Leadership battle in the Green Party

The former Green Party deputy leader Shahrar Ali is now standing to be its leader, challenging current co-leaders Jonathon Bartley and Sian Berry.


Shahrar Ali seems to the better bet. The present leadership triumvirate of co-leaders and their deputy has been a bit of a dud to say the least, more a matter of non-leadership. They have somewhat failed, for example, to use the Covid-19 crisis to broadcast the green message on critical related matters, notably public health, diet, factory farming, world trade, live animal markets, and the accelerating incursions into and destruction of surviving wild habitats. The fact that most of those who have died from Covid-19 had underlying health conditions, for example, demands forceful campaigning on factors such as air pollution, poor nutrition and lack of exercice, in other words those very things that make people unhealthy and less resilient.

A failure of leadership

Instead, the (very limited) propaganda and campaigning led by the leadership triumvirate has been little more than ‘Tory-bashing’. Of course, there is so much to be said about what the Johnson government has done and failed to do. But others are saying it and saying well, few more effectively than, indeed, the editor of the ‘Lancet’. There is little political space there for Greens. There is simply no point in trying to ‘out Labour’ Labour. As Sharar points out in his video, Green Party strategy does not seem to have moved on from that of the disastrous ‘Progressive Alliance’, one that cost the Green Party dearly. [On the ‘PA’ stratey, see section 5 here: https://sandyirvineblog.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/green-party-strategy-part-3-sandy-irvine.pdf

At the same time, the current Green Party leadership has failed to develop a rounded critique of today’s post-lockdown ‘recovery plans’. We face a tsunami of destructive development, from new roads, the HS2 ‘rocket-on-wheels and Sizewell C to massive suburban sprawl and lowered building standards. Yet there is little communication of the real Green alternative to the government’s message of ‘Build, Buils, Build’. Instead we get what is little more than a ‘turquoise Keynesianism’, with calls to spend even more in what, remember, is already a grossly obese ‘three-planet’ economy.  It means, amongst many other things, a forceful challenge to the rhetoric of growth and more growth. Even mayor Anne Hidalgo in Paris is voicing a more pertinent and radical message than Greens in the UK.

Shahrar Ali is an exceptionally strong speaker, unafraid to say what needs to be said. His video rightly foregrounds climate breakdown. I have just looked at the ‘news’ section of the national Green Party public website: there is little sense of the scale of the crises we face and how fast time is running out. Shahrar is crystal clear about about the urgency of the situation.

However, the video he has put out is still worrying in some respects. For a start, he says that continued climate breakdown will make Brexit and Coronavirus look like storms in a teacup. True! Yet the crisis of ‘defaunation’ (habitat destruction and direct annihilation of wildlife) is just as serious and arguably even more urgent. The Covid-19 crisis is actually intensifying another peril, that posed by ‘plastification’. Mountains of plastic waste are being generated and then simply dumped into environmental systems (eg https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/science-environment-53287940/coronavirus-the-masks-you-throw-away-could-end-up-killing-a-whale?utm_source=Greenhouse+Morning+News&utm_campaign=c6f9417e5b-Greenhouse_Morning_News_GMN__9_July_2020_&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e40c447c1a-c6f9417e5b-124004213). Meanwhile, other ‘time bombs’ tick away, not least on-going denutrification and erosion of the world’s soils as well as depletion of life-supporting aquifers. Around the corner lie shortages in the ready and affordable supply of several key minerals.  ‘Peak phosphorus’ will hit food produciton badly, for example.

Beyond the Shallows

We need leaders who can see the ecological crisis in the round. But we do not need ones who think that there are easy fixes to be found, be it the mass conversion of existing vehicle fleets to electric batteries or the development of some new ‘digital’ economy. There is no place for fantasies about super-abundant renewable energy nor for promises to build millions of new houses. There is no dodging the fact that lifestyles are going to have to change radically, not least regarding diet and especially meat consumption. Nor can there be denial that on-going population growth at all levels, locally and globally, will make every problem worse as well as harder to solve.

It remains to be seen just how far Shahrar Ail really thinks in a truly holistic ecological way. Hopefully, he can see beyond shallow ‘greenery’, with its calls for ‘decarbonisation’ and ‘low carbon economy’. We also have to think more clearly about the links between ecological sustainability and relations within human society. Vague demands for ‘equality’ beg more question than they answer, given that the ‘sustainable cake’ can only be so big and thus provide only a restricted number of portions, even if fairly shared out.

Perhaps Shahrar does see how much has to change. His essay in the book ‘Why Vote Green’ does extend the notion of ‘inclusivity’ to non-human species. However, it is one thing to say that but it is another to think through what the setting aside of sufficient land and resources for ‘non-humans’ would mean for human numbers and per capita consumption (see https://www.half-earthproject.org and http://www.eileencrist.com )

Singling out Palestine again

This particular video is concerning in other ways. Having waxed lyrical about the overriding threat from climate breakdown, Shahrar then devotes about as much time to the vexed issue of Palestine. He actually uses the problem of defining anti-Semitism as proof of just how radical he is, a very poor litmus test. He seems not to grasp how easily legitimate critiques of the Israeli government (and, by extension, the ‘settler movement’) can spill over into anti-Semitism. It is not a problem that can be wished away.

It is certainly disquieting how many supporters in the UK of the Palestinian cause do not speak out about the rancid racism amongs many factions in the Middle East opposed to the Israeli state (eg calls to “drive the jews into the sea”) . Furthermore, many Arab governments have treated their own peoples worse than the Israeli government has treated Arabs in its territory. Critiques of Militant Zionism are not matched by the same rejection of Islamic Fundamentalism or extremist Hindu Nationalism.

Ordinary Palestinians have indeed been treated appallingly since 1947 (though it does not excuse resort to indiscriminate terror). The question here is why should the Green Party make Palestine a special issue. After all, contending parties in the Middle East will all be doomed if issues such as deteriorating water availability are not addressed. Global overwarming will make parts of the region uninhabitable. That is where Greens have something both different and relevant to say..

Furthermore, there are many groups in a worse situation than the Palestinians. It is perhaps somewhat perverse to focus on that issue and not give others the same attention. The tribes of the Amazonia and other such peoples are actually facing complete extermination, the fate far worse than anything happening in Gaza or the West Bank. The Chinese government has herded huge numbers of ethnic-religious minorities into veritable concentration camps, where, it is alleged, there is now a programme of forced sterilisation. Chinese destruction of Tibetan culture and environment has been happening longer than Israel expansionism. Arguably, the crimes in Darfur, Syria, Yemen and Myanmar, to select some from what a recent UN report called the “new normal” of atrocities, are as bad, if not worse , as what has been happening in Palestine.

So, it is not clear why Shahrar Ali should choose to foreground just Palestine and give its plight the same amount of space that he gives to the crises that threaten all ‘Earthlings’, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or any other identify badge.

Neither Left nor Right

Having denounced near the beginning of the video the strategy of Progressive Alliances (which is actually predicated on the notion that there is a Progressive Left fighting a Reactionary Right), Shahrar actually defines politics on that very same continuum. Indeed, he places the Green Party firmly on the farther side of the Left, calling for what he calls a “radical socialist” agenda.

It would, of course, be unfair to read too much into one sentence in one very short video. Yet such political positioning is still odd. In the essay cited above, Shahrar rightly makes much of the distinctive Philosophical Basis of the Green Party. Even though it was badly watered down by a national conference in 2014, there is still clear green water between it and the worldviews of all other political persuasions. Indeed, the forebears of the Green Party and other such bodies, notably the first national green organisation, the Values Party in New Zealand, were founded on a profound and specific rejection of the then (and still) dominant political paradigms (“neither left not right but ahead”)

Their foundation was specifically driven by the publications of the ‘Limits to Growth’ Report in 1972. It is telling that it was the Radical Socialists of that period who were the fiercest critics of the ‘Limits’ perspective. Little has really changed since. That should not be surprising since the whole socialist movement, from its origins in the 1830s onwards has never accepted the core ideas that the first ‘proto-Greens’ began to develop over the same period.

Indeed, the first coherent articulation of the central idea of ‘steady-state economics’ was made by John Stuart Mill in 1848. That was exactly the same year as the publication of the ‘Communist Manifesto’ by Marx and Engels, a paean to economic growth and technological domination of the rest of nature. Six years later came Henry Thoreau’s ‘Walden’, another key green statement that has no echo amongst Radical Socialists. The same is true of other core Green ideas: ‘human scale’, ‘design with nature’, ‘bioregionalism’, the ‘precautionary principle’ and, above all else, recognition of the intrinsic value of all forms of life, not just humankind.

Radical Socialism has remained thoroughly anthropocentric as well as cornucopian. This is true of virtually shades of socialist thinking, from Fabianism to the Fourth International (for a case study of one leading left-wing thinker and activist, see: https://www.trotskyana.net/GuestContributions/irvine_prophet.pdf ). Even if one just looks at the whole Marxist tradition, there are very extremely few green shoots to be found there (this study probably remains the best overview: https://wwnorton.com/books/Main-Currents-of-Marxism/ ).

Indeed, some socialist elements today have taken a very radical turn, endorsing what they call ‘Left Accelerationism’ (eg ‘Jacobin’ magazine) and ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ (Bastani et al). Most others spend their falsely arguing that the only problem is ‘overconsumption’ by the super-rich, ignoring other forces at work (eg https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2018/09/27/a-global-tipping-point-half-the-world-is-now-middle-class-or-wealthier/ )

Moreover, many socialists today, unlike their often militantly atheist forebears, have acted as apologists for violent and sexist religious fundamentalism, as the ‘Observer’ columnist Nick Cohen and others have documented (‘leftist’ Jeremy Corbyn has been a particular bad case). Further, large sections of the so-called ‘Left’ have abandoned the old politics of ‘class struggle’ for ‘identity politics’, an extremely anti-eco politics, one that starts from subjective personal feelings, not the sustainable common good and the objective state of the world.

Mind the gap

This gulf can be sampled at the level of specific policy areas. Thus, whereas Greens have long opposed the construction of big dams, socialist regimes as well as ‘progressive’ bodies such as the Roosevelt New Deal Public Works Adminstration enthusiastically threw them up (one socialist, Woody Guthrie, even composed ‘hymns’ to them). Socialist governments of all hues have backed nuclear power while, by contrast, anti-nuclear campaigning has been a core Green issue. One might compare the socialist architecture of, say, Le Corbusier, with ‘green’ architects such as Gaudi and Hundertwasser.

Similarly, it was the NHS set up by radical socialist Nye Bevan that closed down Britain’s first experiment in holistic public health provision, the Peckham Pioneer Centre, such was the gulf in perception of what is health and how it is to be promoted. Recent reports about harm done to women by certain medical procedures underline the fact that there is more to health care than just the issue of private versus public provision (eg https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-53307593). There is nothing in Radical Socialist thinking on education to match that found in the works of, say, David Orr, Neil Postman, or the Centre for Ecological Literacy.

It is the Radical Left in the big unions such as Unite (Len McCluskey etc) that aggressively support airport expansion and the monstrosity of HS2. Routinely, they back destructive infrastructure projects. In NE England, sections of the Labour Party have even backed new open-cast coal mining and, in Newcastle, perpetrated the biggest grab of green belt land in the entire country for a grey sprawl of car-dependent ‘executive housing’ estates. The same Labour council also earned Newcastle the title of ‘tree-felling’ capital of Britain, though their ‘comrades’ in Sheffield did try to out fell them.

The same pattern repeats itself in many ways. I have been on several climate marches in my city. Activists from both Labour and ‘Hard Left’ groupuscules were conspicuously absent: their priorities lie elsewhere. Even when genuinely concerned, their thinking often goes little farther than vacuous slogans about ‘system change not climate change’. There are hardly any details about the alternative compared to, say, on websites such as CASSE (https://steadystate.org/discover/policies/ ) or to be found in books such as ‘Positive Steps to a Steady-State Economy’ (https://www.lulu.com/shop/haydn-washington/positive-steps-to-a-steady-state-economy/paperback/product-23210442.html )

Of course, there is the rather shop-soiled argument that none of these people was a ’true’ socialist. This is basically the Christian apology for, say, the crimes of the Jesuits. It ignores just how consistently socialists of all hues have opposed Green ideas, be it population denialism (ie the absurd notion that human numbers do not count and can never be excessive), dismissal of the critical notion of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, or unwarranted faith in the efficacy of planning. Many seem to think that production for social use carries no ecological price tags whereas, in reality, ambulances cost as much as armoured cars in ‘nature’s acounts’. Clearly, there is something intrinsic to the whole socialist tradition, revolutionary or reformist, that led to so many ‘red’ tendencies to be on the wrong side of the ‘sustainability’ barricades.

Collective policies

To be sure, there are some things that members of the public might see as ‘socialist’ that Greens will still support. It makes sense, for example, to bring ‘natural’ unities such as water or railways under public control rather than fragment them. Some things should be provided freely or at very cheap rates (as in the notion of universal basic services). But, there again, there is also an important role for (regulated) market forces and the price mechanism. Furthermore, the Green tradition is not so much about wealth taxation (whatever its immediate merits) but, rather, a radical shift from taxes on people to ones on resource throughput (see CASSE above).

Furthermore, some policies associated with the Left were actually pioneered by people who can hardly be called ‘left-wing’ eg nationalisation by Otto von Bismarck and state welfare by Lloyd George (and, later, William Beveridge). It might be noted in passing that links between the ‘working class’ (a vague term at the best of times) and the Left has always been a tenuous one and, recently in the Britain, the said workers were instrumental in putting the Tories in power. We cannot ignore the fact that, rightly or wrongly, the very word ‘socialist’ is a turn-off, especially for many older voters.

Of course, there are individuals who call themselves socialist and who are very worthy people, ones with whom it is perfectly possible and desirable to work alongside. At the end of the day, labels really don’t matter. It is what people do that counts. But the track record of so many of those found under the umbrella of socialism, be it in terms of theory’ or actual practice once in power, shows that the ‘eco-‘ and ‘socialism’ are uncomfortable bed fellows. It might be added that we need to be seeking to make friends and influence people across a whole range of social segments, especially those with no or weak political affiliations rather than the politcally committed.

Speaking out

Perhaps the most heartening thing about Shahrar Ali is that he does seem genuinely committed to proper debate. His firm stand on the rights of women in the video is certainly to be commended, given the vituperative nature of some ‘Radical Trans’ campaigners. Indeed, Greens need to speak out against irrationalism, the constant search for personal slights, and the shutting down of debate.

Indeed, there are some really worrying trends here (see, for example: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/573029/the-death-of-truth-by-michiko-kakutani/; https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/the-once-and-future-liberal/ and for a revealing case study of how the ‘environmental movement’ can be divided by ‘identity politics’: https://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm/frm/184152/sec_id/184152

Shahrar does not attempt to curry favour here. He is spot on in his warning aobut the toxic culture that has developed inside the Green Party. It is one that has been actively aided and abetted by at least two of the current leadership triumvirate, one in particular.  On those grounds alone, we need a ‘clear out’. This is only one of many examples that could be cited of the destructive impact of what is in fact a small but vociferous clique: http://www.beatrixcampbell.co.uk/bad-dreams-greens-and-gender/?fbclid=IwAR2wLOsAr3KrBJPau_edO4yzCq8-yXy-iu2pTBQ-k2EdfpT0OMWDg3yKb7g

For that and for his forthrightness about the threat from climate breakdown, he will get my vote, whatever reservations can be noted about specific stances he takes.