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Home Opinion Greens parties in Europe: rivals or partners to the centre left?
Green party • Europe • Elections

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

Neil Carter - 26 February 2015

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

Green parties across Europe still repeat the mantra that they are “neither left nor right, but out in front”, but in practice they have located themselves firmly on the left. Indeed, a popular criticism from rightwing politicians is that Green parties resemble a water melon – green on the outside, but red on the inside. Green parties have been most successful in affluent European nations, notably Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland, where they pose a significant electoral threat to centre-left parties. This competition for voters certainly makes Green and centre-left parties rivals, but circumstances have increasingly encouraged at least some of them to become allies.  

Green parties are best described as left-libertarian. They have adopted liberal policies on social issues such as immigration, same-sex marriage, women’s rights and the legalisation of soft drugs, combined with leftwing positions on core economic issues, encompassing traditional socialist policies: raising taxes, expanding the welfare state, investing in education, plus alternative ideas such as universal basic income. Thus Green parties have positioned themselves to the left of social democratic parties, while being more flexible regarding forms of delivery because Greens are less encumbered by labourist preferences for state ownership.

The sociological profile of Green voters is similar everywhere: comparatively younger, better-educated, urban-dwelling, secular and more likely to be female. It is a narrow, but growing constituency that is particularly attracted by Green libertarian policies, and should ensure long-term stability for Green parties. Historically, today’s Green voter would probably be a social democrat: a Swedish election exit poll in 2014 found 69 per cent of Green voters regarded themselves as on the left and just five percent  as on the right. In Germany, many social democrats vote SPD in the constituency vote and Green in the party list to ensure they exceed the five per cent threshold, thereby strengthening the centre-left bloc in parliament.

The Greens have clearly had a direct impact on the electoral fortunes of the centre left, although their failure to win over working-class voters limits that threat. The rise of the Greens both reflects and has contributed to the general decline of traditional party loyalties and specifically to the erosion of the core centre-left party constituency everywhere. Most centre-left parties have responded by strengthening their environmental programmes, but they have been reluctant to embrace many radical Green libertarian positions for fear of alienating working-class supporters.

Yet there has been sufficient common ground for several centre-left parties to regard the Greens as potential coalition partners. Consequently, a flurry of Red-Green governments was formed in the mid-to-late 1990s – today, Greens hold office in only Sweden (Red-Green) and Luxembourg (Red-Green- Liberal). Greens are usually allocated just two or three cabinet positions, although they currently hold six in Sweden. As the junior coalition partner, frequently allocated the post of environment minister, the scope to influence policy is inevitably limited. Greens have consistently prioritised their opposition to nuclear power in office, but with mixed success. The German and Belgian Greens both secured agreements to stop the construction of new nuclear power stations and, hence, the long-term phasing out of nuclear programmes, whereas the French Greens have exerted almost no impact and the Finnish Greens have twice chosen to resign from government after their failure to block the construction of new reactors. Red-Green governments have extended eco-taxes and invested heavily in renewable energy, and in Germany the Red-Green coalition introduced a radical reform of nationality laws giving citizenship rights to long-term guest workers.

The Greens can take time to adjust to the shift from protest party to office-holder, and as junior partners they struggle to maintain a distinctive identity. Consequently, some coalitions have been bumpy rides. The French Greens opportunistically resigned from the Socialist government in April 2014 when the deeply unpopular Francois Hollande appointed the pro-austerity Manuel Valls as prime minister. The unhappy government experience of the two Belgian Green parties between 1999 and 2003, when the performance of Green ministers was characterised by incompetence and bickering, was followed by an electoral meltdown. But, on balance, the Greens have proved themselves to be competent coalition partners, willing to make the compromises and tough decisions necessary to make it work – never better illustrated than by Joschka Fischer’s decisions, contrary to Green pacifist principles, to support the NATO bombing in Kosovo and the deployment of German troops to Afghanistan.

Although the Greens now seem to be a ‘natural’ partner for several centre-left parties, notably in Germany, Sweden and France, the Greens have shown themselves to be increasingly flexible in who they will work with. Where once Green parties were captive partners for the centre left, constrained by their members from doing deals with the right, during 2007 Green parties formed coalition governments with rightwing parties in the Czech Republic, Finland and Ireland, while in the recent past Greens have agreed cooperation arrangements with centre-right governments in The Netherlands and Sweden. However, Green voters seem unimpressed by this flexibility: the Czech, Dutch and Irish Greens all performed very badly at the following election. They seem more forgiving, however, at a sub-national level, where it is more common to see a variety of governing arrangements: for example, the German Greens have worked with the Left party, the Free Democrats and the Christian Democrats at a state level. The scope for the Greens to work with a wider range of parties might be increased by the rise of the radical right across Europe, because liberal and centre-right parties may look increasingly to the Greens as coalition partners in order to exclude the extremists. The recent historic budget deal between the Red-Green government and the centre-right parties to exclude the Sweden Democrats from power may be an indicator of future influence for Green parties.

So the centre left cannot assume that the Greens will always want to work with them. Conversely, the Greens often ‘need’ the centre-left. In the French two-tier plurality electoral system the Greens struggle to get anyone elected to the legislative assembly without the kind of electoral pact used in 2012, where the Socialists gave the Greens a free run in a bloc of seats. But will such cooperation be repeated after the Greens walked out of the government last year? In France, as elsewhere, the relationship between the Greens and the centre left is complex. They are rivals, yet they increasingly need each other. Even when they cooperate, the tensions can run high, but if they fall out, both sides tend to suffer.

Neil Carter is professor of politics at the University of York

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

Tags: Greens , general election , Europe , Neil Carter


Neil Armstrong
25 March 2015 08:34

I DO NOT FIT AS THE USUALGREEN BEINMG MALE & 75 i do not consider myself on the left I have also said“neither left nor right, but out in front”, in fact ahead of the others!!

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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