Saturday, 31 July 2010

Guest Blogger - Kristofer Keane on The Case for a Scottish Left-Green Movement

Kristofer Keane has been a Scottish Green Party activist since 2007, has previously been a Green candidate and was briefly chair of the party’s policy committee. He currently lives in Motherwell and is studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter HERE and on his blog HERE

Kristopher Keane
In fewer than three months since the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, I have been amongst many who have been shocked by the ferocity, depth and eagerness of the ConDem cuts. We have all had our difficulties in swallowing the rightward swing of the Labour Party and British politics as a whole, but that mildly compares to the ideological onslaught with which we are now faced. Scrapping investment in schools, cutting funds to the NHS, raising VAT, our least progressive tax, the job cuts across the board, the determination to retain Trident – all these things are abhorred by us on the left.

Ideology is very much at the heart of the new Government’s agenda. On a nearly daily basis some minister or some tabloid will come out to remind us how “terrible” our debts are, how “necessary” the cuts are, how “protective” the new government are. Yet this belies basic facts: our debt as a percentage of out GDP is one of the lowest in the developed world – lower than Germany’s, lower than France’s, lower than the USA’s or Japan’s; we are cutting essential provision in education, healthcare and further whilst retaining our nuclear arsenal; and, the Government has taken very little action to protect those of us whose livelihoods depend on, and are dedicated to, benefiting society as a whole, rather than shareholders and CEOs or upon the genuine need for welfare.

However, it cannot be disputed that the new Government has a mandate of the majority of its people, can it? Well, perhaps if we were to exclude those who supported the Liberal Democrats in the belief they were supporting what was touted at the time as the “progressive coalition” (admittedly, I fell into this category myself due to the lack of a Green candidate in the Motherwell and Wishaw constituency). On a rather larger scale, we must also consider the fifteen million or so eligible voters who chose to not participate at all rather than support any candidates, a disproportionate number of whom were working class voters. Overall, fewer than one in four potential voters backed the Conservative Party, whose policies to which we are now being subjected.

Matters of mandate aside, the Conservative Party still received the plurality of votes – but why? Ipsos MORI’s large post-election poll “How Britain Voted In 2010” reveals many of the key demographic factors at play ( Immediately notable is that the largest group of swing voters were amongst social classes C2, D and E. The upper and middle classes saw comparatively little swings of 2-3% Labour to Conservative. However, the working class vote swung by 7-7.5% in favour of the Conservatives with the result that C2 voters (skilled manual workers) were only marginally more Labour-supporting that AB voters (managers and professionals). Indeed, if you look at the breakdown of female voters by class, there is an exaggeration of the swing against Labour amongst the skilled workers bloc, while the swing is actually reversed in favour of Labour amongst the most affluent voters.

Overall, there are two apparent trends – the fall in the Labour Party vote, and the rise in the Conservatives’. However, those of you who have glanced at the tables will have noticed that these two trends are not acting equally – the Labour vote is collapsing to other parties as much as the Conservatives. What can we extrapolate from this? I believe this is evidence of the major cause for the swing – disillusioned working class voters leaving Labour and unsure where to go.

This is hardly a groundbreaking or original assessment, but it does raise the point I seek to emphasise here – traditional Labour voters no longer know which ship will protect their interests when the Labour Party have sailed so willingly to the right. That so many working people may be encouraged to vote against their economic interests seems incredible, but may be attributed to a combination of the desire to replace the existing Labour government with a lack of any other working class alternative. Certainly, it is a common feature of American politics where generations raised under McCarthyism, the free market and the religious right have created millions of poor Republican voters happy to support tax cuts for the rich, many in the sustained deception that some of that wealth will one day be theirs.

So, the working people who swung to the Conservatives were largely acting to oppose Labour. In that case, how else did their vote move? Well, it certainly spread far and wide – over one third of voters supported parties other than Labour or the Conservatives, the greatest proportion of third-party voters since Labour first contested elections on a national scale. Green and left votes generally fell, with the notable exception of Brighton Pavilion, where a concentrated Green effort led to the election of Caroline Lucas, the first Green MP. On the other hand, a disconcertingly large bloc of voters supported the far right, with UKIP and the BNP both making substantial gains in vote share.

That so many people can be fooled into supporting the thinly veiled fascism of the BNP is something that should be disturbing to all of us. The best news post-election is that their excessive election spending combined with increasing personality splits within the party leave the BNP on the precipice of internal collapse. We can give thanks to our comrades in Unite Against Fascism and Searchlight and all those who helped campaign against the BNP in Barking and up and down the country, preventing them from gaining an MP and leading to the defeat of most of their defending councillors.

One campaign I was involved in last year against the fascists was the by-election in Glasgow North East. I was, naturally, supporting the Green candidate in that election but given we were not going to take the seat, my greater concern was that we should defeat the BNP candidate, given our history of poor results against them in the east end of Glasgow. Unfortunately as that campaign drew on, it became clear that the media was hyping up the BNP presence, and as it was they came within scraping distance of saving their deposit and taking third place. The closest left candidate to beating the BNP was Solidarity’s Tommy Sheridan, 219 votes behind.

However, Sheridan was not the sole left candidate against the united presence of the far right. A united left vote, as had been pushed from many fronts before the election, of Solidarity, Scottish Socialist Party and Socialist Labour Party would have drawn up just twenty votes short of the BNP excluding additional votes that could have been gained from co-operation and the pooling of resources. A left-green unity candidate would not only have saved their deposit based upon crude totalling, but would have beaten the Conservatives into fourth and the BNP into fifth place.

Glasgow North East at the general election again saw three left candidates – all losing deposits, all beaten by the BNP. Across the city, Green and left votes fell as their voters moved to Labour, looking to fight the Conservative squeeze from down south. All Green and left candidates lost their deposits, the best results being Dr Martin Bartos in Glasgow North (3.2%) and Tommy Sheridan in Glasgow South West (2.9%). We must ask ourselves – if there had been better co-operation amongst our parties, could we have improved that? Given we all fight elections with relatively little resources and relatively few activists, a division of labour across the city – a non-aggression pact of some sort – could have assisted in the division of Labour voters.

The Greens, for example, contested four seats. This meant the cost of four freepost leaflets, the work hours for canvassing and further leafleting of target areas, and four lost deposits. Supposing the same amount of Green effort and resources had been focussed onto two seats – say Glasgow North and Glasgow North West – it stands to reason that support would have risen in those seats. The support would be further increased by the withdrawal of the TUSC and Communist candidates, to fight other seats, on the basis of a united front that our supporters should vote for each other in the constituencies we each stand in. It is simply a missed opportunity that we should be fighting each other when we already have to contend with the major parties, none of whom share our common goals. Together, our votes really could make an impact against the major parties – for instance, the combined left-green vote in 2004 would have won an MEP, taking Labour’s third seat.

Again, none of these concepts are new. Left unity has been often debated and attempted in the last decade and when successful can lead to real breakthroughs such as the six Socialist MSPs in 2003 or the rapid initial gains made by Respect in Birmingham and Tower Hamlets. However, to date no attempt has been made towards a left-green unity group, outside of some local arrangements – notably in Birmingham Sparkbrook back in May.

So, with all this background in mind, what is the case for a left-green movement?

Well, what are any of us here for? Yes, as campaigners we take many approaches for many causes, but as political party activists we are all seeking one thing – to maximise the representation of our beliefs in the democratic bodies that run the state. Yes, we acknowledge that not all socialists are greens and not all greens are socialists (and that greens and socialists separately have many of their own platforms), but both movements have been converging over time and share much common ideology – more than we either share with Labour, Nationalists, Liberal Democrats or Conservatives.

At present, neither greens nor socialists can claim great advances in achieving representation – the organised left was wiped out save for a couple of councillors in 2007, and the Greens all but joined them. I think I can safely say we all agree that the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are not going to support the policies that we know are required to implement a just, equal, sustainable society. We have also seen that Labour and SNP governments have failed, and lack the impetus, to bring the change we support.

The left has had the relative luxury of time to split, merge and morph through various permutations during the last thirteen years of Labour rule, but now we all face an absolute crisis – the wanton destruction of the public sector at the hands of the coalition Government. We need a united front of all those who believe this destruction is wrong. There can be a time later when we reflect upon our future direction, but now what is needed is a focus on simply reversing the direction that we are being pulled in. What we need is the maximum real opposition we can muster – for we are the only opposition to the private-sector agendas of the coalition, of New Labour, or of the SNP. We need more Green and left MSPs in Holyrood, we need Green and left voices on every council, we need to be representing people on every level from Europe right down to our local communities.

There is plenty of evidence about what change for the better our radical voices, even in small numbers, can make. From Robin Harper and Tommy Sheridan alone in Holyrood in 1999 to councils with Green and Socialist elected members to Caroline Lucas, newly elected to Westminster, immediately highlighting Trafigura, supporting Gaza, opposing academies – where we have a presence we ask questions no other party will ask, raise issues no other party will approach, demand action no other party will take.

Our policy is not dissimilar. We might express different priorities and differ in the detail but despite our differing means, we all seek the same ends – that just, equal, sustainable society. Socialists strongly support measures to protect the environment and oppose nuclear weapons. Greens want a fair living wage, sustainable jobs and a strong public sector. Together, there is so much we all share and want to defend.

The differences we do have also make us stronger together. We have our traditional bases of support in different voter groups – the left carries much of the support of trade unionists, workers and students while Greens have their core support in academics, professionals and the third sector. Our combined supporters would come from all walks of life, our combined memberships would cancel out the fringe platforms of each side, our combined votes would win seats that would otherwise go to another same-old-party politician.

There are other real threats to us too. For too long now, the far right has been viewed as the primary opposition to the major parties’ consensus. We have already seen the BNP gain MEPs and councillors. While we can hope they are near to collapse, without a real alternative for those voters disenfranchised by the rightward lurch of the major parties they will continue to vote for whoever they see out in the community saying something different. We need to be the ones out there, campaigning and fighting for people instead of amongst ourselves – we need to prove we are a far greater alternative concerned with the welfare and livelihoods of the working class than racists and fascists.

In terms of practicalities, it may be too late to form a united front for next year’s elections. Greens have already started selecting candidates, and I would presume that the SSP, Solidarity and other left parties are doing the same. However, the future holds many options. In 2012 council elections, we should seek to maximise the benefits of the STV system by encouraging transfers between left-green parties. In areas where we haven’t stood full slates before, we should try to offer every voter a left-green candidate. In areas where one party is stronger than another, such as the Greens in Edinburgh or the Socialists in much of Glasgow, we could perhaps advance on to withdrawing candidates in favour of those more likely to get elected to bolster our real-opposition force. We should also as a priority have agreements in place to select unity candidates for first-past-the-post by-elections to prevent another Glasgow North East debacle where the BNP can defeat our four-way-split vote.

Left-Green movements have formed all across Europe in the last two decades as our comrades in other countries realise they share more aims than they dispute and choose to work together. As an example to close on, here are the founding principles of the GreenLeft in the Netherlands, which I’m sure we would all support.

  1. To ensure the democratic state of justice, which ensures individual freedom and equal political rights.
  2. To ensure an ecological balance, in the knowledge that natural resources are limited.
  3. A just distribution of power, knowledge, property, labour and income, within the Netherlands, but also on a world scale.
  4. A resistance to exploitation and opposition to the suppression of groups and peoples.


eco-socialist said...

There's some good points in this article, but the likes of martin bartos are exactly why a lot of us don't think of the greens as part of the left. anti-socialist rightists like him will always give the greens a bad name.

Anonymous said...

"A Scottish Green Party activist since 2007."
So this is a different Kristofer Keane to the one who left the Green Party and joined the LibDems before the 2010 election on the grounds that the Green Party's fiscal policies were TOO LEFT WING?

Kristofer Keane said...

eco-socialist: I've tried to put across that we need to get past personal problems between the parties. Both sides of the left-green divide could name individuals they don't like on the other side, but that doesn't exclude the possibility of a broader consensus. I'm sure you find as I do that there are already some individuals within our own parties that we don't personally agree with, but we don't allow this to get in the way of our involvement with our parties.

"Anonymous": If you'd read my old blog on that subject, you'd know that my reasons for switching over before the election were three-fold: personal problems with individual Greens that I couldn't avoid; that I knew the Motherwell Lib Dem candidate while the Greens couldn't field one; and that I felt many Green policies were un-implementable. Perhaps if you were to actually reveal your identity we could have a more constructive dialogue, but at this time I'm presuming your intention is just petty bickering.

Anonymous said...

What on earth has my identity got to do with anything? For what it's worth, I don't know you; my information was purely based on googling you.

Your bio on this article is misleading, and I think that potentially undermines the integrity of this site. Unless you forgot that this very year you left the Greens and joined the LibDems, this was deliberate, as well. I don't think that that is a petty matter.

I didn't read your blog about leaving the Greens because you seem to have deleted it (surprisingly enough). However, I was basing my comments on excerpts of it as quoted in Lib Dem Stephen Glenn's blog of 8/2/10:

"The Liberal Democrat position on widespread cuts and efficiency savings is far more realistic and appealing to me than some Green Party campaign on preserving spending levels as they are now."

This incongruity makes me somewhat doubt your personal motives in this article. And I'm very open-minded about green/red cooperation. Glenn also writes that:

"Former Green Student blogger Kristofer Keane has been on a bit of a Political journey himself. he say he started supporting the Scottish Socialist Party, then in the 2007 elections supported the Scottish Nationalist Party, when he went to University he joined the Greens but now has left them to join the Liberal Democrats."

And now you have farcically left them to join the Greens again. With all respect, after a quick browse of your various blogs, websites and twitter pages - which seem to show someone more interested in self-promotion than in any leftist political cause - I just hope that come the Autumn, when you will no doubt be looking for a new party to join, it won't be mine.

Anonymous said...

"..the likes of martin bartos ... anti-socialist rightists like him" - wtf ?!?!! I don't know where you get that from 'eco-socialist'! Bit of ill-informed (whoever your source is) bigotry and smearing I'd say. Anyone who has actually had an in depth conversation with me on political ideology will find that I am not an "anti-socialist" even though as someone who supports democracy and human rights I tend to be wary of statists and people who are uncritical of previous (pseudo)socialist experiments. I certainly see problems with some left-sacred cows (and lots of problems with behaviour of some left-factions) but it doesn't make me anti-left or anti-socialist except to the sort of dogmatic ideologue incapable of nuanced conversation - the sort of George-Dubya-Bush-ist "if you're not with us, you're against us" kind of fool. My experience of people who self-label as 'socialist' (which I used to do before I discovered that 'green' better fitted my progressive world view) ranges from lovely passionate articulate thoughtful folk all the way to megaphone waving evangelical egotists who think they own the pavement as well as The Truth and remind me of some self-labeled "Christian" soapbox loudmouths i.e. no guarantee that they are civil, sensible or remotely understand (let alone practise) what they preach however much they froth at the mouth to proclaim it. Those sorts of tosser are present in most progressive parties sadly as well as the trad ones. I can't actually judge if you're one of them (as opposed to just being unfortunately misinformed), but name calling me a "rightist" who "will always give the greens a bad name" certainly pushes me towards that view of you. Is it any wonder that 'the-left' are so rubbish at building lasting coalitions with each other (let alone the electorate/public)? Regards, MartinB P.S. I'm not going to get into a discussion on here, so save yourself the typing; I just thought that I should challenge what is essentially ill informed name calling of me after someone sent me a link. P.P.S. Kris, did you really think through the point of guest-blogging here? why not re-quit the Greens and re-join the SSP if that's where you want to promote your ideas?