Warmer Heartbeats

United Kingdom

[image, unknown] [image, unknown]

Hilary Wainwright surveys the space for a Green politics of the Left.

Across Europe, red-green politics is in the ascendancy. In France, Greens are in government with Socialists and Communists. In Germany, Greens will soon be co-operating with the Social Democratic Party, and in the recent Dutch elections the Green Left significantly increased its vote.

In Britain, while green movements are strong, the Green Party is weak. Red-green, eco-socialist politics are also poorly represented in the Parliamentary Labour Party. There is not, however, a simple political division between green politics and the labour movement. Trade unions and local Labour Parties are often an uneasy, albeit necessary, home for activists who identify with the eco-socialist tradition, which has always been part of the labour movement.

For example, the novelist EM Forster wrote about the activist Edward Carpenter who, along with William Morris, personified this tradition at the point when it was being sidelined at the beginning of the twentieth century. He described how ‘the labour movement took another course and advanced by committee meetings and statistics towards state-owned factories attached to state-supervised recreation grounds. Edward’s heart beat no warmer at such joys. He felt no enthusiasm over municipal baths and municipally provided bathing drawers. What he wanted was News from Nowhere and the place that is still nowhere, wildness, the rapture of unpolluted streams, sunrise and sunset over the moon, and in the midst of this the working people whom he loved, passionately in touch with one another and with the natural glories around them. Perhaps Labour will listen to him.’

Labour leaders were deaf to such appeals. They followed the Fabian social-
engineering approach and applied the machinery of government to questions of social justice much as an engineer applies the lathe to metal.

The problem today is not the lack of eco-socialist traditions but the weight of inherited political institutions that squeeze out everything beyond a narrow, conservative consensus. The first-past-the-post electoral system gives the Labour Party a virtual monopoly of electoral representation of the left and pulls the left to the centre. Subordinate traditions, such as green, feminist and libertarian socialism, can rarely gather political momentum or accumulate support – constant inner-party conflict interposes a distorting prism between them and the public.

Will anything change in the age of Tony Blair and New Labour? The most obvious catalyst is the electoral system itself. The prospect of proportional representation acts as a ‘pull-factor’ towards a party to the left of Labour. There are also many ‘push-factors’: an authoritarian internal regime and policies that socialists – indeed anyone believing in democracy or social justice – find hard to stomach. A serious electoral challenge to New Labour at Westminster is well-nigh inevitable.

At the risk of sounding like the middle-aged aunt that I am, there are lessons to be learnt from the recent past. In Britain it is, I think, a mistake to presume that because the leadership of the Labour Government is so right-wing, the Labour Party is about to break up. I may be wrong, but I reckon Labour is a resilient coalition. Labour-left activists may be demoralized at present, but they believe the party belongs to them, not Tony Blair.

From the German Greens we must learn to avoid seeing electoral politics as the be-all and end-all. The practical insight of social movements, from feminists to direct-action greens, is that power lies as much in the bedroom, the factory, the neighbourhood, the street and the courts as in parliament. The German Greens have sometimes let the great weight of the Bundestag overwhelm the radicalism of what began as a diverse movement with an electoral voice.

There are many levers of power. The partial – and no doubt temporary – victory of grassroots movements against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment shows that action also has to focus on the extra-parliamentary, international power of corporate capital. National governments should not be let off the hook: it is, after all, their agreements that have opened up the world’s resources to exploitation by transnationals.

Precisely because the supposed representatives of the people are succumbing to corporate lobbies, the people themselves are finding other sources of power to challenge them. Any party seeking to promote ecological and social justice will need to be rooted in sources of popular power as well as aspire to electoral power.

These roots are more likely to be established if a party’s own organization prefigures the change it is trying to bring about. A complete fusion of ends and means will never be possible, but constant approximation to the ideal would be a powerful antidote to the flawed socialist traditions of the past.

This is perhaps the most important sense in which bringing red and green together involves a return to Edward Carpenter and William Morris. Their differences with the Fabian tradition were not just with its statist ends but also because they sought to practise eco-socialism in their daily lives as well as campaign for it on public platforms.

Two different sources of power in Ecuador...

Hilary Wainwright is the editor of Red Pepper magazine and author of Arguments for a New Left – Answering the Free-market Right, Blackwells, Oxford, 1995.

Contents - this Issue     Magazines Home

New Internationalist issue 307 magazine cover This article is from the November 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop