Posted Under: Elections,Environment,European Union,Green Party,Interviews,Racism/Fascism,Society
It’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.”
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.”
One 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.