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.