Where you stand is where you’re at… the Green Party , left, right and wrong. October 29, 2008Posted by WorldbyStorm in Green Party, Irish Politics, The Left.
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?