13 September 2010

Living Within Our Means

Green Party conference is still in full swing at the Birmingham Conservatoire. I was lucky that the two motions I had an interest in - one on banking and the other on how to put forward a positive view of a sustainable economy in the context of public-spending cuts - were both scheduled for the Saturday. So by 6pm everything was done and dusted and I was able to practise what I preach and have Sunday off.

This post has the same title as one of the motions that I was proposing, and its passage was not entirely comfortable. The Green Party is struggling with an influx of socialists who are understandably disillusioned with the Labour Party. This is a small proportion of Labour Party membership but can become a significant minority of our party, and one which rapidly starts to weight us down towards one side of the left-right continuumn that we really should be transcending. Thus it was that I found myself in the uncomfortable position of being attacked by the left of the party as though I was defending public spending cuts.

Like most people who either work in our use the public services that working people fought so hard for in this country (and isn't that most people who live in this country?), I am delighted that the TUC will spend this week making a range of political and emotional arguments in their defence. I just know that this is not the role for the Green Party. We cannot join the old left in their Keynsian calls for restimulating the growth that is killing the planet. We have a more subtle and forward-looking message and it is our duty as a party to put that forward.

The vote was won and, aside from some personal attacks that are another feature of the Labour Party that we increasingly have to put up with these days, I felt generally well supported and - which was more cheering - well understood. The theme of this motion was taken up by Adrian Ramsay, in his Deputy Leader's speech to the conference where he drew attention to the different ways we interpret the phrase 'living within our means'. I am including the text of the motion here:

Living within Our Means

Synopsis. The unprecedented deficit is an indication that we are living beyond our means in a fiscal sense, which supports the Green Party’s long-held belief that we are living beyond our means in an ecological sense. Our recognition of the link between these two crises constrains the kind of response which the party can make to the current debate about publicspending cuts.


LWM1 The Green Party restates its commitment to developing an economic policy that is compatible with ecological sustainability and 'recognises the limits of . . . the
natural systems of the planet’(EC100).
LWM2 In this context it is important that we recognise the current fiscal deficit as a consequence of a policy based on monetary inflation without respect to ecological limits; for our policy to be consistent we cannot rely on growing our way out of debt, as many conventional economists propose.
LWM3 The unprecedented level of public deficit means that a significant restructuring of our economy is inevitable. The Green Party would use this opportunity to achieve the managed descent from overconsumption that our commitment to sustainability requires, while simultaneously addressing the rapid rise in inequality that has occurred in the past 30 years. We could consider this to be a domestic equivalent of our global policy for Contraction and Convergence.
LWM4 Conference instructs the policy co-ordinator, the economics policy working group, and the Party’s media team to work together to find ways to exploit the opportunity offered by the fiscal crunch to publicise the Green Party’s unique
commitment to steady-state economics.
LWM5 The policy co-ordinators are instructed to begin a process that will bring to spring conference proposals that will, in the context of the current public spending position, explore the synergies and conflicts between:
The Green New Deal proposals that were passed as a fast-tracked policy motion in Autumn 2008;
The proposals for implementing our economic vision included in the 2010 election manifesto;
The commitment to building an economy within ecological limits included in the first paragraphs of our economic policy.


  1. Well done for getting this motion passed. It was very healthy for the Party to realise, in passing the motion, that it doesn't (yet?) have all the answers.I had also felt quite uncomfortable as a Green parliamentary candidate this year arguing for the Green New Deal in the knowledge that it was not obviously compatible with the Party's long-term economic policy.

    The bigger picture in terms of the unsustainable state of the UK is well summed up in 'Fantasy Island: Waking up to the Incredible Economic, Political and Social Illusions of the Blair Legacy' (L Elliott & D Atkinson, 2007). Worth a read if you've not seen it.

    Tim Andrewes

    PS Shame not to have seen you in Birmingham. Couldn't you have stayed on Sunday but socialised instead of working?

  2. 'The Green Party is struggling with an influx of socialists'

    Struggling? Why would an influx of people who believe in equality cause us to struggle?

    Not all socialists believe in 'Big State' Soviet Style socialism - and those who do probably are not joining the Green party.

    I voted against this motion, which presented the vicious cuts about to be imposed by the ConDems as an 'opportunity'. They are not an opportunity - they are a tragedy.

    I actually agree with the idea that we need to move towards a zero-growth economy. However, what this motion fails to address is the fact that such an economy is impossible under capitalism - this is not a radically Marxian thing to say, it is economics 101: if a capitalist economy does not grow, it falls into recession - as we have recently seen.

    As a result of failing to address this issue, motion CO.2 is extremely confused.

    For a motion to suggest that a policy co-ordinator can magically solve the contradictions of our economic system before Spring Conference is a fantasy. In my opinion, they cannot be solved, which is why we will need to move beyond our current economics at some point.

    I think we basically agree, but I don't understand why you fail to give our economic system - capitalism - a name. Is this something you are scared to do?

    Owen Clayton.

  3. Well done on getting the motion passed. Personally I think we shouldn't stint on being very strongly in opposition to the ideology of the cuts on those services that make a for decent society, the arts, social services, decent benefit provision and the all those marginal services that operate on show strings with lots of volunteers support that are getting picked off one by one. Many of these do not increase the carbon economy by one jot. I do not want to in any way be seen to support an American style model that makes the wealth differentials any greater and would like to see that highlighted in all Green policies together with issues of ownership

  4. I am pleased your motion was passed. Well done.

  5. I don't think the people who voted against the motion necessarily disagreed with what it asks us to do, rather had some disagreements with the intro paragraphs. Mostly a lot of people don't agree that the Green New Deal in the short term is necessarily incompatible with a steady-state economy in the long term, even though you're right that our policy doesn't really address how we would transition between the two.

    An incredibly clumsy metaphor for why our short term and long term policies are like this is that if you are on a plane tumbling out of the sky you really want to regain control before you try and land.

    To begin the transition to an economy no longer based on growth is likely to require quite a bit of retooling of both our infrastructure and industry. The obvious example is the increase in scale of our public transport infrastructure, another might be the conversion of factories to produce more durable goods, another might be the increase in the public administration that will facilitate more cooperative local economies, car sharing etc. All of these things will cost money, require the creation of jobs, and are likely to increase the GDP in the short term. However we can see how they would eventually lead to a society with less consumption and production while not sacrificing prosperity.

    Any means to simply let the economy tank or to end growth in a way that would obviously impact peoples standard of living (as as opposed to their lifestyle) is likely to be fairly unacceptable to most people socialist or otherwise.

    Most socialists I have spoken to about this in the party are not opposed to de-growth strategies but generally disagree that the deficit is proof we have been living beyond our means in a fiscal sense, rather that it is caused by a decrease in tax revenues caused by the recession. Our general election manifesto does actually significantly reduce the deficit primarily by progressive tax increases, while assuming much lower levels of growth than assumed by the other parties despite the fact they have much lower levels of investment in the economy.

    In any case the primary disagreements I think were over LWM 1-3, which aren't going in policy and don't call for any action whereas I suspect 4-5 which do call for action would find much more consensus. I look forward to working on them.

  6. Molly

    In terms of 'living within our means', I would commend you to attempt to live on Jobseekers Allowance levels as a disabled jobseeker.

    That is what I have done for most of my 'working life' while also contributing to society as a volunteer. The rhetoric of 'welfare reform' tends to talk of the 'burden to society' posed by the numbers of Incapacity Benefit claimants. That is reminiscent of the Nazis having called disabled people 'useless eaters' and having a policy of working disabled people to death. They called it 'destruction through work' or whatever the German translation is.

    Had you attended the conference fringe that I hosted today and that was chaired by Natalie Bennett, you might have learned something.

    Your ignorance regarding the social model of disability and how much disabled people's and other benefit claimants' bargaining power has been eroded over the decades is a major part of the problem.

    I will leave it at that for now. Today was the only day that I attended conference this year. Even as an Employment & Support Allowance claimant (more-affluent-than-JSA-claimant) these days, I have to watch my pennies. For disabled people and carers, living in 'welfare reform' Britain is hard work. Criminally negligent and abusive government attacks poor people as its self defence.

    Go to the Carer Watch Blog and wise up before others die with the complicity of your ignorance.

    Alan Wheatley, Green Party of England & Wales Spokesperson on Disability & Social Care

  7. It's exactly this holier than thou 'let's transcend the left right debate' that puts people off our party. There is nothing for them to relate to.

    and I also disagree that economics can transcend a label. Economics should be what is known as 'left wing' - progressive, redistributive and socially beneficial. What you mean by 'transcending' is a very long term ambition - why not just be bolder in the short term and say capitalism sucks, and that we should be moving towards a socialist, redistributive, zero growth economy.

    The "influx of socialists" (ludicrous statement), do not disagree with zero growth - but do disagree with how the first bit of this motion misses the point entirely.

  8. The Greens seem to be in muddled about what economic activity means. They have questioned the dogma of economic growth. This dogma seems to be modern, after the 2nd WW. Usually economic activity is reduced to being all activity which is captured by money transactions, Rightly the Green point out that domestic work, helping out in the community and fiends are left out. The money economy all too often crowds out these more intimate "sub economic" spaces, which would be desirable under a different dispensation and would be encouraged even to "grow"; one sometimes hears the term "Green Growth".

    Perhaps it might be useful to make more clear what economic activity means, particularly in regards to social and ecological ends. Green Growth might be desirable if one take into account the huge problems that are stacking up, environmental and social. As an example: there are about 180000 people a day being urbanized into mostly slums. There is a huge enclosure process under way particularly in Africa. Whats to be done?
    Can these problems be tackled mainly through local solutions and smallness? Perhaps these have to be supplemented by large effects. How is this to be done without destroying the economics and politics of participation and empowerment; rather than Power.

    A transformation to a Green economy implies a huge amount of substitution. It might be useful to think of what Green Growth should mean and not be too dogmatic about economic growth in total. Is it not the quality of economic activity which is the relevant issue?

    Anthony Waterhouse

  9. It may be scary to know, but some of us socialists have been in the party for 25 years (or more!).

    As for my 'descent from over-consumption', it's been rather rapidly brought forward by a public sector contract being canceled two years early.

    Is this an opportunity? Are we all really sharing in the pain?

    Seems to me that there's already a good label for steady-state economics that are pro-poor and redistributive (which you fail to mention here would be a big feature of any no-growth economy) - it's 'socialism'.

    The space between left and right is the 'fence'. It may be time for some Greens to get off it!

  10. Adam @ 14 September 2010 10:09:00 GMT

    One could equally argue, and I frequently do, that it is those members who identify with the "Left" and cling to an outdated, adversarial political construct which is no longer relevant or useful, are the ones who "put people off our party".

    A severely embarrassed number 82 in the Top 100 Left-Wing blogs.

  11. @Weggis - you can't identify with people by sitting on the fence. Time to get off of the high horse and realise that economics is either left and forward or right and backwards. Steady state economics is left economics ultimately.

  12. @ Adam

    So get rid of the fence.

    It's called lateral thinking, try it sometime. It works.

  13. @Weggis - and yet, with a leftist policy of a Green New Deal, and a leader who was prepared to say on national TV that she was a socialist, we now have our first MP, despite the enormous squeeze suffered by all of the smaller parties. Yeah, really hurt us that, didn't it?

    The Left-Right spectrum is still relevant because our economy is still run on the same principles. When it no longer is, then perhaps this spectrum will no longer apply.

    'Neither Left nor right but ahead' is a Blairite delusion, based upon the false supposition that we live in a post-industrial society, when we do no such thing.

    Btw: how come those who refuse to use the Left-Right spectrum still frequently refer to those on the 'Right' or 'Far Right'? I heard the proposers of this motion do exactly that. If 'Left' no longer applies then surely 'Right' also does not?


  14. Also @ Weggis:

    To shift metaphors mid-stream: if you stay in the middle of the road, you are bound to hit something.


  15. Anon 1 @ 16 September 2010 17:29:00 GMT

    "The Left-Right spectrum is still relevant because our economy is still run on the same principles. When it no longer is, then perhaps this spectrum will no longer apply."

    Exactly, we are stuck in the same old left/right paradigm. Change the paradigm [spectrum] change the system [economy].
    It doesn't work the other way round.

  16. @ Owen 2

    Not on a one-way street! :)

    As I've said: change the parameters.

  17. I've not read this, but it sounds interesting.

  18. If you're not sure which side we're on, try a pretty simple exercise. Take a piece of paper and make two columns, one (on the left!), for all the positive developments that have come out of the politics of the left in the past 100 years. On the right... you get the point.

    I've got comprehensive education, the NHS, minimum wage, end apartheid, national rail network on the left. But, I am completely stumped for anything on the right. Genuinely. Please, somebody give me something comparably to those.

    Ben Hartshorn (not anonymous - can't remember my Google account!).

  19. Ben - exactly.

    Weggis - you seem to believe that you can undo the existing political and economic system by simply thinking hard enough. This might give you an aneurysm; it is unlikely to change the world.

    'Change the paradigm [spectrum] change the system [economy].
    It doesn't work the other way round.'

    Tosh. Feudalism didn't become capitalism because a load of merchants decided 'we need a new paradigm'. It changed because of the underlying economic and political conditions - peasant revolts, increasing global trade, better technology, the discovery of new markets, etc. Obviously i'm generalising but you get the point.

  20. Weggis - As for the book you have linked to, it appears to argue for a permanent coalition government! This just shows the true ideological colours of those calling for an end to the left-right spectrum. I'm sure the ConDems will thank you for doing their work for them.

  21. Owen Clayton:

    Exactly. The motion misses an absolutely key issue. You can't end economic growth without changing the economic system. I agree a zero growth type economy is required, but that isn't just a growth-based economy but with no growth (i.e. what we have now).

    The imperative for growth in profits is at least partly why there are cuts to ordinary people's living standards whenever growth pauses. The economic engine can't get overall growth in the economy, but still has to grow to avoid catastrophic failure, so it scrabbles desperately around for other sources of wealth - e.g. money previously allocated for maintaining a minimum living standard for the poor / disabled.

    If you prevented growth without changing the growth-based system, what you would get would not be likely to be pleasant to live in for most.

  22. Ben, you are not bothering to think very hard if you cannot think of any achievements that the right might crow about. A Conservative might say: Privatising the railways, energy, etc; making any left party that doesn't accept capitalism unelectable (i.e. defeating socialism and communism); staying out of the Euro, and winning the rebate on money sent to the EU; etc.

    Molly, you can't have paid much attention to my speech against your motion if you want to ascribe all of the opposition to "an influx of socialists" from the Labour movement. I am not a socialist, I am a Green, but I spoke against your motion because it was premature, badly worded and unnecessary.

    Premature because any synergies between the Green New Deal, the 2010 manifesto and our committment to steady state economics would be extremely general. There are a handful of economists who have worked on de-growth, we simply cannot describe an economy that wouldn't crash and burn around the poor and vulnerable yet. The motion puts our one MP and our party in a position of having to engage in a highly theoretical discussion that is not the business of politicians. It is for academia and the party to debate at workshops and in policy working groups.

    It is badly worded because it draws a highly simplistic link between the economic events of recent years and ecological overconsumption. In doing so it comes close to suggesting that governments can't run deficits analogous to the finite resources of the planet, and gives some the impression that we think there is a conflict between protecting the vulnerable (which was largely the aim of the 2010 manifesto) and living within ecological limits. It is the sort of policy a political opponent would dream of. Caroline, sat in a TV studio, would be skewered.

    Finally, it is unnecessary because we have policy committing us to steady state economics. We all know the Green Party is committed to that. Rather than submit this motion to conference, it would have been much better to set-up a working group with policy committee and economists to work up some talking points for Caroline and Adrian in time for the spring conference.

  23. @ Ben Hartshorn
    18 September 2010 13:36:00 GMT

    The NHS does not and has never operated within a vacuum. It has relied on the private sector to research, develop and provide the medication, drugs and specialist technical equipment, not to mention all the other more mundane stuff like ambulances and helicopters [the London air ambulance has just landed in the field at the back of my house] to give the service it does.

    The NHS is indeed the bedrock but your increased chances of survival today are down to the private entrepreneurial sector, not the NHS itself.

  24. Tomchance, I said 'positive developments'. Are you really saying, as a Green, that privatising the railways was a positive development? We can all list what the right (and left) have done. But what would you be proud of as a Green?

    As for drug companies being the foundation of good health, if profit-driven motives are the only way forward, I'll give up now.

    I don't doubt clever people have found great ways to make money (something I've not been very good at, I'll admit!). Try getting generic medicines in Malawi. This is an interesting read

  25. So is this from "Make Wealth History".

    "Nature draws no distinction between ideologies, and the world doesn’t fit into our political constructs. Something is either sustainable or it isn’t, and neither capitalism nor socialism is ‘the answer’."

  26. Er, I disagree! There are plenty of things that are 'sustainable' but abhorrent.

    You could argue that genocide is 'sustainable' in some cases - reducing resource depletion.

    You need an ideology and other values to support sustainable development. Tolerance, respect for human rights, social justice, for example.

  27. Of course you disagree Ben. You have defined yourself as “left” and that quote challenges your chosen identity. That can be very uncomfortable for some.

    And since when have the values you mention been the exclusive property of the “left”.

    Your comparison of genocide with sustainability is below the belt.

  28. There's something about blogs that means people don't properly read what's written. I didn't compare sustainability to genocide. I said that an act of genocide could be described as contributing to a sustainable future.

    In fact, bumping off the whole human race would also do the trick if it's just the planet we're looking to save.

    But it's not, it's really about people.

    And, I didn't say those values are exclusive to the left. I'd just like you to give some examples of right-wing regimes that are (or were) keen on human rights?

  29. Political compass puts the Green Party and BNP on virtually the same point on the Left/Right axis, but poles apart on the authoritarian/libertarian axis.


    Politics is not one dimensional, or indeed two dimensional – the Green Party is a green party!

  30. @ Ben Hartshorn. "I am completely stumped for anything on the right. Genuinely."

    The right-wing people who founded the movement that was to become the Green Party!

  31. I notice that Weggis has completely ignored all of my points...when in doubt, stonewall.

    Tom Chance: fantastic post (and interestingly from a non-socialist pov) - you hit the nail right on the head.


  32. Sorry Owen, not ignored, just missed. Reviews thread…..

    @ 16 September 2010 17:29:00 GMT

    You may define the GND as “left”, I don’t. Caroline was elected because of a lot of hard, sustained effort by those on the ground in Brighton. That’s where the credit lies. That she is an excellent politician, [I’m not saying here I agree with her on everything] is irrelevant. Plenty of excellent politicians don’t get elected. Generals are nothing without troops.

    We DO live in post-industrial society. We’ve exported it, remember?

    “Left-Right” – Yes, I sometimes find it necessary to speak to people in their own language. As for your specific example you’d have to ask them.

    @ 19 September 2010 07:19:00 GMT

    “Aneurysm and Tosh” – Not sure what point you’re making here. So I’ll repeat mine in a different way. Things do not usually change by chance, ie Feudalism to Capitalism in your example. They change because individuals change the record. They have an idea, they see an opportunity they invent something or discover something – ie they think differently first and then implement it second.

    I find it ironic that those who complain about “Business as Usual” are stuck in the very same mode.

    @ 19 September 2010 07:23:00 GMT

    “Book” – I didn’t say I agreed with it and I certainly haven’t read it. But it still looks interesting.

    Have I missed anything?

  33. You've missed everything, alas.

    'We DO live in post-industrial society. We’ve exported it, remember?'

    Our 'society' is not limited to our national borders. The world is our society. Without workers slaving away in inhuman conditions in factories around the world, our current lifestyle (or at least that of many people) is simply not possible. Postindustrialism is a fantasy promoted by the neo-liberals and supported by many a postmodern theorist.

    We have more industrialism in the world today than ever before - it is the cause of climate change, remember?

    '“Left-Right” – Yes, I sometimes find it necessary to speak to people in their own language.'

    So you can't just invent a new paradigm then? Funny that.

    'ie Feudalism to Capitalism in your example. They change because individuals change the record. They have an idea, they see an opportunity they invent something or discover something – ie they think differently first and then implement it second.'

    In what sense did the change described happen in this way?

    Technological changes make certain modes of production possible, or make them more profitable - the change from homeworkers to factory workers in the cloth trade during the early industrial revolution, for example.