I attended my first Green Party conference as a fairly newly-minted party member this past weekend at the Brighton Centre in glorious sunshine. It took place against the background of a government rolling back on every green promise and commitment (nowhere near enough) they have made.
I found the party in ebullient mode as it turned 50 years old, flush from the transformational local government election results that have boosted Green councillor numbers four-fold since 2019 to 738 across 166 councils.
But there was also rage and disbelief that while the world is on fire (lucky for us, we escaped this summer, but next summer is coming), the Rosebank oilfield has been approved alongside the Cumbria coal mine, throwing further petrol on the conflagration.
The opposition seems intent on nodding through all of these catastrophic decisions and much sustained condemnation of this apparent passivity, or even complicity, was a recurring feature of the whole conference.
General election targets
The Green Party is targeting four seats (Brighton Pavilion, Waveney, Bristol and North Herefordshire), up from the one it currently holds and is concentrating all resources on these upcoming contests. Resources are one of the major barriers to success, as the absence of corporate donors means the party relies upon members to fund everything. The second major barrier is the First Past the Post system. In 2019, 865,715 votes returned just one Green MP.
Caroline Lucas, that one MP (for Brighton Pavilion), is standing down at the next election. She has fought three general elections and increased her majority from 1,200 to just shy of 20,000. In a fascinating interview mid-conference with Lucas by Roger Harrabin, the (recently retired) BBC’s Energy and Environment analyst, she cites this as one of the achievements of which she is most proud. Harrabin referred to her as “not really a person, more of a phenomenon”, and I lost count of the number of times I picked up the word ‘irreplaceable’ in the general hubbub between sessions.
During these sessions, Conference sets and amends policy and it’s one member, one vote. As far as I know, none of the major parties gives such complete power to its membership. For example, Labour’s conference in 2022 overwhelmingly voted for Proportional Representation (PR) to be a manifesto commitment but no such commitment has yet been made.
The four-MP target is an ambitious one but having now heard from all of them, they are all more than credible and passionate candidates. With 74% of the public being either worried or very worried about climate change, according to an ONS survey, will this translate into votes?
The climate wasn’t the only issue addressed at conference, with housing also high on the agenda.
The spiralling cost-of-living crisis has driven up rents and complaints about the condition of accommodation can lead to summary eviction. Conference was told that 25% of privately rented homes do not meet basic standards of decency.
The pledge to ensure a home that’s “warm, safe and affordable for everyone” was made, giving the legal right for homes to be properly insulated, damp-proofed and mould-free, and with the cost of renting set in line with local wages.
Last chance saloon
There has never been a more important time to elect MPs prepared to stand up for the climate and the natural world. The State of Nature report lays bare the destruction being wrought with the headline that 16% of our species are now red-listed and facing extinction, standing out amongst a sea of dire warnings. This in “one of the already most nature-depleted nations on Earth”.
At the same time there is an industry dedicated to delaying action, its messaging designed to reduce us to impotence in the belief that nothing we can do matters.
But we have long since known of the threat:
“What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate — all this is new in the experience of the earth. It is mankind and his activities which are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways.”
Who would have thought this speech, by Margaret Thatcher to the UN General Assembly in New York, in November 1989, would be praised at a Green Party conference?
When Green politicians are elected, they punch above their weight – Jenny Jones is the latest example, leading the rebellion in the Lords against Conservative plans to rip up river pollution rules.
So I hope that people will give a few more Greens the chance to serve, and that as individuals we take on board what Caroline Lucas replied when asked what her epitaph should be: “Never believe you can’t make a difference.”