programme for government.

Since the first minority Labour government of 1924 the party has had to have the hard conversations necessary to refine wish lists into serious, costed manifestos: to prioritise, to calculate, to hedge, to trim, to forge coherent realisable programmes on the anvil of heated discussion. The party’s turbulent history both in opposition and in government makes plain the pain of compromise: all those factions, enmities, resentments and breaking of friendships. But the wounds Labour bears are marks of a hard-won maturity, of a sober recognition that it must first win power to have any prospect of effecting change, then, even when in office, fight hard to push progressive reform through a recalcitrant British state.

Political purists who position themselves to the party’s left have always despised Labour for its pragmatism, its understanding that the best can be the enemy of the good. The ‘Red Tory’ slur – levelled for Labour’s supposed embrace of austerity – is just the latest insult thrown at it by those who, prizing the freedom of opposition over power, prefer not to engage with the prosaic task of hammering out detailed, audited policy programmes capable of withstanding examination from hostile conservative forces.

But Labour’s much-derided realism is precisely why the party has been able to win power repeatedly, and implement concrete progressive change. Labour governments have frustrated as much as they have inspired, but the party’s cumulative legislative legacy is profound, encompassing the establishment and incremental improvement of a comprehensive welfare state and system of social insurance, the construction of much of Britain’s post-war infrastructure, workplace legislation that has improved conditions of employment and pay, redistributive taxation and benefits, the delivery of Scottish and Welsh parliaments, and – with a nod to the Greens – the first serious steps Britain has taken towards economic sustainability.

The Green Party is growing fast, but it is still some way from having to develop a serious programme for government. That heady 2015 manifesto, for example, reads more like a set of aspirations unstained by the harsh fiscal language of priorities, costs and budgets.

One might, for example, ask how the proposed Citizen’s Income, priced at an estimated £272bn (Britain’s entire welfare bill currently stands at £167bn) would be funded. Scrapping Jobseekers Allowance would raise only £3bn. The suggestion that £45bn could be raised through a wealth tax on assets worth more than £3bn should be set in perspective by considering that France has been able to raise only £4bn through a similar tax on assets starting at £800,000. And the Greens have yet to reveal detailed proposals for how £120bn could be raised through a crackdown on tax avoidance.

One might also ask how delaying formal schooling till the age of seven could possibly help children from Scotland’s most deprived families. Or how the proposed rapid transition of the North Sea oil industry to a renewables sector is to be managed, and how the lost revenues the industry generates would be covered elsewhere. Or how the rejection of the need for any checks on migration would help Scottish workers at the mercy of a flexible labour market struggling with low pay and insecure employment. Or how Scotland’s international influence would be enhanced by the holding of a referendum on EU membership and departure from NATO. Or how the imposition of blanket restrictions on international trade would help the economic development of poorer nations. It may be impolite at this point to note that the UK Green Party leader Natalie Bennett has indeed been asked such questions, on more than one occasion.

The state is not enough

The Greens, like the SNP, have faith in the power of a strong state to engineer progressive change. Movement towards a more equal and harmonious society is seen as a design problem, to be legislated into existence through the agency of government. Both the Greens and the SNP advocate a kind of civic nationalism according to which the state will act as a broker, facilitating conversation between disparate groups that will come together to pursue the common good.

Certainly, central government can be a powerful agent of change. The Fabian belief in the capacity of the state to usher in socialism one step at a time continues to be an important strand within Labour’s political philosophy. Many of the party’s greatest achievements were of course enacted by the statist 1945 government. But Labour retains an awareness – though it is always in danger of losing it – that the state can only do so much. Society consists of an array of constituencies pursuing fundamentally divergent interests that cannot necessarily be brought into concert by the state.

The Labour Party, of course, was founded to provide parliamentary representation for one such constituency, working people, in their struggle to assert themselves against the owners of capital. The interests of labour and capital necessarily exist in tension: indeed, that fundamental antagonism is more apparent today than it has been since the end of the Second World War, as the gulf between wages and returns to capital becomes ever more vertiginous.

A sympathetic government can help workers by protecting trade union rights, and through legislation providing legal protection for basic conditions of employment and levels of pay. But, ultimately, working people must stand up for themselves, by joining together through trade unions to fight for a just apportioning of economic rewards, and by developing alternative models for the firm, such as cooperatives, that eliminate altogether the division between capital and labour.

This understanding of class conflict is largely absent from Green political philosophy. Labour’s recognition of the inevitable class antagonisms entailed by the capitalist mode of production affords the party a deeper insight into the nature of the challenges that working people face to secure dignity and economic justice.

The Green Party’s support for a basic income is illustrative of this fundamental ideological difference. The problem the policy seeks to address is clear. Powerful employers, able to hire and fire workers easily within a flexible labour market, are able to dictate the terms on which people work, forcing millions into low paid, insecure, undignified employment – ‘bullshit jobs’, in the words of the sociologist David Graeber. Further, technological progress threatens to automate many of the jobs that currently exist.

For the Greens, with their faith in the power of government, a basic income is an obvious solution, ensuring everyone has the means of economic subsistence, whether employed or not. But here the state plays the role that should be occupied by a strong labour movement. Well organised workers are able to assert their own interests, on the condition, of course, that they are free to operate within a legal framework that permits collective action. The Greens’ solution would invest the state with all of that power: the gift of basic income granted by a progressive government could just as well be withdrawn by a conservative administration. Only Labour understands that a just settlement for working people must, ultimately, be achieved through the wider labour movement, not just the agency of a sympathetic left leaning government.

A dynamic economy

The Greens and Labour also differ fundamentally regarding the importance of economic growth.

The Greens are right that economic sustainability is critical: in the long term, a unsustainable economic model won’t deliver wealth or justice for anyone. But many Greens go beyond the principle of sustainable economic growth, arguing for a steady state economy that doesn’t grow at all. Deep Green economics is hostile to the very concept of growth, idealising instead a simpler, less industrialised economic model. The modern Green Party isn’t hostile to technological progress – indeed new technology is considered vital for addressing environmental challenges – but something of the bucolic vision of early green socialists such as William Morris continues to inform much Green thought. Morris, rightly, is also honoured as one of the pioneers of the early British labour movement, but Labour, in practice, has always promoted a much more dynamic economic model.

Labour recognises the restless human desire to wish to transform the world, not just live harmoniously within it. Socialists believe in the essential dignity of human labour, in the capacity of human ingenuity to transform our material circumstances through technological development, and so to open ever new ways of extending human agency. Contrary to the misrepresentations of the political right, the socialist mainstream has always acknowledged the human yearning for greater prosperity. In this respect at least Labour has more in common with economic liberals than the Greens (though Labour believes in a just distribution of the proceeds from economic growth, and that human creativity can be just as easily stifled as fulfilled through participation in the marketplace.)

Labour’s anthropocentrism has several roots. It owes something to Marx’s understanding of the human as being simultaneously both part of and apart from nature: human nature flows from the world, but through their capacity to transform their material environment people can transform themselves, and expand their horizons of possibility. The labour movement’s Christian inheritance is also relevant: the Book of Genesis instructed humanity to work and transform the earth, not just safeguard it.

So, certainly since 1945, Labour championed rapid technological and industrial progress: consider for example the 1945 government’s emphasis on planning as a means of economic growth; Harold Wilson’s rhapsodising on the ‘white heat’ of technological change; New Labour’s embrace of modernity; and Ed Miliband’s focus on developing a high skill, high wage technologically advanced economy.

The politics of the real world

If Labour is to respond effectively to the Greens we need to understand why they appeal so strongly to so many ‘natural’ Labour voters, and acknowledge the considerable achievements of the wider environmental movement of which the Scottish Greens is part. That is a tradition which now – rightly – informs significant elements of Labour’s own programme.

But just as we have learned from the Greens, they have learned from us. And, I would submit, in regard to the professional and sober development of policy, the realities of economic conflict, and the connection between economic growth and prosperity, they have more to learn yet.

The Greens are a stimulating new presence in mainstream Scottish politics. But Labour’s well tested traditions run deep, and remain capable of bearing rich fruit.

Image: City lights of Asia and Australia, NASA Earth Observatory.