As the daily figures are released, showing an ever escalating number of hospital admissions for COVID cases, in this article I want to get behind the headlines and start a discussion about what Green leadership might look like in a better response to this crisis.
Both the Tories and Labour have failed to give adequate leadership in the recent months. The Tory failure is a reflection of something deeper than just the individual incompetence of cabinet members, although this is undoubtedly a contributory factor. Despite new leadership, the Labour failure is a reflection of the fact that this is a party that has lost its mojo, it has no credible vision from which meaningful action can begin.
The virus has crept through all the fault-lines of class, race and gender in our society. Of course, the Tories can’t heal these fault-lines – they created them and thrive on them, because inequalities are the very engines of capitalism.
The Labour Party should be starting from a stronger base in uniting communities to face crises such as these, but has become so enmired in identity politics that it no longer has the respect that clear communication in times of crisis requires. The imminent outbreak of further factionalism over anti-semitism shows that this is a party which has to heal its own sense of community before it can heal the wider community. I won’t waste more than one breath on the Brexit Party and other Farage-fantasists of the Far Right, who have had nothing meaningful to say to our people about COVID and are probably to be found in the playground politics of the ‘no mask’ protests.
The historic failures of the politics of the last 40 years is a national tragedy. We have a Tory party that is so led astray by ideologies of privatisation and individualism that it cannot manage a coherent national voice. We have a Labour Party that is so in thrall to single issue politics that it is a pale echo of the national clarion call of ‘let us face the future’, which it once issued in 1945.
Fellow Greens, the times urgently demand new leadership, leadership based in values, in ecology and in community – not in the failed ideologies of the past.
So, what messages should the Greens be giving at this time?
The first is an unequivocal support for lockdown. People often accuse us Greens of being slightly eccentric, but actually we are the only political party with principles based on real science. It is Greens who can claim among their founders major scientists such as Fritjof Capra and James Lovelock. Therefore as clear-headed and objective thinkers, Greens can with one voice support the need for the strongest possible lockdowns. Furthermore, as objective internationalists, Greens can talk unambiguously about areas of the world where hard lockdowns have worked – China, Australia and New Zealand, among others.
The second is that we must be absolutely clear-minded and resolute about unlocking the blind-alley argument peddled by both Tories and Labour, which is that we cannot lockdown without sacrificing the economy. Nothing could show up the outdated thinking of both parties more than this. The Tories are tied to the ideologies of capital and so support keeping business open. Labour is tied to workerist ideologies of the factory and is equally blindfolded.
Why is ‘lockdown versus the economy’ a false dichotomy?
Firstly, as China is demonstrating, if you get the lockdown right, there is a ‘bounce-back’ effect for the economy. I’m writing this looking out of a hotel window in quarantine in Shanghai and the bustling economic activity could not be in stronger contrast to the harrowing empty streets of the UK.
Secondly, we Greens can apply ecological thinking. It should be clear to anyone looking at a map of Britain that the areas of highest COVID infection are in the economically weaker areas of our country. What earthly sense does it make to shut down these areas separately from the whole organism of the country? A full lockdown would enable an organic approach to healing the country through a sharing of resources, such as medicines and ICU places.
Only Greens can effectively resist the siren voices of ‘business as usual’. As we’ve established for the Tories, ‘life goes on’ means profits, for Labour ‘life goes on’ means jobs and keeping schools open. As Greens, we are not so short-sighted. We know that much more is at stake in lockdown. We must not be ashamed to point to a fundamentally different economic balance sheet. The environment is a part of the wealth of our country. We stand with the land. This is our intense patriotism and internationalism.
The Tories and Labour both wave the balance sheet and point to a decline in profits or jobs under lockdown. With even greater clarity, we must point to the environmental improvements that lockdown has caused, the ways in which so many eco-systems have recovered once the noxious effects of traffic and industry have been held in check. Equally resolutely we must point out that in the medium to long term, this environmental bounce-back is a massive boost to the wealth of the country, as we see improvements in clean air, clean soil and clean water that will improve the health and well-being of our fellow citizens. The bitter truth is that it has taken the tragedy of lockdown to demonstrate what we have known all along – that with better control and regulation of the means of production, the quality of life for ourselves and our fellow species in the plant, animal and insect worlds can rapidly be improved.
Finally, it is only for Greens that lockdown is a re-assertion of community. Here again, both Labour and especially the Tories are compromised by outdated and dangerous ideas of individualistic freedoms. It is this addiction to individual freedom that leads us into the obsession with both rule-keeping and rule-breaking. It is this narrative that has driven responses to lockdown across Europe, and especially in America.
But it’s only a story if you see individuals as atomistic and out for their own interests and gain. It’s the old Margaret Thatcher narrative – ‘there is no such thing as society’. But we Greens have a better story: freedom is community, freedom is living a meaningful life by caring for and looking after each other. It’s a simple, strong, perhaps old-fashioned but nevertheless necessary idea. It is the message at the heart of Confucianism that has enabled countries in Asia to use lockdown much more effectively than the West. In the end it’s as simple as this: ‘I wear a mask not to protect myself, but to better protect you’.
For all our sakes, it’s time for Green thinking!