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Home News The Greens: rivals or partners to the centre left?

The Greens: rivals or partners to the centre left?

27 February 2015
The Greens: rivals or partners to the centre left?

Britain is the latest European country to experience a ‘surge’ in support for a Green party, as relatively young, educated and post-materialist left-liberal constituencies move away from the established parties. While experiences are mixed, working with green parties in industrial democracies presents centre-left parties with obstacles that are both philosophical and practical in scope. For instance, the more libertarian, localist and anti-militarist principles of  the ‘green’ movement do not always sit easily alongside the more collectivist and communitarian principles, as well as support for a more muscular defence and foreign policy, favoured by more traditional social democrats and their supporters.

As Neil Carter of the University of York suggests, Green parties have emerged as direct electoral competitors to the centre left in Europe, even if their lack of appeal to working-class voters has limited the scale of the threat. But the relationship is not simply one of electoral rivalry: Red-Green coalition governments have been formed in a number of countries, although the experience of France suggests that such accommodations are not always comfortable. Last year, the French Greens opportunistically deserted the Socialist government, and the party has gone on to form many more local alliances with the far-left Front de Gauche than with PS ahead of next month’s regional elections . Nonetheless, Carter also notes that the rise of the radical right means the Greens may become a feature of broader coalitions as liberal and centre-right parties seek to exclude extremists.

In Britain, the rise in support for the Green party – its membership has nearly quadrupled since 2013 – is a disturbing development for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. That potential danger is underlined by Paul Webb of the University of Sussex, who notes that, at  last year’s elections to the European parliament, 21 per cent of Green voters had supported the Liberal Democrats in 2010 and 18 per cent had backed Labour. Challenged, too, in its northern heartlands by Ukip, Labour finds itself – like other European centre-left parties – the victim of a pincer movement: with erstwhile working-class supporters peeling off to the populist right, while young, liberal metropolitan voters threaten to desert to the Greens.

Heightened competition on the left threatens Justin Trudeau’s hopes of ousting Canada’s Conservative government in October’s general election. There, the Greens split the vote on the left in certain seats thereby, as Claudia Chwalisz outlines,  “aiding the Tories”. Indeed, voters on the centre left need to decide between the Greens, the NDP and a tactical vote for the centrist Liberals. By contrast, right-leaning voters have only one choice: the Conservatives.

But the experience of Australia described by Per Capita's David Hetherington shows that, for the Greens – who he terms “political outsiders driven by values” – power is not without hazards. There, the party became Australia’s third “major party” as major parties were losing trust and stopped being a “minor party” at the very moment such parties were “taking on the political establishment from left and right”. And the Greens were not able to compensate by pointing to their efficacy:  it was the self-styled party of climate change which voted down Australia’s best chance for a meaningful emissions trading scheme in the 2007-10 parliament, because they felt it was not ambitious enough.

In an ideal world, social democrats could close off the green avenue with an appeal to those same values. But many centre-left parties are reluctant to embrace Green positions for fear of alienating working-class supporters. It looks more likely, therefore, that there is more compromise and coalition-building down the road.

Green parties in Europe: rivals or partners to the centre left?


The relationship between Greens and European centre-left parties is complex – and when they fall out, the price can be a high one


Britain's Green wave


The Green party may not emerge from the general election with more representation in parliament but it is on course to win its highest-ever vote – and it will be Labour and the Liberal Democrats who feel its impact the most



Canada's left voters face a 'traffic light' choice


In her time as party leader, Elizabeth May has turned the Canadian Greens into a respectable political force. While the party may not have much legislative power, its activism on environmental issues and democratic reform plays an important role in political debate



Is the party over for Australia's Greens?


Australia’s Green party fulfilled its dream of becoming part of the political establishment at precisely the wrong time but its fortunes may yet revive



(Photo credits: @Doug88888Juan Medina, Leo Reynolds, Luke)

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