When I first mentioned the Citizens Basic Income (CBI) to Martin Wolf, he dismissed it out of hand. So his endorsement of it in the FT has to be good news. He originally rejected it on two grounds: firstly to pay everybody only to take money back form some was ‘churning’. I was more concerned by his second reason. He persuaded me that instead of trying to sell the CBI at Jobseekers Allowance levels (now £71.70pw) plus the Personal Tax Allowance shared fairly (another £25pw), if the object of the exercise was to remove the poverty trap/scroungers’ charter then housing costs must be included. In Leeds that would add at least £75pw. In that case, Martin Wolf said the standard tax rate would have to be at least 60%.
At first when I read his article in the FT on 11th February I thought he must have read my blog on 3.1.14, but he only mentions the CBI as a means of reducing inequality. In my blog I explained that although reducing inequality was an important beneficial side-effect, the main point of a CBI for Greens was to allow a zero growth economy – a recession – to be an economic policy option, instead of something which only happens by accident. . I don’t hear directly from Martin Wolf these days, so I don’t know whether he reads my blogs or not. Perhaps he can see difficulties I have not thought of, but I still look forward to a FT article on the CBI as a means of making the unthinkable thinkable
Regrettably, the rest of this blog is devoted to internal Green party issues, though I have no objection to bystanders watching the fight. Although the Green Party was founded in response to the MIT study Limits to Growth, it was made clear from the outset that ecological sustainability and social justice were interdependent. The founder members were well heeled, and knew they would be among the net payers when the Citizens’ Basic Income (CBI) became a reality. They readily accepted that there would have to be a communal, but not necessarily egalitarian attitude to wealth sharing. The Citizens’ Basic Income would place the Green Party firmly left of centre. Our literature has made this dual raison d’être clear throughout. Even so, my original hope was that the CBI could be the basis for a rapprochement between ex socialists and ex conservatives. If the prosperous founder members could see the sense in this, why not whole swathes of prosperous middle England, who would be the net payers under a CBI scheme? Doorstep canvassing corroborated this hope. I did not mention the CBI, it would take too long, but ballot boxes confirmed that large numbers of people rather like the Green Party founder members did buy the notion that preserving the ecosphere might entail a less unequal society, and that they would be the ones who would have to pay for it. The 1989 Euro elections looked like final proof: the Green Party’s best result, 24.5%, was in Tory heartland Sussex, and our worst in England was 9% in Tyne and Wear, which was also the Conservatives’ worst.
Of course my pipe dream never was a serious possibility. In the main local parties were formed with a preponderance of former Labour inclined individuals, and the persistence of tribal attitudes on both sides meant that any ex Conservatives quietly went home. Once Tony Blair came on the scene Green Party membership more than doubled largely through recruits who were backing away in horror from New Labour rather than being attracted by Green issues. On the other side, although any attempt at dialogue by for example Zac Goldsmith, at one stage Editor of the Ecologist magazine would have been rejected by the new look Green Party, he has proved a disappointment in showing no sign of reacting in the way the founder members did to the logic of sustainability through the democratic process.
By February 2013 a majority of Green Party members were rather vague on its Limits to Growth basis. Nevertheless it was a nasty shock to some of us ‘aristocrats’, as I have been called (it was meant as an insult) when a conference motion was passed which downgraded the ecological side of the Party’s core message. The prime movers were two relative newcomers, Adam Ramsay and Benali Hamdache, though there are several others who form a tightly knit group who tend to speak and vote together. After gently, and in fun, sort of, chiding the Green Party for being an Old Labour refugee camp, a different metaphor became appropriate: Pirates have boarded, and are fighting for control of the ship.
Their approach contrasts sharply with that previously consensual within the Party. Over the years the Green Party has evolved mechanisms which facilitate discussion rather than conflict. We have fought like everybody else when, almost invariably, passionate convictions were involved, but at least we wanted to listen to each other and reach consensus. Not this lot. The Party has a workshop system, where anyone interested in a motion can discuss it prior to it being formally debated a plenary session. The Pirates treat workshops with contempt. The workshop seeking to reinstate the ecological side of the Philosophical Basis was consensually in favour But the Pirates had not attended it. In the Plenary Adam Ramsay rubbished the motion as ‘Environment, environment, environment’. The motion’s proposer was able to point out that that was a gross distortion. The motion did not receive the necessary two thirds majority, though I have seen comment streams where it was falsely reported as ’overwhelmingly rejected’.
Another unique feature at Green Party conferences, and many other meetings, is attunement. This is a minute’s silence at the beginning of every Plenary session, though it has been used from time to time over the years during heated debates, occasionally with clearly therapeutic effect. New members usually briefly find it weird, and then come to like its ‘Buddhist’ overtones Benali Hamdache did not even deign to attend the workshop on his own motion to get rid of attunement. Presumably he would rather fight enemies than try to explore common ground. If that is unfair, it is a pity we did not have the opportunity provided to discuss it. One objection I did hear to attunement was that people with certain disabilities were uncomfortable. After at least 25 years with disabled members attending without complaint, suddenly they are ammunition against quiet reflection. At least the motion fell.
Benali also brought an emergency motion to ban Population Matters from any further association with the Green Party, or attendance at any events. Emergency motions must be based on events which have occurred since the deadline for motions. The event in question was the statement by Population Matters that Britain should not shoulder the burden of refugees from Syria alone. I am not defending that statement, only the way it was handled. Emergency motions do not get a workshop. Almost without exception they are totally consensual and are quickly passed unanimously. On the contrary, if ever a motion needed a workshop, it was this one.
Population Matters have been a matter-of-fact feature of Green party conferences down the years. From time to time Roger Martin would come and give a ‘motherhood and apple pie’ talk which tuned with the Green Party’s approach, that world population was already too large, and that methods to help communities, especially women, to limit family size were advisable. Last February, a fringe debate took place between Roger Martin and Sebastian Power, one of the ‘Pirate’ group who argues for example that any measures to help women in under-developed communities to limit family size is an intrusion. The debate was civil enough. Apart from a vociferous minority sympathetic to Sebastian, I thought Roger Martin won the argument, but I confess to a bias.
But not only did Benali’s motion conflate the specifics of the response to the Syrian situation with this wider aim to remove population issues from the Green Party’s policies, it was yet again a determination to fight, not discuss. I have heard defences of the PM statement on the grounds that it was taken out of context. The appeal was for a wider co-ordinated response. But even if, for the sake of argument, we think the PM statement was misguided or worse, one strike and you are out was an extreme response. We could have censured them, and suggested that they were ‘on Probation’.
Oddly enough, I would like to offer Benali an olive branch, despite the evidence that he does not do reconciliation. He may dismiss what I am about to say as ‘patronizing’, but I have to risk that. I wish I could have a proper conversation with him, but it never seems convenient at conference. I am aware that Benali has been through some nasty experiences, especially as an immigrant. I can only guess how he feels, but I have to try. I think that if I had been treated as he has, my attitudes and life strategies would be rather similar to his, at least to start with. And therein lies my hope that he will change.
But there is a battle for the hearts and minds of the Green Party. Many of the changes the Pirates are pushing for seem perfectly reasonable to members who were comfortable with John Smith’s pre 1994 Old Labour, and haven’t really thought much about the ‘eco’ ideas. Some have started from that position, and changed. Carrie Bowes, for example, has taken the trouble to understand how ecological and social justice aims merge to the point where she could bring the motion to reinstate ecology in the Philosophical Basis. I was told by one Pirate “The Green Party has moved on. You will have to”.