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by Louise Wilson
13 February 2024
Caroline Lucas: The job of Greens will be to make Labour braver

Caroline Lucas is set to leave parliament this year | Alamy

Caroline Lucas: The job of Greens will be to make Labour braver

More than 30 years since winning her first elected position, Caroline Lucas will this year step away from politics. The country’s first and currently only Green Party MP announced last summer that she would not contest the next election because she wants to spend more time focused on the climate emergency.

That isn’t, she stresses, because she believes it’s the end of the road for the impact Greens can have in parliament. Indeed, Lucas is hopeful that her Brighton Pavilion seat will pass to former party co-leader Sian Berry, and that Berry will be joined by a handful of other Green MPs. It’s just that after 14 years of parliamentary politics, Lucas is ready to move on.

“At this time in my life, I would like to find ways of spending five days a week on climate and nature,” she tells Holyrood.

Since her election in 2010 – a breakthrough moment for the Greens – Lucas has had to juggle a busy constituency caseload with being across every brief. That juggle has become even harder because of decisions made by the UK Government, she says.

“Over those 14 years that I’ve been in parliament, the amount of constituency work has massively increased. I think many MPs would say the same, and I think partly it’s because so many public services now have been cut and so many community groups have had their funding cut. In many respects, the MP’s office is practically the only thing still standing in many communities and so the demands on that office are more and more.”

All of the chaos of the Boris Johnson years tore up every rule book we had about how you do politics

That easily leads to, she estimates, 80-hour weeks. It is no wonder she feels she has little time to dedicate to other interests.

Despite that workload, Lucas can point to a range of achievements from her time as an MP. In an open letter to constituents in which she explained her reasons for not standing again, Lucas highlighted debates about universal basic income, a right to access nature and drug law reform as evidence of what even a sole voice can achieve. “I have said the previously unsayable, only to see it become part of the mainstream: on coal, on the myth that endless economic growth makes us happier, on a Green New Deal,” she wrote.

Still, it has been a strange time. Lucas took up her seat at the election that saw the Conservatives go into coalition with the Lib Dems, unusual enough in itself, only for that to be followed by unprecedented moment after unprecedented moment.

“When I look back on it, there was first of all the awful years of austerity,” she says. “Then that was compounded by Brexit. And then it was deepened by Covid. And then it was just totally thrown up in the air by Boris Johnson.

“Each time you kept thinking things cannot get more bizarre or, frankly, worse for constituents in terms of what they’re going through. And then practically every year did deliver something worse.

“I’m very aware that all my time in Westminster sadly has been opposite a Conservative government that has been pretty much going from bad to worse during that time. We should be under no illusion about just how far to the right the successive Conservative governments have gone.

“I’ve been really struck with the rhetoric now David Cameron is back in Cabinet, that somehow people are casting back as if he were a very middle-of-the-road centrist Conservative. And that’s perhaps how he seems now, relative to the others, but when he was prime minister he was the author and architect of some of the most biting austerity that this country has ever witnessed.”

I wonder if, on reflection, Lucas looks back at the coalition years as the easy time, but she’s adamant about not letting that government off the hook for austerity – something she considers “so incredibly harmful, and we’re still suffering the effects now”.

“But I suppose what did make it slightly easier was that there were some rules,” she continues. “You didn’t suddenly think that at any moment the government might just decide to prorogue parliament because it was getting in the way of whatever the prime minister of the day wanted to do.

“The culture was different. I don’t think that there was so much casualness with which the lies were told. The oven-ready Brexit and all of the chaos of the Boris Johnson years, I think, just tore up every single rulebook that we had about how you do politics.

“So yes, the policies under Cameron and the coalition and so forth, I don’t think we should be under any illusion that they were hugely damaging. But they were within the context of rules.”

It’s getting harder and harder to stay below 1.5C, that’s certainly not a reason not to strain every sinew in the battle to get as close to that as we possibly can

And she doesn’t think that trend has been broken by Rishi Sunak, despite his efforts to “portray himself as being so much more serious and sensible”. She points to the Rwanda policy, which could see asylum seekers and refugees that arrive in Britain deported to the east African country, as one example. Lucas says it is “surreal” that the UK Government is now trying to “legislate to make a country safe that has been ruled unsafe by the highest court in the land”.

The Safety of Rwanda Bill has been severely criticised, both by opposition parties and equalities groups, and it will face a tough time getting through the Lords. But it’s also seen as a major litmus test for Sunak, who made “stop the boats” a major plank of his offer to the electorate.

Lucas, though, has a bleaker view on where the Conservative Party is now. “It wasn’t simply a response to how do we rejuvenate the Tory party in the dying days of a very, very long time in successive governments. I think it’s something more sinister than that, in a way. I think there are some very hard right politicians in today’s Conservative Party who really believe that stuff and are willing to do some pretty dangerous things in pursuit of their beliefs, whether that is ripping up international law or whether it comes to what Sunak has been doing on climate change.”

And naturally it is this latter issue that Lucas warns will have far-reaching consequences. “Since the Climate Change Act was passed, there has been a broad consensus from all parties that climate change is real. It’s happening and we need to respond,” she says.

“There are lots of debates about how you respond, how fast you respond, and I will be the first to be critical of the other parties, but at least there was that common understanding. What we’ve seen now under Rishi Sunak is a tearing up of that consensus simply as a way of finding another culture war, another wedge issue, another way to try to reverse his poor polling.”

In September last year, the prime minister announced a U-turn on climate goals, watering down targets relating to petrol and diesel cars, and gas boilers. It was broadly seen as a reaction to the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election two months prior, in which the Conservatives narrowly held the seat due to concern about London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez).

Our position and the Scottish Green’s position on trans rights is the same

Lucas accuses Sunak of sacrificing the climate consensus “for short-term political gain”. But she also thinks the step is “misguided” because “people actually do want to see more ambitious climate action”. “It’s just so reckless and so indicative of a party with frankly no principles and no values at all,” she adds.

In light of that and ever-sterner warnings from climate scientists that global temperatures are rising faster than predicted, is she optimistic that we will meet the challenge of climate change before it’s too late?

She begins her answer by reflecting on the difference between hope and optimism. She refers to author and activist Rebecca Solnit’s idea that optimism is the belief that everything will turn out fine, while hope is something much more active and encourages people to act in a way that seeks to improve the future.

“I’m hopeful that we will get where we need to be – I would make a slight distinction between being hopeful and being optimistic,” she says. “I think all is still to play for and we know that every single fraction of a degree matters, every single tonne of carbon matters. So even though I absolutely agree with those people who say that it’s getting harder and harder to stay below 1.5C, that’s certainly not a reason not to strain every sinew in the battle to get as close to that as we possibly can.”

Credit: Simon Hughes

Throughout her political career, Lucas has held roles at various levels of government. She was first elected as a councillor in Oxfordshire in 1993, then went on to become the MEP for the South East from 1999 up until her election to Westminster.

She was also co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW) between 2008 and 2012, and again from 2016 to 2018. But representing the party to which she has dedicated her life was not the path she thought she’d take. She’s even admitted in previous interviews that her early political views were “fairly unquestioning conservatism”. It wasn’t until she was studying for her PhD in the mid-1980s (she originally had aspirations to become an academic) that she came across Jonathon Porritt’s book, Seeing Green: Politics of Ecology Explained. In that, Porritt – who served as chair of the Ecology Party, the precursor to the Greens – sets out how ecological politics goes far beyond the environment.

The central theme, that all policy areas are interconnected, is a mainstay of Lucas’s politics. One example she highlights is air pollution and the impact on ill-health. “It frustrates me that air pollution is put in a box separate from the wider health budget,” she says.

That’s why she and Green Party peer Baroness Jones have brought forward the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill, otherwise known as Ella’s Law – named after Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl who suffered an asthma attack and became the first person to have air pollution listed on her death certificate.

The job of Greens in the next parliament will be to try to make Labour braver

It’s also one of the reasons Lucas is supportive of the Ulez rollout in London. Though she accepts the issue has become contentious, particularly in the context of the rising cost of living, she insists the rejection of Ulez was due to misinformation – for which she blames the Conservatives.

“An awful lot of the opposition to Ulez was based on misinformation that was convenient for the Conservatives to pump out,” she explains. “The number of people that it actually affected in a negative way was much smaller than you would be led to believe.

“Nonetheless, as in all policy changes, there are winners and losers. What we [the Greens] would have done if we’d have had our hands on more of the levers of power would have been to make sure that there was a bigger, more generous scrappage scheme so that people would have not felt that they were being penalised by that policy.”

I draw a comparison between Ulez and some Green policies being pushed north of the border, such as the deposit return scheme or highly protected marine areas, which ultimately failed due to concerns about costs. Lucas says: “There’s a difficulty when Greens are minor voices in bigger administrations. We’re not the majority and we are constantly trying to get our policies into practice but without having our hands on the levers of power to deliver it.”

And speaking of the Scottish Greens, I wonder what she thinks about the party’s decision to sever ties with its English counterpart. Over a year ago, members backed a motion agreeing to suspend its formal association with the GPEW until it addressed problems with “transphobia”.

That came after an internal row over GPEW’s position on self-identification for changing legal sex. It ultimately led to the suspension of some members and last year former deputy leader Dr Shahrar Ali took the party to court claiming he had been forced out due to his gender-critical beliefs. Last week, he won that case.

When we speak, though, there is little Lucas will say as the outcome is pending, but she adds: “Obviously it was upsetting [when the Scottish Greens suspended its links]… What I would simply reinforce is that our position and the Scottish Green’s position on trans rights is the same.”

Looking ahead, Lucas admits she is unsure what turn her life will take after politics. “To be very honest I just simply haven’t even had the time to reflect on that yet,” she says. But more broadly speaking, she says there are “good reasons to believe things can get better”.

Does that mean she has some faith in an incoming Labour government? “It’s very clear that the Greens would far rather be working with a Labour government than a Tory one. But having said that, I certainly think that Greens will have their work cut out for them because we have a Labour Party at the moment that is very timid, that is reversing on many of the more radical policies it once had, and that is simply not stepping up to the challenges of today.

“The job of Greens in the next parliament will be to try to make Labour braver, to make them step up and be the kind of government that we need.”

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