In the 2010 General Election, Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, won Brighton Pavilion. She was the first ever Green MP elected to Westminster. Lucas’ 2010 win represented a milestone for the party; the Greens, who originate from the Peoples’ Party of the 1970s and lay a claim to being the world’s oldest Green Party, had, at long last, a voice in Parliament.
The 2010 Election is the first political event I remember; Lucas’ victory was a step forward in an election which seemed to take us backwards. Since 2010, Caroline Lucas has represented the political wing of the broader Green movement; in Westminster she’s pushed for Parliamentary reform, Social Justice, EU integration, and, naturally, for a more responsible Environment Policy. Lucas has campaigned assiduously against fracking, as well as against Austerity.
We spoke on a sunny September afternoon. A Westminster Hall debate on fracking delayed our call. Lucas is affable and articulate and I couldn’t argue with her alibi. Westminster Hall debates are rarely well attended, but a strong contingent of Conservative MPs attended this one. “I didn’t hear a single Conservative or anyone say they thought fracking was a good thing.” Lucas said.
Determined opposition to fracking is a central aspect of Lucas’ political mission. Her objection is – at least partly – idealogical: scientists argue that at least 3/4 of known fossil fuel reserves must remain untapped for the planet to meet emission goals, and even if Britain were to replace half of existing natural gas with fracked gas, the country would need to build 6000 drilling rigs.
Lucas detects a changing consensus: “It really feels to me like we might be on a tipping point, on that one, where I think that the backlash up and down the country is being fed through into the political system. The Government is going to have a hard time pushing it [fracking] further.”
Despite the Green Party’s detractors – who argue that minimal change can be implemented with a single MP – the Greens have been influential on mainstream politics: “Corbyn cut and pasted most of his policies out of the Green Party manifesto of 2014 – bringing rail back into public ownership, putting most public services into public ownership. Anti-fracking was Green Party policy and a basic income scheme – which they’re beginning to flirt with – is a Green Party policy.”
“Frankly Labour doesn’t get the environment” she added. “And the Greens are still absolutely vital to the political scene. Labour still feel that they can go ahead expanding roads, expanding airports, being pro-nuclear, all of this, being pro-HS2, pro-Hinkley. I don’t think Labour under Corbyn really understands the environment.”
Unlike the majority of Parliamentarians, but arguably not unlike Corbyn, Lucas came to politics direct from grassroots activism – Lucas was arrested during a non-violent protest at a fracking site in Sussex, in August of 2013. “When the democratic deficit is so enormous, people are left with very little option but to take peaceful, non-violent direct action,” she said, following her arrest.
Lucas has frequently criticised Westminster’s culture: “I think the structures of Westminster are wholly discouraging, but they are just so unfit for purpose – ” as she told me. “Just the way in which our politics works – the whipping system and the power of the whips, which means that most MPs are just encouraged to be voting fodder and not to really challenge their leaders too much.”
For many MPs, getting on the wrong side of their Whip can irreparably damage their parliamentary career; and Whips frequently take the credentials of their politicians only into minimal account. Caroline explained one such case: a medically trained MP requested to sit on the committee scrutinising the Health and Social Care Bill, in the 2010 Parliament. Instead, the Whips made her work on double taxation in the Cayman Islands. “When she objected,” Caroline continued, “saying that she didn’t know anything about double taxation, they said fine, all you need to do is raise your arm when we tell you to do so.”
For Lucas, the roots of Westminster’s problems are as deep as the building itself: “Even the Architecture makes a difference. I’m sad that we’re not using the opportunity of moving out of Westminster to take the MPs out.” She said. “Antagonism is built up through having the two sides of the chamber shadowing each other.”
“I would have loved for us to have taken that opportunity to move Westminster – even to have Parliament moved out of London and to have had the structure like the Scottish parliament, even, or the German Bundestag, where you’re in a circle or hemicircle – and that can sound a bit non-serious but I do think the architecture that you’re in does create a certain kind of behaviour.”
Despite underlying structural problems, Lucas’ Greens have pushed for cross-party cooperation: “I think things work best when there’s a cooperation, a deliberate collaboration between people in Parliament.’ she said. “One of the big campaigns I was pushing was for mandatory PSHE to be rolled out in schools. That was coming from my concerns around page 3 and sexual violence and that has now been agreed.”
I asked Caroline about the highlights of her Parliamentary career: “There have been some successes, but it’s a big battle and I think it works best when you have really strong voices outside of Parliament as well as really good MPs working cross-party inside.”
External voices should include student organisations; and Caroline expressed particular admiration for Divestment campaigners, including those at Oxford. “It’s something where you can make a real difference,” she said, “because that’s something where the University is answerable to you as students and if you get a cumulative mass you can change that – as many universities have.”
I asked Caroline what her advice for young activists would be: “Follow what makes you passionate,” she said. “We need you to be there for the long-haul. Try to judge where issues feel like another push might just get them over the edge – where you can make that judgement. But often you can’t.
“Away from that kind of bearpit politics, it is possible to find allies in other parties and work cross-party to get things done. In terms of where we’ve had successes now, we’re slowly trying to get our pension scheme to divest. It’s something that I started but there are now many others at least insisting on the basics, like the transparency – that was a big enough battle just to work out where the pension fund was investing and it was outrageous that they were so reluctant to be transparent about that. So that movement is growing, although there’s a long way to go.”
Lucas isn’t interested in implementing a handful of environmental policies tacked onto an unchanged capitalist system – she is demanding societal change: “The environment is at the heart of all of our policies, but it is an integrated package, and so we recognise that in order to protect the environment you need a whole different set of economic policies that aren’t based on a throw-away economic culture, you need a whole different set of health policies where you’re focussing far more on public health and the impact of the environment, things like dirty air, on people’s health.”
The paradigm shift which this aspect of Green Philosophy represents fundamentally impacts the party’s approach to economic policy-making: “What’s interesting about the Green Party’s economic policies is the recognition that if you’re not going to try to grow your way out of poverty – in other words if you challenge the idea, as we do, that more and more of the same kind of economic growth doesn’t help the poorest as the trickle down economic theory doesn’t work – if you’re not going to have that kind of economic policy then the focus on redistribution is much greater.”
I ask Caroline about the ideological roots of this shift: “it’s often the poorest who suffer most from that [pollution] because they’re more likely, for example – in the case of air pollution – to be living on busy roads and can’t afford to move into a leafy suburb. It’s the sense of injustice that it’s the poorest people who are suffering most.”
Caroline suggests greater cooperation between rich and poor to combat this injustice: “I think one of the reasons we’re not moving as fast on that as we should,” said Caroline, “Is that the richer countries are reluctant to put money on the table to enable some of the poorer countries to leapfrog some of the dirty technologies we’ve gone through and to move straight ahead to green technologies.”
The ideological reconfiguration which the Greens propose extends to Housing: “Affordable housing is one of the biggest crises facing so many places, including Oxford,” said Caroline. “Housing far too often is still being regarded as a speculative asset rather than a human right and I think that the planning process should be much stricter on the amount of affordable housing that is part of any development.”
Lucas described a living rents campaign in Brighton: their intentions would be not only to limit rent inflation, but to actively lower rents. “People say that if you do that you might restrict the number of properties coming on to the market,” Caroline continued. “Because perhaps it’s less attractive for landlords to let out their properties, but if that led to some landlords, who have multiple properties, maybe selling some of those, then that’s not a bad thing.”
Caroline Lucas represents, for Britain, the environmental movement, and all which it entails. The policies her party pursues are radical; until Corbyn, Green Party policy was, for the most part, well outside the window of what we expect said in Westminster. But Lucas’ voice in Parliament pushes the environment, and a raft of related issues, onto the agenda. Unlike most career Politicians, Lucas brings something new. Now, more than ever, the danger of the ideological monotony which Lucas is breaking should not be overstated.