european greens
Co-chair of the German Greens Annalena Baerbock. (Image: Flickr/ Bündnis 90/Die Grünen Nordrhein-Westfalen)

This is the second instalment of a two-part series on the future of the Green movement. Read part one here.

When the Australian Greens were having a year from hell in 2018 — with a series of candidates cut loose in the Victorian election for various infractions, the Batman/Cooper disaster and the NSW branch at war — the media began to dust off the “new Australian Democrats” line. It was an easy line to take. Though the Dems fell apart because they were in fact two parties in one, it had the appearance of a series of personal wars driven by ambition and moralising.

Fast forward and all the same elements were there for the Greens. Having been stuck at 8-10% for more than a decade, the moralising and individualism that bedevilled the Democrats returned in a supercharged fashion, with a new morality around bullying, offensive remarks on social media and the like. In New South Wales, the struggle between factions had a state MP denounce her own party in parliament — all the while being heckled by members of a rival faction from the public gallery. And Labor’s leftward shift threatened to take back at least some of the party’s voters.

But as the Australian Greens looked to be sinking into the ground, on the other side of the world the tide had finally and decisively turned. In the German state elections of 2018, both the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) fell sharply. Part of this was due to the rise of the nationalist right Alternative for Germany (AfD) which became the main story. But the Greens were the other beneficiaries, and their rise was arguably the more important story.

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Thus, in the 2018 state of Hesse, which includes Frankfurt, the CDU went from 38% to 28%, 47 seats down to 40, and the SPD from 30% to 19%, 37 down to 29. Meanwhile, the Greens went from 11% to 20%, taking them to 29 seats, and making them the official opposition. In conservative Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU) 48% to 37%, 101 seats to 85, and the SPD from 20% to 10%, 42 to 22 seats. The Greens went from 8% to 18%, and from 17 to 38 seats. In the European parliamentary elections in Germany, they went from 10% to 20%, 11 to 21 seats, while the SPD fell from 27% to 15%, 27 seats to 16, thus swapping their position.

Two things are striking. The first is the uniformity of these results, which suggests that a social-political shift is on. The second is the sudden take-off of the vote. From their initial 1% vote in 1980, the Greens climbed to 7% by the late 1990s, and to around 10% by 2007. At that point, the vote stalled. The current sudden jump is their greatest gain after their longest stasis, a non-linear progression.

The voters of the main parties appear to have peeled off to both left and right in both directions. The CDU/CSU coalition has lost one section of voters to AfD for being allegedly too multicultural and pro-migrant; but others have gone to the Greens for the CDU/CSU being too weak in affirming a liberal vision. The SPD has lost voters to the Greens because it has been consumed with factional infighting, a split over the question of “grand coalitions” with the CDU/CSU. The SPD right are enthusiastic about these; the left believes they have turned the SPD into an adjunct of the CDU. The breaking of the class-legitimacy claim of both parties recast political affiliations.

At the same time as this occurred, the Greens had undergone their own process of internal reform to resolve factional conflict, changing decision-making processes, and in some regions appointing dual leaderships, for gender equality and factional balance. This included a greater and more visible involvement in public protest — on both environmental and social issues, such as refugees — while at the same time maintaining full participation in the processes of government.

The result has been that the Greens have come to be seen as the principal “other” to the AfD, and gained increased support in turn. In doing so, they have managed to break out of their knowledge class/old counterculture core, and draw in adjacent groups of professionals and migrant citizens. There are analogies with what the Greens have done in the division of Melbourne here. But in Germany this has occurred on a regional, national and European basis.

The success of the Greens would seem to be the measure of a deeper process underway: the forward march of the knowledge class as the only unified social force around. Across Europe, the old parties are cracking up because their classes are breaking in two: a liberal metropolitan bourgeoisie v a regional and parochial middle class on the right; a metropolitan and migrant working class v a nativist regional and non-mobile one. The Greens, in the context of Europe, can thus take sections of these old classes and represent them in a way they feel their old parties no longer can.

There are a lot of ifs and buts to this, especially in the Australian context. The crack-up of old parties can occur in both first-past-the-post systems and proportional ones; exhaustive preferential systems support dying parties to the last gasp. Though the German Greens have a fairly wide ideological spread — the Green president of Baden-Württemberg state is a “Green conservative” who, as a Maoist insurgent, infiltrated the party in the 1980s — there is a widespread understanding that its economics must be social democratic. Residual notions of class solidarity limit fragmentation along “rights” discourse lines — the endless spread of notions of bullying, etc.

But the notion of the Green “fundis” that the party could take over broad representation of the working class — some vast umbrella group covering 60-70% of the population — is long gone, and parties such as Die Linke (The Left) have emerged. With the voting systems caveat in mind, there seems no reason to suppose that circumstances could give the Australian Greens a similar opportunity for sudden expansion, rather than incremental gain off a static 9-11% base. That, in turn, raises a host of important questions for the Australian Greens about their own party form, restructuring, activist projection and relations with Labor, as the new winter sets in.