The last decade was a period of radical social transformation in Britain. Austerity broke the social contract and exacerbated social inequalities. Brexit split the nation in two. Then 2020 hit. The last decade and its politics are now past. Of course their effects linger on, but the Covid-19 crisis has unleashed a new decade with deadly and dramatic force. We are now at the beginning of an economic shock greater than the 2008 financial crash, with society continually re-wired in many unexpected ways.
Since its inception, the Green Party has had its eyes fixed on a coming catastrophe – a crisis that could still yet make 2020 and its fall-out seem small. Our reason for being is to secure a pathway to social and economic transformation that halts climate change and the destruction of the planet’s ecosystems. We understand that the planet has been in a health crisis for decades, one that makes this pandemic look minor, one that could threaten our very survival.
But we are not prophets of doom; we are agents of hope. We have spent years building a policy platform that turns these crises in a new lease of life. The Green Recovery is what the Green Party has always been working towards – and it’s about much more than 2020.
Getting Back on the Front Foot
At the 2015 General Election the Green Party was the only party in England to offer an alternative to Austerity and the only party serious about climate change. Over the course of the 2017 and 2019 elections, the Labour party changed its priorities to gradually follow where we led.
But Labour’s unwillingness to work with other parties – and the collapse of the Liberal Democrats – paved the way for a Tory landslide. With just a 1 point increase on Theresa May’s disastrous 2017 election, Boris Johnson’s campaign focussed its limited votes more effectively and turned a stagnant level of public support from humiliation into victory.
In all of this the Green Party has also found itself on the back foot, despite increasing our vote share. Under First Past The Post the electoral maths requires careful, strategic targeting. Greens are winning seats at local level and, in time, this will pay off with more seats in Parliament. But while the electoral wheels whir behind the scenes, the party’s public message needs rethinking.
During the last decade we won the argument on Austerity, we won the argument on climate change, and we lost the argument on Europe. On all three counts we need to move on. The debate has changed and we have vital answers to the new questions this country faces. But we can only continue to lead if we adapt our messaging quickly.
New Political Tectonics
The crisis of 2020 has changed the political ground. It has re-formed three fundamental fault-lines in British politics that should re-shape Green Party messaging going forward.
1. A Healthy Economy
Public discourse about the economy has changed over the course of 2020 to prioritise health. Whether you support tighter lockdown measures or reject them, the argument now has to be made in terms of health outcomes. Those in favour of lifting restrictions must argue that other health indicators – delayed treatments and mental health risks in particular – should take higher priority. During the last decade the question of who the economy was for ran along the fault-line of fairness – of who should shoulder most responsibility, particularly given rising inequality. 2020 was a tectonic shift: the fault-line now runs on the question of health – of which economic measures will make us healthier overall.
This is a huge opportunity for the Green Party. Our economic vision has Public Health at its heart. We have always understood that a sick planet makes for a sick society, that an economy reliant on ecological destruction is a disease with profound costs to human health. As we have made an impact on the question of air pollution so we can make a much greater impact by highlighting the health costs of all kinds of economic measures.
We should repeat the phrase ‘Green Recovery’ over and over – and insist on the self-evident point that ‘recovery’ is a word drawn from healthcare. Protecting the NHS means strong environmental measures. A healthy economy means an economy that protects people’s health.
This is a message that transcends historic political fault-lines and allows us to make ourselves distinctive in a way that genuinely reflects who we are and why we are best-placed to lead.
2. Valuing Community Life
The welfare debate of the last decade was fought on the fault-line of strivers vs scroungers. We may have won the Austerity argument, but the question of access to benefits was less clear-cut. That fault-line was sustained by the long-standing veneration of waged employment. But the growing avalanche of redundancies, combined with widespread furlough of staff and a reorganisation of home and community life is causing the tectonics to shift here too.
Universal Basic Income has gone from fringe idea to serious policy, but its late-adopters often tout it as a pragmatic solution to rising unemployment (a long-term trend predicted due to machine intelligence as well as a shock-effect of Covid-19). It is indeed pragmatic, but its implications are much more profound. Greens were early-adopters of UBI because it recalibrated the relationship between work and income. UBI acknowledges the massive social contribution made by parents, carers, volunteers, and entrepreneurs who need time to turn creative ideas into viable businesses – as well as protecting those who are, for whatever reason, unable to work for a wage.
2020 has reshaped local communities. With people locked down in their homes, and with the need to ensure that the vulnerable were supported, local neighbourhoods up and down the country have forged new connections and found new purpose. This change is still fragile, but has been seen as an overwhelmingly positive feature of an otherwise negative year. For the Green Party, strengthening local community life is at the very heart of a Green Recovery. Strong local communities are healthier, more economically resilient, and provide crucial infrastructure for mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Universal Basic Income is a policy whose time has come, and Greens should make it a key message. It is not just a way to deal with threats to employment, but a way to restructure our entire economic life around local communities. Implementing it would precipitate one of the most radical social reorganisations in a hundred years. It is another opportunity to demonstrate our vision is ambitious and one of hope, with eyes on the future and not the past.
3. Strengthening Local Democracy
The last decade was, in many ways, defined by a growing democratic crisis. It came to a head with Brexit and the proroguing of Parliament, with angry voices on all sides claiming democracy was under threat. The fault-line was Brexit, but the weakness of our democratic institutions has been evident for a long time.
As Greens know all too well, the electoral system delivers unrepresentative governments at national and local level. But there is also vast and growing regional inequality, with a strong concentration of economic power in the City of London and political power in Westminster. 2020 looks set to accelerate the break-up of the United Kingdom, but even within England the fault-line is changing as the stand-off between London and Manchester became a symbol of a widespread regional rebellion.
Greens have been vocal over the need for Constitutional Reform, but advocating written documents over archaic convention is the wrong battle to pick. We should instead be insisting as a headline that more power is devolved to local communities.
With our stance on Europe, we have unwittingly – and unfairly – been caught up in the much-critiqued image of the London Liberal establishment. This is a difficult knot to undo, but we don’t win by insisting all-the-more on the need for Liberal Democratic values – there is another party set-up for that! We need to stick to our distinctive, which is that we value community life as the basis of a healthy economy – one that, by definition, reverses the damage to our ecosystems. For Greens, democracy must be about community.
There is no way to devolve more power to local communities without also breaking the grip of London. It will involve institutional and economic innovation with collaboration from across the UK. This is an area in which Greens can lead, although if the Green Party’s two London-based leaders are to be credible, they must find a way to champion and embody that message.
The political space is wide-open for a party to become the party for local democracy. The simple fact is that Greens believe in it more than the other parties. Now the political time is right, we should occupy that space with energy and confidence.
Time To Lead Again
The early years of the last decade were an exciting time to be a Green. Caroline Lucas’s first term in Parliament made her a national celebrity and the Green Wave of 2015 looked like the breaking of a new dawn for the party. The last few years, however, with Brexit, Corbyn and Boris in particular, have understandably thrown us. Despite real successes, like our EU and local election results and Climate Emergency leadership, we have been knocked by political tectonics that very few could predict.
Even fewer could predict 2020. The challenges ahead are enormous, but we are a party whose DNA is finding creative solutions to enormous challenges. We need courage to step out in new directions that respond to the new political fault-lines that will shape the coming decade.
The Green New Deal is a key part of our political programme, but it was a message for the tectonics of the last decade. All parties will now attempt some version of it, and while we know we need Greens in government to really make it work, it’s not the headline for 2021.
Instead we need to own the Green Recovery, and make it about far more than a Green economic stimulus. A Green Recovery prioritises health as the goal of the economy, values thriving local communities as the focus for welfare, and devolves real power to enable strong, local democracy.
The climate crisis looms far larger now than it did in 2010, and we know much more about the biodiversity crisis than we did. There is little political ground to be gained, however, by banging that drum even louder – there are many other movements that are doing that effectively, none of them with a pathway to power. As a political party, our role is to take these crises seriously by advocating our solutions.
People need hope, they need a reason to believe that the future can still be full of life. We not only see that future, we know the pathway there. It is time to lead again.