A new group in the New South Wales branch of the Greens, called Left Renewal, has formed to challenge the party’s conservative leadership.
All the major parties are under pressure from the turbulent political situation caused by a worsening economy. During the July 2016 federal election, a record number of people were disillusioned enough to vote for a third party. However, the Greens vote barely changed from 2013, and was lower than in 2010.
This poor result has brought an existing rift within the Greens out into the open. There is a longstanding conflict between the right-wing and left-wing of the party. While the right dominates the Greens leadership and elected candidates, there is a layer of Greens members that is more left-leaning. This is particularly true in NSW, where the Greens branch has some anti-capitalist traditions.
Because the party did most poorly in NSW, the federal election gave the right-wing some ammunition to blame the NSW branch for the result. The NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon was targeted specifically.
However, the NSW branch is not the reason they did so poorly. Voters generally judge the Greens on their national policies. Nationally, the Greens kept the Gillard government in power from 2010-2013. This government made deep cuts to social spending. They tried multiple times to make a similar agreement with Labor prior to the recent election.
The Greens strategy is to portray themselves as good managers for the ruling class. This means avoiding militant opposition to the status quo. They prefer instead to make deals that translate into acceptance of right-wing budgets. It is capitalism with a friendly face.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale recently said, “Of course the Greens do not support the overthrow of capitalism or any other ridiculous notions of the sort.”
Left Renewal represents a layer of activist members that want to see the Greens take a more radical path. They recognise that the principles the Greens claim to support, such as grassroots democracy and social and environmental justice, are incompatible with capitalism. Many of them identify as socialists.
But the vast bulk of Greens members are more conservative. They are generally middle class and from inner-city gentrified areas. The Greens overall policies and current approach is representative of this layer. Rather than these middle-class people, the real agents for social change are the working class. Workers are the ones with the most latent power. If the working class is organised it can bring society to a halt.
With a focus on a party that is mostly based on the middle class, Left Renewal will have trouble building a movement to transform society. In a sense, they face dual obstacles; firstly, convincing the largely middle class Greens membership to adopt a program that focuses on the needs of working class people, while also convincing working class people to join a party that they don’t fully trust.
While we sympathise with those in Left Renewal who are fighting for social change, the path to success will likely be more straightforward if they were to join with other left forces, including trade unions and community groups, to set up a new left formation. A new party that has a focus on struggle, is based on the needs of the working class, and has a corresponding program, would be much easier to build from the outset.
Transforming the Greens into a fighting left party has not really worked anywhere around the world. While the Greens in the US are more radical than in Australia, it is socialist groups that are experiencing rapid growth against the backdrop of Trump. In Europe working people are turning towards the building of new parties of the left. This is a glimpse of the future for Australia.
More and more people will draw the conclusions that Left Renewal activists have already drawn, and begin to see the need to struggle against capitalism. The best approach is not to focus on the Greens but to focus on the emerging struggles that will develop.
The people that these struggles bring onto the streets will be open to socialist ideas and will most likely be looking for something that stands opposed to the status quo rather than a party that has been part of it.
By David Elliott