Green rising: why Labour ignores “eco-socialists” at its own peril

For many young, progressive cosmopolitans there is one party to call their own. If Labour isn’t careful, it may no longer be their choice

May 12, 2021
Siân Berry and Jonathan Bartley, co-leaders of a newly mainstream party? Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Siân Berry and Jonathan Bartley, co-leaders of a newly mainstream party? Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

In the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell bemoans what he sees as the left’s constant tendency to alienate the ordinary, working-class voters it needs to win power. The problem, as he understood it, was down to a handful of middle-class, white-collar progressives: “the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England,” he wrote. Orwell’s harshest scorn is reserved for vegetarians in particular; anybody who asks after your dietary requirements, he argues, is “out of touch with common humanity.”

In the aftermath of mixed results last week, many in the Labour Party have been quick to draw the same conclusions as Orwell did way back in 1936: that the party is beholden to a snobbish, cosmopolitan, urban elite who have no interest nor understanding of the country at large. Much commentary has centred on the need for the party to speak once again to working-class communities in a voice it has evidently lost. But talk of a party overrun by the so-called “woke brigade” ignores the fact that Labour’s poor showing was not just down to one direction of travel.

The kind of person Orwell once dismissed as a crank “with vegetarian leanings” we might better recognise today as a stereotypical supporter of green politics. And it is green politics—cosmopolitan, urban, young, with vegetarian leanings—that might just be starting to make a dent in the last places Labour could take for granted. And who knows what Orwell would have to say about that—or the growing popularity of oat milk.

During England’s local elections, the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW) increased its number of council seats to 151, up by 85—it won most in big cities like Bristol, where the party more than doubled its presence to equal Labour’s 24 seats. In some wards elsewhere, for example in South Tyneside, the Greens’ vote share skyrocketed by more than 40 per cent. In Sheffield, the party unseated the city’s Labour leader, Bob Johnson, moving the council into no overall control. In Suffolk, the Greens gained seats from each of the “big three” parties in what has always traditionally been a rural, Conservative-run council.

And where victories provide evidence of success, near misses perhaps reveal a direction of travel. In many wards, like Redditch and Sutherland, the Greens outpolled the Liberal Democrats; in others, like Colchester, they outpolled Labour to take second place. The results have been such that Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the GPEW, has said the party is “moving from being the biggest small party to being one of the big parties.” North of the border that reality has already come to pass. Although the Scottish Greens gained just two seats in Holyrood (bringing them to eight, below some pre-election estimates of 10 to 12) they did so at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, who—now sitting on less than five—have lost their “main party” status, and with it representation on Holyrood’s parliamentary business bureau and guaranteed time at First Minister’s Questions.

All of these developments point towards the possibility that green politics—or “eco-socialism” or “ecology politics”—might be overcoming one of its biggest hurdles within the British political system: electoral viability. Unlike the labour movement of the early 20th century, where the key challenge was to first franchise then mobilise its industrial base, green politics here has always struggled to break out in what is a democratically entrenched era. It’s been around in a distinct form for half a century already.

In many other countries, green parties have provided presidents or government coalition partners. Within the UK however (but especially England and Wales), green politics has long been regarded as the preserve of fringe pressure groups, with mainstream engagement limited to the odd virtuous protest vote. While it’s too early to say whether suggestions of a “green surge” will play out as hoped, it’s clear that what has changed most is not green politics per se, but the urgency of the message it represents.

Climate change has finally, albeit belatedly, become a cross-party issue. Debates nowadays centre less on which party believes it is happening than on which takes it more seriously; environmentalism may even be the closest thing any modern political party in the UK comes to offering a vision for the future. And among all the broken government promises or policies that do not go far enough, it seems like a no-brainer that political parties which put environmentalism front and centre of their thinking should—if not today, or in the next few years—eventually start to win out. You no longer need to be young or even all that progressive to care about the environment.

We’re still a long way from green politics bringing about any sort of “post-war consensus” of its own. But in the meantime, the first group to throw their support behind a “new” progressive party that appears viable will be the fruit-juice drinkers and vegetarians who for so long had only one place to go.

Which brings us back to the chronic troubles of the Labour Party. “The ordinary decent person,” wrote Orwell, “who is in sympathy with the essential aims of Socialism, is given the impression that there is no room for his kind in any Socialist party that means business.” Having lost so much of its industrial heartlands, the prospect that Labour could also lose its young, progressive cosmopolitans to the Greens is no longer just a remote possibility. And in a scenario like that, you’d have to wonder whether Labour really does mean business—or if there’s any room left for anybody in the party at all.