What Can The Green Party Learn From The Liberals?

Today, Natalie Bennett addressed the Green Party conference with an attack on Labour, claiming to be the real party of opposition. This is rather reminiscent of the claims the Liberal Democrats used to make, back in the days when the Conservative Party was proving to be a useless opposition to Labour. So it is clear the Green Party are hoping to fill the void the liberals are going to leave in the next election, so what can they learn from the Lib Dem’s mistakes?

1. Don’t Try To Be Everything To Everyone
In opposition the Liberal Democrats managed to pull together quite a wide range of philosophies ranging from the libertarians to far left socialists. This ‘coalition’ soon fell apart the moment they entered government because it became quickly apparent that these factions simply can’t govern together. A party should make clear its philosophy and from that philosophy all policies should spring. The Green Party needs to be clear and at times ruthless now to avoid a similar exodus of support should its popularity rise. True, it can gather more votes in the short term by claiming to be both a champion of civil liberties and punitive on polluting behaviour, but philosophical inconsistency causes far greater trouble later on.

2. Never Rule Out An Energy Source
The Liberal Democrats spent a great deal of time being fiercely anti-nuclear, and yet once in power the reality dawned that if we are to have energy security we will need a whole raft of energy sources. To claim it can all come from renewables and energy efficiency (whether true or not) smacks of the old conservative line that cuts could be made simply through efficiency savings – too good to be true. If the Green Party gets realistic, then their message might go further.

3. Compromise Isn’t Betrayal
In the last election, one of the central planks of the lib dems attack was that the other two parties had repeatedly broken promises (most notably on tuition fees). Whilst the facts of the matter are that coalition compromise is not a betrayal, the perception is far different. Labour and the Green Party have fuelled the public perception that if a party doesn’t fulfil a manifesto pledge in a coalition, it is a betrayal of their supporters. Unless the Green Party works to educate the public on coalition politics they are doomed to the same fate as the liberal democrats, because if they want to enter government it’s going to be through coalition, and that means compromise.

A Green Assessment

Yesterday the Green Party, lead by Caroline Lucas, launched their drive for electoral success in the upcoming local elections. Those amongst their ranks must be pretty excited, this an unprecedented opportunity; the Liberal Democrats (greenest of the major parties) have seen their support decimated and Labour have shown themselves to be providing no alternative at all.

So are the Greens viable? Their leftist stance puts them in a perfect spot to take advantage of the unpopular cuts. As Lucas put it herself, “It’s crucial that there are Green councillors to protect people from the most harsh of those cuts.”

“Our whole analysis of the cuts project is that it’s the wrong approach. Yes, we need to address the deficit but a better way is to get people back into work to ensure there are more taxes coming in.
“Otherwise there is a greater risk of a double-dip recession. We can already see what extreme austerity is doing in countries like Portugal and Ireland.”

So on the issue of cuts the Green party appears to be singing from the same hymn sheet at the Labour party. Of course, in Labour’s case this is a mirage, they would have been cutting almost as much (16 billion to the government’s 17). The timing of the cuts isn’t simply about the distaste of being in debt, neither is it about the horrendous amount of interest paid every day, but it was about calming the bond market. Every country has a credit rating and this affects the rate at which a nation can borrow money. If they lose their AAA rating (as Greece did) this stops international investors lending money to that nation at a favourable and manageable rate. As of March Greece’s rating was B1, ‘highly speculative’.

It was the threat of losing this sacred AAA rating that forced the government’s hands in taking the axe to public spending, and thankfully it worked, the storm passed away from the UK and onto other countries too politically divided to implement an austerity measure.

Of course that storm could return. If growth is too slow then the deficit may not be paid off, bringing the eye of the bond market back upon our economy. George Osborne has managed to buy us a brief reprieve, but without growth that could soon end.

So is the Green stance correct? On the one hand Lucas is absolutely right to say that growth is what’s necessary at this point. If we don’t get it, then the deficit won’t be paid off and the UK finances will fall apart. However, without the cuts the bond market would lose faith in the British economy and condemn us anyway. We need both growth and cuts. This is the horrendous high-wire act the government must perform and it’s unfair to imply there is an alternative.

Yet not all politics is about the deficit, and other issues should not be forgotten. A quick visit to the Green’s website provides some key policies.

Banking System

“We will fight for a fair financial deal, with community banks, credit unions and mutuals.  This will ensure those who need financial help are given realistic loans, so they can survive the current economic hardship that we are facing today.”

A big problem small businesses face is the difficulty in securing loans. It is right that the Greens put emphasis on getting lending going. However, this is a rather vacuous statement. Every government would fight for a deal with the banks to get them lending to smaller businesses. Ultimately, you can’t force a bank to lend money. If they think it’s a good investment, they will, if they don’t, they won’t. Lending money recklessly is what got us into this problem in the first place.

“We also believe it’s unfair that these irresponsible bankers continue to earn extortionate salaries and bonuses, while 330,000 hard working people still earn less than the low minimum wage. Which is why we will fight to introduce a High Pay Commission to ensure bankers and other highly paid executives in the private and public sectors are not rewarded for their failure.”

True, the short term rewards for risky behaviour were obscene and the divide in earnings between the rich and poor is growing dramatically, but as a criticism of the banks, this is out of date. Governments are taking steps to never have to bailout a bank again, and now the myth that a bank is too large to fail has been shattered, share-holders will be keen to prevent another catastrophe. True, it still might, but rewards come with risks and there is little that can be done to prevent that. This Green pledge is more of a socialist attack on the whole system of Capitalism, a valid in its ambition, but the changes to our economy and way of life would need to be drastic to have any actual beneficial effect other than drive away business and investment.

Health and the NHS

“We believe in keeping the health service free – we would abolish prescription charges, re-introduce free eye tests and ensure NHS chiropody is widely available. We will also fight to restore free dental care and provide everyone with the choice of an NHS dentist.”

People in England should be pretty peeved that those in devolved areas seem to get so much more for their money. In Scotland they get free prescriptions and healthcare for the elderly. Where does our money go? To bankers? Duck ponds? That must be it, right?

In reality, different parts of the UK decide to funnel their money into different areas. In England the NHS spends a lot of money of cancer drugs that the Scottish NHS simply wouldn’t be able to afford. So on the one hand, it is great that everyone in Scotland can get free prescriptions for any ailment, but if a particularly horrendous one does strike, they may have worse chances of survival.

Now there may be a lot of perfectly benign sources that the Greens could find the money for these proposals (scrapping Trident, putting a tax on children) but without specifying where the money would come from we can only assume they’ll follow the Scottish model.

Pensions and the Elderly

“The Green Party would introduce a free home insulation programme for all homes that need it, with priority for pensioners and those living in fuel poverty. We aim to insulate 4 million homes every year.”

A very admirable policy. It would create jobs and reduce dependency on energy. How affordable it is, I’m not sure, but practical green policies like this are when the greens are at their best.

Jobs and Living Wage

“Top bankers continue to pocket your money in the form of unearned bonuses, while factories, firms and farms are forced to lay off more and more workers by the day, week and month.

“This must end. Our major and immediate priority is the creation of an extra million jobs and training places. An immediate £44bn package of measures would include workforce training, investment in renewables, public transport, insulation, social housing and waste management.”

Hmm. This is where it gets worrying. The continued slamming of ‘bankers’ is very populist at the moment. Where politicians used to be able to open a sentence by mentioning ‘drug dealers’ and then ‘terrorists’ in the hope the audience’s fury would encourage them to agree with whatever they say, now that lofty position is held by bankers.

So riding high after that inflammatory statement, they Greens suddenly find £44bn to splash out with. If there is a magic pot of money somewhere that only the Greens know how to find, then they might be onto something. However, if the truth is, as my cold cynical heart suspects, that there is no money other than what can be borrowed or taxed, then the snag in their plan becomes clear.

“We are demanding the introduction of a ‘Living Wage’. This will help ensure low paid workers earn enough to provide for themselves and their families and eradicate poverty in Britain for good. The Green Party will fight for a National Minimum Wage of 60% of net national average earnings (currently this would mean a minimum wage of £8.10 per hour).”

Interesting. As a minimum wage that seems very reasonable. Some research needs to be done to assess the impact on growth, but if that is negligible then who could oppose such a move? However, if there is an impact, then the only sensible thing to do is wait a term and implement it later when things aren’t quite so dire.


“We would spend £1.5bn subsidising existing public transport to make fares up to 10% cheaper and £30bn over the Parliament on investing in a better system.  This will have the effect of strengthening communities, promoting a greater appreciation of place, reducing crime, improving the health of the population, and reducing traffic fatalities.   And it would also create 160,000 jobs.”

Fantastic! I love it! Can we afford it? If we can’t, what else can we cut in order to be able to? The Greens suggest that the £30bn would come from road projects that they would abandon. If that is true, then good luck to them. Our railways need investment to lure drivers away from their cars. However, people should be prepared for some pretty dire roads in the meantime and no guarantee that there will be much of a noticeable improvement (£30bn only buys you a lot of railways these days if your shopping with Hornby).

Conclusion? To vote or not to?

Some Green policies are extremely admirable and should be given due care and attention. However, a lot of the current proposals are either unaffordable, or the tax hikes necessary would limit the growth they emphasise is so important. We would all like to see Corporation Tax go up, but to do so would be to drive away the investment we need. It’s a painful truth, but a truth nonetheless.

Ultimately the Green pledges seem to be a mix of sensible policies and nonsensical rhetoric lurching into a form of socialism that is now long dead. If they want to propose de-constructing capitalism, then they should campaign for that and not be ashamed to do so. However, if they aim to work within a global capitalist society, then they need to wake up to that fact.

The problem the Green party faces is that if you take all the policies that could work and cast off all the ones that wouldn’t you roughly end up with the Liberal Democrat manifesto. The Greens would argue that it is worth abandoning this established third party and move to them, because the Liberal Democrats shamed themselves by going into a coalition. But under first-past-the-post the only option for a third party is a coalition, and if the greens were to grow at the expense of eating the liberal corpse, they too would face a similar fate.

Unfortunately for the Greens their sensible option is still to throw their weight behind the liberals instead of trying to destroy them. Bolstering this party with which they agree with on so many issues, might actually get them some of the policies they claim to be in politics to implement. If they aren’t sincere about achieving any of them, then they can continue as they are: a side attraction that splits the green and liberal vote.