George Monbiot recently wrote a piece for the Guardian about the impending collapse of the UK’s two-party system, and the attempts of the neoliberal establishment parties to shepherd their traditional voter bases back into the flock through fear campaigns. As the UK, like the US, uses the obsolete first-past-the-post voting system, the unraveling of the UK’s long-standing two-party system should be of special interest to US Greens.
Here is the first rule of politics: if you never vote for what you want, you never get it. We are told at every election to hold our noses, forget the deficiencies and betrayals and vote Labour yet again, for fear of something worse. And there will, of course, always be something worse. So at what point should we vote for what we want rather than keep choosing between two versions of market fundamentalism? Sometime this century? Or in the next? Follow the advice of the noseholders and we will be lost forever in Labour’s Bermuda triangulation.
Perhaps there was a time when this counsel of despair made sense. No longer. The lamps are coming on all over Europe. As in South America, political shifts that seemed impossible a few years earlier are now shaking the continent. We knew that another world was possible. Now, it seems, another world is here: the sudden death of the neoliberal consensus. Any party that claims to belong to the left but does not grasp this is finished.
Syriza, Podemos, Sinn Féin, the SNP; now a bright light is shining in England too, as the Green party stokes the radical flame that Labour left to gutter. On Tuesday morning, its membership in England and Wales passed 50,000; a year ago it was fewer than 15,000.
A survey by the website voteforpolicies.org.uk reports that in blind tests (the 500,000 people it has polled were unaware of which positions belong to which parties), the Green party’s policies are more popular than those of any other. If people voted for what they wanted, the Greens would be the party of government.
There are many reasons for this surge, but one of them must be a sense of popular ownership. Green party policies are determined democratically. Emerging from debates led mostly by younger members, they feel made for their time, while those of the major parties appear trapped in the 1980s.
Let me give you a flavour of the political transformation the Green party seeks. There would be no prime minister of the kind we have today, no secretaries of state. Instead, parliament would elect policy committees which in turn would appoint convenors. It would also elect a first minister, to chair the convenors’ committee. Parliament, in other words, would be sovereign rather than subject to the royal prerogative that prime ministers abuse. Leaders would be elected by the whole parliament, and its various political parties would be obliged to work together rather than engage in perennial willy-waving.
Local authorities would set the taxes they chose. Local currencies, which have proved elsewhere to have transformative effects in depressed areas (see Bernard Lietaer’s book The Future of Money), would become legal tender. Private banks would no longer be permitted to create money (at the moment they issue 97% of our money supply, in the form of debt). Workers in limited companies would have the legal right, after a successful ballot, to buy them out and create cooperatives, with help from a national investment bank.
The hideously unfair council tax system would be replaced by land value taxation, through which everyone would benefit from the speculative gains now monopolised by a few. All citizens would receive, unconditionally, a basic income, putting an end to insecurity and fear and to the punitive conditions attached to benefits, which have reduced recipients almost to the status of slaves.
Compare this vision of hope with Labour’s politics of fear. Compare it with a party so mesmerised by the City and the Daily Mail that it has promised to sustain the Tory cuts for “decades ahead” and to “finish that task on which [the chancellor] has failed”: eradicating the deficit.
Far too late a former Labour minister, Peter Hain, now recognises that, inasmuch as the books need balancing, it can be done through measures such as a financial transaction tax and a reform of national insurance rather than through endless cuts. These opportunities have been dangling in front of Labour’s nose since 2008, but because appeasing the banks and the corporate press was deemed more important than preventing pain and suffering for millions, they have not been taken. Hain appears belatedly to have realised that austerity is a con, a deliberate rewriting of the social contract to divert our common wealth to the elite. There’s no evidence the frontbench is listening.
Whether it wins or loses the general election, Labour is probably finished. It would take a generation to replace the sycophants who let Tony Blair and Gordon Brown rip their party’s values to shreds. By then it will be history. If Labour wins in May, it is likely to destroy itself faster and more surely than if it loses, through the continued implementation of austerity. That is the lesson from Europe.
Fearful voting shifts the whole polity to the right. Blair’s obeisance to corporate power enabled the vicious and destructive policies the coalition now pursues. The same legacy silences Labour in opposition, as it pioneered most of the policies it should oppose. It is because we held our noses that there is a greater stink today. So do we keep voting for a diluted version of Tory politics, for fear of the concentrate? Or do we start to vote for what we want? Had the people of this nation heeded the noseholders a century ago, we would still be waiting for the Liberal party to deliver universal healthcare and the welfare state.
Society moves from the margins, not the centre. Those who wish for change must think of themselves as the sacrificial margin: the pioneering movement that might not succeed immediately but which will eventually deliver sweeping change. We cannot create a successful alternative to the parties that have betrayed us until we start voting for it. Do we start walking or just keep talking about the journey we might one day take?
Power at the moment is lethal. Whichever major party wins this election, it is likely to destroy itself through the pursuit of policies almost no one wants. Yes, that might mean five more years of pain, though I suspect in these fissiparous times it won’t last so long. And then it all opens up. This what we must strive for; this is the process that begins in May by voting, regardless of tactical considerations, for parties offering a genuine alternative. Change arises from conviction. Stop voting in fear. Start voting for hope.