In his recent opinion piece in The Guardian, Owen Jones bemoaned the ongoing divide in the left wing vote between the Green Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, calling for the end to partisan differences and the creation of one banner under which Greens and Labour could walk; a deal just like the one signed by the Co-Operative party in 1927.
It’s a nice thought; a coalition of the British left in government fighting to eliminate social injustice and bolster environmental protections, locking the Conservatives out of government for the rest of time. But besides misinterpreting the issue with British democratic systems, there is a belittling of the role played by Green parties in the UK. Instead of the consolidation of parties proposed by Jones, which in truth would only serve to boost Labour party electoral prospects and entrench the Labour Party’s left wing, the obvious issue to be addressed is the majoritarian electoral system which is undermining British democracy in Westminster. The UK needs some form of proportional representation and more political parties involved in the decision making process, not fewer.
It is likely not untrue to say that Jeremy Corbyn is closer in his beliefs to Caroline Lucas than his own party, but it is important to remember that the Green Party and Corbyn’s Labour remain very different entities. For one, the Labour Party have resigned themselves to an increasingly vague, and disappointing position on the UK’s place in Europe; while Labour may be warming to a closer post-Brexit relationship with the EU, the Greens continue to dispute the worth of any Brexit - hard, soft or otherwise. It is also worth mentioning that Jeremy Corbyn is not the Labour Party; Momentum and Corbyn allies may now hold most of the big positions within the Labour Party, but headline issues such as nuclear disarmament remain hotly contested aspects of party policy. Furthermore, Green propositions such as the four-day working week and support for a universal basic income continue to be important contrasts between the two parties.
Moreover, less than three years ago the Labour Party fought the 2015 general election on a platform of extending existing programs of austerity, appearing fairly indistinct from the Conservatives on many issues. One change in leadership later, and Labour is busy prompting a ‘red scare’ in the tabloids with unabashedly left wing politics under Corbyn. The key worry here, is where Labour goes after Corbyn’s tenure is over: will there be a slide back to the centre - perhaps even to the centre-right?
While there is nothing wrong with Labour being a fluid party unafraid of reshaping itself, this concept is hardly conducive to a healthy working relationship with the Greens.
The Labour Party has been in turmoil since Corbyn’s election and the introduction of a major left wing group to a party which had been largely centrist in recent decades. With this in mind, it would appear unlikely that a partnership with an even more radical left wing party would do anything but stoke the fires of division in the Labour Party which have been relatively placated owing to an upturn in electoral fortunes. The Green Party can go further and have a more positive influence outside of the Labour Party’s umbrella. The Green Party has existed well before Corbyn’s takeover and will continue to exist and exert their influence once he is out of office.
The Green Party has an important role to play in politics. They are there to push the government to go further, and give consideration to groups and interests excluded by mainstream political parties. More than simply a party of protest, the Scottish Greens perhaps best illustrate the role a group outside of the big three parties can play. You may be quick to point out that Green success in Scotland can largely be attributed to our mixed member PR voting system, but the suggestion that the best way forward for the Greens under first past the post would be to sign on with the Labour party in England and Wales is simply impractical.
In truth, the real point of Jones’s proposition is to address the fear of a Tory sneaking through the middle and being elected as a result of a split vote share. Jones evokes the usual general election jargon, that it is a ‘two horse race’, or that ‘the Greens/Lib Dems can’t win here!’ and as such expresses how we should resign ourselves to the majoritarian two party politics that has disappointed at least one half of the electorate for decades.
The success of Scotland’s mixed member electoral system should be a model for electoral reform on a UK level. Mixed member proportional representation brought the SNP and the Conservatives to the negotiating table in 2007 and resulted in an informal coalition between the two parties. The Scottish Greens now enjoy a considerable amount of influence in the Scottish Parliament and have worked successfully with the SNP to develop budgets and legislation. It is well known the positive impact consensus politics has, engendering greater satisfaction with government and higher quality democracies, but also kinder attitudes, shown through approaches to policy such as greater foreign aid budgets and aversion to punitive practices such as the death penalty.
Indeed, of all the problems in British democracy the greatest is our first-past the post voting system, electing MPs by plurality and how consequent governance is carried out by, and for, the ‘winners’.
Corbyn has the chance to initiate a real change in the way our democracy works by pushing for some form of proportional representation but the prospect of power and electoral success seems make that unlikely. Perhaps Corbyn should instead embrace proportional representation like his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, a long standing supporter of replacing the present first-past-the-post voting system. It is evident today that Britain is a country divided along many lines; class, gender, race, and constitutional issues to name a few. The challenges of today call for a greater consensus in democratic practice, not a consolidation of power into fewer parties.
If Owen Jones believes in the long term success of left wing politics in Britain, he shouldn’t hedge his bets on the Labour Party. Success is fickle, and when Corbyn fever is over it shouldn’t be the end of progressive politics as part of the mainstream - the best way to ensure that is through electoral reform and the implementation of some form of proportional representation.