Despite my politics not being in the orbit of the Green Party, I was cheered by Caroline Lucas winning the seat of Brighton Pavilion in the 2010 general election. I thought it was a victory for pluralism, having another party represented in the House, and I looked forward to seeing what Lucas’ first move as an MP would be. When it came, it was a speech about the proper treatment of circus animals. Now, nothing against the rights of Montecore to a decent sized cage, but it was a little underwhelming as choices go. In retrospect, I think the Greens spurned a golden opportunity in 2010 by not thinking through their priorities. It is a chance they may not get again.
There has always been a dilemma facing the UK Green Party, indeed one that confronts all Green parties worldwide: which is more important, the environment or far left politics? Although they are often conflated or at least seen as part of the same overall agenda, they don’t always hang together so well in reality. For instance, it is perfectly possibly to see cheap airlines as a great thing for the British working class and thus a positive development overall from a left perspective; as an environmentalist they are hard to cheer on. One incident summarises this problem perfectly for me. I recall seeing a protester once who had “Save the Planet” emblazoned on a Soviet flag. It was difficult not to see the irony in this that the bearer of it surely didn’t recognise; the USSR had one of the worst environmental records of any country that has ever existed, from Chernobyl to the Aral Sea to the Semipalatinsk test site.
Caroline Lucas had the opportunity, I believe, to negotiate with the newly formed Coalition in 2010 when she was first elected to parliament. Given the “greenest government ever” agenda at the time, both the Tories and the Lib Dems would have welcomed the MP for Brighton Pavilion’s blessing on their shared environmental program. Had it been put forward in the right way, I feel certain that Lucas could have demanded certain policies be either fast tracked or implemented altogether in return for her support – of the environmental agenda of the government, I hasten to add, nothing more. However, it was clear that this was never going to be seriously discussed at Greens HQ. The politics of the hard left would never allow the Greens to be seen to be approving of any part of a Tory led government – even if it was the right thing for the environment. So the Greens, partly unconsciously, picked being a party to the left of Labour explicitly over the green agenda. This was a fundamental tactical error.
In this parliament, we have seen UKIP steal Conservative supporters from the right; I believe that with the Lib Dems going into coalition with the Tories, the opportunity should have been there, in theory, for the Greens to steal supporters from Labour on the left. They could have claimed that Labour weren’t left wing enough; that as the parliament progressed Labour were always going to tack right economically. This premonition having come true, they could have jumped in when Balls said that the Coalition’s cuts would have to be continued post-2015, even if Labour got into power. But the Greens are scared of being too harsh on Labour and thus their ratings remain as obscure as ever. If people like Owen Jones, Neal Lawson or Sunny Hundal won’t join you, who of influence on the left will?
It’s not too late for the Greens. They can rethink their priorities and become the party of the environment, if they focus their energies in that direction. But it is almost certain that they won’t.