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Where you stand is where you’re at… the Green Party , left, right and wrong. October 29, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Green Party, Irish Politics, The Left.
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I’ve been thinking a little about the quote I referenced from Monday’s Irish Times about the Green Party. It went…

A spokesman for the Green Party said they recognised it was a difficult poll finding for the Government, coming at a time of unprecedented international calamity in financial markets.

“But for the Green Party, it is a solid result in keeping with opinion poll trends since entering government 16 months ago. People recognise we are there to do a specific job on environmental and other issues,” he said.

This blog has been – in the main – critically supportive of the Green Party over the past year or so, as it has been of all our left and progressive formations. But note that I say left and progressive formations.

One of the less lovable traits of the Green Party is the way in which in the course of conversation with their members the line ‘but the Green Party isn’t left-wing or right-wing…’ comes up. It is produced with all the relish of a magician saying ‘ta-dah!’ and it is, like all such lines, intended not so much a means of demonstrating some transcendental political quality as being a conversation stopper. If it is neither left nor right then it does not, or so the thinking goes, have the negative characteristics of either.

Indeed, if the party is not left or right then it can be strongly pro-enterprise, but also vaguely redistributionist. It can be in favour of local government, but seek state power by joining government. It can be fervently, but not too much so, for the retention of Medical Cards and their extension (go see their health policy) while sitting around a Cabinet table and overseeing their reduction. It can be good, it can be bad. It can be up, it can be down. It can be post-ideology and, as the old Marxism Today joke had it, post early for Christmas.

But that’s all so much hogwash because, of course, the reality is that just as gender and race are part and parcel of the US Presidential campaign, however much all parties tend to eschew the language of gender and race, so it is that left and right are intrinsic to the nature of the political environment that the Green Party operates in and therefore impinge directly upon it.

The point being that at some stage the Green Party was always going to have, as this last couple of weeks has forced it, to show the colour of its money on issues which are self-evidently of left or right, or of class if you prefer. And to me as a leftist their response has been startlingly inadequate, which leads me to believe that they may well believe that they are not of right or left. Well. They can believe it, but that doesn’t mean that they’re correct.

The fallacy here is to believe that a contemporary society can be beyond class division, that in some ineffable manner ‘class does not matter’, or to look to the future that even under the massive pressures generated by climate change that a society will somehow operate in such a way as to avoid the internal pressures of class, or that the floods will wash all else before them. There’s more than a little of the old contortions on the further left about the nature of the Soviet Union and its relationship to Marxism, in whatever flavour favoured. The blindingly obvious reality that the Soviet Union, as with any other state/society, couldn’t be reduced to the simplifications of models generated to sustain a political position in entirely different societies appeared to elude those who spent years developing them (and I blame all from orthodox pro-Moscow parties through to the most internationalist of internationalists for that particular failing). And so it is with the Green Party and class and the coming dispensation. I’d tend to take a pessimistic view of such matters and suspect that if climate change isn’t managed in a humanistic fashion then some of the ‘solutions’ might take a very hard-edge right wing character.

In any case, it is impossible in a modern functioning liberal democracy to take political positions which are entirely detached from left/right or class. To pretend otherwise is to misunderstand the fundamental nature of those societies and the power relationships within them (remember the difficulties the Liberal Democrats, another operation who eschew the concept of class, got into at the their last Party Conference as they sought to square that circle). And to reify such a misunderstanding to something close to a truism, or at the least a badge of honour, is to demonstrate – if not an actual vacuity – a problem at the heart of a project.

It is also a product of a party culture, one which is for the most part middle class. No change there from our other parties, one might say, and one might be right. But without an ideology at least with some nodding acquaintance of class (and here I’m suggesting this operates for both left right and centre – indeed Fianna Fáil have managed to turn it to their advantage across the best part of a century) the possibility, no – the awareness – of the impacts of policy decisions will be lacking.

Let me hypothesize for a moment. Imagine, if you will, a newly reinstated Fianna Fáil led Coalition government which is largely tone deaf to the implications of its policies after ten years in power. Times are not as good as they were and it decides that in order to restore some financial “order” it must cut back the Medical Cards for the elderly and introduce means tests. The suggestion itself emanates from a member of another political party in the government, a party of the right. Fianna Fáil knows that this is tricky. It’s basic instinct for recognising this is now intermittent, it’s populism but a shadow of its former glory, but it remains savvy enough to run the proposal past the small more radical environmentally minded party which is also part of the Coalition. They raise no significant objection. They, after all, have no ideological reason for doing such. In fact their own health policy is rather vague on such matters. There is much talk of primary care, but nothing hugely informative as to funding or structures. And so it goes. Fianna Fáil misreading this as an indication that the policy will be tolerated, if not loved, proceed to announce it at the Budget. Chaos ensues.

Now, I’m not saying that is how it happened. I suspect that that might be an element of it, but in fairness few commentators on the day of the Budget were in a position to predict how this would play out, or the ferocity of the public response. But the fact that it is a not implausible reading of the situation tells us something perhaps of our own expectations of such matters and something about the nature of the Green Party.

One might suggest too that if one casts an eye over the past three decades of the Green Party and its successor one will see a very conscious effort to find positions that were distinct from the left and right. Hardly a surprise, for any party there is a necessity to demonstrate its uniqueness. For the Green Party the problem was that its radicalism of many issues has been similar, if not quite the same, as that of the left and further left which has led to a belief that it is of those. Well, yes… and no.

But then look at the place the Green Party is today and consider where have significant portions of their previous platform have gone. And here I’m not talking about transitional issues such as Tara or suchlike which are contingent on time and will for better or worse vanish into the mists, but more long-held beliefs. But here is the curiosity. What precisely were those long held beliefs? Basic income, well that slipped off the radar some while back (it’s still in policy but way down in the tax credits area). And for the others many policies, as with Tara or Shannon, were of a sort that broadly any formation on the centre or left could sign up to with little worry.

And here another political dynamic is apparent which may have more marked problems for the Green Party than other parties. We are all aware of the near-macho requirement for left parties to jettison policy as a mark of their political ‘maturity’. We saw something of a fire sale of such at the last election with the Labour Party and Sinn Féin vying with each other over issues such as personal taxation and corporate tax to present the most ‘responsible’ face to the electorate. Remember, these are avowedly leftwing parties, both pitching in a way which is near-indistinguishable from the centre parties. Near-indistinguishable? I’m being too generous. Indistinguishable.

And that’s not a lash at them to restore some balance at my having produced a critique of the Green Party, but merely to point up that for the Green Party the dynamic can operate in a potentially more pernicious fashion. When the bottom line is the planet itself there is really no bottom line at all in the face of general political activity. Hence the concentration on ‘business-friendly’ rhetoric in the past number of years, hence the push to government as if government in and of itself is a validation of their project. Hence sitting at Cabinet table and acquiescing to co-location, etc (any chance of a change there now that the balance of forces have shifted in the past week?). And most importantly, the concentration on the centrality of climate change to the near-exclusion of all else. As long as the former is being addressed all is well-ish.

But the obvious problem there is that government isn’t about a single issue, however important. It’s a process of compromise and negotiation, of retaining a political base in the face of competing demands and pressures. It is about enabling a society, with all that that entails. It is most importantly, if one does – as indeed I do – believe that climate change is a near existential problem, about shaping a societal response which has to have a collective face and generating the broadest possible coalitions of the people to do so. But the clue is in the term ‘collective’. That means that, like it or not, there will be options for left positions and there will be options for right positions and there will be the consequent necessity to have well thought out and credible policies to determine between them and – if we are fortunate – to provide that humanistic left of centre approach that I mentioned earlier. We’ve just seen an object lesson in the limitations of the use of the word ‘tough’ in our political discourse. A little bit of conviction, some rethinking and some effort to convince wouldn’t go amiss.

While their drop of one percentage point in the most recent poll is far from catastrophic they might do well to reflect upon the trend. And also on a further political reality which is that despite the stringent and near-hysteric calls for self-sacrifice and patriotism from the usual suspects on the centre right as regards this Budget the people weren’t buying, even in the wake of the most serious financial dislocation in generations.

That being the case, and given the fuzziness of their policies in a range of social areas far beyond healthcare, how do they believe they can bring that same people with them to make the sort of sacrifices that may be necessary to implement even the most marginal changes necessary to combat climate change?

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1. Gerry Burke - October 29, 2008

The Greens are contemptible. Going into the programme for government talks, they had four bottom lines – US troops in Shannon, the M3 motorway, corporate donations and co-location. Incredibly, they managed to extract no concessions whatsoever on any of these. Fianna Fail negotiators must have been gasping at the stench of their piggish appetite for power. They fed them pig-feed crumbs. Ignominious and cynical capitulation on all four ‘bottom lines’. Their performance in government has been nothing short of gutless. They have avoided commenting on any topic of significance in real people’s lives, confining themselves instead to a preposterous litany of irrelevancies like light bulbs, the flushing mechanism of toilets and cows farting while trotting off to Indonesia and the like at every opportunity. Now that some real issues have arisen and real questions have been put to them, they have shown their true colours – yellow in every shade. Even since joining the government, they still had an opportunity to scupper the social injustice and waste of tax-payers money that is co-location. They chose instead to keep their mealy mouths firmly shut. Their one firm commitment is to remain in power and at all costs. This prompted one of their own councillors, Bronwyn Maher, to suggest yesterday her party had no moral or political bottom line. And at no point has it occurred to them to say that it is necessary to raise more tax from those who can afford it to pay to provide a decent health service or education. The Greens are right-wing to the core and the previously plausible veneer of social responsibility is wearing thin. They are nothing more than PD’s in drag.

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2. Joe - October 29, 2008

Excellent comment Gerry. “Fianna Fail negotiators must have been gasping at the stench of their piggish appetite for power.” I love it! The stuff I’ve read by you on the health service has been excellent too. Unfortunately, why do I sadly suspect that the Labour Party in government with FF or FG would be just as craven as the Greens and end up rolling over on co-location and so forth? Say it won’t be so.

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3. D. J. P. O'Kane - October 29, 2008

The ‘establishment-isation’ of the Green Party in most (all?) of the countries where they’ve had a share in power highlights a fundamental hollowness in the central premise of green politics. Green politics (as I see it) proposes that the central political question is that of the relationship between humans, human society and the natural environment, rather than (as most/all other ideologies propose) the relations between humans in society. Alas, the greens were wrong, and the latter set of relations remains the site of the central political question of our time, and all other times. . .

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4. Gerry Burke - October 29, 2008

Thanks, Joe.

Although I am possibly biased, Labour still represents the left’s best chance.

Labour has managed to hold on grimly through thick and thin, during the difficult years of the seemingly unstoppable right-wing ideological consensus that Paula Clancy of TASC refers to in her excellent piece on universality in yesterday’s Irish Times. (And if we think of that consensus as malign, just consider the fate of those unquestioning poor white American voters (described Joe Bageant in Deer Hunting with Jesus) who staunchly supported the Republican Party to their own enduring detriment).

Labour has had to be cautious but the climate is changing rapidly. It’s recent, more hard-line left stance seems to be appreciated – it’s up 6% in the Red C poll. In government, Labour would probably adopt the Fabian approach, aiming to achieve social progress in gradual steps that citizens would learn to accept and trust, the method that has transformed Scandinavian countries.

But I contend that, unlike the Greens, Labour has very firmly identifiable bottom lines and it is utterly committed to social justice and fairness and to the concept of universality in health and education.

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5. WorldbyStorm - October 29, 2008

Like Joe I hope you’re right Gerry. But I must admit Gilmore is playing a blinder in the Dáil and coming across much much more strongly and coherently than anyone else there, Kenny or Cowen included.

One point I’d make, it isn’t the time to beat up on the Green Party or its members (not that I’m suggesting that’s what’s going on), chances are if the sort of progressive coalition we want is to be established next time around they’ll be needed, or at least what number of TDs they have. Profound disappointment is often as useful a message to communicate as fury.

As regards Green politics there are red strands to it which I personally would find myself very close to…

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6. Garibaldy - October 29, 2008

Gerry obviously missed the row between WBS and Conor on the universality – or outstandingly obvious lack of it in Labout manifestoes – when it came to healthcare. I’d be delighted to see a southern Labour Party comitted to incremental but serious progress. I am just not convinced.

As for the Greens, the aim of the Left should be to split off the left elements by convincing them that the Left is taking Green issues seriously.

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7. Andrew - October 30, 2008

“Going into the programme for government talks, they had four bottom lines – US troops in Shannon, the M3 motorway, corporate donations and co-location.”

Source? These were certainly part of the negotiations, but where does it state that these were the ‘bottom lines’

You seriously saying the above four were the ‘bottom lines’ but Climate Change wasn’t?

Go on, give us a source. I dare you!

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8. joemomma - October 30, 2008

“Going into the programme for government talks, they had four bottom lines – US troops in Shannon, the M3 motorway, corporate donations and co-location.”

Where was that stated? Before you made it up I mean.

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9. Gerry Burke - October 30, 2008

These positions were widely reported in the media at the time and I seem to vividly remember Dan Boyle listing them off (of course, I could be having a senior moment) – but I took particular notice because the M3 was clearly irreversible, and I could not see FF upsetting the Americans with movement on Shannon and certainly they would not concede on the corporate donations – so I was hopeful that they might scupper co-location at least since it was the easiest of these four to drop. The Greens even had a section on their web-site ‘private hospitals on public grounds’ – it was blank when I last looked it up – it is probably still there, under ‘Policies/health’. I was very disappointed that they didn’t scupper it but it was probably a bottom line for the PD’s on the other side. But I interpreted it as weakness, since FF needed the 6 Greens more than they needed the 2 PD’s.

Anyway, where were they tonight?

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10. WorldbyStorm - October 30, 2008

I’d echo Garibaldy’s thoughts here… my sense would be that in other combinations we’d have seen similar processes play out. Is anyone seriously suggesting that were FG leading a coalition today they would be making *smaller* cuts? And the only way FG could be in coalition would be with the support of other parties. Granted they might not be as cloth-eared as FF has proven to be, but I’m dubious about that…Because this isn’t just a matter of political positioning and party stances but about a broad consensus on how an economy and society should be run, one which, as noted above *all* parties broadly bought into despite their rhetoric.

That too is why I’d caution against too much delight in the plight of the Green Party or analyses which wind up suggesting they have no progressive element at all.

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11. sonofstan - October 31, 2008

WBS,
What do you make of Gilmore’s ‘the Green Party is dead’ peroration in the Dail today? – perhaps a similar point could have been made by inviting them back over to the opposition benches and their more natural allies……

Think EG, and Lab generally, despite your qualms last week, has had a good crisis – the fact that the Lab front bench has 10 years on the cabinet and the same on the FG first team which made them look like blasts from a best- forgotten past during the half- life of the boom, gives them the appearance of gravitas and experience now. The Private Members bill on the education cuts, effectively made them the opposition over the last few days, at a time when voters are paying close attention again.

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12. WorldbyStorm - October 31, 2008

I’d agree very much with that sonofstan. The gravitas point makes sense.

Remember, my qualms before were about the base line of Labour, something we’ve seen exhibited by the GP…

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13. Andrew - October 31, 2008

Gerry, no one is disputing that these were, and are, part of our programme and ideology. But where does it state that they were our bottom line?

Politics is in the state it is, partly, because of the propensity for making things up

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14. Gerry Burke - October 31, 2008

I can only go by what was reported in the media – the Irish Times June 6 and 8, 2007 carried the stories – check them out. There were only five issues in play, including the four I mentioned and carbon emissions. Since these were being promoted to the media by the Greens, I assumed that at least one or two of them were bottom lines. By June 8, the Greens were saying the M3 and Shannon were not deal-breakers. The environmental issues were never really contentious – the experienced negotiators in FF just managed to persuade the Greens that they had achieved some major concessions.

It turned out that the wheeling and dealing was all about the all-important redistribution, not of wealth, but of ministerial responsibility.

Education was said to have been in the mix also but, in view of recent developments, that was clearly not a bottom line either.

So perhaps I am wrong and have simply over-estimated the Greens level of commitment to its own policies. Maybe the Greens just don’t do ‘bottom lines’, as Bronwyn Maher suggests. Maybe the bottom line is ‘no bottom line’. Is that the situation?

For the record, here is the section on education in the programme for government, copied from the Green party website. It now seems pretty aspirational in view of yesterday’s pathetic performance. Paul Gogarty and Eamon Ryan’s body language when Michael D and EG were lacerating in the Dáil them said it all.

If the Greens bring down the government now, they will probably be forgiven for their naivety and inexperience and hang on their seats. The sympathy won’t last the term of this Dáil, though.

* Commitment to spending an additional €350 million per year on new service developments in education.
* Increase the number of primary teachers by at least 4,000. This will enable us to reduce class sizes. The staffing schedule will be reduced from a general rule of at least one teacher for every 27 pupils in 2007/08, by one point a year, to one for every 24 children by 2010/11.
* Commit to long-term funding for the 12 centres currently in the ABA pilot scheme.
* Ensure that no rezoning of land for residential development can take place without a prior commitment of an appropriate proportion of land for schools.
* Examine the provision of waste and water allowances to schools with charges becoming effective after these are exceeded.
* Prioritise energy efficiency and eco-design in new school buildings
* Ensure that schools help to make our children environmentally aware and include the Green Schools Programme as part of any Whole School Evaluation.
* Expand the number of adult literacy training places by 4000, on top of the extra 3000 places being put in place in 2007.

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15. Gerry Burke - October 31, 2008

And, by the way, can Gormley spare us the smug bullshit about being elected to do a specific job? This is a completely cowardly explanation of his party’s position. He was elected to represent people and he’d need to start doing something about it. Tree-hugging and posing at environmental summits won’t put school books in the houses of Moyross, or elsewhere.

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16. WorldbyStorm - October 31, 2008

Gerry, again, what does it profit us to lambaste the Green Party (and in terms familiar to the right – ‘tree-huggers’ et al) or its members? I certainly didn’t find Gormley smug, not in the least. Worried would be my impression. I think the GP is utterly mistaken on this Budget and wish they would rethink their approach to it (and no, I’m not calling for them to leave govt., not that they’d pay me a blind bit of notice one way or another).

Nor can I shake the sense, reiterated by Joe and Garibaldy, that were the LP in power, whatever about the membership, or indeed a leadership. we probably wouldn’t have seen a vastly different Budget.

As it happens last week quite by accident I was talking to a former Fianna Fáil TD who was involved in govt. in the 1980s whose read was that the situation was dire and that were FG/LP to enter govt. they’d announce that the situation was worse again, that FF had hidden the *truth* from the people and then institute even more swinging cuts. Now, I’m a cynical person at the best of times so I’d mark down 50% of that statement to being self-serving… but… the other 50%?

Remember, look at the firesale point I made above. No one on the left (bar, uniquely, the Green Party which talked about raising taxes – unfortunately though only on the carbon front) was innocent in the drive to outbid each other on *lowering* taxation in a hugely unedifying display.

There’s a consensus out there, but the fact that it’s a consensus is driven by the reality that almost all agreed to it… and that consensus remains a low-tax free untrammeled market economy.

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17. Gerry Burke - October 31, 2008

The Greens got one of my transfers in the last election. I could have given it to Willie O’Dea – same difference. Concentrating on environmental issues while making very little contribution to social policy just isn’t good enough.

The fact is we need an election to clear the air. The current government is in place only because of a pack of lies.

With Labour now on 15%, and Sinn Féin on 10%, the Left could make up 50% of any government with FF or FG – we’d have a very different political landscape then, particularly if the Greens contributed. It would fairly finish the current consensus.

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18. WorldbyStorm - October 31, 2008

That I’d agree with Gerry.

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19. We hate Shankley and St. John - October 31, 2008

Gerry, do you remember how Barry Desmond got on in the health during the 1980s coalition? I’d love to believe that Labour would be different now, but all history and experience suggests that once in power it will be ‘you’ll all have to make sacrifices folks’.

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20. P - November 1, 2008

That’s a good post, WbS. There’s a few things I’d say in response. I’m not someone who thinks that we’ve exactly covered ourselves in glory over this budget, but there are a few things I’d say in a defence of sorts.

First off, I don’t think that there’s a trend in polls for the Greens to be reflected upon, as you seem to imply. Polls are, as you know, shite for small, mostly localised parties, as they measure support in areas which will never have a Green seat. On top of that, there’s the usual margin of error of 3%, which negates all of the movement on the Green figure over the past few years.

Secondly, I think people were buying into the whole “self sacrifice” element of the pre-budget warmup, judging by an oddly supportive and unquestioning media. The logic of tightening the belt wasn’t really being challenged (aside from the usual “Is this the end of Capitalism?” SWP posters). What people reacted to, as far as I can tell, was the people who took the hit. Bizarrely, no income tax increase on higher income, but a regressive income “levy”, reductions in education and perceived strikes against all the elderly. People were expecting toughness, but not against those groups. They expected the rich to pay (from what I can tell). If that’s true, then it’s certainly a heartening public instinct.

Thirdly, I’ve got mixed feelings about the strategy in government. The idea has quite clearly been for Greens to keep their heads down and have any arguments and policy drives within the government. There’s a temptation, of course, to press release and publicly shout on every issue of dissent, but I don’t think that that ensures maximum gains from an FF-led government. From personal experience, FF and FFers seem to value loyalty. Bearing that in mind, and knowing that it can make sense to change the mind of the larger party without having them publicly losing face (it’s easier and it saves political capital), the strategy of keeping heads down seems sensible.

That said, there are times when that strategy isn’t the best way to proceed. The budget, from what I can see, was one of those circumstances. It appeared that some in the Greens were too wedded to the “heads down” strategy I mentioned, while others were too willing to go out and press release as if in opposition. I don’t mean this as a criticism of either camps/people – they’re both valid instincts, but it should be clear that if the nationally elected reps are doing something, it should be more co-ordinated. The approach of making this a public point of disagreement with FF strikes me as the better one – both in terms of PR and achieving change – but it would never work if the parliamentary party wasn’t taking a uniform approach. If there is to be public questioning of the government from Green TDs, I think it best that they all do it at once. If that’s not done, one part of the parliamentary party will inevitably be cast as “losers”, and we feed into the narrative the press have developed of Greens arguing with each other and wrestling with their consciences.

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21. WorldbyStorm - November 2, 2008

Very much agree. Can I add a friend of mine closer to the GP reported to me that he had heard the concentration on the carbon budget might have led to eyes off the ball. That might be self serving but it rings partially true. Perhaps the GP needs to strengthen its overview on policy implementation and that of its coalition partner.

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