What kind of a society would you like to live in?
The world I want to live in would have things like rail, energy and other basic industries socialised, owned by and run in the interests of society. It would have an education system freed from the interests of business and profit, and funded entirely by progressive taxation. Public services would be run by the people who work in them and the community they serve, not by executives on six or seven figure salaries, drawn from an Oxbridge elite.
I’d like constituents to be able to recall their MPs from parliament, and a much fuller democracy than today’s with the economy democratically controlled by workers through their workplaces. I’d like to see the liberalisation of unnecessary drug laws and a greener economy that doesn’t exploit, pollute and destroy the environment.
If someone with these views makes their choice in voting by reading through the policies of the main political parties, they might see the Green Party’s manifesto and jump into bed with them quicker than you can say “petit bourgeois”. In fact there are all sorts of tests you can take online to see which party you are closest to, to save you the bother of reading the manifestos. But while that might seem like a good way to make a decision and a good decision to take, history demonstrates that politics is not straightforward.
Political parties do not stick to manifestos. Political change is not won through simply the act of voting, or even being a member of a political party. Struggle, activism, organisation and working hard to call politicians to account is the way to make change.
Since early on in the history of the capitalist system, working-class organisations and socialist thinkers saw how the working class was at the mercy of grinding poverty, workhouses, child labour, and murderous imperialist wars. They thought these phenomena were not accidental; they were the result of huge imbalances of power that emanated from the class structure of society which disempowered workers and gave undue advantage to their masters.
With inspiration from Marxist and many other socialist ideas (including what we would call today anarchist) they forged networks of institutions, methods and practices — trade unions, international labour congresses, workers’ education schools, The Labour Party and much in between.
Through these organisations the working class have been able to express their interests and win lasting gains for the whole of society. The welfare state, the NHS, weekends, the eight-hour day, the abolition of child labour and more recently LGBT rights and for some, a living wage. All has been won in the heat of class struggle, sometimes as compromises from the elite aimed at quelling the surges of encroaching democracy and workers’ power.
These institutions, ideas and methods that the working class has developed have always been at the centre of general progress towards equality and liberation. Their success is down to the fact that they fight their battles over the most central fulcrum of capitalist power, at the foundational level of the capitalist system — inside workplaces. It is here where wealth is created, the accumulation of profit takes place and the essentials of the system are reproduced.
Whereas once this location was the site of unfettered exploitation in Europe and North America, now, there is some protection won by collective industrial action. But also, in the major unions, there exists a democratic chain — however bureaucratised, and limited — through a hierarchy of structures, that link the worker from their productive activities on the shop floor, to the policies that the Labour Party commits to in its manifesto.
As well as the union being a means of self-defense through industrial action and so forth, it is also a conduit through which the specific interests of the working class majority can potentially be transmitted into Parliament. The importance of this structural relationship between the workplace, the unions and the Parliamentary system was understood even before the majority of men (and long before the majority of women) had the right to vote; indeed, such collective action was decisive to winning the right to vote in the first place.
The contest for democracy and economic equality takes place primarily in the workplace through the unions, and secondarily through the ballot box.
Simply throwing ones weight behind the union movement is not adequate. The movement is stifled by layers of bureaucracy, which often hinder the escalation of challenges to bosses’ rule. Socialists see it as their job as activists to break down this bureaucracy, make officials accountable, and instill democracy in the union from the ground upwards, as well as pushing policy that strengthens the solidarity of the working class.
Without voting Labour, none of the struggles going on in the trade unions — against the privatisation of the NHS, for the living wage, anti-austerity agendas, against fracking, and for workers’ rights — will have the potential to realise themselves at the highest political level, at the level of government.
It is here, in the labour movement where the potential exists to radically shift the scales of power. Simply having a radical manifesto and trying to get elected, like the Greens, is not a strategy that can have any effect in curtailing the vast power of the capitalist class — we need a movement that is combative, and rooted in the logic of class struggle if we are going to do that.
It is on this basis by which socialists and trade unionists have conducted their struggle for the last two centuries, and this struggle has proved the most progressive of any social movement ever, reaching into every country in the world, and stretching back to the beginning of our advanced civilisation. Of course, this grandest of social movements has been pushed back in the last two decades. As part of the neo-liberal assault workers’ rights have been eroded, trade union rights attacked, and all major parties, including Labour, have been dragged to the right. Complicit in this are the trade union leaders who’ve offered little more than a sullen fight against Labour’s leaders. But yet the battles for democracy still go on.
The central argument here is not of unquestioning allegiance to Labour, but of the importance of reinvigorating the institutions of the left, bequeathed to us by the wrenching battles for democracy that were fought over the 20th century. For socialists who fight within it, the Labour Party is not the be-all-and-end-all; it is one important tool through which we execute our struggle, because of its position in relation to the working class and trade unions. The Green Party cannot fulfill this role that a workers’ party must play in the movement. Indeed, there may well come a time soon when the Blairite coup inside Labour is completed, and all ties to the workers movement are severed; but in the meantime the only logical course of action is to exhaust the battles that need to be fought. If they are lost, then the answer is a new party – a new political outlet for the workers’ movement, not a foray into the populist eco-liberal territory of the Greens.
The shift to the right in the general political landscape, and a period of lull and defeat for the left in the labour movement is the context for the rising popularity of the Green Party. Lefty, libertarian minded folk without a political home are gravitating towards the only obvious available electoral option for their beliefs. But while I can sympathise with this, it doesn’t make sense.
The critical factor in changing society is the ability to alter the balance of forces between the two main classes in our favour, The Green Party, with no structural connection to the trade union movement, or democratic link to the working class, has no potential to seriously fight the concentrated power of the ruling class and implement their reformist manifesto. If they attempted to do something like nationalise the energy industry, or scrap Trident, the elite would go nuts and do everything in their power to paralyse or eject the government using a variety of dirty tricks.
For example, financial institutions might call an investment strike, grinding the economy to a halt. They might even use the monarchy and archaic constitutional laws to throw them out, like the Queen’s Governor General did to Australia’s Labor Government in 1975. In Britain under Prime Minister Harold Wilson it was revealed that elements of the aristocracy and military had spoken of orchestrating a coup d’état against the reformist Labour Government whose policies were barely more radical than the Green Party’s today.
Socialists argue that the key response to a counter assault is workers’ solidarity, with the working class organised and poised to hit back through mass strikes or occupations, and if necessary self-defense militia and the initiation of mutinies in the armed forces to combat the threat the establishment’s suppression.
With the accumulated knowledge of our movement’s history, socialists consider these questions and debate them openly, but the Green Party has no roots in this movement, culturally or otherwise, and answers addressing crucial questions about how to mobilise the working class in this way are not something found in the Green Party’s policies or internal political life.
It is instructive to look at the Green’s management of Brighton Council, to get an indication of how they operate in a position of power. Despite claiming to be an anti-austerity party,in 2013 the Green’s minority led council constructed and voted through an austerity budget that made millions of pounds of cuts to front line services, and increased council tax for residents. Notably they attacked the pay of bin workers threatening to slash £4,000 from their annual paycheck. The bin workers and recycling staff fought back, and through their GMB union went on strike and occupied the offices of their employer; rubbish was left piled high on the streets. It is doubtful that the Greens made cuts because they are cunning and deceitful liars, but because they do not understand the pressures of governance and the nature of capitalist power. (It is illegal for a councilor to set an unbalanced budget.) The Greens found themselves in a fight with a movement they claim as some sort of ally. Recently the Brighton Green Party has passed policy urging it’s councilors to set a no-cuts budget this year, bizarrely though, the Party’s councilors are not accountable to the mass of their Party’s ranks, and will probably ignore this as they have done previously.
How would the socialist movement deal with these kinds of circumstances? Well, in 1972 some staunch Labour councilors refused to implement a new pernicious housing charge onto social housing tenants. In Clay Cross the Tories sent in their own housing commissioner to do their dirty work where the Labour councilors wouldn’t, but their stooge was blocked at every turn as the council refused point blank to co-operate. With the backing of the Labour movement they were able to push Labour into a supportive stance. When asked if he was afraid of going to jail for his actions, Councilor Dave Nuttall said “No. I’ve got too much faith in the trade union movement for any fear on that score”, making reference to the “Pentonville 5” – trade unionists who were freed from jail by a huge strike.
This example, and there are many others, gives clear guidance about how to fight government cuts and take on the ruling class, but this language of struggle is not a part of the Green Party’s vocabulary.
Your choices this May should not be seen as a contest between Labour and Green, but between socialism and the barbarity of austerity and poverty. We fight within the labour movement – including the Labour Party – to realise goals that you probably share, join us in executing the lessons of history as a socialist, the Green Party are a distraction from these ends.