Caroline Lucas. Balcombe, and where the Green Party goes next

Will the arrest of Caroline Lucas in Balcombe be our El Alamein where the frackers are stopped in their tracks, or will it be more like Julius Caesar’s advance through Gaul, where powerful vested interests eventually crush all opposition after momentary reverses? Caroline has certainly raised the profile of the issue, making the first possibility less remote than it was. But it is intriguing that Balcombe is where she should have achieved this. It might be thought that the respectable residents of Horsham parliamentary constituency, which at the last election gave Francis Maude (Conservative), a comfortable 11,000 majority over a Lib Dem nearest challenger would hardly welcome a self-proclaimed left wing firebrand with a track record of getting arrested in places where she had no personal connection, for passionate beliefs they are in the main unlikely to share with her. Surely their only concern is that this threat to their idyll should happen somewhere else?

That may possibly be true of some, but once upon a time, in 1989, the Green Party polled 15% nationally in a European election. The Party’s best result was 24.5% – in Sussex. The Conservative vote there was also one of their highest. In fact, up to and including that election, the Green Party vote had been more or less directly proportional to the Conservative vote in all national elections. That has never happened since. Why not? Up to 1989 the only fact most people knew about the Green Party was that it was for the environment. Some may even have known that it was formed in response to ‘Limits to Growth’, which addressed the threat posed by continued economic growth. The publicity which the Party gained enabled it to explain some of its policies. Fatally, it became clear to places like Balcombe, where voting patterns do not seem to have changed markedly, that saving the planet for their grandchldren would entail a degree of redistribution, and without a fuller explanation than the media would allow, the prosperous burghers of Balcombe were not yet ready for that.

Why should they be any more ready for it now? Let me remind readers that that one in four 1989 Green vote from Balcombe came before they thought their water taps might start emitting gas. It is still the leafy suburbs where you are more likely to hear unease about retreating Arctic ice, or the increasing frequency of extreme weather events. A letter in the Financial Times on 22nd August points out that due to methane leakage, fracking may well be dirtier than coal in terms of CO2.

But briefly, I have to be Devil’s (Cuadrilla’s) Advocate. As the Financial Times regularly points out, fracking is already an established industry in the USA. If nothing else changes, the protests will merely drive the economic activity, and hence prosperity, elsewhere. From a short term perspective, that view is absolutely right. Although the notion that fire stations and old people’s homes must close because people are not spending enough on cars or in newly-built shopping malls is clearly fatuous, what is too often overlooked by many who think (as I do) that a steady state economy should become the norm is, is the significance of the Tragedy of the Commons (see my blog page). Although we could, with a more communal wealth-sharing ethos move to a steady state economy world wide, what no one can do in the short term is put themselves at a competitive disadvantage. How to bridge that chasm?

My answer is a step at a time. First, the thought experiment. And this is where the hitherto conventional residents of Balcombe may come into their own. Are they concerned only for their back yard, or are they beginning to think through the implications of simply continuing with a policy of economic growth? The Citizens’ Basic Income is based on the abolition of means testing. I have covered this in many blog posts, but I mention it here simply to point out that if Balcombe really wants to lift the threat to their neighbourhood, or the wider world, a system which stops taxing part time workers and low earners at a higher rate than bankers will have to be a part of the package. No need to frighten them with threats (as they would see it) to smash the capitalism on which they think their prosperity is based.

I am aware that the foregoing will not be congenial to many Green Party members, but I must now turn to them. I have been described as an ‘Aristocrat’ for mentioning that I am almost a founder member. It was meant as an insult, but I can offer a precise definition: a Green Party Aristocrat is anyone who joined before 12th May 1994, even if their membership lapsed. That was the date on which John Smith, the then leader of the Labour Party, suffered a fatal heart attack. The Labour Party also died as a meaningful visionary political presence. Apologies to anyone who was too young in 1994 to whom this may not apply, but prior to that date, it was reasonable to assume that anyone who joined the Green Party had some idea of its founding ideals – the combination of global sustainability with global social justice. This entailed (still does) for example acceptance of the need to address population, and hence migration issues, which had hitherto only been approached with a right wing agenda.

So it was no surprise that after the accession of Tony Blair, Green Party membership climbed at a faster rate than previously. I have been describing the Party as an ‘Old Labour refugee camp’. The majority of the new intake are genuine enough, and most think of themselves as combining sustainability with social justice, but in addition to seeing population or migration as something only enemies mess with, they generally see the destruction of capitalism as a necessary prerequisite to achieving Green ideals. I discuss in my blog post on 6th July why I think this is not the best strategy, but the main relevance here is the gulf between two sets of people who think of themselves as Green: Old Labourites – and some residents of Balcombe, and the leafy shires generally.

The next part may offend some readers. I ask only that you read to the end before demanding any apologies. In its 40 year history, there have been several instances of what seemed like attempts to derail the GP, some more easily identifiable as such than others. There was the recall of Sarah Parkin in 1990. One of her accusers subsequently stood as a Social Democrat. There was a deliberate attempt at a public hustings in a European election to discredit Mark Hill, by a then Green Party member who later re-joined Labour. A major row in Wales over links with Plaid Cymru could have been purely a matter of principle.

But these were minor by comparison with what is happening now. Let me follow the logic. Anyone who tries to undermine the Green Party does so for reasons which are cogent for them. Anyone who has joined the Party from the Labour Party has a dilemma. Labour might be a disappointment, but look how dreadful the Coalition has turned out to be. Does it not make sense as a strategy to discredit the Green Party, so as not to split the vote and get the Tories out?

Look what happened in Brighton. Nationally, an extremely nasty government has put all councils under a squeeze, obliging them to cut services and generally create hardship for the most vulnerable. The alternative is to have their funding cut. Perhaps Conservative administrations will have done this with equanimity, but where are the protests about the large number of Labour councils quietly doing what they have no alternative but to do? To my knowledge, only Brighton has been targetted. It is less than honest for Labour supporters to target Jason Kitkat, whilst leaving Labour administrations elsewhere alone, but the letter calling for Cllr Kitkat’s resignation was signed by Green Party members. In passing, although I am a bit mystified by Caroline Lucas’s position, I can only assume that just as Cllr. Kitkat was in an impossible position, so she felt was she.

I am not defending what the Brighton administration did as desirable, but just in case there is a grain of truth in my worries, can I suggest that rather than trying to ensure that Labour does not lose votes to the Greens, there are a lot of people (or their parents) out there who voted Green in their millions in 1989 instead of voting Tory. A better strategy would be to get them back.

One idea which has been mooted is that the anti-frackers should apply for licences in Cameron’s constituency. Osborne’s is actually in an area where it might be feasible. We could offer Cuadrilla no outside opposition in those areas, unless the MP came out against fracking. Which reminds me. where was Zac Goldsmith whilst Caroline was getting arrested? Although he is very much a bête noir among the post 1994 GP membership, we should be on the same side if we are ever going to save the planet.

12 responses to “Caroline Lucas. Balcombe, and where the Green Party goes next

  1. Hi Clive, I missed your blog post on the Tragedy of the Commons. I’m assuming from what you have written that you agree with Hardin, but Hardin was wrong as Elinor Ostrom has shown.

    As for capitalism, Greens ought to know that capital accumulation, which is the engine of capitalism, drives growth and environmental destruction. Ergo, a green, steady state economy cannot be capitalist, it will be a post-capitalist economy. This isn’t an option, it is a fact. This is the reality that many greens have not yet come to terms with, but they will, in time.

    Although many greens don’t get it, the capitalists already do. I can recommend Naomi Klein’s Capitalism vs the Climate which explains why capitalists spend so much time and money financing climate change denial. They do it because they know that a green economy means the end of capitalism.

    Hope to see you at conference, be good to discuss this further


    • Hi Howard I copied the’Tragedy’ from the original blog post last Oct or Nov, to a Page, so now it is only one of 6. As I explain there, Ostrom did NOT dispose of Hardin. Both are right, Ostrom in the long term, but Easter Island is an exact fulfilment of what Hardin predicted the FIRST TIME a growth-oriented culture hits ecological limits. (He himself missed the real significance).
      You are right in a sense about capitalism. It is indeed the engine of growth and hence environmental destruction. But that has only happened because it was invented and refined precisely to facilitate growth. I have two objections to the proposition that the destruction of capitalism is a necessary first step. Exactly the same dynamic destroyed Easter Island – a culture had developed which could take growth for granted then met limits too quickly to adapt as per Ostrom. Secondly, how exactly do you envisage getting rid of capitalism? Violent overthrow? Via the ballot box? Although I agree the need to stop capitalism is more urgent than ever, why should tried strategies do any better now? My proposal is to gently wean its supporters off it, rather than frightening them into clinging to it ever more firmly. We start at the other end. Persuade people to stop feeding capitalism, and it will eventually either wither, collapse, or more likely adapt and morph into manageable small scale private enterprise.

      • Hi Clive

        There is no need to ‘destroy’ capitalism or overthrow it. It contains the seeds of its own destruction because of the ‘limits to growth’ which you mentioned. It is unsustainable. It cannot continue.

        Capitalism is no longer simply a mode of production as Marx described it, nowadays it is largely unproductive, yet still incredibly destructive. It is a global economy based on debt.

        As David Harvey has said, we need to imagine what a post- capitalist society will look like. The problem for many greens is that they conflate capitalism with business. There will be plenty of room for a private sector in a post capitalist economy but the private sector is not the same as capitalism. Murdoch is a capitalist, your local hairdresser is not.

        There will be a mixed economy, with a strong public sector, because, as the latest crisis of capitalism has demonstrated, only the state is capable of resolving the crisis. That is good, provided the state is democratically controlled, and there is no reason why that should not be the case.

        I disagree with your view on Easter Island – that was not a tragedy of the commons, it was caused by a ruling class, not the common people – something else we can learn from Marx!

        Best wishes and hope to see you in Brighton


      • First, I don’t understand why t his appears only as an email.Your text and my reply don’t appear on the blog, so I shall not continue. But you frighten me. Of course capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction, but if not stopped before that happens, it will have destroyed the ecosphere first.

        We disagree fundamentally over Easter Island. We can only set out our respective cases and see who most people agree with.



    • I’ve only just seen Howard Thorpe’s reply saying that Hardin’s theory has been disproved by Ostrom. Her work is pure sophistry, and relies on assuming Hardin said something he did not.

      So far as real grazing commons go, the essense of Hardin’s paper was not that the tragedy actually occurs, but that from the earliest times people have recognised the need to prevent it, particularly by appointing an authority to “stint” the grazing rights. He does not seem to have been familiar with the history of ancient commons or terminology, but got the idea right. He says it’s that or split them up into private plots, but he gives both choices. Ostrom implies that the existence of these ancient management systems , and the tendency for the owners of new forms
      of commons to reinvent them, somehow invalidates the theory. But it does not. It does the opposite. It verifies the theory. Why would people have systems to prevent the tragedy, if it is not a real phenomenon?

      The importance of his work was to point out that there are many resources not traditionally thought of as commons, often because they are not thought of as property at all, communal or otherwise, which are also common resources liable to suffer the tragedy if comparible systems for stinting their use are not put in place, such as the oceans, the atmosphere, the entire ecosphere. Again, Ostrom appears to believe that every example of human beings beginning to put in place those systems shows Hardin to be wrong. Again, in fact they do the opposite.

      I’m sure there is a name for the fallacy of reasoning Ostrom uses because it does crop up regularly. It is close to the one I call the “no need to mend the dykes fallacy”. It goes like this (let’s imagine the speakers are from the Netherlands):

      “We must mend the dykes like we do every year”.

      “Why should we mend the dykes, it’ll cost a lot of money?”

      “Because if we don’t there will be a flood”

      “Rubbish, there hasn’t been a flood here for years”.

      • But Chris, there most certainly WAS a Tragedy on Easter Island! Is that not rebuttal enough of Ostrom’s attack on Hardin?

  2. Clive,
    Just on a factual point in respect of where the Green vote came from in 1989, I am not sure why you feel former Tory voters chose the Greens. Compared to the previous Euro-election in 1984, the Tory vote was down by just 3.5%, to 35%, in spite of the poll tax crisis. The surge in the Green vote was surely down to the collapse of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, which had split in 1987. I was a Democrat candidate (as the LDs briefly called themselves then) at that election facing an “Owenite SDP” candidate; between us, our combined vote came to just over 5%, a third of our previous showing locally. Nationally, the two parties polled 6.5% compared to 19% in 1984, whilst the Greens rose from Ecology’s 1% to 15% in 1989. Surely this was where most Green votes came from?

    Similarly, the ERS mega-poll a few weeks ago showed the Greens on course for a 12% showing next year, overtaking a depressed Lib Dem vote – reasons to be hopeful of gains for us in Yorkshire and elsewhere. By contrast, the Tory vote is set to decline significantly towards pro-fracking, global warming denying UKIP. So whilst I don’t doubt your view that many Tories are concerned about the environment, it does seem that most of their potential defectors are very happy to shift to a party that is isolationist and keen to get on with “business as usual” when it comes to destroying our habitat.

    • Unfortunately having moved home twice in 2 years after 46 years in one place, I have lost all my election records going back to February 1974, in which I could have demonstrated chapter and verse the close correlation between PEOPLE/Ecology/Green votes and Conservatives from 1974 to 1989, for example David Corry’s four figure vote in Barkston Ash (‘Greater Wetherby’) in 1979. I think it was Lewes – not a million miles from Balcombe – which gave us circa 2k in 1983. It may well be that the 1989 Green vote was higher than it would have been due to the SDP machinations, but would you not agree that a majority of Liberal/SDP/Lib Dem votes in Horsham-type constituencies were really Tories just a little bit squeamish about Thatcher? They are the ones we should be after now. They won’t like Cameron or Osborne any better.

  3. Clive
    Another interpretation would be that in places like Horsham, non-Tories have long become adept at identifying the opposition party most likely to defeat the Tories and so back them. So it could be argued that whether Lib dems, Greens or even Labour, these are fundamentally anti-Tory votes. If Greens performed well at the same time as the Tories do well, this would suely suggest the Green vote even then was drawn from people who on the whole were anti-Tory; this would be unsurprising during the 1980s given the polarisation caused by the Thatcher government. And my point about the ERS poll is that, now, with these voters hostile to Cameron and Osborne as you say, Greens do indeed seem to be drawing votes from former Lib Dems, significantly more than from other parties.

    • The large votes in e.g Barkston Ash and Lewes. by first time candidates could not possibly be explained by tactical voting. Another aspect is what I call ‘Macmillan’ Tories, who had at least a paternalistic attitude to poverty amelioration. They were never ‘anti-Tory’, but In general these became Lib Dems because they were uneasy about Thatcherism. They or the next generation will indeed be likely to be uncomfortable with the Cameron/Osborne/IDS approach, but now it is difficult for them to go Lib Dem. They are probably the explanation of our 12% poll, but the GP’s Old Labour rhetoric will tend to put them off.

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