An opportunity too easily missed: The Left and the post-Brown Greens

What does the change in leadership of the Australian Greens mean for Left politics? At one level, it would be easy to write off the shift as largely irrelevant, proof that there is an essential continuity in the party’s drift into the mainstream. Given Christine Milne’s apparent track record as a tough negotiator but more politically orthodox than Bob Brown, it seems like it’s full steam ahead towards the Greens being just a slightly greener-tinged and more progressive version of the ALP.

This would represent a betrayal of the hopes invested in the Greens as a Left alternative, one that had been willing to take a stand against Labor’s capitulation over asylum seekers, the War on Terror and neoliberalism, and which had captured a chunk of the ALP’s traditional base as a result.

Alternatively, one could look at headlines like that in today’s AFR (‘Greens to veer Left under Milne’), note recent party-room frustrations that Brown had steered the Greens too close to a disastrous ALP government, recognise that Adam Bandt – on the party’s Left and closely aligned with the union movement – is now deputy leader, and think that the party will now shift Left with the new balance of forces in operation in the party room.

Both these narratives contain elements of truth, yet both fail to capture either the depth of contradictions faced by the Greens or the political opportunities that something as apparently distant as a Canberra leadership transition can present for building an independent Left. This is because the Greens have been (and remain) a contradictory formation, rising to unprecedented success in an unusual political period.

Starting with an essay in Overland 199, I’ve argued that the Greens’ success rested in part on a split in the base of social democracy because of Labor’s long-run move to the Right and abandonment of its traditional supporters. Labor was particularly vulnerable because of the decline of the trade unions, a process caused by the union bureaucracy’s willing imposition of the burden of economic restructuring on its members. The kinds of class ties the ALP relied on were damaged, undercutting ‘rusted-on’ support.

But the Greens’ rise was also made possible by the party’s ability to provide a national political focus to issues raised by a series of important social movements in the first half of the 2000s, including protests against corporate globalisation, the refugee rights movement and the anti-war movement. While these social movements were relatively weak and transient when compared with the cycle of resistance of the 1960s and 1970s, they nevertheless posited an alternative to the deadening political consensus of the major parties. This was the tentative beginning of a new Left after the defeats of the 1980s and 90s, and the Greens played both a positive role in providing an explicitly political shape to the social resistance but also – once they became increasingly electorally successful – a negative role in demobilising protest in favour of the logic of parliament. So both Milne and Bandt were at the centre of the carbon price package, which has for the most part locked in their party’s existing support but potentially cut them off from disaffected ALP voters with its explicitly neoliberal overtones.

In that sense the party has become much more part of a political class in crisis, rather than being able to present itself as a force opposed to it. Brown, with his maverick persona and ability to play the old-fashioned social democratic card when Labor sold out, could often bridge such gaps. He could be both insider and outsider in a way that Milne will have trouble articulating.

Brown’s authority inside the party – while never absolute – did make it possible for him to pull even the party’s Left towards a strategy of seeking the electoral mainstream. In this he was helped by the decline of social movement activity after 2007 and the continuing fragmentation of Labor’s vote in the 2010 election. It meant, for example, that disquiet about his closeness to Gillard and worries about the single-minded focus on a carbon price rarely saw the light outside inner-party circles. But his supporters’ use of the media to run their factional war with the NSW party’s Left also caused uneasiness and hardening of positions.

Despite moves towards ‘professionalisation’ and mass media campaigning, the party still has a sizeable activist core that in some parts of the country has significant social roots. Many members continue to participate in community-based campaigns, there is a layer of low-level union organisers in its ranks, and the Greens remain connected to all manner of activist projects (however limited these may be right now).

Thus, the mainstreaming of the Greens in recent years is not yet a completed process, and the party remains in a better position to relate to any revival of social resistance than the ALP could. The departure of Brown also means that even if Milne wants to (and that is not yet clear), she will find it harder to hold back internal dissent, and instead have to manage greater instability. Milne is also seen as more of team player, compared with Brown’s tendency to provocative and authoritarian internal behaviour.

The real problem the Greens pose in building a new Left is that their electoralism pulls them into replicating the problems of an exhausted political class rather than building the new politics many of their supporters hope for. You can see this already in Milne’s empty appeals to the bush and ‘progressive’ business. But if the level of social resistance rises, perhaps in response to worsening austerity, the Greens are likely to continue to relate to such activity as well as try to keep it close to official channels. Bandt’s links could serve as a conduit for disgruntled union officials frustrated by Labor’s crisis, for example.

Nevertheless, the new fluidity following Friday’s events means that the radical Left is going to find dealing with Greens politics in debates on the ground a continuing and inevitable aspect of building something better. That’s much trickier than either leaving it for the Greens to be that alternative or writing them off as a spent force.

Cross-posted at Left Flank.

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  1. Interesting to see how much this analysis differs from that published in Marxist Left Review both with regards to the support base and the membership of the Greens!

      • Ben Hillier soundly rebuts the Socialist Alliance critique in his rejoinder. His point about the unwillingness or inability of the union members in the Greens to form a coherent opposition to the ALP in the union movement is telling. Perhaps being a Greens member actually blunts a unionist’s class consciousness?

        Mentioned in the debate is a claim, that Marxists must engage with the Green activist base, that genuinely perplexes me. The far Left would collaborate with such a bloc if it indeed actually existed! Greens members appear to participate in campaigns as either individuals or are entirely invisible. I have not heard of the being involved in campaign meetings on an ongoing basis here in Melbourne.

        • But couldn’t you say pretty much the same about the Labor Party? I mean, how much of an activist base does the ALP have now?

          • But the Greens are supposedly a dynamic Left-wing alternative to the ALP, choc-a-bloc with activists and left-wing workers.

          • But isn’t the point that today — indeed, for the last few decades — there’s no necessary connection between ideological affiliation and organisational forms? That’s why you can’t read that much about Labor’s support from the collapse of its branches, since plenty of people support Laborist ideas without ever going to a meeting. Doesn’t the AES data suggest that’s the same for the Greens, too, that, in fact, plenty of people do support the Greens because they see them as a leftwing alternative to Labor, even though they’re never going to become a ‘Greens activist’? Isn’t the real question about what that means?

          • That’s all fine Jeff, but the idea that the Greens are some kind of latter day SPD and the far Left are carrying out a KPD Third Period policy towards them is being used to brand Marxists as being sectarian.

            Ben’s article is an attempt at answering the question you pose. I don’t see why a Marxist analysis of the Greens should be so controversial.

          • What? That’s just weird (as is the retreat from the initial belligerence into victimology, just cos someone doesn’t agree with you). Read the article again. Tad doesn’t say the Greens are the latter day SPD. He says that there’s currently a contradictory situation, and he offers a few suggestions as to how it might develop. Now, that might be right or it might be wrong, but it’s hardly a crazy argument, and it deserves a serious response.
            I’m open minded about the question. But I don’t think simply issuing denunciations in the manner you suggest is terribly useful in respect of the Greens, any more than it even was in respect of the ALP.

          • Dave,

            “But the Greens are supposedly a dynamic Left-wing alternative to the ALP, choc-a-bloc with activists and left-wing workers.”

            Who is saying this? Isn’t the problem that we don’t have a dynamic Left alternative to the ALP, but that the Greens have captured some of that political space — when the radical Left has been completely incapable of doing so despite the crisis of the political class.

            “[B]ut the idea that the Greens are some kind of latter day SPD and the far Left are carrying out a KPD Third Period policy towards them is being used to brand Marxists as being sectarian.”

            Again this is odd. I’m not branding anyone sectarian (interesting that you think I am). I am asking the radical Left not to either simply defer to the Greens at the level of politics nor defer to them by default by dismissing their role at the level of politics (thereby not really engaging politically at all).

            In case you missed it, I am trying to make an argument within the Marxist Left about the specific political conjuncture. I do think that the Marxist Left groups have got this stuff wrong, in Hillier’s case by focusing on a sociological interpretation of the Greens (as useful as that may be as part of a wider analysis) rather than a political one, and so missing the full import of the role the Greens have played in some kind of Left renewal in the last decade. While I disagree with the Bramble and Kuhn argument about the Greens (in their book Labor’s Conflict), they at least respond concretely to the political aspect of this, something I think Hillier misses.

    • I don’t recall disagreeing with much of Ben Hillier’s empirical data, but for me the question is about the concrete analysis of the concrete political situation. I think both he and Nick Fredman work from quite different analyses of the crisis of Laborism and the crisis of the political class more generally than I do.

  2. A side note but Brown’s resignation provides another illustration of just how difficult commentators find to discuss politics outside the lens of personality contents. Take this from the Age.

    With Brown off the scene, the Greens will unavoidably become a different party. The Greens organisational persona has been leavened and enhanced by Brown’s personal and political story – his tribulations as an environmental campaigner – and his particular brand of bland, besuited, Strine-accented delivery.
    For all of his policy eccentricities, Brown’s old-school personal ways gave the appearance of offering safe haven to many former Labor voters. That, combined with his sense of conviction, was an enduring selling point for the Greens.

    Milne is big on conviction too but she has a much more strident manner and is a boring speaker.

    The explicit argument is that voters never much liked Brown’s ‘eccentric’ policies but they were gulled into voting Green because of his personal mannerisms. It’s an extraordinary argument.

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