Sanity, September 1989

All is not as rosy as it appears for Britain’s environmentalist movement. It might be growing fast – but both the Green Party and the environmental pressure groups face hard political choices, writes Paul Anderson

Its over-rising concern is the environmental crisis threatening the globe – but the immediate problem faced by the British Green Party is the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Even if the Greens maintain or improve their current nine per cent standing in the opinion polls at the next general election, it is improbable that they will win even the small number of parliamentary seats that centre and nationalist parties have won on similarly small shares of the total vote. Unlike those parties, the Greens’ support is fairly evenly spread throughout the country.

What the Greens need to stand a chance of parliamentary representation at the next election is at least one exceptional showing in a by-election during this parliament. This is by no means impossible. The electorate is as volatile and as disillusioned with the two major parties as it was in the early eighties, when the centre parties surged in the opinion polls and won a string of by-elections: and the centre parties appear to be in terminal crisis.

But the centre parties in the early eighties benefited both from their centrism and from a significant existing parliamentary base even before the creation of the SDP by defectors from the Labour right. The leading figures in the Liberal Party and SDP, for all their rhetoric of ‘breaking the mould’, were all safe, familiar politicians who had been at, or close to, the heart of government in the late seventies. And they had plenty of cash and powerful supporters in the media.

Their Ideology was essentially that of the post-war consensus that dominated British politics until the late seventies, which they believed had been abandoned by Labour and the Tories. The centre parties were advocates of the mixed economy, with state intervention to secure low unemployment and constant high growth, supporters of the welfare state, pro-American in defence policy and in favour of the European Community.

The Greens have none of these characteristics. They are not already in parliament, their politicians are not familiar, and their policies are anything but the stuff of the post-war consensus. They don’t have much money, nor (today’s support in the European elections notwithstanding) the sort of media support that the centre parties enjoyed.

Perhaps most important, the Greens are not quite sure of their political identity. The dominant group in the party is keen to avoid accusations of being left-wing, and emphasises that the Greens are “neither left nor right but ahead”. It points, with justification, to the unpopularity of the hard left, to the environmental catastrophe of “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet bloc, and to the differences between Western social democracy and the Greens on industrial growth. The “Green Greens” believe they should be aiming to pick up votes from the centre and from hitherto apolitical “Green consumers”, mostly middle-class; and they are anxious not to attract the attentions of far-left groups as the German Greens have done.

But there is a vocal minority of Greens arguing against this approach, even If they do not envisage a conventionally left-wing party. “Red Greens'”, organised into the Association of Socialist Greens, point, also with justification, to the radical global redistributive measures at the heart of the Green programme, the Greens’ necessary hostility to market capitalism and the party’s leftist defence and foreign policies. They think that the Greens can best gain votes from disillusioned left-wing Labour voters. Many others in the party less committed to leftism (or indeed overtly hostile) are equally concerned that concentration on Green consumers runs the risk of diluting the fundamental Green message.

These groups can of course be reconciled in the short run by keeping everything vague. In the long term, however, the tension between green consumers and proponents of far-reaching political change are going to be hard to contain. Are the Greens simply a repository for the votes of rich muesli-eating professionals who don’t want a Barratt estate in their village? Or are they a party that stand for massive tax increases to aid the Third World?

None of this means that the Greens have no hope of emulating the centre parties’ early-eighties success; but it does mean that they face an uphill struggle. The tide of public opinion seems to be running in their favour. But in the absence of another Chernobyl or the defection to the Greens of disillusioned Liberal or Labour MPs, it could well be that the best the Greens can hope for is a steady increase in the Green vote both in parliamentary and local council elections, with a concomitant slow growth in membership and strengthening of organisation.

That could mean overtaking the centre parties’ share of the vote at the next general election and a better chance of by-election upsets in the next parliament, and perhaps, in the very long run, the Greens emulating Labour’s growth in the first 20 years of the century. But nothing can be guaranteed – and meanwhile the ecological crisis gets deeper. So what to do in the mean-time? One answer is to press for electoral reform to get Greens into parliament sooner rather than later. But to introduce proportional representation there has to be a majority in favour in the House of Commons. Barring an unlikely conversion to PR by the Labour Party, that won’t happen.

It is thus hardly surprising that many environmentalists are not members of or even voters for the Greens, preferring instead to concentrate their efforts on the environmentalist pressure groups that are trying to influence the established opposition political parties, the government and the media. Indeed, it is the pressure groups, particularly Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, that have been largely responsible for the change in public perceptions of environmental issues that is behind the recent growth in the Green vote and the subsequent attempts of the established political parties to prove themselves environment-friendly.

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