The left case for Siï¿½n Berry
Jim Jepps responds to 'Green liquidationists snub Lindsey German' (Weekly Worker April 17)
The most high profile and significant election to take place in the UK on May 1 will be that for London mayor. Whilst the papers have painted this as the ‘Ken and Boris show’, it will come as no surprise to readers of this paper that there are, in fact, more than two candidates in the race.
In fact there is more than one left choice at these elections and I want to put the socialist case for Siân Berry, the Green Party’s mayoral candidate. I have a great deal of personal affection for the Left List’s Lindsey German, but Siân is the effective way for the left to use its first-preference vote (with Livingstone as second preference) to best effect.
The Green Party of England and Wales is one of the most leftwing green parties in the world and has more than once been embarrassed by its more rightwing sister organisations abroad. Go through the Green manifesto and you will find a whole shopping list of leftist policies demanding radical change.
A browse through the news archives shows Siân Berry campaigning on every socialist issue under the sun. Whether it be pushing open source to break the stranglehold of the big computer monopolies, rights for sex industry workers, demanding the resignation of Sir Ian Blair, supporting striking trade unionists or opposing the privatisation of public services, Siân is on the left side of every argument and on the rightwing side of none. Her campaign has prioritised issues that go to the heart of working class life.
Whether it be a living wage for Londoners, decent public transport, massive improvements to housing or targeting the cost of living, all the core policy demands of Siân’s campaign are those that the left wants to see raised and implemented.
These demands are not simply left to election time. Green assembly members secured the Living Wage Unit at City Hall to tackle low pay and Siân has been leading a campaign against poverty pay in the capital. In fact many of the progressive measures that Livingstone takes the credit for were won by those Green AMs using their position on the assembly to push Livingstone’s Labour administration to the left. Green AMs have been responsible for key social and environmental measures and, the stronger their voice, the more effective they can be in pushing this agenda even further.
Of course, there are elements you will not find in any left manifesto. The centrality of climate change to any Green campaign finds itself as an afterthought in many otherwise good socialist statements. There is no other issue that effects the poorest nations on the planet more deeply - nor the poorest people in those nations more dramatically. Yet this internationalist class issue has been left to the Greens for years.
Whilst there are some on the left, like the International Socialist Group, who have taken a serious and thoughtful turn towards the importance of the environmental agenda, others are still lagging behind, finding difficulty fitting the urgent battle to prevent climate change with comfortable revolutionary formulations.
What of the left denunciations of the Greens? Well for the most part they do not hold water, finding it necessary to talk about what other parties did in other situations or taking a totally skewed versions of events in order to describe them as a pro-business party - that when the key demands are for employers to pay better wages and for a reversal of the privatisation mania: hardly neoliberalism red in tooth and claw.
However, where these critics do find purchase, and we should be clear on this, is that the Green Party is a left reformist electoral party. In another time it would be described as social democratic, with the addition of a more radical environmental agenda than we have ever seen before which, it should be said, matches the urgency of climate change.
You will not find demands for the overthrow of capitalism by the organised proletariat, but you will find calls for fundamental change from below. You will not see ossified dogmatic slogans in their literature, but you will see clear and simple progressive politics laid out in a way that indicates they are designed to be implemented.
The Greens are a down-the-line progressive party, but they do not hold to a Leninist line - in fact they have a recognition of pluralism built into their constitution. That can be a bit messy for those who like their politics to be pure and uncompromised, but it is all-important if you are looking to build, in a human-friendly way, a base of support for left field politics.
To the accusation that the Greens (and their mayoral candidate) are left reformists, the only honest answer is, ‘Yes, they are’. But it seems to me that anyone who does not see the current absence of a significant left reformist current as a massive problem in British politics is playing very abstract games. It should also be added that anyone who thinks that there are any candidates putting forward anything except a reformist agenda at this election simply has not been paying attention.
The Green manifesto and election broadcast stand up well against anything anyone else has to offer, but, more importantly, they represent something that actually connects and will make an impact at this election. Each policy is aimed at improving the lives of ordinary working class people and will have to be fought for in the teeth of the big business backers of Brown and Cameron. These policies have a resonance and, unlike the left alternatives, no matter how honourable, will be making an impact on May 1. The question is, how much of an impact they will make?
Labour is likely to drop one seat on the assembly - this could be a real problem if the Greens do not increase their representation from two to three members. If they do not do so, the Lib Dems, Tories and whichever nationalist party wins a seat, will be able to block the mayor’s budget and propose their own, even if Livingstone wins by the skin of his teeth. A left voice that will work constructively with Livingstone is more important than ever at this election.
Doubly so because of the likelihood of the BNP winning one or more seats vacated by the facile ‘One London’ break-off from the UK Independence Party. Mathematically the way to ensure we keep the BNP representation down is to vote for a minor party that can get elected. In this election this is only the Greens. Two Respect lists are going to find it difficult to maintain their combined vote at the level of Respect’s vote in 2004, let alone either one of them surpassing it and winning seats. A strong Green vote is the best way, at the ballot box, to fend off the BNP, and Siân’s mayoral campaign feeds directly into that effort.
There is a strong case for socialists to support the Greens in London at this election. Progressive politics, effective use of positions they gain and a proven electoral base all make voting Green a good left choice on at least some of the ballot papers. But more than that, Siân Berry is a good candidate who is worth supporting and regarded by many as on the left of the party. You will not find anyone who hase been stitched up or misled by her. You will not find anyone who has had their hard work subverted to her cause or appropriated against their consent. She is someone who works with people in a professional and honest way. She would be a good leftwing mayor.
If we are looking towards genuine left regroupment, then we have to broaden our understanding of left politics beyond the fragments of Leninism. Pretending the Greens are reactionary in order to protect dearly held catechisms just will not do. Engaging in a fraternal and critical relationship with them means we recognise that they represent the best chance to influence London over the next four years. The Greens also represent the best chance to minimise the impact of the BNP and, in the long term, a healthy relationship between the left and the Greens will be the best chance of building a genuine pluralistic politics.
A soon-forgotten vote for Lindsey German is not a step towards building a united left alternative and does not advance the long-term goals of moving politics to the left - but voting for Siân Berry and other Greens is a way of demonstrating that it is possible to be part of the left alternative and actually get somewhere.
It will be difficult for the left to break out of its comfortable orthodoxies, but if we are to move forwards we need to recognise allies where we have them rather than creating reactionary spectres where they do not exist.