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19 October 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:47pm

How can the Green Party succeed in the age of Jeremy Corbyn?

The party’s anti-austerity, anti-establishment message has been superseded by the new Labour leader.

By Tom Gardner

Last month, the Green Party met for its annual conference. The mood was, by turns, upbeat and uncertain. The last 12 months, it’s true, had been exhilarating: at the beginning of 2014, the party had 15,000 members; by May 2015 the figure was around 60,000 (surpassing both Ukip and the Lib Dems) and had continued to rise even after an election result which saw the party win only one seat: its existing one, held by Caroline Lucas in Brighton. But by the end of the summer, British politics – these days so tempestuous, so hard to predict – had changed once more: Jeremy Corbyn had been elected leader of the Labour Party, in a tidal wave of popular enthusiasm that made the “Green surge” of the preceding months look anaemic by comparison. Thoughtful Greens present at the conference sensed confusion in the air. “Corbyn’s victory raised a lot of questions for people,” said one. “And I don’t think it was properly dealt with.”

The Greens do have a problem. But it’s not immediately discernible, at least at first glance. The party’s 2015 manifesto – with its opposition to austerity, promises to scrap university tuition fees and commitment to renationalising the railways – was virtually indistinguishable from the platform that won Corbyn the Labour leadership. In this sense, the Greens have achieved a quiet victory over the past few months, as the policies they’ve advocated make their way into the script of the country’s main opposition party. “Everyone’s just really excited about what’s happening in politics at the moment,” says Caroline Russell, a Green councillor who stood against Corbyn in Islington North during the general election. “It feels like anything’s possible.”

But there’s another, less sanguine, way of reading this. Organisationally, the party is vulnerable. One of the interesting things in British politics over the last few years has been the skittishness of the “anti-establishment” vote. The Greens, having benefitted from the collapse of the Lib Dems since 2010, lack both the culture and party structures required to retain the loyalty of their new recruits, many of whom – generally young, educated and middle-class – disdain tribalism in politics as a matter of high principle. Since the summer, the party has lost around 2,000 members. As the Labour party transforms itself from a party of government into a party of protest, there’s little reason to suppose that the Greens can maintain their momentum, or, indeed, their USP, when faced with the energy and comparative might of the Corbynite machine.

For some Greens, this isn’t a problem. “Greens are pluralists, and if our policies are being adopted by a major party, that’s excellent,” says Josiah Mortimer, an activist and party member since 2011. Caroline Russell agrees: “Tribal politics, where it’s just about pushing your party forward, is not that appealing to many people, and particularly the types of people that join the Green party.” The kernel of the argument seems to be that the Green Party is different from other parties because it lacks a self-aggrandising corporate identity: it’s more of a pressure group, happy to influence from the sidelines, willing to take an electoral hit in order to keep focus on the issues they care about.  

But the thing is, as Ben Jackson wrote in the London Review of Books in March, the Greens in recent years stopped behaving like the “anti-party party” they’ve traditionally aspired to be. “If there’s one thing the Greens are trying to be during this election campaign, it’s a party party,” he wrote. And that’s the point: under Natalie Bennett’s leadership, the Greens definitively moved away from their central premise – environmentalism – and became another “party of the left”, talking about exactly the same things – anti-austerity, welfarism, nationalization, trade unionism – that have always preoccupied old Labour.

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The logic was sensible enough: in a first-past-the-post system, single-issue parties inevitably get clobbered, so to achieve anything the party needed to shed its image as a middle-class hippy sect and build up a broad-based coalition. There was a precedent, after all: the SNP had managed to achieve just this, on a monumental scale, in Scotland, having transformed itself from a narrowly nationalist party into a broad-church social democratic one. But now, for the Greens, this logic is starting to fray. The coalition, if they want it, is there: Corbyn’s building it, and he even has enough environmental credentials to satisfy soft Greens. Without a distinctive pitch the risk for the Greens is less that they lose votes – it’s hard to imagine, at least in 2020, the party winning seats beyond its Brighton stronghold, so in that respect there’s little to lose anyway – but that their take on the issues they really care about – namely, the environment – doesn’t get heard. They risk becoming a green-tinged wing of Corbyn’s Labour, all but swallowed up by his left coalition, indistinguishable except insofar as they talk a little bit more, or a little bit more loudly, about the environment.

One answer, perhaps, is for the Greens to start talking again about the single thing that really does make them radically distinct from all other parties, including Corbyn’s Labour: their critical, almost Malthusian, attitude to economic growth. This means breaking away from trade unionism, opposing ever-increasing consumption, and basically rejecting the idea of technological, and economic, progress. In policy terms, it means shouting about Citizen’s Income, which might make some people worse off, but would represent a radical redrawing of the relationship between work and the physical environment, allowing people to both work and consume less. It’s categorically not at one with the way Corbyn’s Labour thinks about the world (he and his shadow Chancellor stress the importance of “growing the economy” to deal with the deficit), and is still further at odds with the Conservatives or the Lib Dems. But it is very much distinct.

It isn’t, however, a promising electoral proposition: it’s hard to imagine many people, not least among the working classes, accepting that they should take a hit to their living standards. Most Greens are aware of this, and tend to shy away from talking about it in unambiguous language, referring instead to “sustainable growth”, or “greener growth”. But it remains this, far more than anything else, that marks them out from other parties: it’s always been their animating purpose, even if it’s been somewhat obscured in recent years.

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The party, therefore, is stuck between a rock and a hard place: caught between becoming merely a minority wing of the Labour Party coalition, overlooked and under-heard, or hunkering down as an emphatically Green Party with a radical, ideological distinctiveness but isolated and outside the mainstream. There’s no easy answer.

In a short film made by the Guardian’s John Harris, a Green candidate in Bristol prior to the general election speaks passionately about the role of his party in the future of British politics. “We need to help voters understand that we need to be a completely different world,” he says to Harris, who appears sympathetic, if a little sceptical. The problem for the Greens is that in the Age of Corbyn voters might not listen. And if they do, they might not like what they hear.