Workfare, capitalism, and the soul of the Green Party

For me, the attack on workfare comes first. But this turns out to be bound up with a struggle for the soul of the Green Party. For some, capitalism is the main enemy. Capitalism certainly presents a serious threat if we are to achieve sustainability within resource limits, but I don’t think attacking it directly is realistic. My first political memories (circa 1943) were of my Dad canvassing for Common Wealth in a by-election. During the war Tory and Labour didn’t fight by-elections, but some thought it important to keep up the attack on capitalism. But capitalism has proved to be robust and resilient. It has a firmer stranglehold than ever. Why would attacking it work any better now? I think it is high time other strategies were explored.

When most people thought the Green Party was a single issue ‘environmental’ party, its support came mainly from conservative sympathisers (See my blog post to Zac Goldsmith, 16th November). I doubt if any of those Tory voters who switched to Green in 1989 could be labelled as capitalists, but by and large over the years they benefited, and still do, from a thatcherite world view, and have not been touched by the nastier injustices. Calls to smash capitalism spook them. Not having experienced the poverty trap themselves, although they want a planet fit for their grandchildren, they don’t see any connection between that and subsidising scroungers, as their favourite newspapers would put the need for a more communal attitude to wealth sharing.

This group is large. On their backs in the 1989 European election, the Green Party gained 15% of the vote – nationally- a high water mark still nowhere near equalled. .Instead of alienating these former voters, if we approach them more in sorrow than in anger, we can begin to chip away at capitalism’s natural support base. Rather than seeing the Green Party as ‘single issue’ these people are as likely to perceive us as intending to rob them of their hard earned wealth, using sustainability as a pretext. The 1989 Green voters are still there. They, or their now adult children would still be concerned about ecological limits if they thought them more important than the economic downturn. I have personally proved that it is possible to persuade them to vote Green purely to give us publicity with the message “We cannot promise to save the planet, only that it will involve people like you paying more in taxes to reduce your eco-footprint and make society more inclusive”. (I don’t mention the Citizens’ Income on the doorstep, unless the householder is unemployed or disabled. It would take too long. Natalie can do that when she is given longer than ‘doorstep’ sized sound bites.) Once these ‘right of centre’ people have grasped that means testing is a tax – on everybody – but one which is massive on tiny incomes, tiny on massive incomes (the graph at the top shows this), three  things can happen: workfare can be seen for what it is, and will collapse, the Green cause can regain some of those lost 1989 votes, and a start will have been made on eroding support for capitalism.

Here is an example: in a powerful speech in Parliament on 27th February in the Housing Benefit (Under-occupancy penalty) debate (i.e the Bedroom Tax),

Caroline Lucas pointed out that the Bedroom Tax would save money only if it failed in its stated aim of persuading those with spare rooms to downsize. It is a straightforward, but camouflaged abolition of a means tested benefit. I understand Caroline’s caution, but it is a pity that she did not add that to her speech as the first hint of the necessary campaign to get rid of means testing. The reason such blatant cynicism does not disgust those not affected is due to the general failure to recognize the seriousness of means testing.

There is a myth that the public still perceive the Green Party as ‘single issue’ The likely source of that myth has finally dawned on me, and it is rather more pernicious than I realized. From its inception the Green Party activist base has been passionately concerned with social justice, and the Party has never made any attempt to hide the fact. But prior to 1994 this was firmly linked to sustainability. There had already been defections from Labour to the Green Party during the 1980s, by people who were well aware of the GP’s ‘social justice’ ethos. I was one of many Green council candidates in the 1980s who were abused by Labour on the grounds that the Conservative majority was smaller than our vote. They clearly did not think of us as a single issue party. But the Labour Party realized that it was important to spread that notion to stop the rot. The ‘single issue’ impression did remain true for the politically unaware general public until the publicity we gained as a result of our 15% in the 1989 Euros. A look at the 1992 General election results will show that we lost all the Tories without gaining any other votes.

But on the sudden death of John Smith, Leader of the Labour Party in 1994, Tony Blair took the Labour Party in a very different direction. He achieved success in his own terms, but it left large numbers of members looking for somewhere more congenial. They had old friends who had already joined the Green Party. But even now, in 2013, the ‘single issue’ notion is still widespread even within the Green Party, despite the personal views of ex-Labour recruits, and the fact that both Natalie Bennett and Caroline have consistently presented the party as left of centre. This notion is inexplicable except as a reassurance to the ‘Not Blair’ refugees. Both Caroline and Natalie have of course always given as full an account of our range of policies as is possible within the media time they are allowed.

But the new ‘Not Blair’ intake brought with it a work-based attitude to social justice, which still relies on economic growth. This allows Iain Duncan Smith bizarrely to impose work coercion even on the disabled at a time of high unemployment. Above all, this work-centred view fails to recognize a new vision as per the following extract from the 1974 PEOPLE (later the Green Party) manifesto:

A view of a stable society

What follows is a possible picture of life in a society not centred on economic growth. The idea of everyone being expected to work full time for a living wage will have to go. There may not be enough jobs to go round. Anyone who is content with subsistence needs and does not compete for employment is to be commended, not condemned. Although employment prospects will be reduced, the National Income [Note: this was the original name for the Citizens’ Income] will create financial incentives to work, so that what work is available, and needs to be done will be shared. Unemployment need not exist at all.

It had not occurred to us in those far off civilized times that a government would enforce workfare at a time of high unemployment. Re-reading the passage, with hindsight I think we should have added:

The Citizens’ Income would make possible security for all with an incentive to do the work that machines couldn’t.

The original Green vision  as set out in the 1974 Manifesto assumed that a sustainable economy would be ‘steady state’, not growth as the norm rather than the exception. So a strategy was developed to ensure social justice in that context. As it happens, we are in a recession now. But if I am right in my suspicion that the majority of current Green Party members still believe economic growth is realistic and desirable, the significance of the Citizens’ Income as potentially the start of a better strategy for controlling capitalism will be lost on them. I agree that capitalism is dangerous as we approach ecological limits, but the reason it developed was to maximise growth. It is a symptom of growth, and that is the fundamental problem. Until the focus is on how to live without growth from time to time, capitalism will remain as strong as ever.

But as I said at the outset, the attack on workfare comes first. No need to think about growth, capitalism or recruiting Tory voters just yet. Just stress loud and clear that means testing is wrong in principle, and that the sanctions to enforce work which means testing makes necessary are utterly stupid in a recession. If you have an ATOS appointment next week, which do you think will rescue you from the expected loss of Disability Living Allowance, which has been your lifeline for 15 years, the eventual destruction of capitalism, or the exposure now of workfare, ATOS, the Bedroom Tax and the whole damn Iain Duncan Smith shooting match as not only cruel and unjust, but the worst kind of idiocy?

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