The rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the current Labour leadership race has – it’s become a truism to say -taken everyone by surprise. But if there’s one party it’s rattled more than others, it’s the Greens.
The response to Corbyn’s rise in the Green Party has been, well, muted at best. And it’s perhaps to be expected – this is the first time the UK has faced the likelihood of having a genuinely left-wing opposition leader in decades. The Greens have become used to wearing the mantle of being ‘the’ main anti-austerity party.
It’s not hard to see why. This past few years have seen a remarkable transformation in the Green Party – from left-tinged environmentalist party, to a party that positions itself as the voice of Britain’s marginalised left, and – dare I say it – socialists.
I can attest to this – I joined the Greens from Labour in 2011, following the refusal of Ed Miliband to back public sector workers standing up to pension cuts.
The Greens were changing, with an influx of younger, radical members like myself. In 2013, a small group of us proposed a change to the party’s Core Values to establish the Greens as a party of ‘social and environmental justice’. It passed overwhelmingly – a reflection of the longer-term changes happening in the party.
Since then, the Greens have elected ecosocialists at all levels, from the radical Young Greens elected to the party’s executive last week, to the Deputy Leader. And we witnessed the ‘Green Surge’ earlier this year, taking membership from around 15,000 in January 2014 to over 65,000 today. The party has become more of a movement – a movement full of many good socialists. This is surely positive for the left.
Yet Michael Chessum argues that if Corbyn wins, the Greens should only stand candidates jointly with Labour (something not on the cards in either party), and if that’s not possible, should simply jump ship. There’s a few reasons why this is wrong.
Firstly, there are clear organisational, cultural and ideological differences between the two parties that can’t be easily reconciled – on top of the mutual antipathy so often felt at a local level. The Greens’ sole Islington councillor Caroline Russell said she finds Labour “tribal and determined not to do anything collaboratively” in Corbyn’s own constituency.
Most Labour MPs are significantly to the right of both Corbyn and the Greens, meaning joint candidacies would be a quagmire and a non-starter for both sides. As one member told me: “A socialist leader doesn’t make a socialist party. He’s still going to have Liz Kendall in the party.”
The Greens aren’t going away, not least with the proportionally-elected devolved contests next year offering a chance for Greens to be elected in larger numbers than ever onto legislatures – including up to ten in Scotland, the first ever AM in Wales, and a potential third representative on the London Assembly.
Proud left-wingers will play a key role in all of these contests – from campaigner Sian Berry leading the Mayoral race, to activists standing in Scotland energised by the referendum. With joint Labour-Green candidacies off the table, their departure to join Labour could simply see them replaced with figures to their right.
Yet left-wing Greens can reinforce the arguments of the Labour left from an outsider perspective – a new left-wing pluralism could become a force to be reckoned with. It would fare badly for the stability of the Labour left if the Greens – who still command four per cent of the public’s support – tack right, further isolating the Corbynistas.
It says a lot that in May, Chessum argued the Labour left should consider if “it should split now to prevent itself from simply fading away.” “The left cannot even get onto the ballot paper,” he wrote. Now Green socialists are being asked to considering flock en masse to the leftist utopia that is apparently the Labour Party.
The fact is, politics is in constant flux: while I wish him success, Corbyn may not last, and the Greens may again surge. Put simply, no one knows what will happen. Quasi-merger or otherwise, we don’t just climb aboard as soon as we see a bandwagon roll – not least one under fire.
Chessum also argues “Corbyn represents the undeniable arrival of a wider political trend” across Europe. Yet that trend has found itself vulnerable – Tsipras’ recent capitulation to the Troika in Greece is the clearest example yet. We have no way of knowing, if Corbyn became PM, whether in the face of a hostile PLP he could stick to his word. And that’s if he gets there, with almost all the Parliamentary Labour Party against him in barely-veiled revolt.
A few thousand socialist Greens defecting to Labour’s 600,000-member machine isn’t going to make much of a difference there. But as long as the Greens continue to exist, it’s worth socialists being part of it. After all, the Greens have, to an extent, been through the shift Labour may now be going through. The difference is, we’re comfortable with being left-wing.
Good luck to Corbyn, genuinely. Many Greens are, after all, excited by the prospect of his election. But a leader is not a party, and the coming storm within Labour is not something Greens relish watching – let alone being part of.