Green is the new Red: Leftist disenfranchisement in British politics

17 Jul 2013

* July Article of the Month *

The current British political climate presents a dark situation for the Labour Party. ‘One Nation’ Labour looks to be moving further and further towards the Right of the political spectrum, exemplified by the Union membership reforms put forward by Ed Miliband. Paul Kenny, head of the GMB Union, said that Miliband’s reforms – removing the automatic affiliation to the Labour Party when joining some trade unions – were “as close as you can get” to Labour breaking its historic link with the unions.


In an article for The Huffington Post I outlined this argument, before the Falkirk crisis. Ideological fallout on the Left was looking like a real possibility, due to early animosities between Ed Miliband and Len McCluskey of Unite, the latter accusing Miliband of ignoring the Left of the party. This, twinned with the scandal regarding the Care Quality Commission (CQC) – representing a loss of control over the Welfare State; Labour’s flagship policy area – resembles momentum towards the increased disenfranchisement of Left Wing voters.

The implications that this could have for the Labour Party could at one time have been seen as overstated, but as with UKIP on the Right, an alternative Left has become a real possibility. The party set to gain from this, at the minute, is the Green Party.

There is a lot of evidence to support how a turn towards the Green Party may in fact take place. A lot of this evidence resides in the Green parties of Europe. For example, in the European Parliament of 766 MEPs, 58 of those seats are held by members from Green parties. This may seem a small number, but compared with only 1 MP for the Green Party in the UK out of 650 MPs, European Green influence is considerably higher.

But what is keeping the UK Green Party from sharing this success? Firstly, there is an opinion that the Green Party is a single-issue party, much like many thought (and still think) UKIP to be regarding Europe. Research shows that European Green parties have successfully moved away from being single-issue parties and have therefore become much more prosperous. In 1993Mathias Kaelberer reviewed all of this research, determining that ‘Green Party’ was in fact an inaccurate term, as ‘environmental concerns are only one center of attention among a variety of issues.’ Those issues are characterised by what was then being described as the ‘New Left.’

Indeed, those in European Green parties have identified themselves firmly on the Left of politics, and thus they share the same scepticism of the capitalist system that underpins socialist thought. More radically however, they have been seen to reject the Social Democratic answer to this- corporatism. Quoting Kaelberer once more, these Green parties ‘reject the bureaucratic, hierarchical, exclusionary, and secret style of corporatist policymaking.’ This radicalism is what attracts many of the Leftist voters in Europe, as they now have a powerful outlet that can represent socialism, more effectively than the socialist-by-name parties.

The UK Green Party is similarly moving more convincingly in that direction however. I spoke with the party, and a spokesman said that:

 “The Green Party is standing up for making the minimum wage a living wage, for bringing the railways back into public ownership, for making multinational companies and rich individuals pay their taxes, all positions that you would expect the Labour Party to be espousing, but they aren't.” 

They furthered this by reassuring a commitment to a publicly owned and operated NHS, as well as educational commitments such as opposition to tuition fees and a replacement of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). This socialist policy set that Labour is accused of not delivering is accompanied by an increasingly important sustainability and environmental responsibility agenda– one that can no longer be ignored.

Socialist ideology within Green parties has been evident for some time and is proving effective throughout Europe. Historically however, the only Leftist party in the UK to ever have considerable success or power has been that supported by the trade unions. With the power shift to amalgamated unions in the 1890s, the Independent Labour Party was created; to cater for the combination of unrepresented union interests and socialist disenfranchisement. The Labour Party was born in 1905, and has enjoyed unconditional union support ever since.

However, with Ed Miliband’s electoral and affiliation reforms set to be implemented, change could soon be on the horizon. Indeed, union members – who can safely be assumed to be mostly Leftist voters – will no longer be bound to the Labour Party. This means that if an alternative Leftist party exists that promotes socialist values more explicitly, as well as prioritising an issue of growing international importance, union members now have the freedom to support it. The Green Party looks like that party. When asked about the necessity of trade union support, the Green Party said that:

“We already work with the unions closely on many issues, from rail renationalisation to the living wage, on opposition to closing fire stations in London to campaigning to make councils living wage employers. Of course we'd love more support from them, and there is a very strong argument to say that union members should be able to make a choice to opt-in to funding the Green Party through their affiliation fees.”

The Green Party said that with the combination of all these factors, it is “unsurprising that we’re seeing increasing numbers of former Labour members joining the Green Party, a trend that started with the Iraq War.” As was evident with UKIP on the Right, ideological fallout from a main party can be dramatic and very real. Now that union members have the freedom to shift their support, they may do so in order to re-ignite the Socialist flame in Britain – a flame that has dimmed under Labour’s keeping.

By Samuel Mercer

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