“It’s the economy, stupid” has become something of a mantra among many in the Green Party in recent years. Wary of repeating the crash in votes the party experience in the early 1990s recession, we have sought to persuade the public that we have something credible to say on the pressing economic issues of the day.
Caroline Allen has said:
I do not believe we will succeed solely by telling people what we are against, we must articulate a positive alternative. I believe we have a good framework but need to do more work here.
But beyond commentary and our “one million green jobs” proposal, I’m not what our positive economic programme for the nation is.
Let me explain.
Greens have some compelling things to say about our present economic troubles. For example,
- we have suggested that technological innovation may not be able to keep up with rising resource pressures, leading to rising commodity prices, and we have cautioned against exposing basic commodities to speculative derivative markets as they might – and have – lead to price inflation in basics like food and oil.
- Caroline Lucas has been a prominent and principled critic of austerity as a response to the deficit in a time of recession, making us one of the only parties in mainstream British politics consistently calling for an alternative.
- we have criticised the Government for failing to do enough on tax evasion and tax avoidance, pointing out that if we could close all the loopholes we wouldn’t need to make any public spending cuts at all. We have also highlighted examples where savings could be made with less dire social consequences, for example scrapping Trident.
- here in London we have criticised the loss of manufacturing and the many skilled manual jobs that went with it, leaving an increasingly polarised labour market comprising low and high end jobs with a hollowed out middle.
I genuinely believe we have a lot to offer in debates about the future of our economy, and a way out of our problem of low growth and a stubborn fiscal deficit.
But those are just comments on the present situation, and they tend to be seen by most journalists and experts as peripheral, not part of the core debate. We haven’t succeeded in moving or shaping the debate so that our concerns are central concerns.
We have also developed various positive proposals that go far beyond commentary.
For example, our “one million jobs” programme in the 2010 elections proposed a large amount of government spending in areas including renewable energy, energy efficiency and waste processing. We estimated that these programmes could create one million jobs, delivering the double benefit of jobs in a time of high unemployment and major steps towards a low carbon economy.
This message has been developed and prostelitised by the Green New Deal group and the Green Party in the UK, by the European Green Party and by the United Nations Environment Programme since at least 2007.
But this message has failed to get through to the mainstream. It gets vigorous nods from environmentalists, and that’s as far as it gets.
The main reason is that people think we’re just selling our core environment programme with some recession-busting packaging. Recent focus groups have told us as much. It’s not just that the term “green jobs” starts with the word “green”, it’s also that we are confusing two issues that the public see as separate. They suspect we are really talking about our single issue, the environment, and not really addressing the economic situation as being important in its own right.
This isn’t so surprising when you consider that these industrial sectors are still quite small. We put a picture of a wind turbine on a leaflet, yet there are 94,000 people employed in that industry in a country with 29,280,000 employees. We talk up home insulation, yet in London the Mayor estimates a programme for one million homes could create 14,000 jobs. Even if you add up the entire low carbon economy including waste, water, air pollution, renewables, carbon finance, electric cars, the lot, you still only arrive at 3% of UK employment. It’s hard to imagine it being the big solution to our economic woes.
Green jobs may be a good way to create lots of jobs and reduce unemployment; to transform our energy consumption and so reduce our carbon emissions. It’s a good comment, a good proposal for some of the most pressing problems of the day. But green jobs don’t sound like a future economic programme for the entire nation. It’s hard to see green jobs making us competitive exporters in the face of countries like Germany and China.
It would be like the Labour Party saying our future prosperity lies in opening more mines, or indeed some Conservatives pinning all of their hopes on the financial services. Those may be unkind and silly comparisons, but it’s probably what we look like to a lot of people when we say green jobs are the answer.
When we look for a future for the UK, we often look abroad for inspiration.
Should we adopt the Swedish or the German social democratic models? Should we compete with America to reduce regulations and attract multinationals? Do we want to protect London as the pre-eminent home of the financial services, or are we sanguine about losing this tax haven?
We can also find plenty of challenges and opportunities.
How can we compete with the rising economic stars like Brazil, Russia, India and China? Do we need more aiport capacity, a more flexible labour market, direct investment in infrastructure, or some other basis for a competitive advantage? Do we even care, can we relax about “going south” and becoming a less important economy? Now that Chinese wages are rising and their currency is less competitive, can we take back industries that fled to the east in the 1990s?
Then there are more basic structural challenges we face.
How can we reverse the huge increase in income and wealth inequality over the past sixty years? Do we want a more pronounced Labour approach of redistribution through tax, or do we want to ensure a more equal distribution of income before tax? If the latter, how do we keep jobs in the UK if we raise the minimum wage or seek to cap high pay? How do we pay for an ageing population with the additional demands that will place on pensions, housing benefit and the NHS?
Behind many of these questions lies something more basic: what is our economic programme?
You can sketch another country’s programme, or that of another party, quite easily.
The German social market approach sought to combine a market economy with strong state intervention to secure welfare, workers’ rights, collective bargaining, direct investment and high skills standards (e.g. with compulsory apprenticeships). In the past twenty years they have rolled back a lot of their labour market regulation and welfare spending, but kept a strong emphasis on a skilled industrial workforce and a high level of investment in infrastructure.
The Labour Party through the 1990s and 2000s sought to collect the eggs laid by the golden geese in the City – being intensely relaxed about their activities so long as they provided a tax revenue – and to splash this cash around on redistributive welfare to compensate for the problem that wages and pensions simply didn’t cover the rent, food and childcare. Instead of raising wages and giving workers more power to bargain for higher wages, instead of building homes and regulating the letting market to reduce housing costs, and instead of investing in infrastructure that could unlock industries like wind turbine manufacture, they ramped up revenue spending to compensate for the iniquities of a relatively free market. Their programme was a social market with minimal regulation and minimal investment, and unsurprisingly has come a cropper when the goose stopped laying such big eggs.
The Conservative Party think a more lightly regulated economy with a mobile population will be more likely to support and attract entrepreneurs, and that the rising welfare bill should be tackled by making people work longer, pay more and get less out when they need it. Their absent industrial policy has left their ambition to “rebalance the economy” exposed as empty rhetoric, and the failure of their austerity approach is being laid bare.
What is the Green Party’s economic programme?
One of the wonderful things about political parties is their diversity. You couldn’t possibly bring together tens of thousands of people without embracing different points of view, and rallying around shared values and a manifesto you mostly agree with.
Within the party I can think of a few frameworks, as Caroline put it, that inform our thinking.
Deep in our roots lies an assertion that continuous, exponential economic growth is incompatible with a world of finite resources. Nobody has ever really set out a compelling economic programme that follows from this insight, but Tim Jackson suggested some steps to do this, and the Green House gang are having another go at that challenge. Common features of frameworks that try to take up this challenge are industries that create lots of jobs relative to the economic output, reducing working hours and redefining what we mean by prosperity to be less materialistic.
These deep green frameworks are so radical that, to many of the public, they will either baffle or be seen as peripheral to mainstream debates. What can these frameworks tell us about the challenge from the emerging economies? from an ageing population? from an economy overly dependent on financial services?
They are also rather philosophical. It’s one thing to describe a kind of Platonic Green Republic, an ideal society in which citizens co-operate based on a dematerialised set of values, but it’s a different challenge altogether to articulate an economic programme that could take us from Britain in 2012 to an internationally competitive, vibrant “green” economy in five, ten or fifty years time… and to communicate that to voters in a way that persuades them we have the right ideas for the nation.
We also have a lot of ecosocialists in the party, including members of Green Left. Their “headcorn declaration” and manifesto are heavy on analysis, critique and commentary, and light on describing a coherent alternative. Where their ecosocialist alternative is outlined, it again follows from a critique that is interested in concerns peripheral to mainstream debate. So their proposals – transforming our use of energy, moving away from materialist consumption – are peripheral. It also doesn’t really say how we could get there, what kind of economic management model we should adopt and why they think this would enable us to remain prosperous (redefined) and competitive in a global economy. Between political philosophy and very specific proposals there is a gaping hole of macroeconomic theory.
There are many other currents of thought in the Green Party. I’ve long been attracted to programmes of economic democracy, seeking to put more property and power into the hands of workers’ and housing co-operatives. Some think the monetary system is key and set out a programme of reforms to banks and credit; others subscribe to the idea that we can “green” capitalism and so basically accept the economic programme shared by the past few governments with some big green tweaks.
We also have interesting proposals for welfare. For example, Molly Scott Cato and Brian Heatley of the Green House gang published a provocative paper criticising the dominant welfare model – that of a safety net to support people back into work, with a focus on cracking down on scroungers. Their mutual security model instead proposes we give less support more freely and more flexibly to support a more creative and humane society. This could provide a programme of welfare spending that answers many of the mainstream questions raised by an ageing society.
How could these be packaged and articulated to answer some of those mainstream questions that remain, in my view, unanswered by Greens? What futures could we map out, what investment programmes, taxation policies and welfare systems could we propose that set us on a path to prosperity? How could these be encapsulated in something shorter than a manifesto, explained to a curious voter or a journalist in a way that sounds convincing, not just a re-run of familiar critiques or a mess of inchoate ideas?
Where does this get us?
Sometimes when I ponder these questions, when I discuss them with friends and colleagues, I get the feeling that we just don’t have enough brainy people working on and thinking about them. It’s not as though Labour, with all of their think tanks, brainy MPs and blue/red/purple movements have managed to set out a compelling economic programme. When the New Political Economy Network set out their prescriptions for the future of the left, they more or less described the Green Party’s recent election manifestos. So maybe we’re doing ok?
I wonder if I am just missing some excellent papers setting out programmes we could adopt, programmes that address mainstream concerns and go beyond the Green New Deal to describe the entire economy. If so, please leave a comment helping me out!
I also worry that none of this really matters. We’re a small party, we get very limited opportunities in the media and the media almost never give parties the space to set out a vision or economic programme. Our elected politicians do a great job of keeping in the major debates of the day and articulating clear, radical Green ideas and values. It’s tempting for philosophers and theorists to retreat into these debates, leaving doorstep campaigning to a sunnier summer, but that would be counterproductive.
I suppose I have written this lengthy blog post because I have reached a point where I am interested to hear others’ views. Am I being too hard on the party, on thinkers and groups like Green House and Green Left? Is there hope in the forthcoming work out policy committee is leading on our industrial policy?
Speak your mind.