Green policy makers need to understand anti-capitalist thinking
Socialist Unity interviews Peter Cranie, member of the national executive of the Green Party (GPEX)
Can you describe your political background, and what positions do you hold?
I grew up in a town with over 40% unemployment in 1980s Scotland. My family history was also very a formative part of my political identity. My great grandfather an organiser who was blacklisted following the General Strike of 1926 and subsequent generations also worked down the mines.
I joined the Greens in 1989 after the fantastic 15% result in the 1989 European Elections after never really being convinced by the various socialist meetings I had attended. After the disappointment of 1992 on both levels, in terms of the Green result and the re-election of the Tories, I withdrew from active political work for some time.
The election of George Bush and his subsequent actions angered me. I returned to a politically active role in the Greens in 2000 and have stood as a local council candidate 2002-04, a European candidate also in 2004 and as our parliamentary candidate in Liverpool Riverside last year where we retained our deposit. I am also the Elections Co-ordinator on the Executive of the Green Party.
Would you describe yourself as a socialist?
I would describe myself as a Green. I think this incorporates a large part of socialist thinking. For anyone who has not yet read it, I’d strongly recommend Derek Wall’s Babylon and Beyond for a better understanding of how the two relate to each other.
If I had to answer the question “am I a socialist?” where the other option suggests I am “not a socialist”, the former is accurate. I believe in redistribution of wealth, renationalisation of key industries and that the capitalist system is unsustainable.
In crude terms it seems that in the general election Labour’s votes went down by about 1.2 million, and the Liberal Democrats gained about 1.2 million votes. Given the impact of the war on Iraq, growing concern over global warming and the anti-globalisation movement, are you surprised that the electoral rebellion against Labour went to another mainstream party?
The Liberal Democrats were very effective at portraying themselves as anti-war, when the reality was that they did a volte-face immediately after Blair announced we were at war in Iraq. The surprise for me was how poorly the Liberal Democrats actually did out of it. This was their biggest political opportunity in over 80 years, with an unpopular Prime Minister and an even more unpopular opposition. Yet their decapitation strategy only succeeded in removing one Tory minister (Tim Collins) and there was no widespread desertion from Labour. It is hardly surprising that Kennedy's position became untenable politically and I think the alcohol issue was a convenient reason to ease him out of the leadership.
Do you feel that the Green Party accomplished as much as it could in the general election in 2005?
We were certainly the most efficient party (excluding racist parties) in terms of how the limited money we had available was spent effectively, with an average cost of 68p per voter, versus £1.90 per vote for the Labour Party. The 22% score in Brighton also clearly showed we can be credible contenders. We could always have done more but we won’t compromise our principles on ethical donations for short-term political gains.
You have a reputation as someone who closely analyses the evidence about elections, rather than making off the hip judgements: what conclusions do you draw from Respect’s performance in the general election?
George Galloway got elected. This was a great result for Respect. The other votes they gained were also good in a number of constituencies. My analysis indicates a very strong correlation with particular demographic characteristics in the areas they were successful in. However Respect does not appear to be the answer to unity on the left. It is perhaps too early to tell whether they can mature into an ongoing political force. I am disappointed about a style over substance approach typified by Galloway's appearance on Big Brother. I think this does him a disservice after his highly effective display at the US Senate hearing.
Do you think it is surprising how little impact the Iraq war and continuing occupation is having on mainstream politics? There is actually more debate about it in US Congress than the British parliament, and it was not on the agenda for Labour Party conference.
Only 5-10% of the population currently vote for our ideas, one of which was that the lies and misdirection around intelligence before going to war with Iraq, was the defining error of the Blair government.
For the majority of voters (and obviously non-voters) Iraq averaged in at number 7 or 8 in terms of political priorities. This should not be a surprise, but when you are involved with politics, and politically motivated people for a large part of your time, there is a tendency to look at matters through a political lens. The priorities of many single mothers, young families or pensioners will clearly be different, because they are sometimes struggling to get by without enough support or help. Iraq became less of a concern for ordinary voters because it was not immediate enough.
The Green Party has been a supporter of the Stop the War Coalition, and has been prominent at national and local level in opposing the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you think the Green Party could have done more to provide strategic leadership for the anti-war movement?
The nature of leadership is an ongoing issue debated within the Green Party. We believe in decentralisation, localised decision making and inclusive democratic structures. In many ways, this culture doesn’t blend well with more hierarchical structures. I certainly feel that Caroline Lucas and our other elected representatives provided moral leadership on this issue, in a way that reflects our consistent opposition to armed conflict not just in particular circumstances, but in general and over the extended period of the political history of the Greens.
What do you think the anti war movement should be doing over the next 12 months?
It is important to look at the conditions that create war. We create and sell armaments, issue export credits and inflict misery for years to come which we wash our hands of. It is not enough just to look for geographical areas to focus on. We need to look closer to home and at our own armament industry. That money should be invested in health, education and international aid. The focus for this debate will be the renewal of our obsolete nuclear deterrent that a Labour government will be trying to force through.
The rail workers’ union, the RMT, has called a meeting on 21st January to discuss the crisis in political representation for the working class, and the Green Party’s Jean Lambert MEP is speaking. If you look at the policies of the major unions, in many cases they are closer to the Green Party manifesto on social justice issues than they are to the Labour Party. Do you think the Green Party has a role to play in the trade unions?
Many, many Green Party members and activists are already involved in unions, so we are already playing a role. I feel our model of work with other organisations relies on a partnership model that will, in time, work very well with trade unions. Right now, I think we are merely flirting, with no-one yet prepared to commit to a relationship. I think that further political credibility will be required before we are likely to be the recipients of more than small amounts of funding.
With David Cameron as the new Tory leader, and the probable coronation of Gordon Brown before the next general election, do you think a window is closing for developing an electoral alternative to the mainstream parties?
Actually, I think entirely the opposite. We believe this is actually a unique time for us to enhance our political credibility and have a major impact at the next general election. This is currently being discussed. A political system where two parties between them represent less than 75% of the voting public, is not a two party system. The 25% will continue to grow, but with the Liberal Democrats having missed their opportunity to step up to the level of looking like a realistic alternative government, the Greens have a clear opportunity to make a big impact at the next General Election.
The enhanced profile of the environment in the media and the mainstream parties clear inability to deal with the challenges we face in this arena, will also help us. An electoral alternative is becoming more and more necessary. Daily, we are seeing the glimmer of light between the mainstream parties growing more and more faint. As such, an alternative is vital, and the Green Party offers this.
I would also say the odds on a coronation for Brown are, at the very least, lengthening. There are many young ambitious political movers within New Labour who are beginning to see Brown as yesterday’s man. Blair has also announced that he will serve out nearly the whole of his term. Politics has little room for sentiment and I would not be surprised to see Blair renege on his deal for a second time, acting as a kingmaker. Unless Brown forces the pace, Cameron will continue to be able to characterise him as an obstructive force, with Brown unable to hit back. All the while Cameron minimises direct criticism of Blair, thus exploiting the fault line within Labour.
The Green Party has for many years developed a raft of progressive social policies, do you think that social justice is inherently linked to economic sustainability?
Without social justice there is no economic sustainability. Without environmental sustainability, there is no economic sustainability and little prospect of social justice. All three are required. A conversation with any Bangladeshi villager who has seen his or her life destroyed by successive floods would give Europeans and Americans a very clear explanation why this is the case.
In a recent interview Derek Wall said: ”We have our manifesto and the assumption that flows from that is that we will win parliamentary power and then put it into practice. So there is a whole range of serious debates around energy, women’s rights, civil liberties - policies right across the board. But a great deal of the sort of debates that Marxist groups might have about the fundamental nature of imperialism, or the capitalist economy and the methods of struggle, are not on the agenda in the Green Party. It is a classic electoral party - we tend to come up with policy rather than theory.” Do you think that Derek’s criticism is valid?
Derek is very clear in “Babylon and Beyond” that there is very strong anti-capitalist feeling running through the core of Green politics. I think many Greens have a good grasp on these issues, but what we really seek to achieve is a way forward. We need the people writing policy to understand anti-capitalist thinking. We remain by definition, a political party rather than a think tank, although it is always pleasing to see Green ideas progressing onto the mainstream agenda.
I don’t think that the Green Party has a monopoly on challenging capitalism. The new politics of the 21st Century not only requires electoral power but also demands a focus on personal lifestyles and direct action. Our role in the new politics is on the electoral side, but the willingness of Greens to get involved in direct action shows there is a new type of political direction that is possible.
You have said to me before that you characterise the organisation as: “It is a Green party, and in many ways the focus is on the local and practical” But do you think the Green Party punches its weight as a local campaigning organisation, as opposed to being an electoral organisation?
I think it varies from area to area. If you have only a few activists, those activist efforts will prioritise the political work required to ensure the Green Party is contesting local elections. If those same activists have full time jobs, families or other commitments, they are unlikely to have a great deal of time to initiate campaigns outside of the electoral framework, although will frequently be supporters of them. As local parties grow, there is a “division of labour” (I apologise for using a term with such economic baggage).
To give an example, here in Liverpool, I spend a great deal of time on the nuts and bolts of the political stuff, while our target candidate Louise McVey is a born campaigner, and very good at it too. Without the nuts and bolts work I’d done to revive the Greens in Liverpool, we wouldn’t have attracted someone as capable as Lou to stand for us. I should also point out that on this question you would get a different answer depending on which Green you asked.
What do you think the long term perspectives are? Do you think it is feasible for the Green party to ever win a general election?
I am not in politics to finish second. A criticism of the other European Green parties is that they have too easily settled for second best. Our demographic research suggests that right now we have the potential to reach out to up to 24% of voters nationally. The fact that we have won a number of local seats with absolute majorities above 50% also suggests that once elected, people like what they see with the Green Party.
After GE09/10, we would like to see the first Green MPs in Westminster and voting reform. Beyond that we could continue to win seats on a FPTP basis as well as on a proportional list. Winning an election would, for me, involve the Greens being the largest single party and leading a representative coalition within a 20 year time frame. It would not be ideal to implement all of our policies, but it would be progress.
The question of how green polices can be enacted is an important one. If the Green Party did gain a majority in parliament, do you think it could implement its policies without serious resistance and obstruction from big business, the civil service and judiciary? How do you think the Green Party could respond to such establishment opposition?
The current economic system is unsustainable in the long term. We live on a planet with finite resources and we need the economics of the future to reflect that fact. I strongly believe that we are currently the only political party even beginning to answer the question about what happens after we exhaust this way of living. At a time at which that question becomes the most pressing, any obstruction from the establishment can and will be overcome because there will be no other option. The Greens are actually a global force, despite differences from country to country. If Green politics works locally, it can also work regionally, nationally and eventually internationally.
Right from the beginning, even when you were the Ecology Party, there has been a tradition of socialists organising within the Green party, for example the Association of Socialist Greens in the 1980s or more recently the Way Ahead platform. Given the way New Labour has marginalised the Labour left do you think the Green Party is becoming the natural home for socialists?
I would welcome more socialists within the Green Party including you as the interviewer today and others like you. I think socialists bring rigorous thought and a mature understanding of economics and politics. The Green Party offers a different way of working and may initially be a bit of a culture shock at first. However, we are inclusive and you will find a horizontal organisation at our conferences where you’ll find yourself bumping into MEPs, Assembly Members, MSPs and councillors, who are all making a difference.
There is a clear way forward for the Green Party which has retained ethical and political credibility in a time when Labour has squandered their in the run up to the Iraq war. What I continue to find impossible to understand is how socialists could remain in the modern Labour Party. Joining and working in the Green Party means immediate and genuine participation in democratic decision making at conference, the ability to join policy groups and to join in our ongoing campaigns. You will also find a warm welcome from our existing activists.
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