Green Party members have a long and honourable tradition of taking part in non-violent direct action, from Green Gatherings at Glastonbury through Greenham Common to Newbury Bypass, from the Occupy Movement to the anti capitalist movement.
Our own MP Caroline Lucas was arrested for sitting in the street at an anti-fracking protest at Balcombe in Sussex. Several of our councillors – including current co leader Jonathan Bartley – regularly risk arrest and have been arrested, for example, in XR protests and in anti-fracking protests and in anti tree-felling protests in Sheffield.
As long as many members and elected Green government representatives keep at least one foot in these movements, they will ensure the Green Party does not become professionalised, careerist and tame.
The “iron law of oligarchy” – developed by German sociologist Robert Michels in 1911 after he examined the newly formed socialist parties in Germany and across Europe, stated that the older and larger a radical movement becomes the more it will adapt to establishment mores and habits, the more its volunteers become salaried functionaries and the more it drops its original, revolutionary goals for what is perceived as “pragmatic” or possible. It loses it’s democratic structures and becomes oligarchical with a leadership caste controlling a bureacracy and all the levers of internal power within the movement. This depressing theory basically states that you can never have a good democratic movement because if it obtains some success it will become oligarchic.
There are several examples of this in the UK. I would argue that this has happened to Friends of the Earth, the Labour Party, The Co operative Party (once a separate movement from the Labour Party, now just a vehicle for channeling funds to it), the Liberal Democrats and some unions, particularly Unite under Ken McClusky. These organisations are now very much part of the establishment, and are reduced to begging the rest of the establishment for gradual change rather than insisting on big, revolutionary change.
They take a role in the cogs of Government, yes. I am sure FoE executives get to sit in closed rooms with ministers quite often to tweak this law or that to make it slightly better. But they have lost the possibility of implementing and driving basic changes. They can’t say to the Government “Minister, if you don’t make these changes, people will be out on the streets, causing disruption.” Parties like Labour and LibDems and some unions believe they are competing with the existing power structure. They may be. But what is the point if they are not really presenting an alternative to it?
This is the danger for the Green Party as it becomes more and more successful at winning elections. If we spend all our time on election campaigns and then in council work, there is a very real danger of losing sight of the urgent need for a revolutionary change in the structure of society and the economy. We will get worn out by a litany of “we can’t convene that meeting until after the Covid crisis” and “We can’t change that planning rule because the National Planning Policy Framework tells us not to.” “We’ll set up a task and finish group to look at that. But we can’t tell you when it will be implemented.” “We can’t object to that bypass because so many people seem to support it and we’ll lose votes.”
On the other hand if we refuse to compromise with power structures eg, refuse to stand and raise the deposit for certain elections (the Police and Crime Commissioner springs to mind), spend all our time on the streets waving banners and planning actions, instead of knocking on doors and listening to residents, we end up becoming a powerless sect, “defined out” of establishment discourse and largely irrelevant, but with quite fun little gatherings every so often where we can all agree with each other and bemoan the state of the rest of the world that doesn’t think like us.
We would be an alternative to mainstream politics, but we would not be competing effectively for power.
Is there a way out of this depressing “Iron law of oligarchy”? Well yes. Thomas Mathiesen, Norwegian sociologist and prison abolitionist, had a theory of “the Unfinished” detailed in his book “The Politics of Abolition” written in 1974, the year that began so many Green movements around the world, including Britain’s Green Party.
This theory of the Unfinished is that a movement of “outsiders” without power or salaried positions can tackle the hierarchical, centralised, paid establishment, by deliberately always choosing to remain “unfinished”. By refusing to choose between short term goals and long term ones, refusing to choose between revolution and reform, between street protests and joining councils and governments. Between having one leader who basically decides everything (all other parites) and the option of having no figurehead at all so that the press can’t work out who to speak to and we get ignored (the old Green Party).
We need to do both, is the point.
We need to organise to win elections and have a professional central press office but we also need direct action that in someway disrupts the actions of the state, makes them sit up and take notice and injects some urgency into the debate.
In this way, the enemy, the establishment, can never quite pinpoint the Greens. If they attack us for being a bunch of irrelevant law breakers, then they have to explain why we are now taking an active, respected role in some many council administrations and as elected community leaders. If they tell us at the council or Government level that they can’t do anything about climate crisis straight away and have to wait until after the Covid emergency, then we can take part in street actions to say otherwise.
Of course to glibly say that we need to do both, does not resolve the relatively rare conflict where it is the same individual having to choose between going doorknocking in an election campaign or going down to London to take part in an XR action when they are on the same day. Which is the person supposed to prioritise? The answer boils down to explaining to our activists the relative importance of election action days.
If this is looking like a very close election, and there are looking to be only a few votes in it, and there are very few days until polling day, then of course members who are also involved with XR actions should be told how much of a difference their couple of hours work on the election campaign can make. A few more votes will be the difference between having an elected Green, a voice in the room of power for the next four years or not. This compares to their presence at an XR event, which is generally not dependent on managing to talk to and win over a handful of people.
However, if it is clear we are heading for a very decisive election victory (or defeat), in a particular campaign. If it is a long time from polling day and the election action day is simply distributing leaflets, then we should be honest about that and suggest that for this occasion they may be of more use at a day of non violent direct action.
The other area of potential conflict is when some in XR have on occasion decided to stand for election themselves by registering XR as a political party. (Here, I’m not talking about Roger Hallam, from whose new political party XR have now dissasocciated themselves).
This is a strategic error. The only party capable of winning elections that is bringing anything like the XR agenda forward already is the Green Party. In fact, I would go further and say that it is a mistake for XR, during election time, to pretend that they are non-party political. If anything they should be advising their activists to go help in Green Party targets where we have a good chance of winning.
Our first past the post system shows no mercy nor forgiveness for newly-formed parties with little branding or experience. The Womens Equality Party and the now forgotten “big name” MPs of Change UK, can testify to that.
Just as the Green Party must acknowledge that groups like XR are worthy of support, so should XR acknowledge that the Green Party is the only political party that is remotely near its agenda and is capable of influencing local and national government. By sticking to the “we aren’t party political” line XR lay themselves open to becoming irrelevant and ignored once the next fashionable protest movement comes along.
XR are for the moment a very useful movement for the Green Party, and I’m proud so many Green Party members are also involved. But it isn’t all about XR. There is Greta Thunberg’s School Strike movement in which many of us, or our children, have played active roles. There are individual actions by individual Green members and councillors, there is Christian Climate Action, and so on. If the Green Party did not exist, XR would have no chance of getting any of its desired policies implemented. If XR did not exist in its current form, there would be other movements doing similar things for Green Party members to support and take an active role in.
Taking part in non violent direct action, many organised by groups like XR, is an essential complement to Green electoral campaigning. But it should never be a replacement of it.
I’M INDEBTED TO THE BOOK “GREEN PARTIES, GREEN FUTURE” BY PER GAHRTON FOR THE REFERENCES TO THOMAS MATHIESEN AND ROBERT MICHELS AND THEIR RELEVANCE TO GREEN POLITICS.