Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Greens Rising: Britain's Syriza Moment?

The Green Party of England & Wales held its biggest conference in history last weekend in Liverpool. With a row of party flags fluttering in the breezy sunlight on the banks of the Mersey, nearly 1,400 of the party's 55,000 members participated in a long weekend of policy debates, workshops, fringe meetings, networking and music.

Party leader Natalie Bennett delivered a powerful speech (video below) on ending the politics of fear and mapping the way to a new, more equal Britain living happily in a sustainable world. "A peaceful political revolution," she dared to call it. Dared because such bold language is almost unheard of on the lips of a major political party leader - an appellation Bennett is more than entitled to claim now, with her party growing four-fold in members and poll ratings in barely a year. Greens outnumber the memberships of both the junior government party, the Lib Dems (44,000 members and falling), and the media darling pseudo-insurgents of UKIP (42,000 members), and once the 8,500 Scottish Greens and 1,000 Northern Irish are added, the Green total across the UK stands at nearly 65,000. Only the SNP after its phenomenal post-referendum surge stands between the Greens and the declining Tories and Labour.

Greens planted their flags on the banks of the Mersey
So in spite of all the headlines from the aggressive ("The Real Monster Raving Loony Party" - Daily Mail) to the offensive ("The Green Party is a Looney Tunes Alliance of Trots & Druids" - Daily Telegraph), the Greens met in upbeat mood. A poll on Friday put the party up 2% at 8 points with the Lib Dems on 6% (YouGov) while a second poll on the closing day on Monday confirmed the 8% with Clegg's party down even further on 5% (Ashcroft).

The sessions of debate were lively but serious, with major policy initiatives on the health service, including reinforcing the commitment to remove private companies from the NHS and to boosting the rights of people needing support with mental health issues. The two Deputy Leaders, Amelia Womack and Sharar Ali, renewed the party's vows to get rid of Trident nuclear missiles and to tackle global warming respectively. In a strikingly poignant moment, Ali pondered on whether the patch of ice where "vote-blue-get-green" David Cameron frolicked with huskies in 2008 was still solidly frozen or melted into the rising Arctic waters.

Greek Green Costas Likeris spoke from Athens on the rise of SYRIZA
Of particular interest though was a very popular session on Saturday afternoon, attended by as many as half of the conference, on what the election of the left-wing Syriza government in Greece and the rise of Podemos in Spain could mean for Britain. Greens Molly Scott Cato and blogger-activist Adam Ramsay spoke with Zoe Williams from the Guardian and, via Skype from Athens, Greek Green politician Costas Likeris. The common themes of anti-austerity and working for the common good (the Green strapline) were self-evident, but so too was the need for building coalitions, working beyond party boundaries to build movements of what Likeris said were "Common people doing extraordinary things."

Perhaps more quietly than would have been helpful, but helpfully nevertheless, the conference later went on to endorse a motion, proposed by Adam Ramsay, striking down an 18 year old ban on agreeing joint tickets with other parties. This opens up the possibility for Greens to ally with other parties of similarly radical viewpoints and for mutual endorsement of candidates, reaching out to build that movement for change. It augments the existing anti-austerity pact between the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru, already dubbed by some with the hashtag of the #RealOpposition . It may not transform the Left immediately, but it provides a lot of scope for Greens and parties such as Respect, Left Unity, TUSC as well as others on the left to work together in more than organising marches and meetings. Although with its surge in membership, organisation and support, the Green Party could be seen to be eclipsing these much smaller parties, the conference vote recognises that, especially with such a pernicious voting system as Britain's, pluralism is as much part of its core values as ever.

So, as our electoral system teeters on the verge of meltdown and with a major constitutional crisis possibly just a few weeks away, this principled and pragmatic move opens up all sorts of possibilities for a transformation of our politics. If for once the progressive left can put its obsession with ideology aside and endorse the pluralism offered by the Greens, Britain's own Syriza moment may not be far away and Natalie Bennett might indeed see her peaceful political revolution.

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