The climate emergency, social movements, and moving beyond partisan boundaries


I was pleased to be invited to open the third South of Scotland Greens Regional Conference in Galashiels today. This is what I said.

“That was when they suspended the constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night watching television looking for some direction.”

That’s a quote from Margaret Atwood. I used to read her as fiction. Well, it turns out she’s actually something of a prophet. I hope you’ll all agree that we should send a message of solidarity to all those across Scotland and the UK protesting against prorogation. #StopTheCoup!

Good morning everyone and thank you very much for inviting me to be a part of your day today. It’s great to be able to join you for your third South of Scotland Conference … I remember having a great time at the first one in Melrose!

Tim asked me to talk about our approach to the climate crisis and how we get the kind of action we need to see. Because we know we have the policies and the ideas we need for the world we want to see. But we aren’t where we need to be with regards the political power and structures we have. So I want to talk a little bit about political engagement, and how we need to think about our approaches given the political contexts and structures within which we work.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of political engagement as far as parties go:

First, we have the political party that exists to carry out the wishes of the powerful in society. It is what we might call the hegemonic party. Second, we have the party that seeks to overturn the power of the powerful in society through tight internal organisation that leads to obtaining that power, and then holding on to it. And third, we have the party of social movements which seeks to work with progressive forces in society to change power in a way that grows organically (pardon the pun) out of those movements.

Clearly, the hegemonic party in British politics is the Conservative Party. We’ve seen very clearly recently just how determined Tory politicians are to hold on to, and abuse, power, to protect their elite interests.

The Bolshevik parties - and I mean that in terms of their organisation and ways of working - are the Labour Party and the SNP. Centralised in their control systems, centralised in how they function, trying to be very well organised, even if it doesn't always work.

Greens need to be a very different type of party.

What is the point of reproducing the same old structures, hierarchies, hegemonies, that constrain our ability to change the world in the ways we know it needs to change?

What is the point of wanting to occupy exactly the same offices and positions of power than the people who’s politics and approaches we are trying to transform radically and completely?

We need to be the party that grows from and works with progressive social movements. And we can see this intent in our core principles, and in our radical roots: greens grew out of the peace movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the feminist movement. There can be no clearer example of how we need to work now, I don’t think, than how Petra Kelly and the Green Bands movement worked together to found one of the first Green Parties - in Australia. 

In the 1970s, construction workers unionised, and then made their unions work with indigenous people to protect environmentally and culturally sensitive and sacred sites. The refused to build on such sites, and refused to have their labour used in ways that were detrimental to indigenous communities. Petra Kelly used this organisation and building of a movement to form the Australian Greens. 

This example shows how the political space that could be occupied by greens has to be opened up by social movements.

We can see what happens when people get into power without a movement to both support and guide your actions. The Lib Democrats, who focussed almost exclusively on winning elections and not on building and working with their movement were left high and dry when they went into government in 2010, nearly being wiped out in 2015. Similarly, Labour has really struggled to recover from its active alienation of its own movement in the 1990s, with privatisation, benefits cuts, centralisation, culminating in the Iraq war. Had Labour built and maintained a movement this would both have stopped their excesses and helped them to ride out the 2008 financial crash.

We can the difference between the German Greens whose actions in government were rooted in a strongly built social movement that allowed them to shift the energy economy of Germany, and then the world, towards renewables, and Greens in Ireland who exploited an electoral opportunity but did not have a social base for the actions taken by their coalition partners.

So, what does this tell us? What lessons must we learn from these examples?

We have two examples, one very current, which I’ll say a bit about in a moment, and one in the recent past that show us a positive way forward.

The Independence movement in the run-up to the 2014 referendum gives us a really important lesson about the role greens can play. We took an energetic movement and very effectively infused green politics into it. This meant that people who otherwise would not have considered ideas like a Citizens' Income or Green Industrial Revolution for Scotland were talking about, engaged with and enthused by these concepts. We made more progress in promoting green aims in the hot campaign period of the referendum than we had done in over a decade before that, or than we've managed since. Some of this is because it was one of the rare occasions when we’ve put our distinctive politics front and centre. Another lesson for us.

But what it really shows is the power of a politics based in and with social movements. It says that we need to work with movements and to help lead those movements, like we did with Green Yes. 

Similarly, we’ve seen the transformational potential of social movements and direct action through the recent success of Extinction Rebellion and the School Climate Strikes and this shows us another important lesson.

For years, Greens have sought to lead our politics towards an understanding of the climate crisis. XR and the climate strikers have been much more successful that we were. Of course, things have changed: there’s more evidence of Climate Breakdown now than there was before (although we know there was plenty of evidence before). But what it took was not more talk from Greens but direct action by the XR and climate strike movements to create the energy for change that has meant that there is now widespread recognition of the Climate Emergency. We need not just recognition though, we also need action - urgent action, and that is going to require more work both in social movements and in politics to create the change that we so desperately need.

The Spanish have a slogan for this: having one foot on the streets and one foot in Parliament.

For us now, that’s what we need: one foot very firmly on the streets, with the social movements like XR and the climate strikers, and one foot in parliament to create political change.

We need to lead social movements, we need to be guided by social movements, and not fall into the trap of thinking we can do it all ourselves, by ourselves. We cannot. We must work beyond ourselves, building relationships and allies with others. That is what Green Politics has always been about.

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