Old Labour and the Green Party

Workfare is the urgent problem. However, something has cropped up this week which disturbs me, but like workfare, I believe it can and will be put right. I have for some time now semi-jokingly chided the Green Party for being an Old Labour refugee camp. It didn’t seem to matter – until now. After all, Old Labour’s world view was not all that far from being right. It is a bit like Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity – it seemed just fine until Einstein showed that there was a bit more to it. It was natural that large numbers who deplored Blair’s régime should look for a more congenial home, and the Green Party already had a very similar set of policies. Nothing wrong with saving the planet of course, as long as it didn’t interfere with what they regarded as important.
But I may have been too complacent. To recap, the urgent task is to stop workfare. The long term primary aim is a sustainable world economy, but in the middle is my impossible dream of uniting ‘left’ and ‘right’. There are ideas which are oppressive now but which begin to make sense once a Citizens’ Income is in place, so that the old ‘left’ and ‘right’ can come together without sacrificing principles. My book and earlier blogs discuss this issue. One such area is population. This aspect of saving the planet is missing from the Old Labour armoury. Historically, before world wide sustainability was an issue, population only featured in right wing politics.
But limiting population to the carrying capacity of the biosphere is a core Green concept. It is fundamental to what the GP was about when it was formed. Greens have no option but to address this issue. Although the bottom line is that overpopulation would lead to some unpleasant scenarios, and so must be avoided by whatever measures are necessary, there is growing evidence that coercive measures need not be necessary. A culture shift could well occur spontaneously with help from positive policies. Population Matters, a campaigning group, has produced a flyer which points out that population would stabilize if people, and especially women, were given more power over their own lives free from insecurity, with access to birth control.
I find the leaflet well argued, and eminently reasonable, if thought provoking.
In most of the developed world, population has already stabilized, despite efforts to the contrary by several governments. But inclusion of this flyer has been turned down by the Green World Editorial Board, the Green Party’s newsletter. To me, this is incomprehensible. It was a collective decision, which makes it especially worrying. The only dissent was from the lone woman on the Board. Simon Ross, chief executive of Population Matters points out that the GWEB position is completely mistaken about population pressures and human rights, as well as breaking with the mainstream green tradition. Many leading green writers, not least Jonathan Porritt in his books Seeing Green and Capitalism as if the World matters,have stressed the importance of free contraception and birth control education both for overall ecological sustainability and the personal well-being of individual women.
The only hypothesis which helps me to make sense of this decision on behalf of the Green Party is unreconstructed Old Labour philosophy. Possibly connected, I am told that there was a suggestion that Population Matters should be refused a stall at the Green Party conference. I see these as symptoms that the necessary rapprochement between former ‘left’ and ‘right’ is drifting in the wrong direction.
Arguments about general numbers and overcrowding here can be put in the context of the pressures that drive people to risk suffocation in freezer vans or on cockle beds. The wider principle on which the Citizens’ Income is based –fairness and a feeling of security as between nations as well as between individuals within nations – has a part to play. I hope that dialogue will begin to resolve these problems. There are many members who came into the Green party as passionate socialists who do nevertheless accept the more fundamental ecological logic. But it is disturbing that members of the Green Party in significant positions seem so far removed from the Party’s founding principles. We clearly have a long way to go.

2 responses to “Old Labour and the Green Party

  1. I refer to the section of your blog about Green World and Population Matters. There are two separate issues here.

    First, there is the matter of openness, accountability and due process at the Green World editorial board. There has been an abuse of those democratic principles. Indeed it is worse. I know that some regional secretaries and others have been ‘sitting upon’ the material circulated by myself and Chris Padley that blew the proverbial whistle over the affair. As a result, large parts of the membership remain unaware about the events.

    Worst of all is the inaction of the ‘leadership’. The leader, deputy leader and chair of GPEX have behaved like the three wise monkeys. It is all very well to go round the country shaking hands with activists and smiling for the camera. But there is also a need for clear political leadership. This has not happened. There is a ‘boil’ and if not lanced, it will fester.

    Second there is the issue of population per se. Population Pressures is a pressure group. It exists to bang the drum about one thing. Surprise, surprise, it is the threat from human numbers. They do not deny that there are other malign forces at work. Their website, for example, stresses the importance of ‘appetites’ not just ‘mouths’. But their remit is to challenge the silence and evasion over population. They do propose policies that are not part of the MfSS. It is their right to lobby for such ideas, just as pro-nuclear people such as George Monbiot would be entitled to pay for a flyer advertising their case.

    Broadly, however, the recognition of what Paul Ehrlich once called the ‘population time bomb’ is absolutely central to the whole green tradition. It was a primary driving force in the formation of the original People Party as well as initiatives such as the Blueprint for Survival. Those who deny that human numbers count must know little about that green lineage or be exploiting the Green Party to push for other sets of ideas.

    I agree with a lot of what you have posted. However I do think it is seriously wrong to characterise the dispute over population in ‘Left’ versus “Right’ terms. Early socialists (and often socialist feminists) and anarchists, especially in the USA, were fierce advocates of birth control. They rightly saw unwanted children as a means by which poverty was perpetuated and as something exploited by ruling classes (bigger ‘reserve army of labour’ and so forth). They saw population growth as a cause of war, hence their phrase ‘the stork is a bird of war’.

    At the same time, there have been other self-styled socialists, often in the Marxist tradition, who denied the importance of population growth. Some, when in power (Stalin and Mao in the USSR and China), tried to encourage rapid population growth. Indeed there were some regimes, notably Romania, that tried to ban birth control (see the novel Last 100 Days). Today, left-wing papers such as Socialist Worker are swift to smear anyone who raises the population issue with the fatuous label of ‘neo-Malthusian’.

    Yet, some of the fiercest critics of any population policy are to be found on the ‘Right’. So Hitler and Mussolini gave medals who women who produced lots of children. The record of the Catholicism and other religions needs no comment. ‘Right-wing’ governments in countries as varied as Honduras and the Philippines are attacking birth control. Meanwhile others such as Singapore and Denmark are encouraging population growth (Denmark has ‘Throbbing Thursdays’ when nurseries stay open late so parents can get down to some serious reproductive work!).

    I suggest that the real divide is not Left and Right. It is the paradigm of ‘limits’ versus what might called ‘cornucopianism’ or ‘growthism’. Perhaps it might be termed ‘enoughness’ versus ‘moreness’. ‘Limits’ recognises the importance of scale and of ‘enoughness’. It is about a sustainable balance between peoples, those alive today and those to come, and the rest of nature. Since it recognises that the ‘sustainable cake’ will be a smaller one, it poses equity issues in its division more forcefully than ever. It also recognises that ‘limits’ apply everywhere, from limits to scientific ‘technofixes’ to limits to the desirable size of organisations.

    Many movements of both the old Left and Right are firmly sited in the cornucopian camp. Last week I went to see a staging of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a novel I first read in the late 60s. It reminded me that Tressell/Croker rejected any idea that human numbers could ever be a problem and firmly believed that one day, technology would permit an (unlimited) number of people to take for free whatever they wanted from endlessly overflowing warehouses. That is an utterly unsustainable vision. Yet today, in the anti-cuts movement, in ‘world development’ circles, and elsewhere, I meet people who foolishly entertain the blind faith that the abolition of capitalism could bring about unlimited affluence-for-all. Indeed there is a tendency to invent more and more entitlements without any consideration of how they could be ecologically underwritten.

    So perhaps we ought to position the Green Party as neither left nor right but talking Earthly sense,

    Best wishes

    Sandy Irvine
    Newcastle Green Party

    • Sandy, I agree with most of what you say, but not all of it is relevant to the matter in hand, for example totalitarian pronatalism. I believe our Green Party problem is specifically related to the values and priorities of the large Old Labour intake. Of course many originally from the left have moved a long way from their roots, but the fact remains that the original Old Labour world view simply didn’t buy the ‘Limits to Growth’ thesis. There are too many who have come into the party from Labour, the ‘Far Left’ or indeed the Liberals who were disgusted in one way or another by their previous parties and who have made little effort to engage with green’ theory’ in any serious way, or so it feels. I think this is sufficient to explain why any suggestion of population as an issue is unwelcome in principle.
      For now I am prepared to give the various party officials you mention the benefit of the doubt as simply acting in good faith within the lights of their Old Labour philosophy. On that basis they would not want to dent the image of the party by allowing a difference of opinion to get out
      Oddly enough, I am less worried by you – you may think me complacent – as to the basic population issue. There is growing evidence that given a sense of security, the belief that any children born will live, and for women to have control over their own lives generally, in the areas where population is still rising it will subside just as it has in more affluent areas. (You mention the USA. Sheer inequality removes swathes from the developed world in any meaningful sense.) I think it would be a tactical mistake to make population a major plank in out platform. Insisting on social justice will be more effective in achieving the same aim.
      The Green Party should be questioning the drive to restart growth at any cost, and drawing attention to the per capita increase in ecological footprints in the developed world. These are core green issues which the Party is reluctant to press. As compared with these, I can quite accept that population should remain on the back burner. But population remains a core Green issue. The specific instances of suppression which have happened cannot be tolerated, and must never happen again.

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