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16 March 2015

What is the point of the Green Party?

The party’s jumble sale muddle of policies makes them a radical alternative to exactly nothing.

By Sarah Ditum

What even is the point of the Green Party? It’s extraordinary that I should be asking this right now, because everything in the world suggests the kind of emergency that Green politics exist to confront. Nuclear weapons are proliferating. Climate change is happening. The 2008 crash exposed the fragility of capitalism. This should be the Greens’ time. Instead, their leader Natalie Bennett can’t even answer a question about housing policy without collapsing into paroxysms of coughing and frantic silence. The main problem for the Greens is that they don’t actually make sense. While they appear to stand for lots of generally good things – against carbon emissions, for recycling, keen on the NHS and trains, not racist, not sexist – there’s no underlying philosophy of the Green Party to explain why any or all of these things should hang together.

And in fact, while environmentalism is generally considered a preoccupation of the left, there’s no reason at all to think there’s anything inherently progressive about the conservationist impulse. In Helen Macdonald’s nature memoir, H is for Hawk, she describes an encounter with two other walkers while she’s out in the countryside with her goshawk. The three exchange pleasantries about a herd of deer. Macdonald has been thinking about the cosmopolitan origins of the British countryside – fallow deer came with the Romans – but the man she meets says to her: “Isn’t it a relief that there’re still things like that, a bit of real Old England left, despite all these immigrants coming in?”

There are two ways of being an environmentalist. There’s Macdonald’s way, which sees humans as another living thing in the landscape, intimately connected to everything else – no less reliant on earth and air and water than the partridge, squirrel or hare is, but set apart by our greater capacity to destroy and greater responsibility to preserve. And then there’s the way of the man she meets, which is to make the environment a proxy for a right-wing obsession with purity and the exclusion of external agents, however capriciously defined those might be. It’s why the BNP’s policies include a statement of the “urgent need to combat all real pollutants in the environment” (nudge nudge, know who they’re talking about really).

The thing is, the Greens are neither of these. With a migration policy that is open to the point of foreseeing the end of nationality altogether, they’re clearly not bidding for the fascists-in-fleeces part of the electorate. But equally, what they don’t have in their jumble sale muddle of policies is anything like a deep analysis of human relations and exploitation. Significantly, and despite having had two women leaders in succession, they don’t have any feminism. Policies relating to sexual equality are scattered through the manifesto with nothing to connect them to each other, never mind to any understanding of gender as a system of appropriation whereby one class (men) extracts labour and resources from another (female).

Read the Greens’ policy on, say, sex work and you’d never guess that prostitution is a way in which men use women with varying degrees of violence and coercion – it’s full of airy statements such as “adults should be free to do as they wish with their own bodies”, as though anyone’s authentic sexual desire was to trade a blow job for twenty quid. The statement on abortion doesn’t contain a single assertion of women’s right to choose. Instead, it opens with this rueful bit of headshaking: “The fact that the number of abortions carried out in England and Wales continues to rise should be of concern to all.” (Not to impugn the Greens’ record on evidence-based policy, but the abortion rate has actually been falling since 2007.)

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Yet an understanding of men’s sexual appropriation of women ought to sit easily alongside an understanding of human appropriation of natural resources. Women are used as a kind of dirt, expected to mutely and diligently supply the needs of man: it’s not a coincidence that one of the most visible and powerful manifestations of the environmental movement was the explicitly feminist peace camp founded at Greenham in 1981. The women of Greenham recognised nuclear war as male violence of the most extreme kind, and confronted it on its own threshold with female-only resistance. And unlike the mixed Occupy camps, which collapsed into the vacuum of their own vague aims amid allegations of sexual violence, the Greenham camps endured for the best part of two decades. Their presence was a calm, firm declaration that we do have options besides obliteration.

It’s a declaration we could do with hearing again, as the hypermasculine polities of Putin’s Russia and Pakistani Islamists thrust priapically towards the ultimate brutality of nuclear war. It’s a declaration we’re never going to hear from the Greens. When what we need more than anything right now is a reckoning with male power, in all its exploitative and damaging forms, the Green Party seems determined to pretend that patriarchy isn’t even a thing that exists. Which makes it a radical alternative to exactly nothing. We need green politics desperately, but we don’t need the Green Party.

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