A Challenge for the Green Party

General Election 2017: A challenge for the Green Party

Prior to the General Election campaign placing all my routine endeavours on hold I was working on a problem associated with climate change: ‘Why, when most of us accept that climate change is both a reality and a threat, are we not prepared to change our lifestyles to mitigate its worst effects?’. During the election as the Green Party candidate for West Dorset, during my attempt to prepare answers to questions on a very wide range of concerns, it became obvious to me that the issues behind this question are of fundamental importance to Green politics as a whole. And dare I suggest that, as the results of this election sink into our consciousness, the problem has just become even more urgent. For despite the jubilation of seeing the Tories sink into chaos, and despite the claims that the mould of British politics has been broken, we are no closer to taking these fundamental issues to heart. The Green Party is the only political force in this country capable of doing this, but it needs to re-frame its arguments to win the hearts, as well as the minds, of not just our small number of sympathetic supporters, but of the wider electorate.

Quite legitimately the campaign focussed on issues of great concern to the electorate. Apart from the obvious concerns around ‘Brexit’, and what our leaving the EU will mean for a whole range of related issues, the two most common concerns raised in West Dorset related to the future of our NHS and the funding of our schools. My standard reply referred to their lack of funding. I tried to point out that as the fifth richest country in the world all that prevents us funding the NHS and education properly is the political will; that it’s all very well the Tories claiming that we don’t have the money, but that simply begs the question ‘Well were is it then?’ By ‘we’ they mean the state. The state doesn’t have the money because the our neo-liberal economic policy advocates a small state and minimal taxation. But we don’t have to accept this economic model! Others are available! But since the Thatcher years, the Tories in particular have been so good at likening the state’s budget to that of the household that the comparison has become part of our everyday world view. We so totally accept the image of the state as an individual institution within an objective economy that we cannot imagine it’s role in designing that economy! And for even longer, the image of us as being rational self-interested economic actors has come to so dominate our understanding of who we are that we have actually come to believe it.

I’ve come to the realisation that fundamentally all these issues, including those of climate change inaction, relate to the same problem. During the campaign, inspired by Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, I’ve been putting forward the following message at every opportunity:

  • Our environmental policy needs to take centre stage alongside our economic policy (they need to be understood as two side of the same coin)
  • The goal of this combined policy needs to change from that of pursuing economic growth to that of meeting the needs of everyone whilst living within the means or limits of the planet.

But to fully appreciate what this means we will all need to reconsider our identity as economic actors – and in many ways this will require us to reconsider and adapt our basic understanding of who we are.

The response that I was starting to formulate regarding the climate change question concerns what the sociologist Anthony Giddens refers to as ontological security. Basically, this means that questioning our own understanding of who we are makes us feel uncomfortable – it makes us feel insecure. So we don’t change our behaviour, even if rationally we agree that it would be a good idea. This is a similar problem to that faced by doctors when trying to get people to eat less / healthier, stop smoking, or drink less alcohol. At a rational level we may well agree that the doctor’s advice is good, but if these and other habits have been incorporated deep into our lifestyle, changing them will mean changing who we are. At that makes us feel insecure.

The challenge to be faced by the Green Party, then, is how do we convince people that our current economic model (that which we have absorbed into our world view and which therefore appears to be common sense) is in fact leading us, at rather an alarming rate, towards the cliff edge? And even if we can convince sufficient people ‘at a theoretical level’, how do we get them to change their world view and lifestyle when such a change will, to some degree, involve them changing who they are, and doing this will make them feel insecure? That is the challenge we face.

Many of our members and supporters appear optimistic that last night’s results will bring about change. I fear that they are misguided. Let us not forget that the Labour Party buys into this dominant economic model along with all the other parties – they merely file away some of its sharper edges. Only the Green Party has the ability to bring about real change. It has the right policies. But these policies need framing in such a way that people can start to imagine an alternative economic model, one that they can feel part of – one that will enhance how they feel about themselves, their community and their environment.

Democracy and Politics

General Election 2017: Democracy and Politics

This general election is being turned into a presidential style election – into a vote on who we want to be Prime Minister. It’s not a presidential election. I would actually like to be in the position of electing a head of state, but that is not our system unfortunately. No, we live in a representational democracy. We vote to elect MPs to represent us in Parliament, and make decisions on our behalf. And the important question to ask is: To what extent is our democracy fit for purpose? To what extent does (can) our elected representatives truly represent our views and values?

The obvious answer is, of course, ‘to a very limited degree’. Even if there is a 100% turn out, and 51% of people who vote are satisfied that the winning person, the person that they voted for, very closely represents their views and values, who represents the views and values of the other 49%? At the last general election, 5% of voters in my constituency voted Green. Who has represented their views in Parliament? Who has stood up in debate and argued from their perspective? Probably Caroline Lucas, the sole Green MP. But one MP, no matter how good she is (and she is very good) cannot make the case that 30 MPs could. And if we had a system that ensured that a party’s representation in Parliament reflected their share of the popular vote, the Green Party would have had 32 or 33 MPs in the last Parliament. Nearly all countries in Europe have a system of Proportional Representation, with many ensuring that once a party achieves 2% or more of the popular vote that share of the vote is represented in their Parliament. We need such a system urgently. Until we do most people will rightly feel that their views and values are not being taken into account.

But PR is not the only thing that needs to change. So does the way we actually make political decisions. We need to accept that there are no right answers to the problems we face, but that decisions still need to be made. Even more fundamentally, we need to accept that in the real world (as opposed to the abstract world of ideology) there are no certainties. There is absolutely no way of knowing, for certain, what the outcome of any decision made will be – the world, especially the social world is just far too complex. Instead we need to go more with the flow of evolution. We need to experiment a little more, be prepared to do things differently, take chances. If this starts going in the wrong direct we need to reconsider, let the experiment become extinct – but if it starts moving in the direction we want, or starts producing something we were not trying to achieve but is good anyway (as so often happens in evolution), we need to not only stick with it but do more of it.

Politically we need to learn to talk and listen more, especially with people we don’t agree with. We need to remember that no matter how passionately we hold our convictions there is no certainty that they are ‘right’ or will achieve the outcomes we want. We need to learn to make compromises, to try things out – to become engaged in a more complex and dynamic system of decision making, one that more accurately reflects the complex and dynamic processes of life. Such a way of doing politics is just not possible in our current oppositional and confrontational system. But if we had a system of PR in which the make up of our Parliament represented to the diverse make up of the country we would be required to move in this direction.

But it’s not all down to politicians to do politics differently. We all need to become more engaged in the debates. Students in school need to be taught about our political system and the main issues affecting us. They need to be taught that it is the responsibility of all citizens to become engaged in the way society is managed and governed. And this message needs to ripple across the entire sea of society. We need to accept that if we want a healthy and flourishing society we need a healthy and flourishing democracy – and to achieve this we need everyone to accept that politics is something we do, not something that is done to us.