Sunday 19 October 2014

How Labour Can See Off the Greens

Political parties are always coalitions of interests, and nowhere is that truer than our dear old Westminster: practically the last bastion of winner-takes-all parliamentary elections in the world. All it takes to form a majority government is 325 seats, a feat that can be managed without winning an absolute majority of votes. And so to win our parties have to build up blocs of support, and do so by appealing to certain interests. The Tories traditionally cornered the market in business, big and small, a managerial section of the middle class and a smattering of working class voters for whom individual, not collective self-interest mattered most. Labour's core coalition was always a key section of the professional and public sector-oriented middle class, as well as the bedrock of the labour movement. And the smaller parties, the Liberals, the nationalists, they've had to get by on those left outside.

Now the coalitions comprising the two main parties are fragmenting. The process is quite advanced regards the Tories as UKIP gobbles up the rural reactionaries and anti-Labour working class voters. But Labour is also vulnerable and has to start paying proper attention to its sociological roots. A nod in this direction, albeit only on the level of electoral competition, is the announcement that Sadiq Khan is heading up Labour's anti-Green Party strategy. Complementing a similar initiative looking at the UKIP threat, this is a smart move. However, given the policy menu Labour has so far revealed it's probable any recommendations Sadiq and co. come up with will not stymie the Greens permanently. The best we can hope for is a rearguard action before May next year.

Reasons to be pessimistic? There's plenty. Firstly, the Greens are part of a rising constituency Labour needs to win. Historically, it has been able to do just that. But the party's continuing commitment to austerity-lite and softer market fundamentalism in health, public transport and education imperils this. Far, far too many on the front bench have either forgotten or do not know that markets are not a technocratic mechanism for delivering public services. Markets are fields of power. Every private provider makes profit by skimming off a margin for its shareholders, and does this by driving down costs in the service they deliver. There are more than one ways to skin a cat, but usually it's done by reducing the staffing bill by redundancy, wage reductions and/or imposition of new terms. In other words our people in public services, from professionals to support staff find themselves bearing the costs of so-called "efficiencies" So immediately you have a chunk of more-or-less loyal Labour support who have a material interest in not supporting the party that supposedly represents them, but will find their hopes and concerns expressed in Green Party policy. The Tories have never made the mistake of hammering their core business constituency. It's about time Labour learned a similar lesson.

Second, as noted by The Graun Green voters tend to be among the most engaged of Britain's electorate. This echoes findings of 30-odd years worth of research on Green Parties across the world. For example, Paul Lichterman's 1996 classic The Search of Political Community found Green activists and supporters tended to be or have been involved in a variety of political causes. The consistent feature of their activism was something he called 'personalism'. This was an individuated (but not individualist) approach to politics in which a Green activist undertook party activism as one commitment amongst many. What mattered most was not so much party or movement building, as per labour movement traditions, but the diffusion of a values frame among wider layers of people. What you might call consciousness raising. Filtered through to electorates, there's long been a section of relatively affluent, well-educated voters who have a similar personalist approach to conventional politics. This so-called post-materialist bloc are likely to pick and choose support on the basis of values and beliefs any socialist would find progressive. Putting Labour and the Greens side-by-side, whose programme appears more appealing to this layer of people?

Lastly, because the social landscape has been reshaped before our very eyes the terrain on which every election battle is fought differs greatly from the previous skirmish. Political scientists generally make great play of the difference between first and second order elections. The latter, comprising of local, European, assembly and by-elections "don't matter" because the only one that does is the one election that decides who governs every four or five years. In Britain this usually manifests itself in higher turnouts and a solidification of support around one of the two natural parties of government. That will be no different next year, albeit with one major caveat. First order elections are starting to look like second order elections. In 1979 Labour and the Tories had 80.8% of votes cast between them. In 1997 it was 73.9% and at 2010 it was 65.1%. Voters increasingly aren't playing by the rules, and there's no reason to believe next year will be any different.

Unfortunately for us that means attacks along the lines of 'vote green get blue' and playing the lesser evil card is unlikely to sway nearly as many progressive-but-peed-off voters as on previous occasions. When they perceive a Labour Party responding to UKIP's rise by tacking right on immigration and social security, now the Greens are an increasingly credible proposition electorally speaking they might well vote for something they do want than something they don't.

But all is not lost. The challenge posed by the Greens is nowhere near that currently rending the Tories. It's rather a problem storing up big trouble for the future. It might damage our chances in 17 seats now, but that will be much bigger come 2020. The thing is winning over Green voters permanently doesn't even entail a lurch into electorally whiffy ultra-leftism. Tackling marketised chaos and insecurity in the public sector is hardly storming the Winter Palace. And putting front and centre realisable social democratic policies with cross constituency appeal would be a massive help. Such as abolishing tuition fees, for example.

Labour has to move from the propaganda of the word to the propaganda of the deed if it is to win, win, and win again. That's the choice. Change tack, stop attacking our base and developing a popular programme of social democratic transformation. Or carry on with a programmatic mix of the good, the bad and the ugly and see a section of our coalition melt away to the Greens. What's it to be?


Ken said...

"So what's it to be?" - a vote for the Greens I would think, given the complete lack of any sign of the Labour leadership following your sage advice. I would not be surprised to find a version of this in Green propaganda.

Dave Levy said...

Or recognise that we are both anti-capitalist parties, implement a PR system and work for a Red-Green coalition.

This would involve Labour moving to the Left. Labour represents those oppressed as workers, the Greens those oppressed as consumers and neighbours and we agree on public service provision and progressive taxation.