Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Green Option?

I can’t understand why a liberal would join the Tories or Labour, but the Greens seem to be a different matter.  A number of Liberal Democrats have joined the Greens since May 2010, for reasons that most fellow-liberals won’t find unsympathetic.  In their own words (more or less), here are some examples:  Alexis Rowell (sometime Camden cllr), Clive Smith (Worcestershire cllr),  Alan Weeks (Hampshire cllr),  Robert Vint (Totnes cllr).  (I should also mention Martin Ford – formerly Lib Dem, now Green Party councillor – and others from Aberdeenshire, although that sorry business predates the Coalition).

The distinction that I’ve heard over the years between ‘practical but sullied’ Liberal Democrats, contrasted with ‘idealistic but unrealistic’ Greens seems over-simplistic.  There has been a constant exchange of activists backwards and forwards between the Green Party and the Liberals/Lib Dems, for many different reasons. (This dates back to the Ecology Party of the early 1970s, the ‘Green Voice’ initiative of the late1980s etc etc). Shared attitudes go beyond the environment, to cover social questions, and an interest in bottom-up, participatory public life. (Conrad Russell’s chapter on Green Liberalism in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism encapsulates much of this.)  These similarities are why Green leaders tend see it as a strategic imperative to attack the Liberal Democrats.  Similarly, the admirable Green Liberal Democrats have struggled to find a distinctive role within our party precisely because their message is so uncontroversial for most members.

My observation of the Green Party during the last 15 years, in a city where they are part of the political landscape, and for two years administered the local authority with the Liberal Democrats, is that Greens are diverse ideologically, but can be roughly categorised into three strands: (1) a small number of highly committed environmentalists; (2) ‘angry leftists’ using the party as their latest vehicle; and (3) environmentally-aware community-minded people, some of whom I’d be happy to see in my party.*  Nationally, the Green Party is less ideologically coherent than the Liberal Democrats, with all sorts of more or less articulated strands reflected by a churn in members. The ‘angry leftists’ are organised nationally, while the few liberals (as far as I can see) are not, and perhaps by temperament are less suited to factional struggle.  (After all, sound liberals are often not even that good at factional struggle within the Liberal Democrats.)   Green Party organisation across the country is patchy, so liberals will encounter varied local groups, more or less congenial, but it’s no surprise that the direction of travel for members/activists at the moment is one way.   However, there doesn’t yet seem to be any sort of critical mass of movement among activists or councillors.** So while individual liberals may find a political home in the Green Party, I’ll be surprised if it becomes an alternative pole for liberal politics.    


* Admittedly members of the third strand sometimes seem rather smug and sanctimonious, and their lifestyles could often match their rhetoric more closely, but the latter is the case for some favourite liberals, too…

**Voters may be another matter.  In the perennial search for a Nice Leftish Party, ‘consumer lefty’ voters now seem more sympathetic to the Greens than to the Liberal Democrats.  This demographic might not to be an asset to any party organisationally or intellectually, but their votes can be very useful, as in the London Mayoral election (although Scottish and Irish experience shows us that Green electoral fortunes can go down as well as up).   But this blog isn’t really about them.


  1. I think your article should read that 'former individual Lib Dem members' rather than 'individual liberals', as Liberals would feel very uncomfortable with the Greens ideology.

  2. Thanks for your comment, the first! I'm not sure you're right, though: I don't think there's a tidy ideological distinction between greens and liberals (or Green Party and Liberal Democrats), or that the five people I've linked to (and others) have suddenly put themselves outside the liberal tradition by joining the GP. I don't even think that 'the Greens' have a very coherent single ideology.

  3. As if to support my point about the lack of ideological coherence in the Greens, a Green Party Councillor in Oxford has just defected to the Conservatives. Cllr Chip Sherwood said 'I wouldn't call myself a Conservative, but all parties are green these days.'