York Global Affairs Collab – The Green Movement: Bursting through the soil or withering on the vine?

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(Photo: John Blower – Flickr)

By Harvey Young – YGA Writer and YPR Contributor

The last few decades have witnessed the emergence and subsequent growth of a new political movement within western democracies universally known as the Green Movement. Alongside the increased public awareness (and in many cases alarm) of artificially-induced climate change and its potentially apocalyptic consequences, Green parties and their focus on environmentalism have become significant and widely-discussed players in western democracies.

Green parties trace their heritage from the early 1970s, from ecological parties with broad anti-establishment credentials which advocated for: ecological protection, pacifism and social justice. However, these movements failed to gain significance or win seats in legislatures until the 1983 West German Federal Election where the German Greens won 27 seats. Since then, similar Green movements have seen gradual increases in popularity and success, adopting a framework of six guiding principles in 2001 shared by all Green parties: ecological wisdom, social justice, participatory democracy, nonviolence, sustainability and respect for diversity.

The consensus amongst climate scientists throughout the past few decades has painted a very grim picture indeed with countless disastrous outcomes such as: increased occurrence and severity of natural disasters; collapse of ecosystems; collapse of agriculture and subsequent food insecurity; rising sea levels resulting in catastrophic flooding, and some even predict the extinction of humanity itself. As some of these negative effects are starting to be felt, many people (especially young people) have become extremely concerned for their future and many established parties seem incapable of doing enough to stop this.

However, this disaster is avoidable through the collective efforts of national governments. Therefore, the environment, and policies to combat climate change, have become increasingly important issues for voters in western democracies. For example: in the US 42 percent of voters say the environment is important to their vote; in the UK 28 percent of voters see the environment as the biggest issue facing them and 47 percent of German voters agree. This sense or urgency has been seen in the proliferation of climate activist movements throughout the western world which have garnered a massive amount of both positive and negative attention.      

Whilst the notoriety of Green parties has been increasing consistently alongside concern for the Earth’s climate, the political and electoral implications have been considerably more nuanced. In some countries Green parties have managed to break into the political mainstream and become involved in government, most notably in Germany where their Green party plays a major role in the ruling coalition and has become the third largest party in the Reichstag. However, in many other western democracies Green parties have remained marginal (or even non-existent) both in legislatures and in the popular vote, despite widespread concern for environmental issues.

This poses the question: why have Green parties achieved impressive electoral successes in some countries whilst remaining marginal and largely irrelevant in others?

The most obvious (and probably most significant) reason is because of the wide variety of voting systems employed by different democracies for their legislatures, meaning that different Green parties have differing abilities to both obtain influence in government or opposition and get their voice heard by the wider public.

In democracies which use the first-past-the-post system, inherited from the Westminster system, Green parties have failed to break out of the margins and become a major mainstream political force. This is because these systems, controversially, disproportionately favour the two biggest parties at the cost of other parties and incentivise tactical voting, making it very difficult for unestablished Green parties to become a major political force.

This is best illustrated in the United States. Here the two-party system perpetuated by first-past-the-post systems is the most deeply entrenched, meaning that no party other than the Republicans and Democrats has a realistic chance of gaining seats in legislatures, let alone the presidency. This is best illustrated by the 2020 Presidential Election where the American Green party won only 405,000 votes, or 0.26 percent of the popular vote.

The situation for the Greens across the pond is slightly better, but the British Green parties have still failed to become anything other than marginal in elections. Whilst there is evidence to show that support (especially amongst young voters) for the Greens is increasing and that they enjoy widespread sympathy across the British left, there is only a single Green MP in the House of Commons, and they have little hope of gaining more under the current electoral system

The Canadian Greens have been marginally more successful than their British counterparts, having three seats in the House of Commons between 2019 and 2021. Their support seems to have been based largely on the charisma of their former leader, Elizabeth May but they have lost support since her departure in 2019.

This is in stark contrast with democracies which incorporate some form of Proportional Representation in their elections which make it easier for newcomers to gain seats in legislatures and,therefore, political relevance. For example, Australia and New Zealand have reformed their Westminster-style electoral systems to be more representative and their Green parties have subsequently achieved significantly more electoral successes than in the previous examples, with the New Zealand Greens even being part of a coalition government between 2017 and 2020. This can also be seen in Germany and Austria, which also have elements of Proportional Representation, where Green parties have become significant political parties and are currently involved in government. Notably, the German Greens briefly polled as the most popular party in the build-up to the 2021 federal election.

Whilst the workings of different electoral systems are impossible to ignore when comparing the success of different green parties, this doesn’t tell the whole story as the most successful green parties have also moderated their radical origins in favour of electoral palatability and compromising pragmatism.

For example, the French presidential election system has proven that political outsiders have the potential to achieve power, yet the French Green presidential candidate, Yannick Jadot, is only expected to receive approximately five percent of the vote in the first round of voting. This may be due to accusations of snobbery and his refusal to cooperate with other left-wing candidates.

Furthermore, the previous Canadian Green Party leader has alienated much of the electorate through her espousal of conspiracy theories regarding 9/11 and WiFi, hampering their electoral prospects.

Meanwhile, the English Greens do not even see themselves as a serious political party, rather as a pressure group that shouldn’t have to exist. Furthermore, the English Greens have also caused controversy through their comments on a curfew for men alongside serious infighting throughout 2021 surrounding trans rights.

The significantly more successful German Greens, however, have successfully appealed to the political mainstream through adopting more moderate policies such as: remaining in NATO, including market-based environmental policies, and adopting a pro-integration view on the migrant crisis. Furthermore, the German Green Party has compromised on its democratic structure to allow its leadership to decide its policies rather than its wider membership.

This raises questions as to what the future holds for the Green parties across the world, whilst national governments struggle to get climate change under control, support for environmentally-focussed parties seems likely to continue increasing. For democracies with more proportionally representative elections, Green parties are likely to remain significant players with realistic prospects of leading government. But for Green parties which suffer under first-past-the-post systems, their future seems less certain. Will they remain widely-known forces but with little influence? Will they decide to compromise on their beliefs in an attempt to break out of the margins? Will established parties succeed in mitigating climate change, rendering Green parties irrelevant? Or will the negative consequences of climate change galvanise electorates towards the Green Movement? Global politics has been proven to oscillate between scientific predictability and surprising unpredictability, meaning that only time will tell what lies ahead for this emerging political force. 

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