By Olivia Hanks
There were inspiring stories from Green parties all around the world at the Global Greens congress in Liverpool, but arguably one of the most uplifting came from Isabella Lövin. The Swedish Green Party spokesperson has been minister for international development cooperation since her party entered government in coalition with the Social Democrats in October 2014.
Lövin recounted how, despite being by far the junior partner in the coalition (25 seats in parliament to the Social Democrats’ 113), the Greens have brought about numerous changes in policy: “We have put forward a climate law obliging all future governments to achieve net zero emissions by 2045,” she told delegates. “We also have a broad cross-party agreement to have 100 percent renewable electricity by 2040. And, mind you – without nuclear power!”
She also cited the introduction of tax breaks on repairs, and new ways to measure prosperity as an alternative to GDP. “Of course, we cannot get exactly what we want all of the time. But we are changing Sweden.”
Lövin’s fellow Green MP Carl Schlyter is more dubious about the party’s performance in government. Schlyter, who was chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on European Union Affairs until he was ousted from the position last June, has been an outspoken critic of the way the party has handled its role in the coalition.
“We have done a lot of good stuff,” he acknowledges. “Small stuff can be important: one thing I am proud of is that we managed to get more money for regulation of chemicals, especially the ones used in pesticides. That’s very important, actually. But what we promised our voters was not to sell our coal mines to unscrupulous capitalists – we did that. That’s 1.2bn tonnes, that’s 20 years of Swedish emissions that we sold away instead of dismantling it. That was one of our biggest election campaign promises.
“Another one was never ever to weaken migration policies, and we actually brought in one of Europe’s strictest migration policies, after being very generous in the beginning. The third thing was not to militarise the country, but we are now actually spending a record amount of money on the military – in absolute terms, though not in relative terms. We took steps to get closer to NATO which has been very controversial for us. And we said yes to all GMOs. So we did a lot of things that were totally against what we promised the voters.”
The party went through something of a crisis in 2016, when a number of scandals resulted in a change of leadership. Lövin and her co-spokesperson Gustav Fridolin promised a pragmatic approach. So do the party’s supporters accept the ‘pragmatic’ way of doing politics? Or do they see it as selling out?
“All our supporters know that you have to make compromises,” argues Schlyter. “They just think that we could have gotten better deals.
“Also, there are different ways to deal with dissent. You can use it as a force for good. The government is bound to communicate government policy, but we could have used members of parliament or the grassroots to communicate the original Green message, saying this was only a step in the right direction – or even this was not a step in the right direction, but other things we have done justify it. That is a message you can sell, as long as you communicate what is truly Green all the time.
“But if you’re so afraid of criticism towards the government that you crush any dissent within the party, internally and externally, then you end up with a situation where people actually start believing what the government is doing is Green policy; and then they lose faith in you. And that is what has happened – we have lost about a third of our party members since the election, and many of the ones that are still there have become a little bit less enthusiastic or active. However, you also have people feeling a huge sense of pride for what we have achieved, and saying ‘well, you couldn’t expect more, we are a small party in a big government’. But to those who say you can’t expect to get 100%, I say you can at least expect 25%, and we didn’t even get that.”
This will all sound very familiar to anyone who was following British politics from 2010 to 2015. Schlyter is concerned that, as happened with the Liberal Democrats here, voters may punish his party for its broken manifesto promises. The Greens did not negotiate well at the start, he says – and this is what they, and other Green parties around the world, must learn from.
You need one or two watertight big reforms, otherwise you will not win the next election.
“Obviously when you are in government, especially the first time, you have so many expectations about what you want to do,” he admits, “but the advice I would give to all Green parties aspiring to enter government is that you need to set out in detail some major reforms, without any loopholes, when you enter into coalition – especially if you are dealing with parties that have been in power for a long time, like the Swedish Social Democrats. You need one or two watertight big reforms, otherwise you will not win the next election.”
This leads us on to what is clearly one of Schlyter’s favourite topics: shorter working hours. This, he says, would have been the reform he would have chosen to fight for in coalition. It’s an appealing idea, and one that has a place in many Green manifestos around Europe. When I meet Schlyter at the congress, Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley have just announced such a policy on behalf of the Green Party of England and Wales, garnering significant media interest.
Reduced working time is a fundamentally Green idea for many reasons: it puts wellbeing ahead of economic growth; it gives people more time to get involved in local democracy; and it reduces our impact on the environment, as Schlyter showed in his 2014 publication ‘Working Hours and the Climate’ (available in Swedish and English here). As he writes there, “If we had exchanged half of the increase in productivity that has taken place since 1980 for shorter working hours then today we would be down to a 32 hour working week.” Instead, we have used those increases to create economic growth: more profits and more stuff to consume.
“If you look at happiness levels with increased income, above £12,000 the connection between higher income and higher life satisfaction reduces rapidly,” Schlyter tells me. “This kind of growth logic based on purchasing power and consumerism is not what people are seeking any more. Today, people want life satisfaction.”
A lack of job satisfaction coupled with longer working hours, he says, has created a generation of attention-seeking, unhappy people. A shorter working week would allow people more time to express their identity through art, sport or political engagement, for example, and “if people can get attention and emotional stimulus by what they are doing, rather than for what they are able to consume, that is something that all happiness research shows is a much more efficient way to make people happier.”
It’s clear that for Green parties to succeed around the world, they must be able to convey the message that policies to tackle climate change and habitat destruction will also directly improve people’s lives. And the Green movement’s time has come, says Schlyter – but it must be bold.
“Many political parties have now adopted the ‘green growth’ logic. Even some of my friends in the party will say ‘oh, but energy transformation will create growth.’ And it’s true, but you can only do that for five years, then you are done. People want…we say in Swedish you want gold and green forests. You want everything. But when you explain it [the ‘green growth’ fallacy] to people, they start to see that it’s not realistic.
“Social democrats and liberals have fulfilled many of the reasons why they were created. But we have not yet fulfilled the reasons why we were created. And if we dare to speak out on what our real policies are, they fit perfectly in these times we live in.
“We have to say yes, we need to fight climate change, it’s a huge threat to our survival; but the solution will actually make your life better. And to make sure that people who now feel powerless, not listened to, sidestepped – if they could finally feel ‘oh! people are listening to me again, I’m in focus again, somebody cares’, I think that political force, that has hope and shows that we care, is the force that is going to win the next election – and I hope that’s us.
This article is part of a series of interviews with Green Party politicians from across the globe. Read Olivia Hanks’ interview with Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda here, Rowan Gavin’s interview with Natalie Bennett of the Green Party of England and Wales here and Chris Jarvis’ interview with Hannah Clare of the Young Greens of England and Wales here.
Header image via Europaportalen.