Technology, transformation and tears: some philosophical differences between Labour and the Greens

A version of this article first appeared on the Labour Hame website in the context of the 2015 General Election. I have updated it here for the 2017 election.

The controversy over the possible pact Labour might form with the Greens in certain seats has tended to turn on the pragmatic electoral benefits it might yield rather than the extent of the political common ground between the two parties.

Proposals such as the suggestion by Jon Cruddas and Clive Lewis that Labour should stand aside in Brighton Pavilion and the Isle of Wright constituencies, or the ‘Progressive Alliance’ championed by the Compass thinktank, are motivated by hard-headed political calculation.

Those opposed, Luke Akehurst for example, argue that voters have a right to a full list of candidates, and that an alliance might be viewed by the Greens as an opening to begin the process of replacing Labour as Britain’s largest progressive party, just as Labour replaced the Liberals following the 1903 Gladstone-MacDonald pact.

There’s been little objection to a deal on the grounds of principled political differences. Akehurst takes a brief sideswipe, suggesting the Greens are ‘anti-industrial and hence anti-jobs’ with ‘cranky views on defence and foreign policy’ and ‘little cultural connection to ordinary working people’. But it’s small beer by comparison with the unrelenting bitterness of the feud between Labour and the SNP, another party touted as possible members of an anti-Tory grouping.

So what might those differences be? And are they sufficient to challenge the integrity of an electoral pact?

There are good reasons why many within Labour find it rather hard to pick a fight with the Greens. In Caroline Lucas and, in Scotland, Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone, the party has eloquent leaders who have helped them punch above their electoral weight. Lucas has established a reputation as an formidable Parliamentarian and writer. Harvie and Johnstone both had good campaigns during the 2014 Scottish referendum.

And to spend any time browsing Green Party policies is for the political idealist rather like opening a particularly delicious box of chocolates, or finding the best bits from the entire Verso Books catalogue condensed into a single, impossibly rich prospectus. The Green agenda includes:

  • a rapid transition to a zero-carbon sustainable economy;
  • a ‘Green New Deal’ for renewable generation, flood defences and building insulation that promises millions of new jobs;
  • a publicly funded and provided health service free at the point of use;
  • a living wage of £10 an hour;
  • the phasing out of fossil-fuel based energy generation and nuclear power;
  • abolition of the bedroom tax;
  • 500,000 new social rented homes;
  • the scrapping of university tuition fees
  • nationalisation of the railways and an immediate £10 fare cut;
  • a Citizen’s Income to replace tax-free allowances and most social security benefits;
  • the decommissioning of nuclear power and non-renewal of Trident;
  • major constitutional reform including the abolition of the House of Lords and the introduction of PR;
  • and the promise of a second referendum to ratify the terms of Brexit.

It’s a programme designed to resonate with any radical, combining high-mindedness, a willingness to name and confront the deep issues facing Britain and the rest of the world, and an invigorating sense of intellectual adventure.

One memorable banner seen during the 2000 world trade protests read ‘Let’s replace capitalism with something nice’. The Green Party proposes to replace neoliberalism with something very nice indeed – the gradual transformation of the UK into an idealised Greater Copenhagen: a green bicycling nation of generous civic spaces, world renowned restaurants, good coffee shops, ergonomic working environments, participatory politics, skilled work, first-class public services, and great TV, encircled by gleaming fleets of whirring wind turbines shimmering on a blue horizon.

Certainly, there are worse utopias.

It is important for Labour to recognise why the Green vision appeals to so many progressives, and that recognition should begin with acknowledgement of the valuable contributions the Greens have and continue to make to British and international politics. Let me list five:

The imperative of ecological sustainability

The British Greens are part of a wider environmental movement that has refused to allow the world to forget the potentially devastating environmental and social consequences of climate change. Green activists have worked for decades with, until relatively recently, little success to make clear the pressing reality of global warming to a largely uncomprehending political establishment and apathetic public.

Participatory politics

The Greens haven’t done it alone, but have been persistant in arguing for further democratisation of our political and economic frameworks, including devolution of power to national, regional and local assemblies, and the extension of cooperatives and mutuals.

Civil liberties

The Greens have been strong supporters of civil liberties, their commitment to a Digital Bill of Rights, for example, an early recognition of the opportunities the internet has opened for new forms of surveillance.

Peaceful conflict resolution

The Green emphasis on the primacy of dialogue as a means of conflict resolution is not without its utopian element, but stands as a perpetual reminder to governments too easily tempted to resort to force before other options have been properly explored.

Political imagination

The Greens aren’t afraid to dream, to propose bold policies commensurate to the scale of the world’s most pressing issues, whether climate change, overpopulation, inequality or authoritarianism. A willingness to advocate imaginative solutions to seemingly intractable problems is a mark of any progressive party worthy of the name.

Three differences

There are many points at which the green and socialist traditions overlap. But there are also significant differences. Here are three.

Radical realpolitik: the trauma of power

Greens frequently express frustration with Labour’s habitual caution. It’s a complaint that has less resonance under Labour’s current leadership, perhaps, but for many Greens Labour holds too much back, is too respectful to a hostile press, too circumspect in boldly stating its ambitions.

Labour is a progressive party that, for most of its history, has been burdened with the responsibility of the prospect of power. The party understands well, through long, bitter experience, the necessity of tempering idealism with pragmatism, the compromises required to translate the dream that another world is possible into a practical programme for government.

Since the first minority Labour government of 1924 the party has had to have the hard conversations necessary to refine wish lists into serious, costed manifestos: to prioritise, to calculate, to hedge, to trim, to forge coherent realisable programmes on the anvil of heated discussion. The party’s turbulent history both in opposition and in government makes plain the pain of compromise: all those factions, enmities, resentments and broken friendships. But the wounds Labour bears are marks of a hard-won maturity, of a sober recognition that it must first win power to have any prospect of effecting change, and then, even when in office, fight hard to push progressive reform through a recalcitrant British state.

Radicals, by nature drawn to programmes that suggest tangled political issues can be finally resolved, often despise Labour for that pragmatism, prefering not to engage with the prosaic task of hammering out credible policies capable of cutting through a maelstrom of conservative hostility to sceptical electorates.

But Labour’s realism is precisely why the party has been able to win power repeatedly, and to actually get things done. Labour governments tend to frustrate as much as they inspire, yes – but the party’s cumulative legislative legacy is profound, encompassing the establishment and incremental improvement of a comprehensive welfare state and system of social insurance, the construction of much of Britain’s post-war infrastructure, workplace legislation that has improved conditions of employment and pay, redistributive taxation and benefits, the delivery of Scottish and Welsh parliaments, and – with a nod to the Greens – the first serious steps Britain has taken towards economic sustainability.

In the absence of those pressures the Greens are free to assemble freewheeling programmes that sound like more like a set of aspirations than audited platforms for government capable of withstanding forensic scrutiny. For example when – notoriously – the party’s Citizen’s Income proposals were subjected during the last election to the hostile gaze to which Labour is always exposed they were downgraded from a manifesto pledge to a ‘long term aspiration’.

Other Green commitments await similar scrutiny, such as the pledge to leave NATO, the open-ended opposition to international trade agreements, and the support for boycotting Israel.

Class and power

The Greens trust in the power of government to engineer progressive change. Economic sustainability and social justice are pictured as design problems, to be legislated into existence through the agency of representative assemblies. Rather like the SNP in Scotland they advocate a kind of ‘civic politics’, the government acting as a broker between disparate interest groups to establish a consensus for progressive reform.

Certainly, a Fabian faith in the capacity of the state continues is still fundamental to Labour’s political philosophy. But the party is part of wider labour movement that recognises that elected governments can only do so much to make radical reform happen: the balance of class power sets parameters on what a left-wing administration can do.

From this – darker – perspective, society is a ferment of constituencies with diverging interests that often cannot be reconciled. Labour, of course, was founded to provide parliamentary representation for one such constituency, working people, in their struggle to assert themselves against the owners of capital. For socialists the interests of labour and capital exist in tension, a fundamental antagonism that is more apparent today than it has been since the end of the Second World War, as the gulf between wages and returns to capital continues to deepen.

A sympathetic government can of course help workers: trade unions can be supported, working conditions protected and basic levels of pay enforced. But working people also need to stand up for themselves, taking collective action to fight for a just share of economic rewards, and to promote alternative models of economic organisation, such as cooperatives, that eliminate altogether the division between capital and labour. This appreciation of the extra-parliamentary forces at work shaping what a progressive government can achieve is absent from Green political philosophy.

Labour’s conflicted attitude to the basic income illustrates the difference. Many within the party, like the Greens, recognise the potential of some form of universal payment to empower people facing an ever more insecure labour market. But there is also unease that an income paid by the state would simply fill the space that a strong labour movement should play in securing worker rights and protections. A basic income granted by a left-wing government could just as well be withdrawn by a conservative administration: in the long term only a strong labour movement can secure lasting gains for workers.

Technology and transformation

There are also important differences between socialists and Greens in regard to economic growth and technology.

The Greens rightly insist that economic development must be sustainable. But they are also sceptical about the very desirability of economic growth. A page on the party’s website summarising the essence of Green political philosophy states:

We reject the view that wealth can be measured solely in monetary units, a view which allows its adherents to think it consists primarily of the results of human labour. This error has caused successive governments to pursue objectives which appear to increase the nation’s wealth while in fact they reduce it. Symbols of wealth, like money, reinforce the error and dominate political decision making. Economic growth is a poor guide to human welfare.

Today’s Green Party values technology and its importance for addressing environmental challenges. It is quite far from the bucolic mysticism of William Morris or the civilisational pessimism Dark Mountain collective. But it is haunted by a profound ambivalence about the merits of technological progress.

Morris, of course, is rightly – honoured as one of the pioneers of the early British labour movement, but his arts and crafts socialism has never wielded much influence. In practice Labour has been closer to a Promethean socialist tradition that recognises the restless human desire to re-engineer the world, to transform our material circumstances through technological development and so open ever new ways of extending human agency. Contrary to conservative misrepresentation socialists have always acknowledged the collective wish for greater economic wealth, but are concerned with the manner of its creation and its distribution.

The labour movement’s anthropocentrism has complex roots. It owes something to Marx’s understanding that humanity is both embedded within and distinct from the natural world: our capacity to transform the material environment from which we emerge allows us expand our creative horizons. Labour’s Christian inheritance is also important: the Book of Genesis instructed humanity to work and transform the earth, not just to act as stewards.

Since 1945 Labour has consistently championed technological and industrial progress. Consider for example the Atlee’s technocratic emphasis on the virtues of planning, Harold Wilson’s advocacy of the ‘white heat’ of technological change, Tony Blair’s attempt to position Labour as the party of modernity, or even the current leadership’s talk of wanting to foster ‘socialism with an iPad’.

Two traditions

If Labour is to respond effectively to the Greens the party needs to understand why they appeal so strongly to so many ‘natural’ Labour voters, and acknowledge the considerable achievements of the wider environmental movement of which the Greens are part. Elements of that tradition now – rightly – inform significant elements of Labour’s own programme.

But critical political differences remain regarding the necessity of pragmatic policy development, the acknowledgement of deep-rooted societal conflicts that cannot be legislated away, and the innate desirability of economic and technological development.

If, one day, Labour and the Greens do form a progressive pact, both partners would do well to understand what those differences are, and why they continue to matter.

Image: Detail from Speeding Train, Ivo Pannaggi, 1922.