Red on the Inside: Are the Greens the ‘New Old Labour’?

by Craig McVegas

19 December 2014

The Green Party of England and Wales has polled at 10% for the first time this week, and it has been reported that the recent surge in support is coming largely from Labour’s younger voters. The Greens are clearly positioning themselves as the ‘real opposition’ to the Coalition ahead of the general election, with Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas (among others) saying Labour has failed to provide opposition to the government, particularly on austerity.

In doing so, she speaks to the popularly held idea that the Labour Party has an historic role as the principled voice of the masses, which was lost when the New Labour project took off and has never been regained. Here are seven factors in the Greens’ new image as Old Labour 2.0:

1. Watermelons.

Green on the outside, red on the inside – so the saying goes. While many Greens will surely protest that social justice – even socialist – policies have been at the heart of the party for years, it’s fair to say the Green Party has largely been seen as a single issue party in the past.

This is now changing. Many of the headline environmental campaigns are not so much taking a back seat, but rather taken as read (in the name, presumably). Instead, top billing is being given to policies such as the £10 minimum wage, building a better NHS and the universal basic income (clumsily called the ‘Citizens’ Income’).

2. The Bennett factor.

While the election of Caroline Lucas in 2010 was certainly a watershed moment in the Greens’ history, the election of Natalie Bennett as leader in 2012 hasn’t been inconsequential. A former journalist and lifelong feminist, Bennett is both media savvy and firmly principled. She has been sharp-elbowed in getting the Greens’ fair share of media coverage and hasn’t been afraid to call for radical overhauls of neoliberal policies.

3. Red-tinted spectacles?

Renationalising the railways. The party that cares. Reversing neoliberal policy. If you think this sounds like the Labour Party you’d probably have to go back to its 1983 manifesto to find evidence for it. Nowadays, these are the hallmarks of the Greens, and seemingly the Greens alone.

While this card might have been in the Greens’ deck for a while, it’s no coincidence that it’s being played now. The Coalition has given Labour the opportunity to face down its dual rivals and really set itself apart, and the chance has been blown.

For a vast amount of the left, even the left-of-centre, Labour is ‘supposed’ to be a certain kind of party. There are certain things it ‘should’ be doing, or ‘ought’ to stand for. Faced opposite the most unscrupulous government since Thatcher’s premiership, Labour has been shown up time and again, and the ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘supposed tos’ are being exposed as historical hang-overs.

4. Austerity, austerity, austerity.

If one issue has shown how far Labour has come from its roots, austerity has to be it. As Novara FM has discussed, Labour is being backed into a corner and only seems to offer ‘managed misery’ as an alternative, if we can call it that. Just this week, Bennett joined forces with leaders Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru and Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP – which is itself trying to forge a new image – to tackle the “obsession with austerity” emanating from Westminster.

Where this will become interesting is if the tripartite force increase their seats in 2015 and Labour is forced to seek coalition partners to form a government. Bennett, Wood and Sturgeon are not only united against austerity and privatisation but also rallying behind a deal-breaker of scrapping Trident. As such, Labour would either have to lurch left to strike a deal, or – more likely – seek out the remaining Lib Dems, disaffecting Labour voters further still.

5. But the unions!

Even those perpetually dissatisfied with Labour’s actions over the past four/17/30 years will point to one unique selling point that brings them back to Labour each time – the ‘union link’.

The fraught union relations in Labour’s recent history are well known, but it hasn’t all been down to the unions’ disaffiliation threats. In fact it’s been the party that has done the most damage to the relationship, taking a much more anti-union, and certainly anti-strike stance in recent times.

The Greens don’t have a union link, nor a history of drawing together the labour movement. However it does appear that trade unions are a key area they are working on, with pro-union policies expanding. Whether the same can be said of present-day Labour is up for debate.

6. Labour is feeling the squeeze.

The Labour leadership has been busy pandering to Ukip in order to stop the outgoing tide of middle-aged voters. So busy, in fact, that it had almost lost sight of the young people breaking rank to join the #GreenSurge.

Panicking at the thought of Labour’s impending left-right dismemberment – dragged by the limbs between a tree being hugged by the Greens and a Range Rover driven by pint-swilling Farage – Labour enlisted Sadiq Khan to head up a strategy unit aimed at undermining Green attacks on Labour votes.

Depending on who you listen to this is either going really well or disastrously. Either way, the Greens have certainly had Labour on the run.

7. The Lib Dems. (Who?)

What have the Liberal Democrats got to do with anything? Fair question – their support has been flatlining since 2011. What’s notable is that in terms of voter demographics, many of their supporters who fled to Labour – or more accurately, returned to Labour – after the Coalition’s first year in power are now leaning Green.

This section of the electorate is young – either students or recent graduates – and it’s clear that the Greens don’t want to miss their chance of a ‘Lib-Dems-circa-2010’ groundswell. Many of their target constituencies are now in university towns, and their strong support for recent free education actions is indicative of their attempts to keep up with the student vote.

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