Feature: Green party leadership election


The Green party is holding leadership elections for the first time in its history, with Euro MEP Caroline Lucas running against former star of The Bill, Ashley Gunstock. In the first of a special two-part feature we interview both candidates to find out who will lead the Greens into the general election. Next week: Caroline Lucas.

Ashley Gunstock

'The former star of The Bill running for leader of the Green party.' Has a funny ring to it, doesn't it? But then for any journalist who's had reason to work with the Greens over the years, the phrase 'Green leader' has a funny ring to it too, so recently did party members decide they needed to have a figurehead to improve the party's profile.

Not as funny as the term 'Green member of parliament' though, and that's exactly what Ashley Gunstock, former star of The Bill and - yes - candidate for Green party leader is planning if he wins the vote. One more funny thing though - if it does happen, he thinks it'll be his opponent.

"I can see us having an MP and I wouldn't be surprised if it's not Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion," he says.

"I think they could well elect someone with as high a profile as Caroline."

It's not that crazy a suggestion. The party achieved its highest showing in a general election in 2005, with a total of 281,780 votes. In the Brighton Pavilion seat, councillor Keith Taylor received 22 per cent of the vote. But there does seem something a little odd about a candidate praising his opponent so much. He may have appeared on a popular TV show and have decades of acting work behind him, but Gunstock does seem to have a slight inferiority complex when comparing himself to the woman most people are assuming will win.

"She's worked extremely hard," he explains. "She lived in an area where there's a lot of green activity [Oxford], she managed to get elected to Europe and she got a springboard to a higher profile.

"But that doesn't make me any less of a candidate, believe me. The reason I'm standing is because the Green party would rather have an election than a coronation. We want to give people a choice."

It sounds a little like everyone knows she'll win but no-one wanted to look like Labour did a year ago.

Absolutely not, he says. "Some people expect Caroline to get in on a landslide, but I don't think it'll be a landslide. I think the outcome might surprise quite a lot of people."

So what exactly is the difference between the two of you?

"I'm more of a grass roots, bottom-up type of activist; whereas I believe Caroline is more centrist," he says. "I think she wants to lead the party from top-down.

"The reason I joined the Green party initially is because it had a grass roots approach and that separated it from the other main political parties. It's seemed to be their downfall. Labour has taken that approach to the maximum recently, and I think it's turned into their nemesis."

It's a common complaint from those who mix their party politics with activism. With party conferences reduced to glorified talking shops and the Westminster village becoming increasingly cut off from the rest of the country many people are feeling the irritation at the changing face of British politics.

But environmental activists' opinion of the mainstream parties usually fall into two categories. The first feel encouraged at the way the two main parties have embraced the environmental agenda and at the prevalence of coverage in the media. The second camp is wary of the commitment of Westminster politicians to their cause. Gunstock is firmly in the second category.

"Now the parties have taken on environmentalism and I have to say it's a cynical move," he argues.

"The people who care about the environment could swing an election but the parties are just tinkering at the edges. They believe economic growth will solve our problems. It's not going to.

"They've corrupted the idea of environmentalism, because they've used the idea to gain more money in taxes. The government - New Labour or the Tories if they get it - are getting extra money at the same time as putting people off environmentalism."

Angry words from the man who sometimes sounds a little too modest to make a ferocious campaigner. But while he sometimes sounds like he's already accepted he's going to lose, Gunstock also has a steely way of looking to the future. Is there any chance at all of him winning?

"Not in this election perhaps, but I intend to stand again," he says. "I intend to continue standing because I believe I'm the best person for the job. I just need to raise my profile and I seem to be doing that at every election I stand at. People have faith in me."


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