A reply to Adam McGibbon’s recent article in Village.
By Michael Rafferty.
Adam McGibbon’s summary in Village of the birth of the ‘Just Transition Greens’ (JTGs) recalls the relatively modest experience of the Green Party’s eco-socialists in mitigating some of the worst facets of their involvement in a previous coalition government. But these counted for little when the party was electorally and organisationally wiped out in the Republic’s general election of 2011 and rightly implicated in the wake of economic and ecological damage caused by that administration.
Becoming an ‘internal opposition’ (as Adam McGibbon proposes) therefore seems a rather limited prospectus for the emergent JTGs. Instead of being engaged in a negative war of attrition against centrist Green ministers and government whips over the duration of the parliamentary term, the JTGs’ sights are on a more constructive, consequential – and urgent – reconfiguration of eco-socialist politics beyond party structures on the island.
Prospects for such an ‘internal opposition’ hauling the Green Party leftward while it implements a greenwashed, regressive programme for government are challenging at best. Equally bleak is the outlook for having a longer-term impact on government through policy development or in forcing a favourable mid-term readjustment of the coalition programme. These ideas run up against some quite obvious, unavoidable -and, I would argue, insurmountable – difficulties.
First, no incremental change or ‘greening’ of the Programme for Government (PfG) can efface its deeply neoliberal underpinnings. Acquiescence to any variation of a basic framework which places a higher value on the maintenance of a tax-haven economy than green public investment in infrastructure, services and housing still amounts to squandering the political capital and good-will reflected in the party’s February 2020 election result. The elements of the PfG trumpeted by broadsheet media as ‘Green wins’ such as the carbon tax are objectively regressive in nature, i.e. they make working people pay the costs of a rather illusory decarbonisation of the Irish economy instead of corporate polluters. The fact that it is these latter aspects which were sold as ‘gains’ by Green negotiators makes it quite absurd that they could be renegotiated with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in a fit of buyer’s regret. Yet this is the magnitude of adjustment required to render the programme in any way reminiscent of a ‘just transition’. The centrist riposte that ‘there is no alternative’ to making an unsustainable economic model less bad is anathema to eco-socialists in an age of Fridays for Future climate strikers united around the slogan “system change, not climate change”.
Second, the political reality of continuing as a mudguard for this grand coalition is another electoral and organisational wipeout. The simple fact that the addition of Green Party TDs was not numerically required to bind the civil war parties in a histrionic coalition will not go away. A handful and a half of pliant independent TDs was all that was required. The Green offer to shore this edifice up came too enthusiastically and commanding too low a price to make sufficient impact on the ‘woolly management-speak’ of the PfG.
Setting the bar as low as “internal opposition” at the outset not only makes it too easy for centrist Greens to push back, but would also risk the perception that the new group is an inconsequential face-saving exercise for left-wing Green members.
Third, the comparisons with insurgent groups within the party frameworks of the UK Labour Party and the Democratic Party in the USA while topically inspiring are also evidence of the limits of this approach. In the end ‘Corbynism’ was undermined by centrist forces within the Labour Party and the Democratic Socialists of America also failed to nominate Bernie Sanders for the Presidency. The consolation prize of some positive-sounding ‘green new deal’ campaign verbiage from an uninspiring Joe Biden, months out from an election, is seen as precisely that. The organic emergences of left-wing tendencies within broad-church parties, including the JTGs, are of course exciting developments in themselves but they come up against strong pushback from centrists which can weigh heavy on their ability to realise the change they strive for. Setting the bar as low as “internal opposition” at the outset not only makes that job too easy for centrist Greens, but would also risk the perception that the new group is an inconsequential face-saving exercise for left-wing Green members.
I think it is more accurate to say that while some Green members have joined the JTGs in the hope of regaining control over their party and its policy, most will accept the doubtful feasibility of overturning a 76% majority within the party for entering government, particularly after Eamon Ryan’s retention of the party leadership only last month. And many are not even Green members at all.
While the Greens’ decision to enter government was the short-term cause for the emergence of JTGs, the wider factor is the materialisation of a palpable left-right cleavage in Irish politics evident in the February election result.
While the Greens’ decision to enter government was the short-term cause for the emergence of JTGs, the wider factor is the materialisation of a palpable left-right cleavage in Irish politics evident in the February election result. A campaign fought on issues of housing affordability and the infrastructural deficit in health, transport and public-services, followed by unprecedented interventions made in response to the coronavirus, has shifted the economic ‘common sense’ decisively leftward. Globally, even the most staid neoliberal orthodoxy is reversing back up the Road to Serfdom towards ‘tax-and-spend’ Keynesianism in anticipation of the economic freefall when social protection measures are cut back in coming months, second wave or no second wave.
Globally, 2021 is likely to see the simultaneous arrival of several historic crises in financialised capitalism, public health, mass unemployment and deepening climate emergency. Emerging in these circumstances, the JTGs’ expectations go well beyond reconciling tensions within the Green Party and are focused more on bringing about the necessary coalition in progressive, ecological and Left politics, trade union and community organisations to make an Irish Green New Deal possible. Implementing neoliberalism with the civil war parties in government is the biggest barrier to the party being relevant to that emerging situation.
The raison d’être of the JTGs is still to be defined, but it is definitely not a vehicle to save the blushes of disaffected Green members with incremental policy adjustments and occasional Dáil rebellions to ride out the parliamentary term in government. Rather it is to be a catalyst for radical realignment in a fracturing political system at a time of multiple crises. The leadership of the Green Party may be unwilling to learn from past mistakes but even this situation has its virtues – previously disparate left voices in a party captured by patrician centrism have been given the opportunity to organise under the constitution of the Green Party. The eco-socialist prospectus of the “just transition” (in housing, energy, industry etc) is the nascent global ‘common-sense’ of our time. Greenwashed neoliberalism with Micheál and Leo just won’t deal with the problems inherent to the near-term future of a combined global pandemic, economic depression and climate breakdown. Rather than the Green Party regarding its newest affiliate group as an unhelpful impediment to its programme, the JTGs could very well come to see the party they were constituted under as the main barrier to progress as long as they remain in government.
Michael Rafferty is a member of Just Transition Greens and a PhD student in Geography and Spatial Planning.