Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Great Green hope?

Posted by Left Luggage on May 11, 2009

The Green Party are talking themselves up as the best hope to prevent the BNP gaining seats at next month’s Euro elections. Green candidate for the North West region Peter Cranie argues that it is Green votes, and not Labour votes, that will keep the far right out:

Anti-racist votes in the North West region for Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives will certainly count. No one can dispute this, as those parties will claim seven out of the eight regional seats. But it’s the eighth seat that Griffin is aiming for. Calling on everyone to once again get out and vote for red/yellow/blue simply won’t work on voters already disillusioned with the Westminster parties. But those few extra thousand votes could keep the Greens ahead of the BNP – and that is the scenario with the best chance of keeping Griffin out.

This argument is correct in the sense that if the Greens get more votes than the BNP, it is they and not the fascists who will claim the final seat for the North West region. However, is the Green Party convincing as an alternative to the BNP for those “disillusioned with the Westminster parties”? This would imply that Greens are capable of winning support in working class communities by providing progressive solutions to pressing social problems.

There has long been a tension within the Green Party, and within mainstream environmentalism more generally, between left and right. Although the Green Left is active and well organised, the right of the Party has traditionally dominated, with the consequence that many see the Greens as a middle class party out of touch with the concerns of working class people. One Green Left activist summed up the problem incisively in a post on one of our articles:

The problem the Green Party has is not chiefly its policy, but its class composition and image – these are what make it difficult for that Party to reach out in working class areas, not people already being aware of the intricacies of its policies – though some of these still need a lot of work. Chief amongst the issues that Greens need to address are the good points made by socialists about the effects of Green Taxes, restrictions and increased costs falling chiefly on the poorest.

A kind of Bloomsbury self-righteous middle/upper class hair shirtery is unfortunately still alive and well in some quarters of the Green Party, and I speak as someone with long experience of membership of that Party!

The point about green taxes reminds us of the debate over the introduction of London’s Congestion Charge in  2003. Allegations  from the right that the Charge was a “Poll Tax on wheels” can be taken with a pinch of salt, given that many of the denunciations came from those who previously idolised the inventor of the original Poll Tax. Nevertheless, there were some more thoughful analyses from those on the Left that accepted traffic congestion was a huge problem but pointed out the regressive nature of the Charge. These arguments are supported by research from 2008 that found 66% of respondents from social class DE thought the rise in Congestion Charge from £5 to £8 was “unfair”, compared to 64% from ABs. The figures appear all the more striking when we take into account that 79% of DE respondents to the same survey say they never had to pay the Charge, suggesting that they were opposed in principle.

Whether or not Greens support flat rate charges, there may be an entrenched perception that associates environmentalism with policies that call upon individuals of whatever social class to make sacrifices to protect the environment. This, in turn, may be due to what the poster cited above calls the “self-righteous middle/upper class hair shirtery” prevalent within the Green movement. Some environmentalists subscribe to a world view that sees environmental degradation as the result of a culture of materialism and greed, and places the responsibility for redressing this degradation on individuals who must make better, more moral choices.

It is certainly true that everyone has a personal responsibility to consider the environmental, as well as social and political, consequences of their actions. However, unless Greens stress that those who do most to destroy the environment – namely big businesses – must make the biggest sacrifices, their policies are unlikely to go down well in working class areas. More importantly, Greens need to facilitate community campaigns to protect and improve local, working class environments in order to build grassroots working class support for environmentalism.

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4 Responses to “Great Green hope?”

  1. c0mmunard said

    To play devil’s advocate –

    research from 2008 that found 66% of respondents from social class DE thought the rise in Congestion Charge from £5 to £8 was “unfair”, compared to 64% from ABs.

    Isn’t that a remarkably small difference, considering the disposable income gap between ABs and DEs?

    The figures appear all the more striking when we take into account that 79% of DE respondents to the same survey say they never had to pay the Charge, suggesting that they were opposed in principle.

    Doesn’t it suggest as much or more that they don’t have cars, or don’t drive into the zone (perhaps because they are more likely not to work in the zone)?

    In a society based on unequal income, flat charges for anything (bread, cinema tickets, parking charges, etc.) are regressive. However, this is generally only ever mentioned with respect to environmentally/socially damaging commodities – air travel, driving through London, etc. Even commodities provided by arms of the state are not generally criticised in this way – use of local authority gyms and leisure facilities, for example, are cheaper if you’re on JSA, but otherwise are charged at a flat rate. Most obviously, the same goes for a return on your Oyster into central London.

    For me, the uneven way in which commodities are criticised on this ground is unfair (and there’s no way to escape from inequality under capitalism, certainly not by tinkering with the prices of a few goods here and there). I imagine that an income sensitive congestion charge would be so expensive to administer it would effectively be impossible.

  2. Hi Tom,

    The point about the difference in opinion over the congestion charge is that ABs are far more likely to have to pay the charge, yet less likely to oppose it. This means there must be many people in the DE social class who never have to pay the charge, but nevertheless oppose it. We might expect to see more opposition to the charge among ABs, so in this sense the fact that 2% more DEs opposed the charge is significant, in my view.

    I don’t really buy the argument that since “there is no to escape from inequality under capitalism” we shouldn’t try to “tinker” with charges in order to make them fairer. Isn’t this rather like saying that since there is no escape from crime under capitalism, we shouldn’t tinker by trying to lessen its impact on working class communities?

    I suspect that, rather than introduce an income sensitive congestion charge, opponents of the policy advocate funding public transport and pollution reduction measures through progressive taxation. (I know this misses the point that the charge is meant to act as a deterrent, but the argument would be that reliable, affordable public transport provision is needed before deterrents are used.)

    In any case, the fact is that working class people in London seem at best amibivalent towards the congestion charge, and at worst hostile. This poses a problem for environmentalists, and illustrates the wider problem of the lack of grassroots working class support for environmentalism.

    Left Luggage

  3. c0mmunard said

    Thanks for the reply. I agree with the broad point about working class support for environmental measures. When I say, “there is no escape from inequality under capitalism”, I am not opposing reform that reduce inequality. I was trying to highlight that the fact that the CC is a flat rate/regressive charge is far from unique, and other such charges are typically not put under the spotlight in the same way.

  4. ibs said

    Interesting. It reminds me of debates in Australia where the Greens are getting roughly 10% of the vote and have slotted in to the 3rd party position, somewhat similar to the Lib Dems in the UK. After shaking their image as the party of “ferals” (like crusties or latter day hippies) they came to be seen as the party of “doctors’ wives”, appealing to what you call the “middle/upper class hair shirtery” folk. Their best results come in trendy, inner-city electorates with a high proportion of socially progressive young middle class people and the so-called creative class. Oddly enough, though, at the last federal election, the Greens’ key policy platform was its virulent opposition to anti-worker legislation.

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