Caroline Lucas: a critical appreciation

Lucas and Bartley

At the end of May 2018, Caroline Lucas, the then Green Party co-leader, announced she would not be seeking nominations to re-run for the position. It was not a surprising development. Indeed what is quite amazing is how long she performed that role alongside her many other demanding commitments as the party’s sole MP, her repeatedly effective appearances in the media (all of which takes a lot of preparation), and a very active role in assorted grassroots campaigns, not least anti-fracking.

Many people outside the Green Party have recognised Caroline’s qualities and achievements. On TV programmes such as BBC One’s ‘Question Time’, she has regularly been the best person on the panel. Her combination of an attractive persona, knowledge and sharp debating skills has been a potent one.

But that is one of the problems. The Green Party and Caroline Lucas can become synonymous with people signing up because they were so impressed by her performances but not necessarily understanding or agreeing with the party’s full programme. Obviously there is a fundamental need to attract support. The danger lurks in the absence of mechanisms to integrate and harness those who have been drawn to the party by Caroline’s sterling efforts.

Caroline has played a ‘star’ role and rightly so. Yet this inevitably casts others into the shadows. Her co-leader Jonathan Bartley, for example, is a talented man but it is probably fair to say that in the public eye at least that the Green Party was a one-person show. Ironically proportionally the party has more talent in its ranks than do Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats. There is, for example, real expertise on a range of subjects from climate change and transport policy to food and agriculture. Perhaps here is an opportunity to do more to harness and display that knowledge and experience, even if the media do tend to go for just one or two faces they know.

Another problem is that leading individuals such as both Caroline and Jonathan have tended to reflect and encourage a certain London-centrism (Brighton where Caroline is MP is often described as London-by-the-sea). The party’s HQ is of course in London as well. There is always the danger of being sucked into a metropolitan bubble, It was reflected, for example, by the fact that many people within it were surprised by the Brexit vote, not fully appreciating the resentments about metropolitan elites (with which the EU is of course associated) felt by large numbers outside that bubble.

Perhaps here is another opportunity: to really regionalise the Green Party (perhaps as some federal entity, with financial and other resources being redistributed around the regions). A number of tactical mistakes have been made (over, for example, the relative importance of the Manchester mayor and Gorton by-election campaigns) because of a certain degree of insensitivity to what is happening ‘in the sticks’.

By being centred in London and with the (admittedly very small) apparatus of a conventional political party, the Greens have been playing by the ‘rules’. Even the announcement that Caroline and Jonathan were the new co-leaders was organised like some American presidential candidate event. Conferences are similarly built around leaders’ speeches. A lot of Green Party literature also looks like the literature from other parties, laden with promises to serve the public and all that waffle but few serious ideas. Yet all this is a political game that is heavily loaded against small parties such as the Greens. Perhaps it is time to try and break free, doing things differently and being seen to be really different from what, after all, is widely and rightly seen as a corrupt and corrupting political system.

There is a good case for having a leader (or co-leaders) in the manner of other parties. After much weeping and wailing in some quarters, the Green Party decided on that matter some years ago (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2007/nov/30/greenpolitics.uk). Yet it does not have a proper political leadership, one that leads the party in analysing the world ‘out there’, identifying emerging opportunities (and threats), and galvanising the party to respond to them in a united and effective manner. Instead there is something of a vacuum though, it has to be said, Caroline was not averse to taking, at times, somewhat unilateral actions by herself and her close circle (an example being the fiasco of the Richmond by-election).

Actually there is a case that she should have intervened far more often to give the party a steer. Quite reasonably she tried to work with all sections of the party. Perhaps, deep down, she is conflict-averse. But there were times, not least regarding the internal problems of the Brighton party, when she might have knocked a few heads together (non-violently of course).

Insofar as she did push the party down certain roads, it has to be said that they were not best ones. There are a lot of issues here. Some are discussed in three papers here:

https://wordpress.com/post/sandyirvineblog.wordpress.com/1287while there are many posts on the same matters here as well: https://www.facebook.com/sandy.irvine.18. To cut a long story short, Caroline seems to have become stuck in that well-worn groove that sees politics primarily in terms of a left-right continuum and that at the moment puts nearly all the emphasis on a ‘kick out the Tories’ narrative. This led a focus on so-called ‘anti-austerity’. Thus Caroline enthusiastically endorsed the ‘2012 People’s Assembly Against Austerity alongside various left-wing luminaries. (http://www.compassonline.org.uk/)

Difficult questions about how an end to government-imposed austerity could be reconciled with the deep cuts necessary to avoid disastrous climate change, the destruction of biodiversity and more generally live within the planet’s means (‘downsizing’ from a 3-planet to a 1-planet economy) were just dumped on one side, a matter for some vague rhetoric but little else. [cf http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/counting_consumption.pdf

Caroline has rightly spotlightedsheer unfairness of government policies and the way the economic situation is being used to drive forward a programme of privatisation and enriching the already super-rich. The problem of unsustainability is not just caused by what in her stepping down speech she called a ‘callous’ government. A caring government committed to the same growth agenda would cause the same fundamental problem of ‘overshoot’. The fact that the UK needs the equivalent of 3 planets to support it must be addressed squarely (http://www.wwf.org.uk/wwf_articles.cfm?unewsid=1222) Glib slogans about nocutbacks scarcely help.

Part of this orientation was of course the pursuit of the will o’ the wisp of a Progressive Alliance. I was centrally involved in the negotiations over the precise strategy (it became something very specific: “Electoral Alliance for Proportional Alliance”, definitely not a broad front across a range of issues). But I could tell Caroline still wanted to pursue the Progressive Alliance option. In reality, it was never on the table (despite some honeyed words from bodies such as Compass). In practice, it led to an electoral disaster. The Green Party was always going to be squeezed but it did not help itself by appearing to be not so different from the Corbyn Labour Party. [See many of the posts on the above Facebook page for relevant evidence and argument)

Indeed Caroline conspicuously failed to present a forceful and across-the-board critique of Corbynism and ‘Left Labourism’. Perhaps the main reason was her identification with the Left. Thus on the BBC’s Question Time programme (13/0310), Caroline said, ‘Well, we have socialist principles’. But the nature of this ‘socialism’ was seldom given any concrete meaning by her. The fact is that nearly all regimes and political leaders who have called themselves ‘socialist‘ have trashed environmental systems and human communities with neither restraint nor remorse. Socialism as a theory has been overwhelmingly cornucopian, centralist, and enthusiastic for the “white heat of technology”. Only in one or two corners of the whole tradition has there been recognition of the intrinsic value of non-human nature and of the need for a ‘steady-state economy, and a ‘human scale’ within society.

One final matter worth noting is how Caroline pushed the Green Party into a less critical position regarding the EU and the Single Market. Historically the party had always been hostile to the centralising, growth-pursing EU as well as the large-scale, long-distance (and mainly road) transport inherent in the Single Market. It posed instead a strategy of economic ‘localisation’ and political subsidiarity (a “Europe of Regions”). One might oppose this particular form of Brexit at this moment and on the terms likely to be agreed. But that does not alter the fact that anything remotely resembling the current EU is utterly unsustainable. It is interesting that one of best advocates of such ideas in the past used to be Caroline herself (see https://shop.greenparty.org.uk/products/book-green-alternatives-to-globalisation). Of late, she seems to have shifted towards a more conventional agenda rather than trying to articulate a distinctive green ‘take’ on the matter.

But there are all sorts of difficult strategic and tactical choices here. Thus a case might be made that Caroline was spotting an opportunity for the Greens as a strong voice within the Remain camp. It is also true that there is something peculiarly inept and mean-minded amongst the government of Theresa May. Its failings do need to highlighted in a rigorous and coherent way. Caroline’s ability to deliver it stands in contrast to the performance Jeremy Corbyn signally fails to deliver in a consistent and compelling way, most strikingly in parliamentary debates where his mistakes often let the government wriggle off the hook.

But the big issue is not about individuals but about political ideas. Caroline has served the Green Party exceptionally well from the days of being a press Officer to her recent time as co-leader. In terms of the deeper Green worldview some of her stances, most especially regarding the Progressive Alliance strategy, have been problematic. But they most certainly do not diminish her achievements.

 

 

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