To me it was one of the surprises of 2010. As the Liberal Democrats joined the Conservatives in coalition, and their popular support promptly crashed, why didn’t the Green Party benefit? Surely large numbers of the rather leftist, protest voters that were disillusioned with the Lib Dems would migrate there? But Green support hardly moved, while Labour surged. But now many more people are asking themselves whether they should vote Green in the forthcoming General Election. Should they?
The Greens have not been idle since 2010. Perhaps they too were surprised about their failure to draw in ex-Lib Dems. To people from a relative distance two changes are conspicuous. First they reformed their leadership structure so that they elected a single leader – rather than the confusing collective leadership they previously had; that leader is Natalie Bennett. Second they changed tack on policy to push their environmentalism back in favour of “social justice” – a concern about the distribution of wealth, the workings of capitalism, and so on. Now of the three main policy stances on their (English) website “Vote for real change” only one, and the third in the sequence, refers to environmental sustainability. The first is opposition to austerity, and the second is opposition to the privatization of public services. They have become more like a mainstream political party in sharpness of leadership and messaging.
Whether or not it is a result of these changes, the party’s fortunes have improved dramatically. Now they regularly poll more than the Lib Dems, whom they beat in the European elections in 2014. They received a boost when the Prime Minister, David Cameron, insisted that they be included in the proposed leaders’ debates at the General Election. That boosted publicity and their membership has surged to 50,000, more than the Lib Dems. Their support amongst younger voters is striking.
This attention has not been entirely welcome. Their policy of a Citizens Income came under particular scrutiny and promptly fell apart, when it appeared to hit the poorest hardest. Incidentally that link (to the Guardian) has my favorite picture of the new Green party – which I haven’t published on this page because of copyright.
It is very tempting for members of other political parties to sneer at the Greens. Their chaotic policies; Ms Bennett’s Antipodean accent; the alleged misfortunes Brighton council, which they control. That would be a mistake. As a Lib Dem I have endured a life-time of sneering and it hasn’t changed my mind. The Greens attract support from those disillusioned with modern politics – sneering from the sidelines just reinforces that disillusionment. But voting should be a serious business; we should expect anybody asking for our vote to make sense. and here I struggle with the Greens.
Two experiences over the last year have turned me against them. The first was a computer graphic of an election poster. Unfortunately I didn’t bookmark it, and I can’t find it, so I can’t reproduce it here. It promised everything. Growth; reversal of austerity; sustainability – and more things besides. There was no inkling of hard choices. The second was hearing a radio interview with Ms Bennett. She dripped with smugness; she had pat answers to everything. When asked if the Greens would go into coalition, she said no. They weren’t interested in ministerial cars; they would enter a confidence and supply agreement. This, of course, was an attack on the Lib Dems’ readiness to enter a coalition. It’s also utter nonsense. The British government has huge executive powers, and parliamentary controls aren’t strong. The Greens would have far more scope to change things if they had ministers. Ms Bennett clearly didn’t want the responsibility that would entail.
So what? That poster disappeared without trace. Ms Bennett is just one person. The Greens’ MP, Caroline Lucas, is much more impressive. But these things foreshadow something bigger, and a visit to the Greens’ website does not reassure me. The party just doesn’t seem to be interested in making serious choices. They just want a good whinge.
To illustrate let’s look at their “mini manifesto” Real Choices. After the introductory page it starts off well enough with a page on the environment and climate change. It firmly states a commitment to reducing the use fossil fuels, rejection of nuclear power and replacement with renewables – plus some stuff about protecting the environment more generally. This is what most people think the Greens are about. Some may say it as impractical – especially the rejection of nuclear power – but I forgive them for that. If you feel strongly that climate change is the biggest challenge facing man on this planet, then this is a perfectly respectable line to take. And so is scepticism of nuclear power. But it involves hard choices.
Which is where we run into problems. The next two pages “Building a fairer society” and “Health and education – free for everyone” move into the party’s new agenda. No to austerity – investing in a low carbon future instead; raising the minimum wage; more affordable housing; more welfare spending; bash bankers some more; stop outsourcing health services; scrap university tuition fees;protect pay and conditions of health and education professionals; stop the Academy programme for schools. Leave aside the “oppose austerity” bit and individually there is something to be said for each of these policies; some even look sensible (the bit on affordable housing, and a low carbon future). But together they are comically incoherent. The “oppose austerity” says it all. You might think that an environmentalist party would understand that resources are limited. If there is to be a serious drive to invest in low carbon projects, while also preserving bloat in the health and education services so as not to upset their employees, then surely something, somewhere has to give. There is going to be austerity somewhere. Austerity is about ensuring that the state is financially sustainable. Pah! say the Greens.
The next couple of pages carry on in the same vein. Energy – permanently lower bills. Here the party tries to show that its energy policies won’t mean higher bills – insulation will square the circle. And Transport – cheaper and cleaner. Apparently by nationalizing public transport and cancelling the HS2 railway project, public transport is going to be cleaner and better.
All this leads me to a very painful reflection. I am reminded of something by this incoherent set of protest responses. The Liberal Democrats. Especially the Lib Dems under its previous leader, Charles Kennedy, and its manifesto for the 2005 General Election, the party’s most successful. The present leader, Nick Clegg, reined things in a bit, but was left with policies like the abolition of tuition fees. This proved successful politics for a while, but in 2010 the party bumped into a glass ceiling. Early in that campaign the Lib Dems surged. And then the voters looked a bit harder. And they saw a party of protest and not one of government. The surge collapsed.
Ironically the public was wrong. Against expectations the Lib Dems entered government and proved more than ready for it. But they had to ditch the protest policies and the protest voters, and added to a public disillusionment with politicians.
The Green Party now is the old Lib Dems on steroids, but without the underlying ability to deliver effective government policies. As a voter that should give you pause.