By Clive Lord
I almost invented the Green Party. Well, I only re-invented it a few months after it had been founded circa Christmas 1972. I attended a meeting as an enquirer in March 1973, at which I agreed with every word of the four actual founder members: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had just published Limits to Growth, which explained that indiscriminate economic growth could not go on for ever on a finite planet. It got one important fact wrong, and missed one other, but the gist was and is correct, and according to the latest research by James Hansen, could be coming home to roost sooner than expected.
‘Limits’ identified two problems: exhaustion of resources, and the ability of the ecosphere to cope with exponentially increasing pollution. The first, though theoretically true, is plain wrong in practice. Oil is abundant. All we have to do is invent new ways to access it, such as hydraulic fracturing. Limits correctly identified pollution as likely to end growth before resource shortages, but it missed what has emerged as the biggest threat of all: climate change.
‘Limits’ predicted a recession as constraints began to bite, and if James Hansen is only half right, a recession is all too probable now, as ‘normal’ activities become increasingly difficult. But the following conversation took place at that 1973 meeting:
Me (Enquirer at the back of the room): I agree with what you say, but all recessions have caused hardship. What are your social security plans? We need a ‘soft landing’. People will become desperate.
Founder Member: We haven’t thought about that yet. First things first – we have to reduce economic activity to what the planet can cope with. Martial Law if necessary: law and order breakdown will not help the poor. Do you have any better ideas?
I didn’t, I was floored. But I joined on the spot and wrestled with my own question, to which I had an answer by the time I got home: what we now call the Citizens’ Basic income. That is why I have been pressing for it ever since. I still do, but to be honest, the Basic income frightens me now. It is gaining traction world-wide: Finland, The Netherlands , Swizerland and Canada in developed countries, but there are schemes in India, and one in Namibia. But I appear to remain unique in seeing the Basic Income as a way to make a recession thinkable for whole populations. All other proponents are concerned purely with fair redistribution, not limiting our unsustainable impact on the Earth.
I startled the founder members, well-heeled professionals, one a former Conservative councillor, telling them that they had just founded a wildly socialist party. The Green Party will be unavoidably ‘left wing’ in two respects: there will have to be redistribution sufficient for everyone to feel secure in a steady state economy, and community-based, in some cases nationalized enterprises, will have to replace competitive privatization. The market should never have invaded health or education.
It dismays me how many fail to recognize the malign effect of means testing.
However, if the method of redistribution is the Basic Income , it removes means testing, but it allows market forces to make sense in some areas. It dismays me how many fail to recognize the malign effect of means testing. Oddly enough, it is brilliantly exposed by a surprising source: Dynamic Benefits: towards Welfare that works, published in September 2009 by the Centre for Social Justice, a think Tank set up by Iain Duncan Smith. ‘Dynamic Benefits’ proposed the Universal Credit. It used graphs to demonstrate that the withdrawal of means tested benefits was identical to a tax, but it only affected those poor enough to need benefits. Even apparently formidable advocates of the Basic income, such as Compass, get into a muddle from which Dynamic Benefits could have rescued them. The UC, even if the government had succeeded in introducing it, would have been an emaciated version of a Basic Income, so that it would cost the better off nothing. It would only reduce the 70-100% tax equivalent of means testing to 65%. Caroline Lucas could have posed this question in Parliament as long ago as 2012, when the Universal Credit was introduced:
“Mr. Speaker, could the Department of Work & Pensions please publish figures for what it would cost if the tax equivalent mountain on very low incomes revealed by the graphs in Dynamic Benefits’ were to be replaced by a straight line, so that the poor lose exactly the same proportion of their income as the rich? Whatever that sum is, that is what the Green Party’s Basic income Scheme will cost. Anything less leaves the poor paying more in tax equivalent than those on the highest tax rate.”
The upshot is that we can tell those suffering from, or in fear of benefit sanctions that we can get the DWP off their backs. We can then turn to the better off who will have to foot the bill for this redistribution that all we are asking for is fair play. But it is no coincidence that Milton Friedman, an arch neoliberal. was also an advocate of a Basic Income. Think Zero hours contracts against a background of sanctions and foodbanks, and then with a Basic income, where Aesop’s ‘Persuasion is better than Force’ comes into its own.
Once we have explained to the better off that we only want to tax them enough to put everyone on the same starting-line, we can then turn to Green issues. Richard Wilkinson, recently famous for co-writing ‘The Spirit Level’ wrote ‘Poverty & Progress’ in 1972, in which he explained how a ‘primitive’ society, with minimal resources and technology managed not only to live sustainably, but with what they perceived as a degree of affluence sufficient to allow status differentials. The Basic income allows us clever people to do the same.
The better off will not like paying more tax, but they are more likely than those threatened with benefit sanctions to worry about James Hansen’s warnings. Which brings me to the Progressive Alliance currently being proposed by some. Yes, the Green Party cannot help but be ‘left wing’, but it has, and continues to shoot itself in the foot by shouting this aggressively from the housetops. If we are to have a hope in Hell of averting runaway climate change, of making a success of the ‘Paris’ Agreement, we need the support of the 2.3 million who voted Green in the 1989 European Elections. Our ‘high water mark’ at the 2015 General election was 1.15 million. Over a million are still voting for another party. We must approach them more in sorrow than in anger.
There are many who voted Conservative, or possibly Liberal Democrat in the 2015 General Election who must be dismayed by the government’s environmental record since 2010. Theresa May’s first action on becoming Prime Minister was to abolish the last remaining environmental department, the Department for Energy & Climate Change. But as well as enthusiasm for fracking, this government supports the use of pesticides which are killing bees.
Without these extra votes, the Progressive Alliance looks extremely dubious to me. The Labour Party tries hardest to destroy the Green Party wherever we do best – Brighton, Norwich, Brostol, Oxford… Fair enough, as long as we only take ‘their’ votes. Some believe that the 2015 result means that Labour will now turn to the Green Party for help. My surmise is they might, once they see us as taking Tory votes as well.
Of course the only short term effect of this will be to hand a small number of vulnerable marginal Conservative held constituencies to Labour, who are at the moment, in a mess. But the present Parliamentary majority is slim. Will a hung Parliament be enough?
But the more fundamental consequence will be to bring the Basic Income centre stage. Despite being redistributive it has the potential to realign politics from being ‘haves’ versus ‘have nots’, to being those who believe we must live sustainably, versus those who don’t.
Clive Lord is a candidate for the Leadership of the Green Party of England and Wales. Clive is the longest serving active member of the Green Party, having joined in 1973 and is a published author writing on the Citizens Income. You can find out more about her campaign here.
Every Green Party member receives a vote in the forthcoming Deputy Leadership election, which will take place from the 25th of July to the 25th of August. The Norwich Radical have invited all candidates for Leader and Deputy Leader to submit one article to us on their campaign.