Owen Jones’s recent suggestion that the Green Party should negotiate the same relationship with the Labour Party as that enjoyed by the Co-op Party seems to have hugely upset many Green Party members, writes Sean Thompson. What most Greens seem not to have noticed is that Jones was not proposing some sort of vague electoral pact with Labour, as the Green Party sort of proposed at the last election, but a whole new formal partnership between Labour and the Greens that could see its joint leader in a future Labour cabinet.
The history of the Cooperative Party provides a useful precedent for what this relationship could mean to the Greens. The Cooperative Party was formed in 1917 and in the 1918 General Election stood 10 candidates and got one elected. The Co-operative Party gained 4 seats in 1922 and 6 in 1923, when Labour formed a government for the first time. However, it was clear by then that Labour had achieved, in electoral (and membership) terms, hegemony on the left .In 1927 the Co-operative and the Labour Parties signed a formal agreement under which they retained their separate identities but agreed not to stand against each other. In return for this, Labour agreed that up to a set number of seats (30 until the limit was scrapped in the 1990s) could be contested by Co-op Party members as Labour Co-operative candidates. Today there are 38 Labour Co-operative MPs, making the Co-operative Party technically the third largest grouping in the House of Commons.
After over forty years, the Green Party has succeeded in gaining only one MP. Despite the importance and urgency of many of the issues that Green Party is concerned with, it has never seemed further from escaping from political marginality. In 2017 its vote share dropped to a minuscule 1.6% and, given the spectacular revivification of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, is likely to – at best – stagnate for the foreseeable future. The best that it can hope for is that the estimable Carolyn Lucas will retain her seat at the next General Election.
However, if the Green Party were to negotiate an agreement with Labour along the lines of that which Labour has with the Co-operative Party it would be able to maintain its own identity, its own membership and its own polices. It would not only be able to influence Labour policy on the basis of being an ally rather than an opponent but also gain a (probably initially quite modest) number of parliamentary seats for Green Party members standing as Labour/Green candidates.
The alternative for Greens is to remain a niche party in gradually decline, with no prospects of any significant electoral success, permanently struggling with the problem of what to do in marginal seats where the Green vote could result in a Tory victory.
For many ecosocialists, and others on the left, it seemed that the Blair years had initiated a gradual, but terminal erosion Labour’s dominance of the left and electoral support. In such circumstances, the Green Party presented a potential base upon which a new mass party of the left might be built.
The triumphant, and wholly unexpected, victory of Corbyn’s leadership bid, the subsequent explosion of party membership to over 550,000 and the apparently ongoing process of democratisation of the party, has proved that assessment to be dramatically wrong. On the left today ,only a steadily diminishing band of a few hundred purblind sectarians – and apparently those ecosocialists still in the Green Party – believe that there is any basis for building a mass movement to the left of Labour.
However, a formal partnership between the Green Party and Labour could not only greatly enhance the greening of the Labour Party but also help transform it from a centralised election machine to a social movement for ecosocialism and democracy.