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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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A Green light from Germany

Published by The i paper (5th April, 2021)

Angela Merkel has dominated her party, her country and our continent for most of this century, but her long reign comes to an end in five months’ time when Germany holds federal elections. Her centre-right party, so long in her shadow, has struggle to find a suitable candidate to replace this brilliant political operator who became its leader 21 years ago. Meanwhile her 16-year rule over Europe’s powerhouse is sliding to a sad end amid the trauma of the pandemic, bickering over botched imposition of lockdown, and a stuttering vaccine roll-out.

When Merkel took office in 2005, few people would have thought she might be succeeded by a Green; the party, after all, won fewer than a fourth of the votes she attracted in that election. But while its British counterparts remain largely an electoral irrelevance, the Greens have gone from strength to strength in Germany and today stand on the cusp of capturing the most important job in European politics. Latest polls indicate they are closing fast on Merkel’s stumbling conservatives. As they wrestle with which of the party’s two co-leaders would be best candidate for the election, the party knows that its choice could be historic, ending up in the chancellery.

A green triumph would be a seismic moment, the impact felt far beyond the borders of Europe’s biggest economy. Given the fractured state of German politics and the party’s surge in the polls, the odds are growing they will end up at the very least as significant players in any coalition that succeeds Merkel. So will they pick Annalena Baerbock, a charismatic and competitive former trampolinist, or the garrulous, older writer Robert Habeck? Perhaps it makes little difference, since both are skilful media performers and from the pragmatic wing that has transformed party fortunes. “You can vote for us whether you’re an old lady or a punk in Berlin,” said Habeck.

This party that started as a maverick collection of cranks, eco-warriors, hippies and peaceniks four decades ago has developed a hunger for power. It has seen that if you want to save the world, you need popular support as well as protests. So it has become pro-growth, pro-markets, pro-Nato and tough on China and Russia, while broadening appeal beyond the environment, ditching censorious moralising and shedding pacifism. It has shown it can compromise in coalitions of different colours and that it can govern a major industrial state stuffed with carmakers such as Baden-Württemberg. It has thereby won the trust of urban middle-class and millennial voters, while retaining the loyalty of its base and outflanking social democrats.

Their rise is far from unique in Europe. Five nations have greens in governing coalitions, including Austria, Ireland and Sweden, while a “green wave” swept through French cities last year in municipal elections. Greta Thunberg has inspired younger generations to the point that the climate emergency has become their defining issue. Habeck argues that green politics – consensual, progressive and outward-looking – can shape the emerging landscape as old divisions of left and right break down.

I have heard similar arguments from both Tory and Labour “modernisers”. More likely is that Green parties can offer a new model for the liberal-left, an alternative to the blinkered nationalism and culture war populism that has captured some traditional parties of the right such as our own Conservatives.

So why have the Greens not moved beyond the fringe to become a force in this country, especially when the Liberal Democrats have disappeared? One obvious reason is a flawed electoral system for Westminster that protects Tories and Labour from challengers. The two-party system lets them see off insurgents by shifting slightly to soak up a few policies if new concerns grow embedded in the electorate. Ambitious politicians join the mainstream to make their name.

Yet this does not fully explain why the Greens have not done better in more representative elections or built stronger local power bases. Why are they not mounting an effective challenge to Sadiq Khan in London instead of languishing on 7 per cent in the polls – or pushing the nationalists in Scotland and Wales with their left-leaning electorates?

The harsh answer is that they seem stuck in the past, closer in spirit to the anarchic German Greens of 40 years ago than their successors who are focused on winning power. Their conferences offer comedy gold. Their last election manifesto had a few decent policies, such as on drugs and prison reform, wrapped in a dismal sub-Corbynite agenda that included driving up aid spending, scrapping tuition fees and introducing universal basic income. When they won control of a big council for the first time in Brighton, they descended into civil war and looked daft with silly stunts such as suggesting the use of livestock for traffic calming. When one of the party’s two peers called for a curfew on men after 6pm in response to the Sarah Everard killing, it reinforced the idea these are not serious figures.

Perhaps it is Labour that should be watching events in Germany with most interest. This month marks the first anniversary of Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership yet his party remains in the doldrums after his dreadful inheritance. He is struggling to shape a distinctive strategy amid the pandemic, let alone land blows on a shapeshifting Prime Minister or cut through to voters. So why not give Labour a green makeover, making climate change and environmental security the core priority, which would at the very least push the Tories far harder on vital issues? It might mean jeopardising some financial support from key unions. But Starmer could build a new coalition to embrace North and South, old and young, urban and rural – even uniting Corbynites with centrist dads.

Vote red, go green? After all, as Merkel once said, you have more influence on a debate when you sit at the bargaining table.

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