The People's Party: Caroline Lucas
Neil Evans: Although Scotland has had a separate party from the England and Wales Greens for some time now, they still share the same ideals and philosophy. How close are the links between the two parties and are there things you can learn from each other?
Caroline Lucas: Very close – excellent in fact. We talk a lot, we co-ordinate a lot of our work, we campaign on many of the same issues, we attend each other’s conferences – Patrick Harvie was in Brighton for our conference earlier this month. I was delighted when the Scottish Greens gave their backing to my rail bill at their conference.
I’m told they root for me when I’m on Question Time and Any Questions, and it’s about time the media gave the Scottish Greens the same kind of opportunities.
NE: You represent a constituency which, with your election in 2010 and a minority administration running the council, has become something of a Green stronghold. What has Brighton managed to get right?
CL: Brighton and Hove as a city has a strong tradition of being progressive, ahead of the curve, and of campaigning on social justice and environmental issues. We’d built a strong base of support there over many years. What happened in 2010 wasn’t a flash in the pan – it was the result of years of hard work and campaigning. But you had a Labour Government which had become intensely unpopular, not just for the Iraq war, but for illiberal policies like ID cards, and for the privatisation of public services, PFI and the rest. People liked the idea of replacing them without voting Tory. Similarly, we’d argue that if you really oppose what the Coalition is doing, on both sides of the border, the best way to express that is to vote Green.
NE: Is this something you think can be replicated elsewhere? Or is that something that would be limited by finances that only the big, rich parties could afford?
CL: It would certainly be nice to have the big money of Labour, the Tories, or even UKIP. But on the other hand, we’ve shown how much the Green Party can achieve without masses of money coming in. That’s because we have a base of passionate supporters, who are in it because they believe in it.
In terms of replicating the success of Brighton in 2010 elsewhere – yes, that’s definitely possible. There’s no reason to think that we can only succeed in one city. We have a strong presence in places like Oxford, Norwich, and Lancaster, and the local elections last year showed that we have support up and down the country. Just as the Scottish Greens picked up new council seats in Stirling, Midlothian and Aberdeenshire, we had breakthroughs in places as far apart as Kent and Worcestershire.
NE: Have Coalition Government policies, such as the bedroom tax, helped highlight that the Green Party does not simply represent a single issue – bringing into focus instead your position on issues like social justice?
CL: We’ve never been a party that’s only cared about one thing. We’ve always had a strong record on social justice, and when we were founded as a party in the Seventies, it’s significant that we were called ‘People’.
I think it sometimes suits people to portray us as a single-issue party. Interestingly, Ed Miliband recently suggested that people in Brighton should vote Labour because they care “not just about the environment but also about social justice”. I thought that was quite funny when he would have just seen our billboard highlighting our opposition to NHS privatisation and to austerity, and when he’s used to hearing me speaking in Parliament on a range of social justice issues.
But you’re right that having a government that’s lurched further to the right, and an opposition that’s largely followed them there, has identified us as the only party standing up for a fair welfare system and for decent public services.
NE: Your advert welcoming Labour to Brighton told delegates that you were the only party offering “real opposition”. Has the opposition in Westminster failed to do its job properly? And what will this mean for the next General Election?
CL: I really don’t think they have done a great job of opposing the Coalition.
To start with, I’ve voted against the Government on a range of issues where Labour have supported them.
We know that a lot of the policies we’re putting forward – for the trains to be brought back into public ownership, for example – do appeal to disillusioned Labour voters. And I think a lot of Labour members want to see their leadership follow our lead and take a stronger line against austerity.
We’re offering a range of alternatives that Labour aren’t, from alternatives to nuclear power and nuclear weapons, through to speaking out far more loudly against the privatisation of the NHS. I think people hear Labour politicians and don’t come away with a very clear idea of what they stand for, or how they’re different from the Coalition. On the economy, we have a very clear vision – shared by a lot of businesspeople – for a programme of investment in a green economy, promoting renewable energy, energy efficiency, and affordable, sustainable homes, that would create hundreds of thousands of new green jobs.
NE: At the Lib-Dem conference in Glasgow, the party overturned its opposition to nuclear power and said it would permit partial shale gas extraction. Has this change of policy damaged its position as an environmentally-conscious party and what does that mean for the wider debate on issues like meeting climate change targets and making the UK more sustainable?
CL: It’s completely undermined any credibility they might have had as a party committed to tackling climate change and protecting the environment. How on earth can a party that’s in power but allows fracking to go ahead describe itself as green?
We’re already picking up a lot of supporters who used to be Lib Dems, and recent polls have put us ahead of them for the European elections next year, so I don’t think they’ve done themselves favours by abandoning yet more of the values that people used to respect them for.
NE: How has the experience of being an MEP differed from that of being an MP?
CL: I very much enjoy representing Brighton Pavilion in parliament – it’s a wonderful city, and having such a direct constituency connection is very rewarding. As an MEP, I represented the whole of SE England, an absolutely huge area which is much harder to get to know well.
One of the stereotypes people have about Brussels is that its procedures are very obscure, but I’ve found that Westminster is even worse in terms of some of the arcane procedures.
In Brussels, six votes would take you a couple of minutes, maximum, either by raising your hand or voting electronically. Half a dozen votes here at Westminster can take you an hour and a half. That’s absolutely ridiculous.
“There is often no limit to people’s speaking time and some people, unfortunately, like the sound of their voices a lot. I’ve also been quite shocked at times that MPs often don’t fully understand what they’re voting for, and the system doesn’t make it easy for them.
NE: How much of an impact do you hope the Green Party will have in the European elections next year?
CL: I’m very optimistic. A recent poll put us on 12 per cent – ahead of the Lib Dems. That would see us returning six or seven Green MEPs. And I know that the Scottish Greens have a good chance of returning an MEP too.
NE: The rise of UKIP has been a particular focus over the last year, what do you think this says about British politics? Has it overshadowed what the Greens have achieved (particularly as there are similar numbers of Green and UKIP councillors) and does this mean that the UK is becoming anti-Europe?
CL: Keep in mind that they, UKIP, don’t have an MP, and they’re odds against to have one in 2015.
Having said that, they did well in the local elections. But I think that’s more because people are sick of the three traditional parties, than a sign that the UK is becoming anti-Europe. And I definitely think the more people find out about them, and the more they’re put under the spotlight, the less appealing they’ll become. It’s not just a case of Godfrey Bloom’s use of misogynistic language – UKIP’s policies on things like maternity leave are deeply regressive too.
NE: The Scottish Greens have joined the Yes campaign for an independent Scotland. What is your view on Scottish independence and what would be the impact on the UK?
CL: That’s obviously for the people of Scotland to decide, but I’m very sympathetic to the idea of independence. Moving decision-making closer to the people is a core Green principle.
This is about democracy and Scotland getting the Government it votes for. When you have a Chancellor like this, making decisions that could do lasting harm for whole communities that didn’t vote Tory, and never will, you can understand the case for independence. Mind you, people didn’t vote for them here either!
NE: A key argument that has been made for independence has been the removal of Trident from Scotland – which because of the lack of available sites could also mean the removal of nuclear weapons from the UK completely. Could this debate help reignite the debate over the future of nuclear weapons?
CL: I’m sure it would, or at least the debate over the wisdom of having a submarine-based nuclear missile system that will cost an estimated £100 billion over the next 30 years. It can’t be a surprise to anyone that Trident has been central to the independence debate. Why should the Scottish people have weapons of mass destruction in their waters?
NE: And finally, Scotland has set ambitious climate change targets, more stringent than those of the UK. Do you think this can send a positive sign out to other countries over reducing emissions, and what impact does the fact that the first two targets were missed have?
CL: Of course we need ambitious targets if we’re serious about tackling climate change. The recent IPCC report made clear that we need to leave the majority of known fossil-fuel reserves in the ground if the world is to keep within safe levels of temperature increases. To its credit, Scotland is much more ambitious than the rest of the UK on community and locally owned renewable energy schemes, and on jobs from renewables.
But impressive targets are meaningless if they’re not followed up with action. Every target that governments miss makes the targets harder to achieve the next year, which means storing up bigger problems for future generations.