Green and Red co-operation: A practical strategy or a blind alley?

If we (the Green Party) are serious about the need for a wide range of radical environmental, social and economic changes, we need to accept that, of necessity, these changes will require a strong top-down dimension. As much as I admire and support grass-root initiatives and campaigns, they will not, on their own, bring about the changes to both social attitudes and political / economic structures that are required if we want to avert the worst effects of climate change, environment degradation and global inequality. At best, bottom-up approaches will just take too long. At worst, they will never acquire the power and momentum to overpower the neo-liberal agenda that forms the status quo. No, if we are serious, and I really do hope that we all are, we need to acquire political power. Or, at the very least, a degree of political power; a strong Green voice at the level of national government.

Now, I don’t want this to come as a shock to anyone, but we will not win the next General Election. I also suspect that we will really struggle to increase our solitary representation in Parliament. Without a fair electoral system, without some form of proportional representation, without a process that allows the various important yet minority views held by the electorate to be represented in Parliament in proportion to their existence in the country as a whole, we will just be banging our heads against the proverbial brick wall. And I for one do not like pain. Under our current electoral system, not only will the views of Green Party supporters not be aired on the national stage, where they have the potential to influence top-down strategies and recruit further Green Party supporters, but these existing supporters will find themselves wanting to support other parties in the hope of bringing about some actual positive change, however trivial. A small step away from disaster may not be sufficient, but it makes a lot more sense than running towards it.

I usually consider myself more of an optimist than a pessimist, and I don’t like the way my argument is going any more than you may do, but things gets worse. We are nowhere close to getting a system of proportional representation. Yes, there are many very active campaigns doing their very best, there is even a campaign within the Labour Party for its adoption. But so far the likelihood of there being a change to some system of PR in the near future seems highly unlikely. For this to happen the Labour Party will need to adopt it and campaign for it. How long are we prepared to wait for PR? I believe that the changes we need to bring about are too urgent to wait for the argument to be won. Yes, we need to continue campaigning for PR, but we also need to consider an additional strategy.

I disagree with the Labour Party, even the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, on several key issues. Their lack of support for PR I’ve already mentioned. Their reluctance to reject nuclear weapons is another. But most importantly, I disagree with their economic policy. It’s old fashioned, and it fails to acknowledge our relationship with non-human life and our environment. They still put forward the goal of economic growth as the raison d’être of the economy. Until they become agnostic towards growth, as Kate Raworth would phrase it, until they adopt a different goal and measure of economic success, one that aims to meet the needs of people whilst living within the means of the planet, we will still be sleep walking towards the next great extinction event – the one of, and the one caused by, humans.

One the other hand, I still regard myself a socialist at heart. And from talking to many other Green Party members I know that I am not the only one. My initial reason for joining the Green Party was my total disillusionment with ‘New Labour’ and the discovery that the then Green Party manifesto was more ‘socialist’ than anything put forward by Labour, certainly in my political life-time. Since joining, however, my developing understanding of our relationship with our planet and non-human life, relationships that need to be considered alongside our social and economic relationships with each other, means that I now consider my political colour to be deeply Green. I could never return to the Red camp, even though there are many aspects of Labour policy, particularly their social policies, that I would have little trouble supporting.

And there’s something else in Labour’s favour. Bearing in mind all the problems associated with the absence of a fair voting system, they offer the best chance of getting a radical alternative to the warring Neo-liberalism and Conservatism amalgam that passes for the current Government. Certainly the best chance of doing so in the near future. And at the risk of sounding too ‘doom mongering’, could I point out that time is not on our side! We need to start introducing legislation soon – legislation, for example, to facilitate the rapid expansion and development of renewable energy, to restructure our public transport system, and to control the types of plastics that can be sold and used.

So, here’s my suggestion. Why not start working with Labour whilst maintaining our own clear identity? I’m thinking on the lines of a critical friend. One who is prepared to offer constructive criticism – not with the intention of belittling or trying to usurp, but with the intention of offering a much needed Green perspective to Red policies. Why not offer help and support to the Labour Party where we can, whilst at the same time campaigning for them to adopt PR and to reconsider their economic policies. More specifically, at the local level why not work with Labour for the joint selection of candidates: not necessarily competing with each other at all elections; not necessarily both running a full slate of candidates; perhaps selecting those candidates from either party with the best chance of winning. And at the national level, Labour not challenging the Green Party candidate in our (very few) target wards in return for us not standing in those constituencies where they have the best chance of winning. If, for example, Labour challenged Caroline Lucas’s seat in Brighton Pavilion I would be the very first to admit that any deal would be impossible. Such a challenge would serve no purpose and would simply reveal the degree to which Labour needed to ‘get with the times’.

All this, of course, to be truly effective, would need to be top-down, would require an agreement between both parties at the national level. It would require a Labour commitment to PR and an understanding that they were prepared to offer us the same consideration and respect as we offer them. And it would need to be undertaken as a creative exercise, one in which everyone believed that the collaborative result would be greater than the sum of our individual contributions. But as above, can we afford to wait for such a national agreement? Whilst waiting, would it be worth exploring how we could collaborate at the local party level? Would the structure of Labour allow this? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do believe that if some dialogue could be started it would be an important first step in the walk away from the fast approaching precipice.

Stating the ****ing obvious: the case for a second EU referendum

At the risk of stating the [insert your expletive of choice] obvious, the question asked at the EU referendum (‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’) contained such an intrinsic imbalance that it has resulted in the impossibility of there ever being a clear consensus of the way forward. We were not asked to choose between two different but tangible options (do you support the policies of party a, b, c or d?), but between the tangible status quo and an intangible ‘not the status quo’. And because choosing the intangible option is leading us, dream-like, down a misty path towards who-knows-what, I’m happy to follow the advice of P. J. Kavanagh and “never to be afraid of the deafeningly obvious, it is always news to somebody.”

Being a member of the EU meant (means) something very real. It doesn’t matter whether you like it, dislike it, or want to improve it, there is a reasonably clear ‘it’, a substantial ‘it’ that can be grasped by the mind, that doesn’t need to be imagined, an ‘it’ that actually exists, that you like, dislike or want to improve. In terms of the 2016 referendum (was it really that long ago?) this meant that whether you voted Remain or Leave, your reference point was our (then) current status as a member of the EU. But what were you actually voting for? What did you hope to achieve by voting the way you did?

If you voted Remain this is a reasonably straight forward question to answer. You voted for the tangible status quo. Even if you were not entirely happy with this status quo (and that was probably the situation for most of us) this was the clear and concrete situation which we wanted to retain (and improve from the inside). But if you voted ‘not the status quo’ there was no clear and concrete situation which you were actually voting for. At the very best, each voter who voted Leave had an imagined situation they were voting for, a situation that, because it was imagined, may or may not have been realist or achievable. But even in the very unlikely situation that all people voting Leave had a clear imagined scenario they were voting in favour of, it, by definition, was subjective. It would have been impossible for all Leave voters to be imagining the same future scenario. However much some on the Leave side of the argument may argue to the contrary, it is utterly impossible for there to be a clear and tangible situation that they were all in favour of. It was impossible for Leave voters to know what they were voting for!

This is why there has to be a second referendum on the proposed scenario post Brexit. Whilst such a proposed imagined scenario will not be as tangible as the more concrete status quo, it will hopefully (to use a phrase from my days as a Careers Adviser) be the result of a well-informed and realistic decision. This means that the Brexit deal that the Government and their Civil Service advisers negotiate and lay before the country has had all the relevant information taken into account and (within the limits of an inherent uncertainty) that the resulting imagined future economic and political relationships have a realistic chance of coming about. This will, at the very least, mean that we have a clear and tangible (if not concrete) image that our minds can grasp and which we can decide whether we approve or not.

I feel somewhat embarrassed making this analysis because, as I’ve said, it all seems so very obvious. Maybe it will be news to some people. Or maybe it is just another of those inconvenient truths – a truth that is in danger of getting in the way of a ‘good’ Brexit story. Either way, it’s “deafeningly obvious” that the Emperor has no clothes on, and baby it’s cold out there!


What the Dickens?

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” Such was the view of scientific rationalism in Victorian times, given voice by Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times. Of course it was not a view endorsed by Dickens himself. Dickens, who had a more Romantic (bordering on sentimentalist) view of society, saw the misery such a dismissal of emotion and feeling unleashed on the working poor. But it is a view totally endorsed by the eminent scientist Steven Pinker in his new book Enlightenment Now, a book the Guardian critic, William Davies, describes as “a bold, wonderfully expansive and occasionally irate defence of scientific rationality and liberal humanism, of the sort that took root in Europe between the mid-17th and late 18th century.” I’m on the side of Dickens for this one.

Pinker’s basic argument is that for the vast majority of people in the world life has been getting progressively better. This progress is the result of Enlightenment thinking, the result of scientific rationalism. How do we know this? Because we count – we count the facts, nothing but the facts Mr Gradgrind. So, according to this view, all those people who feel let down by the current economic system, the system that allows the privileged few to get progressively richer whilst the majority at best manage to tread water, at worst start to drown, need to reassess their take on things. They need to stop feeling their hardships, and instead start counting the facts. Ultimately, Pinker informs us, economic inequality “is not itself a dimension of human wellbeing.”

The problem is, of course, that facts are not the clear and obvious entities that they are often made out to be, entities that demand to be received and understood in only one way by anyone using a completely rational thought process. Most facts are derived from raw data (often in the form of statistics) or some other form of evidence (an historic document or DNA sample depending on your area of investigation) which are then interpreted in order to make a meaningful statement. And whilst the various theories used to interpret this date and turn them into facts are usually well tested and reliable (and, in the case of science, to attempts to falsify them), they are never-the-less abstractions from a highly complex and inter-related world. In order to form a workable theory many of the ‘minor’ variables involved are ignored. They have to be. If they were not the theory would become too complex to be used.

But most of us don’t use rigorous, peer-tested theory to interpret data presented to us. We use heuristics, rules of thumb that we have been socialised into using or have formed over the years. One of the great failings of classic economic theory is its belief that economic actors make rational decisions based on perfect knowledge. This has been shown to be false. First, because the world is just too complex for all the facts to be taken into account, and second, because most of the heuristics we use have an emotional rather than a rational basis.

Of even greater importance for politics is the realisation that it tends not to be facts that motivate people to act, to change things. It’s emotions like anger, frustration, a sense or feeling of injustice or unfairness (not an analysis of justice or fairness). One of the targets of Dickens’ critique was the Utilitarian approach to ethics and social reform, an approach that that valued the greatest good for the greatest number decided through some form of calculus. This overly rational approach led to many absurdities and injustices. In Hard Times, Louisa Gradgrind, the eldest child of the Gradgrind family, has been taught to suppress her feelings. As a consequence, she finds it difficult to express herself clearly. But by the end of the novel she has found liberation from the factoid straight-jacket through an appreciation of the value of emotions and the imagination. She reproaches her father for his dry and fact-based approach to the world and convinces him of the error of his ways. Who will so convince Steven Pinker?