Interview: Caroline Lucas

Caroline Lucas is standing for parliament in Brighton Pavilion
Caroline Lucas is standing for parliament in Brighton Pavilion

Caroline Lucas' Green party could be on the verge of a "historic breakthrough": its first seats in the Commons.

By Alex Stevenson

It's the first day of the Green party's spring conference and has journeyed to rainy north London to interview the party's leader, Caroline Lucas. Instead of hordes of environmental activists, the conference centre is swamped with hordes of irrepressible toddlers. We know the Green party needs to do some growing up, but surely this is taking things a little too far?

Ah, no - it is half-term, of course. The majority of people in the main area are unlikely to be eligible to vote until 2020 at the earliest. Certainly they are unlikely to traipse around Brighton Pavilion, trying to persuade its inhabitants to back their leader.

For Lucas, as well as being one of Britain's two Green MEPs, is hoping to switch jobs after the general election by becoming the party's first MP. The Greens came a close third in the 2005 election in Brighton pavilion, but their 13 local councillors have been working the constituency hard since then. They increased their share of the vote to 30% in last year's European elections and had a clear seven-point leader over the Conservatives in an ICM poll carried out before Christmas.

"We are feeling upbeat," Lucas says enthusiastically. "It's a fantastic campaign, we've got lots of support. It's going really well."

Listen to part one of the interview:

We're closeted in a dressing room somewhere in the Arts Depot, having been driven to a completely deserted area of the building in a bid to find somewhere quiet. The dressing room scenario seems rather apt: Lucas has spent years (indirectly) preparing her party for a realistic stab at the Commons. That national stage is close, but for now she remains in preparation mode.

The prospect of a hard-fought election campaign, in pursuit of that elusive breakthrough into Westminster politics, is a scintillating one. Ninety per cent of environmental policies that affect Britain are formed at the European Union level, but Lucas is under no illusions as to where the real focus of British politics lies. There is a hint of frustration here - more realistic than bitter - that her exploits in the European parliament have not received greater coverage.

"Because our national political discourse, our media, everything is so focused on Westminster that unless you're there you're not part of that debate," she explains.

This is why getting a Green MP would "send a real signal" that this might be "the beginning of something new". It's about "trying to influence political debate in Britain". It is, and always has been, a tough ask.

The Greens' progress in the last ten years stands in marked contrast to their previous record. They were originally formed in the early 1970s, making them one of the oldest Green parties in the world, but struggled to make progress. The bulk of the green grouping in the European parliament is drawn from France and Germany. Critics claimed the Green party of England and Wales was disparate and lacked focus.

In 2008 it made the momentous decision to end its no-leader policy, opening up an opportunity which Lucas clutched with both hands. Of course she acknowledges the increased prominence of environmental issues in the 21st century has helped her cause, but also claims some credit for her party's internal reforms.

She mentions there have been shifts in "decision-making processes", but these are quickly passed over. Changes to the way leadership debates work are also fleetingly mentioned. One gets the sense of a very carefully finessed hand, a politician increasing her own power in a bid to harness the potential of the wider political changes currently taking place.

It's all very green, of course, but this continues to be a tortuous process. It doesn't take long for us to get on to the biggest hurdle - the Greens' association with single-issue politics. Lucas must have answered this question hundreds of time before. "Our name leads one to recognise the issues of the environment are very important to us, but for us social justice and environmental justice are absolutely linked," she says.

Whether it's on transport, waste or affordable housing, the issues are there to be addressed. And ultimately inequality has gone up, rather than down, during Labour's 13 years in power. These are green issues. They are "the kinds of issues we want to be tackling". It's no surprise she mentions there are real pockets of deprivation in Brighton, a constituency whose London workers have driven local housing prices up significantly.

But surely, beyond the headlines and prestige, there is no real practical significance in having just one Green MP? As an MEP Lucas can vote in a group which wields real influence. What will she be able to achieve by herself in the Commons? "I would turn it around and ask, what would one more Tory or Labour MP ask?" she replies quickly.

Listen to part two of the interview:

They may well be won over by her enthusiasm. Lucas is about 30 times nicer than your average Westminster politician. This is not necessarily a good attribute for a politician, but she seems to get by. Shortly before beginning the interview I received a text message from an old friend, a lapsed socialist who now finds solace for his unconventional instincts in the Greens. "Following moves to the right from both Labour and the Lib Dems, I now see you as the last refuge of the average lefty liberal who doesn't want to go down the socialist/Marxist route," he wrote.

"I say give him my address and let's get together and have a cup of tea," Lucas laughs. "He sounds like a good guy."

It doesn't take her long to turn the focus back to her campaign in Brighton. "We're finding many people who have traditionally voted Labour and who have held their noses voting Labour in the last two elections saying 'thank goodness there is a party which still stands for some basic values around fairness, human rights. We're finding many of those people are joining us now'."

It seems clear this spirit of optimism is what sustains Lucas and her party as she waits to break into the big time. It turns out the backroom staff's only access to the internet on the conference site is in a couple of deserted rooms. As we trudge down the empty corridors Lucas asks a party official what on earth could possibly be wrong. "We've spoken to the broadband provider," he says miserably, "but they say we're low priority!"

Lucas, exasperated, tuts and groans like a veteran. "Why does this always happen at conference?" she moans. Both she and the Greens are close to gaining a foothold on in the Commons, but they're not there yet.


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