The Green Party has a problem

Specifically, the Green Party of England and Wales has a credibility problem.

The European elections are underway in the UK. Seats for the European Parliament are awarded using a system of proportional representation, rather than the first past the post system that elects members to the House of Commons. As a result, small parties, like the Greens, have a better than usual chance of getting elected.

George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian that voting Green is the only choice if one would like to send a message to the three main parties on climate change.  I suppose there’s a certain amount of merit to that suggestion, although the message sent will be subject to interpretation. Certainly it will be this year, where, in the wake of the expenses scandal, votes will be cast all over the place in protest at the incumbent parties. The ballot box is a poor, blunt instrument for sending political messages. After all, one doesn’t have to complete a questionaire explaining one’s voting intention in order to be able to vote.

Back to the question of credibility. Martin at the Lay Scientist has some useful information. He sent requests to the main parties for their positions on a number of different scientific issues, and the results were, for me – in the case of the Greens – surprising.

Here they are on alternative medicine:

Do you believe that complementary and alternative medicine has a role in public health care, and do you believe it should be subjected to the same regulations as conventional medicine?

Green: Yes, we believe that complementary and alternative medicine has a role in public health care. The Green Party, for example, is in favour of increased funding for research on methods of integrated conventional and holistic treatments for cancer. We want the gradual inclusion of complementary therapies within NHS provision so that patients have access to all available and appropriate treatments. Complementary therapies can often prevent the situation worsening and thus save resources. We would oppose attempts to regulate complementary medicine, except by licensing and review boards made up of representatives of their respective alternative health care fields.

The NHS provides free health care for UK residents, and, more and more, takes an evidence-based approach to its provision; for example, NICE, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, look at various treatments and consider their costs and benefits. The Green Party want more complementary therapies on the NHS,  but framing it as a matter of patient choice rather misses the point. If something doesn’t work, if there is bugger all evidence for a treatment, the NHS shouldn’t be providing it and NICE shouldn’t be approving it. It’s hard to see how the provision of more alternative medicine is anything other than a step back from the laudable progress being made toward evidence based medicine by the NHS. As for holistic cancer treatments, they ask for more research funding. But again, this misses the point. A lot of holistic / alternative / complementary treatments have been shown over and over again to just be bogus, and don’t need more research. The request for more research monies is yet another attempt to have scientists do the same old studies, over and over again, until they get their sums ‘right’. The NHS doesn’t need to integrate homeopathy, chiropractic, aromatherapy, traditional Chinese medicine, flower remedies or whatever into its conventional treatment algorithms. These treatments have not been shown to work. It isn’t worth it.

They also oppose regulation of complementary medicine, except when said regulation is done by proponents of complementary medicine. But why? Is there any good reason that complementary treatments should be exempted from the same kinds of controls to which conventional  treatments are subject? The only reason that comes to mind is simply that in many cases, complementary treatments don’t need regulating because they don’t do any harm, and they don’t do any harm because they don’t do anything at all. Take homeopathy. A sugar pill that claims to be Oscillococcinum will be chemically indistinguishable from any other homeopathic sugar pill, even one that claims to be something else. All are equally worthless as they do not contain any active ingredient. In fact, in terms of regulation of homeopathy, this is all that is needed: a manufacturer can make no claims for treatment, efficacy or application if their product has not gone through the same regulatory process as any other medication. That would be fair, evidence based and scientifically reasonable. Sadly, this is not currently the case, as homeopathic treatments can make such claims, based on ‘traditional useage’.

In other cases, complementary medicine does cause direct harm. Chiropractic, the invented pseudo-medicine of stressing the spine in the hope of treating back problems or illnesses, can lead to stroke and death, but the profession is not interested in monitoring itself. If there is another treatment modality more in need of regulation, I don’t know it.

The idea, then, that the only regulation complementary medicine should undergo is by members of the self-same health care field is nonsensical. These fields have a vested interest in preserving and expanding their scope of practice, and a demonstrable unwillingness to engage with the evidence, or lack thereof, for what they do. Complementary medicine should be subject to the same scrutiny and regulation as is conventional medicine. To want otherwise, as the Green Party of England and Wales do, is not scientifically credible.

On Genetic modification:

The field of genetics has the potential to improve human health and nutrition, but many people are concerned about the effects of genetic modification both in humans and in agriculture. What is the right policy balance between the benefits of genetic advances and their potential risks?

Green: Genetically modified food presents significant and un-quantified risks to human health and the environment. These outweigh any benefits. We would ban the production or import of any genetically modified food. GM is any food that is genetically modified or includes genetically modified ingredients; from genetically modified animals; or from animals that have been given genetically modified feed. People in Britain need to know what they are eating. As such, any GM food available in this country needs to be clearly labelled as containing genetically modified ingredients or coming from genetically modified sources.

It is politically safe to oppose genetically modified foods in Europe, as public opinion is on side. But opposition – from a political party – should at least make some kind of sense. My question to the Green Party of England and Wales on this is simply: if the risk is significant and unquantified, how the heck do you know it outweighs the benefits? As the amount of land growing GM crops has increased every year, and after more than a decade of growing these things, I think the risk would be at least a little quantified by now.

An explanation:

In comments on Gimpy’s blog,  Aram tells us that “any member [of the Green Party] can propose policy, get a number of seconders and get policy passed democratically at conference. It’s not a party that makes policy top-down, with only a few people having “authority” over potential changes.” That could go a long way to explaining why the Green Party of England and Wales comes across as so flaky on these issues. Sure, its democratic, but as in many things, the mob don’t know jack. Ignoring expertise in favour of popular opinion may not be the best way to formulate policy.

What the Green Party of England and Wales get right:

I have to say, I’m impressed with the willingness of their members to engage with their critics, and they are open to reexamining their policies. See Gimpy’s blog for examples. And it is plausible that if enough critical thinkers joined them, the Green Party’s policies could take a decidedly more rational turn.  Whether it is worthwhile to try and improve a brand that is so much associated with sandal eating, Guardian-wearing, granola haired hippies, rather than joining, say, the Liberal Democrats and improving that, is for the individual to decide.

The final thing I will highlight is their stance on climate change, which is on solid scientific grounds.

On climate change:

How will you use a seat in the European Parliament to tackle climate change and its impact on the UK?

Green: The top priority, and the cheapest, is to reduce demand though cutting waste and improving efficiency, The Green New Deal includes massive investment in insulation. Renewables then have maximum value against a backdrop of reduced demand, rather than as currently only filling the gap in increased demand, which allows fossil fuel use to remain high. Carbon trading can work, but needs to be better co-ordinated with meaningful systems and actions. Exempting major polluters is clearly a nonsense. EU and UK carbon reduction targets need to be deeper and managed more actively.

I agree with all their points here. This proposal should get results fast, and I wish there were another party in the UK with a similar level of committment to combating climate change. Then again, I wish that the Green Party had the level of credibility of one of the other major parties; then policies like this could have a chance of implementation.

Summary

As with most parties, their platform represents the particular ideology or world view of their participating members. Many of the issues that the environmental movement has taken on are well supported by good scientific evidence: acid rain, ozone depletion, climate change, ocean acidification, to name a few. The problem is that the philosophy of the Green movement is only sometimes coincident with the scientific evidence. It is a worldview that looks on conventional farming as bad, disregarding centuries of research and innovation, but sees organic farming, the principles of which were spun from whole cloth by a German mystic, as good. It is a short intellectual step to believing in homeopathy or chiropractic and their principles of sympathetic magic and vitalism. There is a willingness to disregard or ignore the entire discipline of risk assessment in favour of the precautionary principle. It is best to do nothing at all, in case the very worst scenario that they can possibly imagine comes true.

The sad part is that scientists could find a home in a party like the Green Party of England and Wales, as so many ‘Green’ issues first came to public awareness because of the gathered scientific evidence. Indeed, in other countries, Green parties are more reasonable.

George Monbiot suggested that a vote for the Greens would send a message on climate change to the main parties. I would suggest that a vote for the other parties just as clearly sends a message to the Green Party of England and Wales. That message? You are not credible. Getting it right on climate is not good enough.

Comments

2 Responses to “The Green Party has a problem”


  1. theholyllama Says:

    Fair and balanced criticism, thank you. I’ve already commented over on Gimby’s blog, so I won’t repeat myself here, but I appreciate that as well as pointing out where we get things wrong you’ve also pointed out where we have got things right and are in many cases well ahead of the larger parties. I just hope that this recent wave of criticism of our policies on issues such as CAM will help spark a change in attitudes within the party.



  2. Doc Says:

    Thankyou, I hope that it will lead to some changes. A credible Green Party can be a force for change, even if it seats few to none candidates, as it should be more likely to be given a voice in the debates. For example, the Green Party in Canada has no parliamentarians, but, led by the credible and formidable Elizabeth May, took part in the leader’s debates before the last election. I would hope that the Green Party of England and Wales can achieve a similar level of respectability.