After writing one post comparing (or rather contrasting) the electoral prospects of UKIP and the Green Party, another contrast occurred to me: how they relate to the parties they are in competition with.
Trying to suggest an alternative to Greens’ current electorally unsuccessful path Neal Lawson proposes the following:
You are in an amazing position, but only if you stop playing the establishment game. Liberate yourself and your imagination. Give up the pretense of being a serious opposition party. The British Social Attitudes survey shows interest in politics rising but belief in political parties declining fast. Why lash yourself to the mast of that sinking ship? In a world of peer-to-peer democracy, just about anything is possible. You can be a radical voice for sustainable, egalitarian and democratic politics. Channel your energy into witty and clever campaigns that gets to grips with the anxieties, hopes and fears of the British people.
I know it’s hard. The electoral system is against you. Resources are tight. But with average temperatures rising faster than your chances of winning more seats, you need a new plan. Ukip has shifted the national agenda way to the right without a single MP. What could you do?
I think the problem with this proposal is that it conflates the objectives of the Greens and UKIP.
For a while now I’ve been suggesting that Farage and co are filling the the niche in British politics that’s filled by the Front National (FN) and other far-fight parties on the continent. I still feel there is a comparison in terms of UKIP’s appeal to those left behind by globalisation itself including former Labour supporters. However, my impression is that it breaks down when it comes to the party itself rather than its supporters. The FN and its ilk emerge from a neo-Nazi tradition that is quite distinct from the conservative or christian democrat traditions that gave rise to the mainstream centre-right parties in Europe. UKIP, however, seem like part of the same tradition as the Conservative party. While UKIP may share the continental far right’s scepticism of immigration, multiculturalism and the EU; it has a quite different approach to economics. While far right parties have embraced the welfare state, UKIP wants a flat tax and big public spending cuts. In fact UKIP’s list of grievances – Europe, immigration, grammar schools, political correctness, gay marriage – seems indistinguishable from the those of the Tory right. Indeed, it seems that many within the Tory party are very sympathetic to UKIP. For this reason the party seems to me more like the Tea Party than the FN: a movement of the more rabid elements of the conservative tradition trying to capture control of their tribe. They don’t want to replace the Conservative party but bring back the ‘real’ Conservative party.*
The Green Party is different; it is not just a more full blooded version of Labour or the Liberal Democrats. This is because it has it’s own ideology that is distinct from social democracy and liberalism**. My impression of the Greens is that their environmental policies are only partially about the environment: they would like us all to forgo our cars and buy locally sourced organic food not just to protect the planet but because they think this would make for a better society. This contrasts with the more instrumental view of environmental problems taken by Labour and the Lib Dems. We could also contrast social democracy’s scepticism of the market contrasts with the Green tendency to idealise a particular kind of small, local business. Even more fundamentally, the liberal enthusiasm for free trade and the Green scepticism are about as irreconcilable positions as one could imagine.
My sense is that this will render Lawson’s prescription inadequate from the Greens point of view. UKIP can perhaps accept a role of putting extra mass on the right side of the ideological see saw because there is a party they would be content to have slide their way. By contrast, simply shifting Labour and/or the Lib Dems will not be enough for the Greens. While UKIP exists to ‘return’ the Tories to conservatism, the Greens are trying to introduce a new political tradition into the mix of British politics.
*Like most people seeking a return to a lost idyll those who see Cameron as a traitor to the Conservative cause have a poor understanding. They don’t want a return to conservatism but to Thatcherism. Disraeli, Baldwin, Macmillan or Heath would find Cameron’s worldview far more congenial than Farage’s.
**This is not to say that liberalism, social democracy and ecologism(?) don’t overlap with each other (and indeed with conservatism). It is just that it is possible to identify fundamentally different worldviews driving these ideologies.