Why the Greens will continue to fail

In the aftermath of the Victorian election, leftist politics are in flux. After a campaign marred by allegations of sexual assault and misogyny, the Greens will likely lose all but one of their seats in the Legislative Council. Rather than gaining the balance of power in the lower house as projected, they lost Northcote and failed to pick up the soft Labor seats of Brunswick and Richmond. Prahran still hangs in the balance.

Although formed just a few months ago, the Victorian Socialists ran a colossal grassroots campaign in Melbourne’s north. Hundreds of volunteers knocked on some 95,000 doors in Northern Metropolitan Region for lead candidate Stephen Jolly, a high-profile councillor in the City of Yarra. Sadly, Glenn Druery’s shifty preference deals appear to have stolen the seat for Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, which claimed less than 2 per cent of the vote.

Nonetheless, the socialists outpolled every minor party except the Greens – a substantial achievement for a new organisation. Significantly, in the working-class electorate of Broadmeadows, socialist candidate Jerome Small is currently ahead of the Greens on first preferences. At a time when disillusionment is spreading in the Australian Greens, the Victorian Socialists are building a serious progressive alternative.

The ructions in the Greens have been simmering for some time, long predating the issues publicised during the campaign. Though their handling of alleged sexual misconduct is troubling, sexism and violence are hardly restricted to one party. The Greens’ political problems run much deeper.

In recent months, strongman manoeuvres on the party’s right have delivered some embarrassing political losses – notably in Batman, where attacks on progressive candidate Alex Bhathal contributed to a solid defeat. The ideological split has been felt most keenly in NSW, where the rank-and-file has been locked in a power struggle with Richard DiNatale’s caucus. In December 2016, dissatisfaction with the federal leadership’s aloof style provoked the emergence of ecosocialist ‘tendency’ Left Renewal – the party’s first explicit faction. Insisting that the Green agenda of social justice and environmental sustainability is not compatible with capitalism, Left Renewal sent shocks through a party that, over the past decade or so, has attempted to refashion itself as a mainstream operation.

Left Renewal’s socialist argument may, in fact, be the only logical option for a genuine conservationist movement. Unless we oppose, as a matter of first principles, the capitalist ideology of rationalisation and growth, the green movement cannot halt ecological collapse; we can only frustrate its progress. The situation is now urgent. According to Myles Allen, an author of the latest IPCC report, to avoid cataclysmic climate change we must ‘turn the world economy on a dime’. This will involve an upheaval of global economic structures on a scale for which ‘there is no documented historical precedent’ – and we have only 12 years to make it happen.

To the left’s dismay, Greens leaders quickly made it clear that anti-capitalist politics are not welcome in the party. DiNatale denounced Left Renewal’s socialist aspirations as ‘ridiculous’ and, along with Bob Brown, invited the insurgents to ‘consider finding themselves a new political home’. By now, the group seems to have run out of puff. A parody profile currently has more engagement than Left Renewal’s own Facebook page. Meanwhile, a lookalike Victorian faction calling itself ‘Grassroots Greens’ has been offline since last June.

This should come as no surprise. As the electoral map amply demonstrates, the Greens’ twenty-first-century makeover as compassionate, culturally literate technocrats appeals primarily to tertiary-educated professionals in the inner-city – a demographic that perceives socialism less as an existential demand than an intellectual curiosity. A radical restructuring of the system is simply not in their immediate economic interests.

To be fair, the Greens have developed some progressive economic policies of late, in line with a gradual leftward tilt in public opinion. But the new messaging has not cut through to the mainstream. On one level, the problem appears to be a simple culture clash: the Greens are seen as a party for the woke bourgeois, with a political strategy focused on symbolic and small-scale reforms rather than substantive structural change. Even if its MPs advocated down-the-line proletarian dictatorship, as their conservative detractors imagine, few Australian workers are likely to take up arms at the behest of a hobby-farming doctor in a turtleneck. As things stand, the party does not even have any official links to the unions.

Not only have the Greens been unable to capture the imagination of Australian workers, their pool of younger voters may be set to shrink. Millennial Greens supporters – typically students and graduates entering the information economy – are increasingly vulnerable to underemployment, with internships, freelancing and casualisation becoming the norm in academia and the cultural sector. As their economic privilege seeps away, this nominally middle-class youth may well drift from Green ideology towards a more radical program.

With the Greens’ vote apparently facing a hard limit, it is crucial that the left find a more flexible alternative. The Victorian Socialists may offer a blueprint. A coalition of grassroots organisations and activists, the socialists have a cohesive and far-reaching platform that intersects with the interests of a vast swathe of working Australians. But, unlike other minor parties, their aims are not confined to holding office, where they could lobby the government of the day and tinker at the edges of legislation. Instead, their strategy centres on activism: it’s about ‘using the position to mobilise people’, as Jolly told the Guardian.

The party stands for bottom-up democracy, a model radically at odds with the current representative system, in which politicians need only attend to their constituents once every three years. By contrast, the Greens have long been centralising their decision-making processes, the executive siphoning power from the grassroots. As a result, members are beginning to drop out – some of them quite publicly.

In Victoria, it is likely that disillusioned Greens will begin defecting to the socialists. Anecdotally, a number already have – myself included. For years, many progressives have been making do with the Greens’ leftist simulacrum and were thrilled to cast a ballot for a genuinely radical organisation on Saturday. As the results showed, it is going to take an extraordinary effort to build a sustainable socialist movement in Australia, but the seed has been planted. While the Greens have proven they are neither willing nor able to lead a movement for systemic change, the Victorian Socialists show a way forward for the left.



Image: Banksy in Boston / flickr

Annie Toller

Annie Toller is a Melbourne-based writer and a member of Victorian Socialists.

More by Annie Toller ›

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  1. Good piece. Hopefully the Vic Socialists can continue on with the same sort of vitality, but I do sense it’s a delicate balancing act that’s going on. I’ll be interested in the where to from here discussions.

    1. Of course it was, but even the sexual politics – at least in NSW – have become a proxy for factional warfare. Also ‘politics’ is a strong word for the tenor of debate around this issue. Anyone interested in gendered discrimination should turn their attention to the class system that built and perpetuates it.

  2. One thing the Labor party does well is nurture and mentor up-and-coming talent. Unfortunately the Greens have no such mission.From one election to the next, one rarely sees a familiar face or name. Rather there is a high churn rate, and at the end of the day they are just another political party, which is a shame, because under Bob Brown there was a spirited exuberance we just don’t see today.

  3. Good on the Socialists for a great campaign but this analysis is jumping the gun a bit. Seems worth noting that the Socialist lead over Green in Broadmeadows was by about 0.5 percent and neither Greens nor Socialists managed to get even 8% of first preferences vs Labor’s 70%. A similar result was achieved by the Animal Justice Party in Koroit (i.e. Greens & AJP both on a little over 7% with Labor nearly 70%).

    1. I think an important point in relation to this is that this is the first year the Victorian Socialists have run, whereas AJP has been at something like four elections. So when compared with AJP and the Greens, they are solid numbers.

      1. Not to undermine VS’s decent State upper house run, but they’re more seasoned than people are giving them credit for. It’s *technically* a newly formed party, but effectively the same crew (behind lead candidate Jolly) who’ve run for the lower house federal seat of Richmond at least 3 times now, under the Socialist Party banner. Similarly prolific letterboxing, street stalls, posterbombing etc – and solid yet hardly precedent-shattering results – each time.

        [Assuming this’ll be redacted? If not:]
        Another absent – and far more troubling – aspect of the VS commentary: VS split/birthed from SP after multiple male members (Jolly included) were accused of sexual harassment/assault from female party members. I love a progressive minor party as much as the next pinko feminist, but I think the same onus applies here as does upon the major ones (Greens included) to oust any grubby elements in their ranks.

        1. Alix, Steve Jolly ran as an independent previously; he may have had support from SP, but that is a very different contingent than the one currently behind him. Since he didn’t represent a socialist party, punters would have been voting for him based on his personal profile. VS has generated interest through its comprehensive ideological platform.

          VS is a coalition of groups that pre-exist the Socialist Party, as well as a number of unionists and activists. Whether or not these activists are ‘seasoned’ seems completely beside the point when considering the interest that socialist ideas have generated in the community – although it certainly indicates that VS would be extremely effective at mobilising a broader grassroots movement, which is its stated intention.

          Your comment misses the main point of the article, which is that a different model of politics is needed to move progressivism forward in Australia. VS is the only party advocating for this.

          As to the smear campaign against Jolly: https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/stephen-jolly-leads-mass-resignation-from-socialist-party-over-allegations-of-abuse-coverup-20160223-gn1d75.html

          1. Hey Annine, thanks for the article, I agree with most of it 🙂 I just wanted to ask for more clarification about Jolly’s behaviour. I have read as much as I can into the issue on social media and my understanding matches what Alix said, and your response linking to the Age article doesn’t really clarify it for me… Are you saying that the allegations against Jolly are false?
            I have seen people I respect call out Jolly’s behaviour of harrassing women, but still decide to support VS so it doesn’t have to be a binary.

        2. “Another absent – and far more troubling – aspect of the VS commentary: VS split/birthed from SP after multiple male members (Jolly included) were accused of sexual harassment/assault from female party members.”

          What actually happened is that Jolly quit the party along with 14 others when the party refused to address credible sexual harrassment claims, then with their party in tatters, they decided to throw out unfounded accusations at Jolly himself as one last, farty ‘you can’t fire me, I quit!’.


          You sound like one of those bitter Socialist Party people to me..

          1. Well… no. I’m ideologically aligned, sure, but have never been a member of any socialist group… hence my (fairly widely held) sense that they aren’t particularly distinguishable from each other, and that for this reason it’s disingenuous not to take SJ’s decades of attempts at the fed Richmond seat into account re his state Northern Metro run.

            Although I stand corrected, Annie. I’m a longterm Yarra/Richmond resident, but forgot SJ always ran as an indie candidate – from the legions of doorknockers to his face emblazoned (Che style! bit vainglorious but you gotta back yourself I guess?) on every phone pole, to the SP legions leafletting en masse on his behalf, it was an inextricably socialist campaign every time. Which is fine! But he’s not untested.

            Less fine: the cognitive dissonance at play here. Allegations of abuse by other men should be heeded (and they should! unequivocally!) yet allegations towards Jolly are a smear campaign? So… “BELIEVE WOMEN – with the obvious caveat that a subjectively admirable man must be beyond reproach”? Jolly’s behaviour’s been a fairly closely guarded secret in progressive (not only socialist) circles over the decades, but it seems like the secrecy’s finally cracking under the harsh light of the zeitgeist.

            Full disclosure, I still voted VS, but it was upon a considered balance of personal vs. political, with political winning out – and tbh I didn’t genuinely think they were going to get a seat. That said, not sure how quick we can be to tacitly applaud VS on its absence of “allegations of sexual assault and misogyny.”

      2. I’d also say that single interest parties like AJP (and all the rest, really) have almost no potential to grow beyond their existing demographic. Plus, if Labor actually bites the bullet and bans group voting tickets, they’ll be obliterated – but VS will start picking up seats.

  4. Sure & I don’t want to take away from the excellent effort of VS – people were responding to them and that shows in their upper house results. And it makes an instinctive kind of sense that Socialists could do better than Greens in working class trad. labor electorates. I just don’t think you can describe the Broadmeadows example as significant – in seats like Kororoit and Broadmeadows where there’s a small field and no independent candidates running, small parties (even single-issue ones like AJP) are going to pick up the votes of people dissatisfied with the major parties.

  5. I wonder what percentage of men display ignorance in their treatment of women at one point or another that can be treated with education. All of them? Maybe the left should expel all men for displaying the consequences of being born into and conditioned by patriarchal capitalism and go Amazonian. I’d imagine that would solve the problem well and truly. Workers of the world unite, but only once you’ve done a BA with a major in gender studies

  6. P.S. I’m glad VS are forging ahead with strong, locally minded women as federal candidates and have (finally) stopped defending that indefensible creep Jolly.

    This article will have an interesting time stamp, I guess…

  7. I guess it depends how you define ‘fail.’

    Frankly, I think much fewer than one in ten Australians actually gives enough of a damn about making the world a better place for everyone (even if it comes at their own personal inconvenience) to do anything about it.

    Yes, our species sucks that much !

    So securing ten percent of an electoral vote is probably the best you can realistically expect.

    Sure, it’s depressing and frustrating, but that says more about humans as a whole than the Greens as a political party.

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