An Interview with Caroline Lucas

This post was written by Salman Shaheen on September 18, 2009
Posted Under: Elections,Environment,European Union,Green Party,Interviews,Racism/Fascism,Society

Caroline Lucas 2It’s that time of year again. The silly season has ended, Parliament is getting ready to return from recess and, with swine flu beginning to look like a fuss about not very much and the worst of the recession said to be over, the British media is beginning to turn its attention to the party conferences. The buzzword this year is cuts. Labour, Tory and Lib Dem alike are at pains to explain how best to slash the country’s budget deficit, walking a tightrope of public expectations over a media circus. Against the fanfare and furore of the big three scrambling to shore up their support, however, there’s one party that often goes overlooked. On the back of their best results in twenty years, the Greens are on the rise and optimistic about their chances. Coming out of their last conference before next year’s general election, I caught up with their leader, Caroline Lucas MEP, and grilled her on the big issues, from the party’s future to their more controversial policies and just why she disagrees with James Lovelock.

“There was a very positive mood at conference, and there’s a great sense of determination within the party,” she says. “We’ve demonstrated pretty conclusively that in some places we can take on the big three.” Re-elected for a third term in the European Parliament in June, Caroline Lucas is widely tipped to be the Green Party’s best chance of winning a seat at the next general election and she now believes they are on the brink of a Westminster breakthrough.

But if the party has learnt anything in its long, hard slog to the spotlight, it’s that optimism is a double-edged sword. Similar predictions were made about a Green breakthrough in Brighton Pavilion in 2005, but despite a strong result, it never materialised. “We’ve made five years’ more progress on the ground since then,” Lucas tells me. “We came first in this year’s Euro-elections, not just in Pavilion, but across all three Brighton and Hove constituencies.” In Brighton Pavilion, the party now has the majority of the councillors and they won a majority of the votes in the most recent local elections. In the Goldsmid by-election in July, Alex Phillips’s convincing win stripped the Conservatives of overall control and tied the Greens with Labour as the second largest party on the council. “Basically, the Brighton Pavilion Green team is stronger than before, much more experienced, and very well organised.”

If Lucas’s predictions are anything to go by, she may not be sitting alone in the House of Commons next year. “It’s certainly possible that the next parliament could include two or even three Green MPs,” she says. “The party’s deputy leader, Adrian Ramsay, is leader of the opposition on Norwich City Council. The Greens hold a total of twenty city and county council seats there, where we held five last time around.” Norwich and Brighton are not the only areas the Greens are targeting however. “In Lewisham Deptford, our candidate, Darren Johnson, is currently the chair of the London Assembly, and he’s widely respected in London, not least in Lewisham, where he’s a borough councillor.” Five years ago, Lewisham Greens had only one councillor. Now they have six. “We have candidates who are leading Green politicians in their communities, with the experience and the vision to make effective MPs,” Lucas says.

Amidst mounting concerns over the economy and the environment, the party has seen a surge of support in recent years. But even with their share of the vote going up by 44%, more than any other party, the Greens failed to achieve their two basic goals at the European elections: to increase their number of MEPs and to stop the BNP. “Those goals were two sides of the same coin – in most cases, for the Greens to win the last seat in a region would serve the purpose of denying it to the BNP,” Lucas points out. “Of course it was extremely frustrating to get within about 1% of trebling our number of seats.” In the North West, where Nick Griffin scraped in by the skin of his teeth, the Green Party’s committed anti-racist campaigner, Peter Cranie, fell short by just 0.3% of the vote. “It’s hard to say what we could have done very differently, other than that more resources would almost certainly have enabled us to win seats in the East, North West, South West and Yorkshire and the Humber. But we gained 1,000 members during the six weeks of our campaign, which provides us with a great foundation for the next elections.”

Green Party

It has often been said that the only thing holding the party back from mainstream success is the first-past-the-post electoral system. In an interview with The Third Estate just before the Greens gained over 1.3 million votes in the European elections, Peter Tatchell argued that under proportional representation, they could expect to gain as many as 40 MPs. I ask Lucas, whose support for electoral reform has always been as strong as her opposition to fascism, how she would answer those critics who argue that PR would bring about just as many BNP MPs. “If the BNP started winning seats under first-past-the post, would we suspend democracy to stop them getting elected?” she replies. “Of course not. I deplore their racism, ignorance and lies. However, I believe the best way to challenge them is to address the factors which drive individuals to vote for far right parties. If we treat the disease, the symptoms will go away.” Lucas argues that to exclude the BNP from the democratic process would be to set them up as martyrs who can claim the system refuses to deal honestly with the issues that concern their voters. “Some people vote BNP out of racism and intolerance. But probably far more vote for them out of a sense of serious disenchantment with the big three parties. There appears to be so little real difference now between Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, because they all talk the same and share the same core agenda. A lot of people feel let down by politics, feel their voice isn’t being heard, and some of those people will vote for an extremist party in protest. Inclusive, proportional elections would be one of the ways to help engage people in the political process.”

There was a time when the Greens themselves might have been considered an extremist party. An historic perception of them, the faintest traces of which persist to this day, is of  a single-issue party for beardy organic farmers and firebrand eco-warriors. “The Green Party has never been a single issue party!” argues Lucas. “We’ve always been a party of social justice, and believe that equity has to be at the heart of a sustainable society. We’ve also always made the case that the best way to protect the environment is to transform the goals and direction of the economy to make it genuinely sustainable.” Often, when the media has discussed party policy, it has tended to be linked to environmental stories. Lucas believes this is changing. “We finally seem to be succeeding in getting the media to pay more attention to our economic policies – for instance, with this year’s million-jobs manifesto, geared towards tackling the recession and the climate crisis at the same time. And I hope that in the run-up to the general election, the media will play its part in communicating the alternative political choices on offer, rather than just following the main three party leaders around. Then the differences between the Greens and the big three would become blindingly obvious.” Here that buzzword comes up again. Cuts. “While they talk about cutting services and tightening belts, we’ll be arguing for low-carbon investments that will create jobs, keep tax revenue coming in, and fund frontline services.”

One thing Lucas believes is helping them to better communicate their message is their decision to do away with the old system of a male and female principal speaker. Last year she was overwhelmingly voted the party’s first ever leader. “Most people like to be able to put a face to a political party,” she says. “So I believe that having a single leader with a clear, recognisable presence in the media allows us to communicate more effectively.”

After decades of fighting, the Green Party finally seems to be entering the mainstream. And after decades of dragging their heels, a consensus has emerged amongst world leaders that urgent action is required to tackle climate change. Does it encourage Lucas that the major parties are adopting increasingly environmentalist policies? “I’m not sure which has been more frustrating: the slow progress in this area, or the extent of the greenwash,” she says. “Yes, there’s now a consensus that we need to tackle climate change, and yes, the big three parties do go out of their way to appear green. But so much of this is rhetoric, and even now there is so much more that they should be doing.” Lucas points out that in 1997, Labour claimed to be the first green government, despite their weak climate targets and inadequate policies for meeting them. “Although some progress has been made, even now they still have the wrong targets and inadequate policies for meeting them, and they’re still building roads and expanding airports.”

The Greens have commendably been ahead of the times when it comes to scientific thinking on climate change. They were banging that bongo long before the band joined in. Some of the main criticisms of the party, however, have been for its broader scientific policy, most notably from Frank Swain and Martin Robbins who kicked up a pre-election storm by taking the Greens to task on GM food, embryonic stem cell research and alternative medicine. “Just because the Greens are sceptical about some scientific developments doesn’t make us ‘anti-science,’” Lucas says. “I have yet to see any convincing evidence that GM crops are anything other than unnecessary and damaging – or that many of the forces behind them have anything other than morally dubious motivations.” But what about the argument that, in the right hands, GM can be used to tackle hunger for the poorest people in the world? “When will GM crops be ‘in the right hands’ if they’re developed to increase dependency on the multinationals who own the seed patents? The issue here is about control of the food chain. There’s tremendous potential for greater organic food production, and there’s plenty of evidence that ecologically designed agriculture systems, using permaculture principles for example, can significantly increase the productive capacity of the land.”

Evidence, however, is key to the criticism of Green policy. In a follow-up article, Martin Robbins argues that in seeking to ban GM and embryonic stem cell research, the evidence necessary to ascertain safety can never be produced under a Green Party model. Robbins, who points out that the party believes experiments on human embryos could have harmful unforeseen outcomes, asks how you can ban something on the basis of unknown consequences, particularly when research into embryonic stem cells is vital for treating numerous conditions. I put the issue to Caroline Lucas, who has twice been named Observer Ethical Politician of the Year. “There are no easy answers,” she says. “Personally, I remain concerned about the associated health risks, the commodification of eggs and embryos, and the potential exploitation of women. Increasing research suggests that there are a number of promising alternatives, for example adult stem cell research, and umbilical cord stem cell research. These tell a growing number of success stories, without the problematic issues associated with embryonic stem cell research.”

The third criticism of the party’s scientific policy is its opposition to attempts to regulate alternative medicines. I ask Lucas if a more rigorous approach is needed to unproven remedies. “A balance must always be reached between the right of the individual to free choice, and the duty of society to protect us from the consequences of unwise choices,” she says. “I support the idea of a regulatory agency with responsibility for natural medicines, including nutritional supplements, medicinal plants and herbal remedies, essential oils and homeopathic remedies. I also believe that where people have found such remedies to work well for them, they should be given the freedom to continue taking them.”

If there’s one issue on which the Green Party has never been anything but utterly transparent, however, it’s the pressing need to save the planet from the worst human excesses. “The Green Party’s position is that we must adopt whatever targets are necessary to avert the worst consequences of climate change; to argue for these policies internationally and to lead by example. We believe that the current science demands a 90% UK reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030, with significant year-on-year cuts starting straight away.” Lucas is a strong enthusiast for the 10:10 campaign, launched earlier this month. “We believe there are huge spin-off benefits from emissions-reduction policies, ranging from much better public transport to warmer homes and a more stable economy, along with the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs. So a post carbon economy isn’t just possible, it’s highly desirable.”

LovelockOne area of contention within the party, however, is on the question of nuclear power. James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, who points out that global warming is much further advanced than IPCC models and Stern have suggested, has come out in favour of nuclear power as the only green solution in the time we have left. “I find it sad and ironic that the UK, which leads the world in the quality of its Earth and climate scientists, rejects their warnings and advice, and prefers to listen to the Greens,” Lovelock argues. “But I am a Green and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.” Wrongheaded or not, Caroline Lucas is not about to drop her objection to nuclear energy anytime soon. “Nuclear power simply won’t deliver big enough emission cuts, fast enough,” she says. “Even if we doubled the amount of nuclear in this country, we would only save about 8% in emissions reductions, and not until 2030 at the earliest. Nuclear is also hugely costly, and carries major safety and security risks. The bottom line is that there are much cheaper, quicker, safer and more effective ways of making bigger reductions – energy efficiency, renewables, decentralised energy, combined heat and power, better public transport – the list goes on.”

Lucas agrees with Lovelock on one thing, however. “Climate change needs to be seen not just as an environmental issue, but as the greatest security threat that we face. We need to put the economy on something like a war footing, and introduce far more urgent action.”

Is it too late to save the world?

“No, I don’t believe that it’s too late, but we definitely need to be taking far more radical action than we currently are if we are to stave off the worst effects of climate change.”

If there’s one person who can convince us to take that action, it’s Caroline Lucas. Parliament magazine MEP of the Year in 2008, recipient of the RSPCA’s Michael Kay Award for outstanding contribution to European animal welfare, one of BBC Wildlife’s top conservationists, Vice President of the European Parliament’s Permanent Delegation to Palestine, and perhaps soon to be MP for Brighton Pavilion, Lucas is certainly hard at work. But if she succeeds, one thing’s for sure. The future’s bright. The future’s Green.

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Reader Comments


I think I may have commented on a similar note as I will here, when Salman interviewed Tatchell. Ah well.

I remain utterly unconvinced by Lucas’ defence of her party’s inane anti-science streak. Which pains me, because on most other counts the Green party fits me well and I have trouble finding any party that can adequately represent me. But I can’t support a party that wants to destroy the career I’m working towards in biological research (by banning absolutely essential animal and embryonic experiments, thus condemning millions to die of otherwise preventable diseases – or perhaps more likely, pushing research to poorly regulating countries thus causing *more* animal suffering) and replace it with homeopathy and crystal healing on the NHS, and an unreasoning blanket fear of GM and other technologies, not only in food but everywhere.

It’s funny how alternative “medicine” can turn the most committed leftie into a free marketeer. Talking about patients’ freedom as Lucas does is disingenuous – what’s being asked for is the patient’s freedom to be hoodwinked by snake oil salesmen. We’d laugh and reject it as self-serving nonsense if these words came out of the mouth of a GlaxoSmithKline spokesperson objecting to tough regulation and consumer protection regarding conventional pharmaceuticals. And I’m sure Lucas would react similarly if Monsanto started arguing for the “individual’s right to choose” GM food. But if it’s homeopathy or acupuncture, suddenly the Greens of all people are steadfastly defending the right of big business to sell untested, unproven products to the sick.

Here’s a simple, clear standard which is fair to everyone – and more than that is efficient and cuts down duplication of govt agencies and work. Regulate alternative medicine with the exact same licensing and labelling system that is required for conventional medicines. Please, can anyone tell me why there should be a double standard?

And regarding embryonic stem cells – if the other methods Lucas cites were sufficient to achieve what we need, then scientists would be using them. Doing this kind of research is expensive, bureacracy-laden, and opens you up to severe criticism. Just as with animal experimentation, they don’t use controversial and difficult methods just for kicks, they do it to gain the understanding that will save millions of lives. Additionally, how does this fit with the Greens’ pro-choice stance? Most research is on cells derived from unused IVF embryos etc. It would be criminal to perform an experiment on a brainless ball of cells that would otherwise be unceremoniously discarded? Makes me think of the old Doonesbury strip on this topic, which I unfortunately can’t find for you – after another stem cell research veto, Bush asks his adviser: “The blastocysts all get decent burials, right?”.

Written By Ben on September 18th, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

Ben, I agree with much of what you say. I found the Green Party to be close to my approach, on many issues. I was horrified by the policies on alternative medicine and animal testing. I agree with what you say on the single clear standard, and on embryonic stem cells.

So I joined the Green Party, and am working to put a motion to its Spring 2010 Conference to start bringing it all onto a sound scientific footing. The motion can only succeed if scientifically-literate people who feel aligned to the Green Party on other issues, are party members, and vote at conference (either in person or by proxy). There’s a mailing list for members of the party, called policy-science, to discuss these very issues, and there are quite a few like-minded individuals working to the same end.

For me, the party being 80% close to me was sufficient for me to join and see if I could get at least another 10%. For ten quid membership (a fiver for students), and a few hours of my time, it seemed like a very reasonable route. It may not work, but if I don’t try, I’ll never find out.

Written By Andrew on September 18th, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

Andrew, I’m inclined to agree with you. Whilst I share Ben’s scepticism about some elements of Green Party scientific policy, and I am very much in favour of embryonic stem cell research, this is one of those cases where it is definitely important to unite on the 80% and try to influence the 20. Not least because the 80% includes one of the most crucial issues of our time, preventing environmental catastrophe that is already claiming far more lives than stem cells could ever save. Moreover, since the Greens are hardly likely to be forming the next government, a vote for them will not affect the UK’s position on stem cell research. A vote for the Greens, however, is a clear vote for action on climate change and a Green MP is the best possible voice in parliament to hold the government to account.

Written By Salman Shaheen on September 19th, 2009 @ 12:18 am

I see things slightly differently. The Green Party policy has some 100% rubbish in it when it comes to science, alternative medicine and the like – there’s some great policy in there too, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be a member. However, when we’ve discussed these issues it’s been difficult to find members to defend our own policies – including the spokespeople – because they are indefensible.

That’s obviously a weakness in policy but it’s clearly a positive about the membership! So for me it’s less ‘the greens’ who have bad science in their policies but the policy documents that let the members down and certainly I hope we’ll be removing some of the worst stuff a few months from now.

Part of this is because I want to defend our anti-GM and anti-nuclear policies unhindered by a load of dubious nonsense in other parts of our policy.

Written By jim jay on September 19th, 2009 @ 12:46 am

Jim, I remember you mentioned on your blog some of the discussions on science at the conference. Was there ever a vote on removing the weak areas of policy?

Written By Salman Shaheen on September 19th, 2009 @ 12:50 am

No, the policy process takes a little while if you want to do a radical overhaul – which is right and proper even if it lumbers you with something awful for longer than you’d want. I don’t want to replace one set of ill thought out policies with another set so I’m reasonably comfortable with the fact there’s been no vote yet.

The first votes will be taking place at the next conference – and I’m pretty confidence we’ll see a great leap forwards on this issue. At this conference we had two fringes (one on health one more generally on science and technology) where there was an overwhelming majority (not unanimous) for a radical overhaul of the manifesto…

When we come to the detail of the specific amendments we’ll see what happens!

Written By Jim Jay on September 19th, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

I wouldn’t touch a party with such backwards views on science with a bargepole. Such anti GM/embryonic stem cell policies indicate either that the policy makers are malinformed about such issues, or that they are trying to gain support from voters who are malinformed on such issues! Resounding no thank you from me!

As an aside, personally I agree with James Lovelock on nuclear power. There’s a lovely interview with him by Nature, here:

Written By Sarah on September 21st, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

I support the Green Party’s anti-GM stance. There is a huge amount of money being spent quietly and indirectly by multinationals to promote a postive view of GM, manipulate press coverage and research findings, bribe countries into undergoing large scale GM experiments and suppress any negative news about GM failures. GM is potentially a highly dangerous technology because once man-made genes enter the gene pool the results are both irreversible and unpredictable. It is not the same as traditional plant breeding and it should not be in the hands of the current multinationals who are concerned about profits, patents and not about sustainable agriculture or biodiversity. There are many real, practical and safer alternative approaches to increasing food production utilising existing growing techniques and genetic diversity. That is where more scientific research and investment in field trials should be going. So the Green Party position on this is not “anti-science” – they are simple keeping a healthy scepticism about the over-blown claims that GM is a safe solution to world-hunger. Remember trying to portray all green movements as anti-science is one of the goals of the GM-multinationals.

Written By Adrian on September 21st, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

Fair point, Adrian, and I agree, portraying green movements as anti-science is wrong: I myself am a Conservation Scientist through and through. My concern is that many green movements are uninformed scientifically; it’s very easy for people to jump on the environmentalist bandwagon when they don’t know what they’re talking about, especially if emotive scientific issues are used to get people on board. I think the most important approach to any evironmental issue is to test the theories behind the movement. One way in which we can do this is GM research. As you correctly point out, regulation is definitely an issue, but it’s a corporate one, and not a fault with the underlying science.

As for the mix of GM genes into the “natural” genepool, it’s already happened, being damn near impossible to prevent. Perhaps in some instances this is a weakness of GM research, although it is unlikely that many (if any) of these already integrated GM genes would persist over evolutionary time in the natural environment, them having been designed for a controlled agricultural setting. I suppose it’s a case of costs and benefits though, and I feel that the potential benefits of GM research far outweight the potential costs.

Written By Sarah on September 21st, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

Sarah has this one right. GM itself should not be rejected – certain applications of the technology ought to be embraced and others abandoned on a case-by-case basis. For instance, it should never have been a surprise that creating herbicide-resistant crops and then slathering fields with near-illegal-strength weedkillers did no favours to the local flora and fauna, but that’s a case against those herbcides, not GM tech in general. Nonetheless, the media leapt up eagerly with sensationalist headlines along the lines of “Tests prove GM harmful to environment”. So the spin spins both ways…

Of course the whole thing would be better out of the hands of Monsanto et al, but so would most technologies. Again, this is not an argument against GM but one against our economic system.

Sarah, who are we lefty scientists and friends of science to vote for? It’s bloody impossible out here. (Apologies if assuming a fellow poster here is a lefty is overly presumptuous!)

Written By Ben on September 22nd, 2009 @ 2:59 am

I’m not against GM where it is used in the right hands for the good of the poorest people in the world. But where I think Caroline Lucas is right, is where she asks when it will ever be in the right hands? Massive corporations like Monsanto are not the saviours of the developing world and they never will be. It is giant multinational corporations who are responsible for poverty and hunger in the first place. I think it comes down to the progress vs. application debate. I’m in favour of nuclear fission. I’m against governments turning it into weapons.

Written By Salman Shaheen on September 22nd, 2009 @ 2:19 pm
Ben Towse

“But where I think Caroline Lucas is right, is where she asks when it will ever be in the right hands?”

Salman, I would think when the Greens are actually in a place to take action against the legality of GM tech, they would also be in a position to rein in the likes of Monsanto. So their opposition cannot be justified on these grounds.

Also, they advocate a blanket ban on GM organisms. Not just for agriculture. This would basically destroy what little biological research was left after they banned animal experimentation.

Written By Ben Towse on September 23rd, 2009 @ 2:34 am

That’s a good point, Ben, but I was never going by the assumption the Greens would ever be in such a position of power. In any case, I would not be in favour (with the obvious list of caveats) of banning any kind of research. Ease of research is essential to determine what applications are safe and sensible. Again, though, I don’t see this as a reason not to vote Green when taking into account that firstly, they aren’t going to be in any position of power and secondly, the net impact of a large Green vote. When people, and most importantly, politicians, see a million votes for the Greens, the first thing they think isn’t that the people are concerned about GM or stem cell research. It’s climate change and social justice.

Written By Salman Shaheen on September 23rd, 2009 @ 2:47 am

I find it ironic that the Greens complain about the dishonesty etc of the ‘grey parties’ when Lucas states they may have a few MPs elected at the next general.

There is no way in hell they stand in any chance of winning any seat other than Pavilion and even that will be a hard slog for them with a resurgent Conservative party in Brighton. Lucas is either deluded or, at best, overhyping their chances of getting lots of MPs. If she is deluded she doesn’t deserve to be elected, if she is overstating their chances she is acting in an incredibly hypocritical way. Which is it Caroline?

Written By Greg on September 23rd, 2009 @ 9:07 am

Greg, you Tory traitor, the Conservatives may be many things, but one thing they are not is resurgent. Their current success is not due to popular support for the party, but popular dissatisfaction with Labour. Their vote in the Euro elections barely increased over 2004. They are the beneficiaries by simple fact of being, in most areas, the strongest opposition party. In Brighton it is quite clear, however, that they are not the strongest opposition party. And come on, I didn’t raise you to be such a moron. Giving an optimistic appriasal of one’s electoral chances is hardly in the same league of dishonesty as claiming Iraq can deploy chemical weapons in 45 minutes, or that 75% of our laws come from Europe, or neglecting to mention that duckpond, or launching a Back to Basics campaign on morality after having a secret affair with your Secretary of State for Health.

Written By Salman Shaheen on September 23rd, 2009 @ 9:55 am

Haha, Ben I agree, who are we to vote for?! Spoiled ballot anyone? (I’m gonna get shot for saying that!).

As for GM being in the right hands – is anything ever in the right hands? I don’t think fear of who’s going to do better with the technology should affect the independent research that takes place. Though I agree that differences in implementation strategy are a concern.

Apologies if I have shunned Lucas’ philosophical musings here…

Written By Sarah on September 24th, 2009 @ 1:08 am

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