A reply to Adam McGibbon and Michael Rafferty of the Just Transition Greens.
By John Vivian Cooke.
Quo Virides (Whither the Green Party)?
In their recent articles in Village Magazine, Adam McGibbon (Just Transiti ON) and Michael Rafferty, (Just Transition are Left insurgents in the Green Party aiming higher than ¨internal opposition¨), debated the future of the Just Transition Greens. Looking from the outside, as a member of neither JTG or the Green Party, it strikes me as nothing so much as two bald men fighting over a comb. At the moment, JTG are caught up in a moment of self-reflection. They are seeking greater influence within the Green Party when they should be seeking greater influence with the public: eco socialism needs to be outward looking and not inward looking. The debate between McGibbon and Rafferty exposes divisions within a movement that itself is already a division within the Green Party giving outsiders a glimpse of the Russian Doll of factionalism that is incapacitating any progress on both a green or socialist agenda and allowing the centre right to dominate the political landscape by default.
The spectacle of a party devouring itself leads to electoral defeat and political irrelevance. It is a lesson that neither article appears to have considered.
The Green Party needs a continuing supply of vitality and fresh ideas. Clearly JTG have an ample supply of both and their contributions are to be welcomed. Differences, disagreements and debates within political parties are not only healthy but essential. However, those of us who watched the Labour Party in the Seventies and Eighties know all too well that the spectacle of a party devouring itself leads to electoral defeat and political irrelevance. It is a lesson that neither article appears to have considered. McGibbon`s entryist strategy shares the failed ambition with Militant Tendency to take over their respective parties. Rafferty`s neglect of any sort of electoral strategy or practical policies is just another iteration of the refrain about the imminent overthrow of the capitalist system we have heard down the decades.
Eco Socialism needs to be a viable political proposition with electoral appeal. That entails attracting people who are not self-consciously environmentalists through the hard graft of knocking on the doors of voters who have never voted Green in order to convince them that specific practical policies will make a tangible positive difference to their lives.
Eco Socialism has the ability to realise that potential but not if it remains in the realm of the abstract, or, remains obsessed with winning obscure places on the party`s executive. It was precisely such a concentration on the granular details of retail politics that allowed the German Green Party to rebuild in the aftermath of its electoral meltdown in 1990. Highlighting how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic Socialists have redefined their party`s platform takes away the wrong lesson: Irish Eco Socialists should learn the mechanics and methods of community activism and outreach that propelled them to positions of influence in the first place. The Green Movement encompasses global activists who have effected meaningful and important changes from whom Irish Greens can learn. However, emulating those tangible successes requires detailed and extensive conversations and planning that go beyond 280 characters.
The worry is that the disconnect between JTG and the current party leadership is mirrored by a disconnect between the party and Green Party voters
The Green Party has to establish a stable electoral base. Unfortunately, the party`s recent electoral gains were not the product of such a vote, but came about by constructing a rickety alliance of, essentially, contradictory voting blocks. On the one hand, the Green Party won the number one votes of urban-middle-class soft environmentalists who it is tempting to dismiss as Fine Gaelers on a bike. On the other hand, the Green Party profited by capturing the first preference surpluses of elected Sinn Féin candidates – a phenomenon that only occurred because of the absence of a second SF candidate on the ballots. If the environmental movement makes no attempt to understand the broader electorate with all its contradictions and complexities it can never hope to persuade them. The worry is that the disconnect between JTG and the current party leadership is mirrored by a disconnect between the party and Green Party voters.
JTG has been founded by eco socialists who do not want to be in coalition with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil and who are distrustful of the current party leadership. This dissatisfaction does not mean that the alternatives are any more palatable. It is difficult to see how the party can compete effectively on its chosen ground on the left where voters have a range of socialist options to choose from. Neither should the Greens put blind trust in Sinn Féin as a coalition partner: at the last election they were only too keen to compromise on the environment to win rural votes and their record in Belfast raises legitimate concerns that they might compromise on both the environment and social justice to retain power. Clearly, the parties that appear to be the natural partners of Eco Socialism will prove to be just as difficult to govern with as the current coalition and the party runs the danger of stalling between two fools.
Even though it is counter intuitive, there is greater scope to advance a green agenda in coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael than has been assumed by JFG. Neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael is bound by political dogma. This allows them to make greater policy compromises in order to stay in power. It also, however, allows Green ministers to exact a price even as they green and redden the government`s actions in economic and social policy areas. Green ministers can both shape economic policy to moderate the worst instincts of fiscal hawks in other parties, and maximise the impact of their environmental policies.
Recognising these factors will force the Green Party to confront a number of painful dilemmas inherent in melding red with green. First, how to grow the party`s vote given that one side of the proposition risks repelling the very same voters who are attracted by the other element. Second, but equally important, what standards are applicable when choosing which objectives to prioritise. Prioritising goals does not mean abandoning principles, but, it does mean that principles must be made into concrete options with the gains and costs made tangible and explicit. Both the party membership and the electorate deserve to know the consequences of the choices being made; the woolly management speak of the Programme for Government does not do this, but, neither do the broad brush strokes with which JTG have painted to date.
Eco Socialism by necessity involves balancing and prioritising different agendas. Triangulation is extremely difficult but not impossible. But it will never be achieved if the party is deliberately blind to its necessity. Yes, there are limits to compromise and JTG will make a significant contribution in defining where the Green Party sets its limits. However, inevitably, the Green Party will be forced to compromise at times. Coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is not the cause of these compromises, being in government is.