Winning the battle of ideas

While the Green Party’s electoral success in 40 years has been presentable, our impact on the national political debate has been profound. In considering what influence we can wield and which elections we can win in the era of Corbyn we need to avoid factional delusions.

There are usually two sorts of conversations we have about strategy in the Green Party.

The first is borne of factional thinking, and aims to capture or maintain a hold on the party’s politics to reflect the views of the proponents.

The second is more often borne of political experience, and aims to identify strategies and tactics that can realistically achieve our objectives – whatever they may be.

Factional strategy has been a particular feature of arguments as to whether the party should be an eco-socialist or an ecologist party. People who are focused on internal battles seek to persuade us that there are clear dividing lines around which we should organise, and that the party should back their faction to achieve success.

Adam Ramsay captured one common view of factions in a Guardian interview in 2012:

There are, he explains, three elements within British green politics: the kind of veteran “ecologist liberals” represented by the Greens’ London mayoral candidate Jenny Jones; more left-leaning people who joined the party towards the end of the 1980s, like their current leader Caroline Lucas; and Ramsay’s own lot: what he calls “the Iraq war generation, which blurs into the cuts generation: people who are students now”. The middle group, he says, tends to side with his faction, and the result is an increasing emphasis on such issues as inequality and the public/private balance, as well as the Green staples of sustainability and climate change. “There’s more of us now, so we win,” he says. “And in terms of ideas and energy – we run the party.”

I have always found this view of three factions deeply misleading.

For example, Jenny Jones the “ecologist liberal” was born into poverty and brought up in a working class council home, and has been a powerful advocate for social justice. I’m around the same age as Ramsay and share many, but not all, of his political views, and have often found myself at odds with his faction-building at party conferences. While I’ve seen people say the party has changed since the 2014-16 membership surge, surveys of those new members show barely any difference in their politics to longer-serving members, with climate change remaining their top priority and their left-right identification nearly identical.

In recent years factions were about fruit – watermelons, mangos and limes. Now I more often see “socialist” and “liberal environmentalist” thrown around as insults, often to delegitimise or even silence opponents.

This sort of factional view is not just misleading, it also deeply unhelpful.

It encourages groupthink within factions. It encourages people to to “run the party” in their image rather than seek consensus. It leads to blocs of candidates supported on grounds of affiliation, to the detriment of good governance and professionalism. It breeds suspicion, resentment and rudeness, of the sort that spills into open hostility and sometimes hateful actions. Of more relevance to this blog, it encourages members to attempt to mould party strategy around their faction’s politics rather than to engage in rigorous and open-minded debate.

It also tends to make us flat-flooted in our analysis of rapidly changing times. When Brexit, education levels and age are shaping views as much as class and capitalism, why start a conversation about our political positioning with the question “left or right?”

Since Corbyn has been elected, members like Rupert Read have argued that we should promote a more ecologist politics to provide a distinctive voice, and that simply positioning ourselves as “more left wing and a bit greener than Labour” won’t work. His moral and political arguments are strong, but he rarely offers evidence or analysis to support his claim that such a position would cut through and win elections.

Arguments like this provoke a counter-reaction from eco socialists, of a sort which can be gleaned from this sentence from Sam Coates’ interesting thought piece on where we go next:

If we’re honest, many Greens have been having discussions to the effect of “can we do more than sit round and ensure the party doesn’t swing back towards liberal environmentalism until/if the Corbyn project implodes?”.

There’s nothing wrong with Rupert and Sam wanting to influence and change the party’s politics – in a sense, that’s the most interesting and important debate we can have! But when it becomes factional the debate loses rigour.

The main achievement claimed by factional eco-socialist members is that we have laid the path for Corbynism and the leftward shift of UK politics.

Sam, in the aforementioned article, says of the party:

“[by] talking about a universal basic income, about a living wage, about rent controls and scrapping tuition fees… [we laid] the foundations for the transformation of the Labour leadership.”

Derek Wall, in a more recent article, wrote that:

“the surprise Corbyn victories are partly built on the efforts of Greens over the last decade to challenge a right wing consensus”

If true, this vindicates both the political philosophy of the faction and its political strategy. But I’m not convinced.

It’s always easy to tell ourselves “just so stories” – contrivances written after the fact as comforting bedtime stories. We need to take care to distinguish between correlation and causation – whether in this case the Labour Party coincidentally adopted those ideas and succeeded in June 2017, or whether they did so because of us.

One question that helps with this: why did the Labour Party adopt similar policies and priorities on issues like opposition to austerity, the living wage and scrapping tuition fees, but not on other priorities of ours like airport expansion, school reform and the future of agriculture after Brexit?

The obvious answer is that Corbyn and his circle had long espoused the former, but never the latter. They weren’t waiting for us to create a space for them to be able to raise those left-wing issues, and once they gained the reins of the Labour Party and – in the last six months – started to develop a half-competent operation with the help of groups like Momentum, they got that lifelong message out.

We – along with the SNP and Plaid Cymru – had opened some small space in the public debate for these ideas in 2014 and 2015. These ideas got a tiny bit more media airtime, and gained the credibility that our parties can bestow upon them. But the Labour manifesto was initially ridiculed by the press, including the Guardian. We can hardly argue we opened an Overton window for these ideas.

It’s conceivable that our success – breakthrough for us, modest in the overall world of UK politics – emboldened existing and new members during the Labour Party leadership contests, creating more desire for a break from the timid Miliband era that Corbyn’s opponents were stuck in.

But there were much bigger factors behind Corbyn’s transformation of the leadership: the changes to the election rules under Ed Miliband; the uninspiring 2015 election campaign; his even less inspiring opponents in the leadership contests; the organising skills and power of his official and informal support campaigns, which morphed into the likes of Momentum; the failure of centrist Labour MPs to develop a credible alternative narrative and figurehead during the internal elections and the 18 months of Corbyn’s inept chaos; the rise of leftwing tabloid websites like the Canary and their use of social media to undermine the narratives and legitimacy of the mainstream media and spread pro-Corbyn messages.

These factors, along with the abysmal Tory campaign and underlying economic and social shifts in the electorate, were also by far the biggest factors in Corbyn’s surprising electoral gains when he lost the election in June 2017.

It’s a nice just so story to think that the Green Party played “a big part” (in Coate’s words) in this story. But our election results and public profile just don’t strike me as being big enough to justify the claim.

That said, should influencing other parties be a major part of our strategy? I think it should. We’ve done it in the past, and it’s one means of changing our country and communities. So how can we maximise that influence and win the battle of ideas?

If we feel we had some ability to challenge and change the narrative about austerity and public ownership of public services, can we seek to achieve the same on issues like climate change, biodiversity collapse and factory-farm schooling, which we consider urgent issues and which are barely given a hearing by the media (mainstream or new) and by other political parties. Can we set the agenda in those areas as well? Can we do so in a way that supports our electoral objectives at the same time?

To do so, do we need to think about avoiding a rightward lurch or moving away from a socialist politics?

Here are some factors that I think can influence our impact in the battle of ideas:

  • imaginative policy ideas that are robustly tested, so that we can capture imagination without opening ourselves to ridicule, and in areas where other parties are timid and have left political space.
  • alingment with effective and high profile civil society campaigns to benefit from their ability to raise the profile of the issue, and to then add a political angle.
  • evidence of public interest and receptiveness to our ideas, and of the issue being truly salient, enough to turn their attention and ultimately swing their vote.
  • potential a high level of media interest (or interest in the circles of another party’s leadership) and the ability to develop competent media campaigns around them.
  • scope to use the power of elected Greens to achieve policy wins that demonstrate our ideas, and to create credible electoral pressure and a media platform.
  • scope to mobilise members and supporters around campaigns, creating popular support and bringing new people into contact with the party.

I first cut my Green Party teeth proper in our campaign that led to Southwark Council adopting a living wage policy in 2008, with a motion put by “ecologist liberal” Cllr Jenny Jones supported by a large petition, work with the local unions and coverage in the local press. While working for Jenny and Darren Johnson at the London Assembly we put questions about investors buying new homes on the London political agenda. We stopped Boris Johhnson from axing the climate change budget. With Jenny and Darren, and subsequently with local parties, I have supported campaigns against council estate demolition which included raising issues about the embodied carbon and water in buildings. Which faction’s views do these correspond to? What a pointless question.

I have never approached these with a factional politics, but always a fleet-of-foot sense of the art of the possible and how we could use tactics such as those above to achieve our goals.

Competent campaigns that can consistently use these tactics will change the agenda and embolden other parties. Campaigns that amount to talking among ourselves on social media, wasting time with endless internal policy motions and only reaching the public by shoving leaflets through doors can only lead to just so bedtime stories for toy town politicians.

There is no reason for the choice of issues, and the tactics we chose, to be determined by factional thinking. Rupert, Sam and Derek all write about the urgency of climate change, for example. So let’s think about how to push that up the agenda – not starting out by thinking “we need to make sure we push an eco-socialist angle like publicly owned utilities”, or an equivalent but opposing argument, but by thinking: how do we get others to take an interest in this so that we can have some impact and change the agenda?

Postscript

I should like to add that the articles by Rupert Read, Sam Coates, Derek Wall contain many other ideas that I agree with. Rupert’s vision of ecologism offers many fresh ways to approach stale policy areas like health and transport, and challenges a not-very-green version of energy and environment policy. Sam identifies the need for stronger policy ideas, and suggests we challenge poor Labour councils and champion community control. Derek advocates more political education and argument, and spending more time on strategy rather than policy at party conferences. I fully agree with all of these points.

13 Comments

  1. mccollgavin said:

    Thanks, Tom. That’s an excellent article/post and I although I am a member of the Scottish Greens I recognise and agree with a great deal of what you have written here. Strength should come through co-operation and through synthesising the best ideas from all members not through competition and playing old-style factional politics. We should model the society we want. Again, thank you.

    25th August 2017
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  2. 1echida said:

    The Green Party likes low cost locally produced 100% renewable energy and seems to think that if they order it and take direct action against fossil fuel backup and nuclear power they can enforce its delivery as recalcitrant interests will be forced to comply. (Am I being unfair or is there a strategic advantage in this line?) Anyway as a retired engineer I feel it would be nice if this was true, but the technological realities are very different and likely to remain so for some time. The danger of following this line is astronomic extra costs, high rates of technology not performing as intended and massive blackouts.

    25th August 2017
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  3. rupertread1 said:

    Thanks Tom. I don’t agree with your tacit implication that my thinking has been ‘factional’. You will find nothing in anything I wrote that compares for instance with Adam Ramsay’s remarks that you quote from the _Guardian_.

    26th August 2017
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  4. rupertread1 said:

    As for your suggestion that I should offer ‘evidence’ that my proposed future for the Party will yield electoral gains: well, insofar as the question is a fair one, I can promise that I will be offering an answer to it, in my forthcoming longer piece with Green House reviewing the ‘progressive alliance’. But I don’t think that the question is a very fair one: how can I provide evidence for something that by definition hasn’t happened yet and that I am seeking to help shape and to help mobilise? Moreover, I don’t think that the question is a particularly pertinent one: My point is not “If we do what I [RR] propose, then we’ll win”. My point is rather “If we carry on doing what we have been doing, then we will certainly get nowhere. So, why don’t we try doing what we actually believe in, and asking people to vote for what they believe in”. I don’t know whether we’ll win or not, if we do roughly what I suggest. But I do know that if we continue as we did in the June 2017 election campaign then we are heading firmly toward the dustbin of history.

    26th August 2017
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  5. rupertread1 said:

    The burden of my previous two comments is in fact to suggest that, once misunderstandings of my position are corrected, you and I disagree much less than might appear to be the case. I like your piece. The basic thrust of it is agreeable and important. I’ll shortly set about sharing it 🙂

    26th August 2017
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  6. davidflint said:

    Not sure what you’d prefer lechida. The renewable energy technologies and some energy use techs, notably electric vehicles, are getting cheaper faster than we expected. But the pace of change the market will; give us is not enough so we need government intervention through direct funding, selective subsidies and regulatory requirements to make the grid more able to accept renewable input.

    You say it will be expensive – but its our share of saving the planet from catastrophic climate change. Not doing so will costs a lot more – not just in money,

    26th August 2017
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  7. 1echida said:

    Apologies for brevity, site doesn’t seem to allow long responses. Once costs become of the same order as GDP the means to do it cannot be begged, borrowed or stolen but must be phased over time, however urgent. Large organisations experienced with large projects have developed the means to act very quickly (and experienced people) whilst paying due attention to functionality, safety and adherence to regulations (as well as complex critical path analysis interlinking the activities of perhaps thousands of people in the design/construction phases) as not acting as quickly as possible has very large commercial and sometimes other considerations. On large projects there will normally only be incremental steps into the unknown. My objection is to ideas not informed by technological and cost realities is they can only muddy the waters and lead to mistrust. In particular I would point to the ideal of locally produced power which is likely to be very much more expensive than concentrating on high intensity processes in more favourable locations and may never be possible in the large cities where most people live. I could say more about the fallacy of suddenly being able to employ large numbers of people in this work.

    26th August 2017
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  8. maggie Jeffery said:

    Perhaps we need to step right out of old paradigm political, top/down, left/right, adversarial limited thinking? I am Green/green because i espouse localism and the power of a sense of ‘place’. My ‘vision’ is for grown up local people who are able to get over themselves (out of ‘top down’ ego driven agendas?) to work co-creatively locally. I envisage the web creating interconnected such ‘nested’ and flat communities. Everyone, everyone is different and comes with different baggage, talents, skills, creativity and cultural background etc. In the future, I wonder how these resources can be maximised? Because given the ever tightening grip of the strangle hold of over complexity coupled with potential worldwide effects of climate change, such resources will be needed. How might creative, holistic visionary thinking help Green/green party policy making?

    27th August 2017
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  9. 1echida said:

    Good luck Maggie but I think you are mistaken in thinking that a world population of 7 billion could survive, let alone live in comparative affluence without standardisation, skills and experienced based centres of excellence, and making the most of geopolitical opportunity. Nobody likes things to be over complex but on the other hand people like performance, efficiency, economy, safety, pleasing design and for complexity to be hidden behind a friendly user interface. No harm in thinking about strengthening local communities though

    27th August 2017
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  10. 1echida said:

    The fact that human activities are causing climate change is not a moral indictment of our civilisation (although failure to act to rectify the situation may be). Changing our activities to rectify the situation is complex and expensive and will be more so if our thinking is simplistic and we change things that do not need changing with adverse consequences. General speaking we have adopted the most efficient methods in industry, agriculture and our personal lives and lacked awareness of what we were doing to the planet, it will be a hard crunch to our civilisation to adopt methods which are less efficient and convenient. For those worried about complexity it will be much more complex to rethink and gain agreement on other and perhaps more fundamental aspects of our civilisation plus even more disruptive.

    27th August 2017
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  11. The suggestion has been made that some of the factionalism is introduced by infiltrating agencies who see green politics as a threat, and prefer the energies of the party to be taken up fighting each other than making progress with the electorate.

    28th August 2017
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  12. 1echida said:

    I was going to say that the electorate won’t be taken in by simplistic ideas not properly thought through and debated. Then I remembered that the proposition was carried that we could have a quick and simple divorce from the EU and all our economic and social problems would be solved.

    28th August 2017
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  13. 1echida said:

    It is a serious matter that the Party is not doing better electorally. An even more serious concern is that nobody has locked the electorate (and the financial world) into the idea that we must act urgently on climate change. Make no mistake it will be costly despite some ‘Heath Robinson’ ideas on heavy engineering. The oil industry hasn’t based it’s projections that oil and gas production will continue to rise on malicious intent, it is a business forecast based on what they think will happen and even more alarming as such.

    1st September 2017
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