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Cooking the Books: Green Economic Policies

The Green Party held its annual conference at the beginning of September. According to the BBC, ‘the Green Party have sought to position themselves to the left of Labour and the Lib Dems by adopting policies such as the renationalisation of the railways, and curbing private NHS work’ (BBC online, 5 September).

Being more radical than Labour and the Liberals is easy enough and it is true that in her speech as their leader Natalie Bennett did seem as if she might have been speaking at a Labour Party Conference in the days of yore.

The Green Party, she told the BBC, is ‘the party of real change, the party with plans and policies for how to transform our economy so that it works for the common good … What we really have to do is rebalance our economy. At the moment, wealthy individuals and particularly big multinational companies aren't paying their taxes and aren't paying adequate wages. Britain is a low-wage economy. We have to allow people to get a decent return on their labour.’

This is to assume that the economy - which is capitalist - is something that a government can manipulate or mould at will, but the evidence of all past governments that have tried to do this is the opposite. It can’t be done. Rather than governments being able to change the way capitalism works it’s been the other way round. Governments have to dance to capitalism’s tune and that means putting profits first.

The Green Party may not like capitalism in its present form and want to ‘rebalance’ it, but they still see no alternative to capitalism as a system of production for profit based on wage-labour and are resigned to working within it. It is true that the sort of capitalism they envisage would not be dominated by tax-dodging multinationals but one in which the profit-seeking enterprises would be small and eco-friendly. But there is no more chance of an eco-friendly capitalism than there is of going back to small-scale capitalism.

Transforming the capitalist economy so that ‘it works for the common good’ is precisely what cannot be done. Capitalism is a class-divided society driven by the imperative for those who own and control the means of wealth production to make a profit. It can only function as a profit system in the interest of those who live off profits.

All governments have to take this constraint into account and frame their policies so as to give priority to profits and profit-making. This means that they have to back off from taxing the rich too much – to pay, for instance, for ecological measures or higher wages and benefits – in case they reduce the incentive to pursue profits and so provoke an economic crisis.

Derek Wall, once a Green Party spokesperson (in the days before they had a Leader) once put this rather well:

‘A Green government will be controlled by the economy rather than being in control. On coming to office through coalition or more absolute electoral success, it would be met by an instant collapse of sterling as 'hot money' and entrepreneurial capital went elsewhere. The exchange rate would fall and industrialists would move their factories to countries with more relaxed environmental controls and workplace regulation. Sources of finance would dry up as unemployment rocketed, slashing the revenue from taxation and pushing up the social security bills. The money for ecological reconstruction – the building of railways, the closing of motorways and construction of a proper sewage system – would run out’ (Getting There, 1990, p. 78).

The answer is not to steal Labour’s abandoned clothes but to get rid of capitalism and its production for profits and working for wages.