What Natalie Bennett could learn from the European far-left
The Green party has opted to jump the gun somewhat this year and schedule its conference two weeks ahead of the major parties – a strategy in stark contrast to that of the United Kingdom Independence party, which is provocatively squeezing its own event into the few days between Labour’s and that of the Tories.
Given the Greens’ perpetual paranoia about receiving less than their fair share of media attention, the decision of their leader, Natalie Bennett, to grab the political limelight at a time when it is unlikely to be stolen by the bigger players is unsurprising.
Those who kept half an eye on Twitter following this May’s local and European elections will be able to recall the incandescence of many Green activists, who blamed ‘BBC bias’ for the eclipsing of their own modest gains by those of both Labour and – more spectacularly – Ukip.
‘Stop this media blackout,’ one online petition exclaimed with such fury that even those well-hardened to similar cries from the perennially outraged far-left found themselves recoiling. The petition demanded attention for the Greens on the basis that they had formed the ‘main opposition’ on councils such as Islington, Lewisham and Liverpool. But it failed to mention that the party had won only six seats on all three aforementioned authorities combined.
However amusing such audacious boasts from the Greens may be, simply scoffing at political opponents is never fruitful. While their claims of unfair reporting of the local election results were laughable, there are more legitimate criticisms to be made about the lack of coverage received by other far-left groups across Europe. In overlooking these results, we risk ignoring important underlying lessons for Labour.
British coverage of the European election – dominated domestically by Ukip’s huge gains – rarely strayed further than the comparable results for the Front National in France. In fact, a number of far-left parties, once seen as insignificant protest groups, also performed strongly: in Greece, Syriza topped the polls, and in Spain there was an electoral breakthrough for the newly formed Podemos.
Podemos shares a disturbingly similar policy offer to that of Greens, including the proposed introduction of a ‘citizen’s wage’ and the renationalisation of major utilities. Why, then, did it perform so much better electorally?
Cristina Flesher Fominaya, an academic, recently identified the core strands of Podemos’ strategy. These include: activating the ‘abstentionist vote’; presenting its leadership and activists as ‘decent ordinary people’; and purporting to be ‘anti-corruption’ and ‘pro-democratic regeneration’. Viewed from the perspective of strategy as opposed to ideology, Podemos begins to resemble Ukip far more than it does the Green party.
Numerous commentators have long speculated as to when a ‘Ukip of the left’ might emerge in Britain – a phenomenon that, were it to occur, would cause an even greater problem for Labour than Ukip has become for the Tories.
What if the Greens were to overcome their fixation with their underrepresentation in the media and instead harness the anger of those who feel ignored by adopting the electoral strategies that saw Podemos – and Ukip – perform so strongly? A Green party, in other words, that reached effectively beyond the ‘Guardianistas’ and self-proclaimed ‘intellectual elite’ in order to capitalise on widespread disillusionment with mainstream politics could prove catastrophic for Labour.
But Labour would be wrong simply to pander towards the Greens’ fantastical far-left promises to guard against such a possibility – just as it is wrong to consider emulating Ukip’s despicable tactics of employing fear to divide communities.
Instead, the answer is twofold. First, Labour must maintain a robust, head-on offensive against the fanciful policy offers of the extreme political fringes and make the case strongly for its own credible progressive agenda. Second, it must continue to strive to reach out to those who feel abandoned by politics and disillusioned with the political establishment – at times that may mean bypassing the press altogether.
The mainstream media may sometimes ignore those on the political fringes. But Labour should do so at its peril.
Ben Dilks is editorial assistant at Progress
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