Via Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber, an interesting article by Matthew Tempest in Spiegel Online (in English) comparing the rather contrasting fortunes of the German and British Green Parties. Both were founded at around the same time (the article does make an error in saying the Ecology Party renamed itself as the Green Party in the 70s – the change didn’t take place until the 80s, partly to link in with the increased use of the name Green across Europe and the rest of the world) but while the German party is now part of the Government with a number of representatives in the Bundestag, the British Party (or parties, given that the Scottish and Northern Ireland Green Parties now organise separately from the England and Wales Party) still seems some way from a breakthrough into Parliament, let alone government.
The article highlights two main reasons for the different levels of success achieved by the two parties – firstly, and most obviously, the different electoral systems in Britain and Germany and secondly, the way internal divisions were resolved in the two parties. Where the realists (‘realos’) won the internal party debates in Germany, the fundamentalists (‘fundis’) won in Britain, preventing the move towards mainstream politics that benefited the German party.
Beyond those two reasons, I’d argue that there’s a third reason why the British Greens have not been able to make a breakthrough that Tempest misses – namely, the different structure of party politics in Britain and Germany. Superficially, the two structures seem about the same, with power swapping being the two big parties of the right (Conservatives/Christian Democrats) and the Left (Labour/Social Democrats) but that masks the fact that in the Liberal Democrats, Britain has one of the largest ‘third parties’ in the world (indeed, there’s probably an interesting discussion to be had about when the size of a third party in a two-party system becomes such that the system becomes a three-party one, but we’ll save that for another time).
Unlike their closest German equivalents – the Free Democrats – the British Liberal Democrats are a left-liberal party, and are competing for a similar portion of the electorate as the Greens. There is in fact a Green wing of the Liberal Democrats – the Green Liberal Democrats, surpisingly enough – who advocate a similar set of policies to the German Greens. Thus, many of those who would be attracted to a ‘realo’ British Green agenda aren’t necessarily attracted to the Green Party, which finds itself outflanked and suffering from a compounding of the problems forced upon it by the First Past The Post electoral system. Why waste a vote for a minor party with no chance of winning, our hypothetical ‘realo’ Green might ask, when there’s a party that shares much of our agenda with a slim chance of winning?
In this light, it’s interesting to note that the Greens best-ever performance in a British election (at least in terms of their share of the vote) was in the 1989 European Elections when the Liberal Democrats were in absolute disarray after the problematic merger between the parties that made up the Alliance of the 80s (the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party). The Greens got around 15% of the vote then, but mainly at the expense of the Liberal Democrats who had sunk down to single figures from the 20%+ the Alliance had got at General Elections in the 80s. As the Green vote returned to its historical low levels in the 90s, the Liberal Democrat share of the vote returned to the high teens.
Of course, the problem for the Greens wasn’t merely the return of the Liberal Democrats, but also that they faced a higher level of scrutiny of their policies after 1989 and were probably also punished electorally when David Icke, who had been one of their leading public figures, began his journey into the more esoteric realms of politics – the ones inhabited by reptiles from the lower fourth dimension – tarring them (pretty unjustly, really) by association.
It’s interesting to note, though, that the British Greens more recent successes – a steadily increasing, though still small, number of local councillors, as well as MEPs, MSPs and members of the London Assembly – might be about to spark a new battle between the ‘realos’ and the ‘fundis’. As Tempest notes in his article:
That’s a dilemma still being grappled with by Britain’s Greens — which are made up of the England & Wales Greens and the Scottish Greens. (Though technically separate parties, they do work together on national issues.) At the England & Wales Greens conference in Weston, delegates voted strongly to reject the new EU constitution and campaign against it — despite a plea from Darren Johnson, the party’s candidate for London mayor, to accept the treaty.
This, and their opposition to the EU’s common currency, the euro, puts them together with some strange political bedfellows — namely the right-wing company of the Conservative Party and the other resurgent small party, the UK Independence Party.
Repeated calls for the party to have one elected and media-friendly leader, rather than the current set up, are also regularly rejected by the party rank and file. And when the party holds its conferences, many members oppose inviting their more successful German cousins to speak because the party backed the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Indeed, the British party holds on to many ideals long ago abandoned by German Greens.
However, it may be that it’ll take an electoral shock – such as that experienced by the German Greens in 1990 – to make the party take stock and emulate Die Gr?nen’s move into the mainstream.