On Friday I travelled to Belfast to take part in the NICVA Big Ideas Festival of Economics. Clare Bailey (one of our Green Party MLAs) had been asked to be on one of the major panels but was unable to be there, so I was making a rather nervous effort to stand in her (always elegant) shoes. It was a tough gig, without the prepared opening statement which usually gets me in the zone for answering subsequent questions. This time it was straight into the questions, with no more guidance than the debate’s theme “Is left right politics the big idea we need?”
As you can hear from the audio stream from Slugger O’Toole’s coverage of the event (the second audio stream, and my bits came at around 14, 38, 53 and 1hr 11 minutes in) I didn’t approach the slickness of my fellow panellists (all men, including the ubiquitous Alex Kane) but I managed to say some of what I thought most important. If I had put it into an opening statement, it would have been something like this:
The Green Party in Northern Ireland is generally perceived as being on the Left. That’s a description that I’m very comfortable with, but it isn’t an identity that I’m wedded to. Green Party politics is about having a vision of just and sustainable future, and promoting the policies that will get us there. That’s a matter of evidence, not of ideology or identity. What matters is what works, not the label which attaches to it. The policies that we need are more often those associated with the Left, but they aren’t copyright, and we don’t have red flags tattooed on our hearts. (Or not all of us, anyway.)
In Northern Ireland we’ve traditionally seen a politics based on competing nationalisms, and that is pernicious both for the political process, which hugely wastes time, energy and resources on matters of mere symbolism, but also for the wider, divided society which it is supposed to serve. But a mere mapping of existing identifications onto a left/right axis (in its crudest form, the idea that nationalism equals ‘left wing’ and unionism ‘right’) is even more dangerous.
This festival is about big ideas, but perhaps more important are the big realities of climate change and inequality. We know the damage that they are doing, and will continue to do in the future, and we know what we need to do to combat them. The sheer size of the challenges mean that they have to be combated by the mainstream, by governments and assemblies across the world. We don’t have the luxury of precious ideological purity. The role of the Green Party, as a minority, is to welcome the actions of other parties when they do the right thing and to call them to account when they don’t. Successive Prime Ministers, both Conservative and Labour, have used their first-day-in-office speech to dedicate themselves to the common good. If they really did what they promised, we would be a long way further towards a fairer and brighter future.
The European referendum result reminds us that people don’t always vote according to their ‘tradition’, in their economic self-interest or according to their judgement of administrative efficiency. When we vote, we are expressing our identification with a moral foundation. And the more bizarre others’ moral foundation seems to us, the more we have to try to understand it. As Pope Francis suggested, this is a time for building bridges, not walls. Binary choices, whether we call them nationalist/unionist, left/right, in/out or Trump/Clinton don’t bring out the best in either the electorate or the elected. Both right- and left-wing traditions, in so far as they are predicated on infinite economic growth on a finite planet, and on concepts of fairness that leave out intergenerational justice, fall short of what we need.
The Green Party does the vision-thing, with a clear picture of the just and sustainable society we want to see. We know that we will get there by practical, well-thought, evidence-based policy, by working with others and by holding them to account. We can ask the difficult questions, but we can answer them too.