19 February 2010
CAROLINE LUCAS - CONFERENCE SPEECH
LONDON, FEBRUARY 2010
Since the last Green Party conference: six months of disastrous policies from the Labour government - and no better prospect if the Conservatives return to power
Thank you, Darren. Thank you everyone.
And a particular thanks to our hosts here in Finchley for making us so welcome.
This is an exciting time to be in the Green Party, and whilst I know many of you are itching to get back to canvassing in your wards, I'm delighted that we're coming together, ahead of one of our most important elections yet.
It's traditional, I know, to start by looking back over the past six months or so, since we were last gathered together at Conference.
To celebrate the achievements of Green activists, including Green councillors and Assembly Members, campaigning for communities up and down the country.
And to recall some of the worst statement or actions of the other parties.
Of course, if we gave full justice to that, then we'd be here all day.
There they are, spending eye-watering amounts of money - our money - bailing out the banks, and then claiming that the grotesque bonuses to reward failure are "outside their control".
The terrible missed opportunity of Copenhagen internationally, and still no effective action on climate change here at home.
The failure to get a grip on MPs expenses until the mother of Parliaments had been dragged through the mud.
Preventing the truth about British Aerospace's record of bribery and corruption coming to court.
And perhaps most shocking of all - given that this Labour government was first elected on the scare-mongering pledge that they had twenty-four hours to save the NHS - most shocking of all is the way that Labour is privatising our National Health Service.
Here in North London, where we're meeting, Labour is seeking to close one, two or even three accident and emergency wards.
And to move core services into polyclinics, which are then being tendered to the private sector.
Privatisation. The prospect of the end of the NHS as a universal healthcare service, provided by public servants.
Instead, Labour is bringing in the profit motive, shareholders, bonuses, and all the rest of that discredited apparatus.
And who will oppose this?
Not the Tories. This is what they always wanted. This is what they began to introduce with the old internal market. They're laughing, now that Labour's doing their dirty work for them.
And not the Lib Dems. They're hopelessly split on this issue, with the party increasingly seduced by the market.
So who will stand up for the NHS?
Who is left in politics who believes that doctors and nurses, health professionals and cleaners, managers and administrators, actually work best when motivated - not by bonuses or share options - but by the sense of doing what they went into medicine to do, or the satisfaction of seeing patients benefiting from their care?
Who still believes in public service? We do.
Greens believe it's wrong that hospitals and health centres are treated like businesses, rather than vital public services.
We want to see an end to money being wasted on botched PFI and privatisation schemes
We will oppose cuts and closures in the NHS, and protect the jobs of public sector workers.
And that is why it is the Greens who are at the forefront of the campaign to save hospitals like these.
Inequality on the increase
And it matters because it is the most vulnerable people who suffer first,and suffer most, from cuts and closures. We see it all around us, every day. Britain under Labour has become a country of inequality.
Those at the top, those with the power and influence, making sure that they get more and more of the cake. And those at the bottom having to make do with just the crumbs. The top 10% in this country now have 100 times more wealth than the bottom 10%.
A hundred times.
Nothing - no amount of hard work or talent or commitment - can justify that. Those who have less aren't afraid of hard work.
People in service jobs, working night shifts to keep the country going, put in just as much as the captains of industry. Working with disadvantaged children needs just as much talent as serving privileged clients in private banking. And as to commitment - think of the difference between social workers, struggling with bureaucracy, hammered by the media and often by their own management, and trying to do the best for often difficult clients.
Compare that to the commitment of the bosses of the Royal Bank of Scotland, threatening to walk out if their bonuses were cut back too far. That is Britain today.
More unequal than France or Germany or Sweden or any country I can think of that we'd want to compare ourselves to.
More unequal than at any time since the Second World War. And that's why our message is this:
- That inequality is one of the most corrosive forces in our society, damaging everyone - That we are not intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich, as New Labour's Peter Mandelson famously said he was - That inequality matters, and we are the party who believes that fair is worth fighting for.
Labour's record - giving with one hand, taking away with the other
And all this under a Labour government. Now Labour supporters - there are still some out there! - will argue with this. They'll list all the achievements of the last thirteen years.
Sure Start. The Human Rights Act. Investment in the NHS.
Fair enough. But have you noticed how adept Labour are at giving with one hand and taking with the other?
They give money for Sure Start centres, while cutting money to local authorities so that services for other vulnerable people have to close.
They pass the Human Rights Act - but also pass dozens of other laws that curtail our freedom of speech, our right to free assembly, our right to protest.
They invest in the NHS - but then waste so much on bureaucracy and form-filling and targets and above all on discredited PFI projects. And all these things have a very immediate and direct impact on people's lives.
Take Jack Watson, a retired postman who has had 2 heart attacks, one of which nearly killed him. He has severe arthritis, has to lie down in pain most of the day and suffers from Meniere's Disease.
Nonetheless, doctors working for the privatised agency that carries out medical assessments on ESA claimants declared that he was fit for work. After a massive campaign Jack's case went to Tribunal and he won hands down - but should he really have had to go through all that?
Or like the pensioner I met a few weeks back in Brighton who told me that she could no longer attend the art class she enjoyed so much, and which was a life-line in terms of meeting others, because funding for adult education is being slashed.
Or the man I've visited who spent 8 years in prison without charges being brought against him, was released temporarily for 8 months under virtual 24-hour house arrest, and is now back in detention. He is not allowed to know what he is supposed to have done wrong. Not allowed to see any evidence the government claims it has against him. And not allowed to attend the hearings that determine his fate.
And so, as we come to the final weeks and days of New Labour in government, we can survey a sea of dashed hopes and missed opportunities.
Inequality higher than in 1997.
North Sea oil and gas squandered, instead of being invested in clean technology.
Climate change more of a threat to us and to the world.
A more ethical foreign policy turned to deceit and destruction in Iraq, and losing its way in Afghanistan.
That is Labour's legacy.
And what will come from Cameron? More of the same, but laced with a Blairite smile.
For his brand of Conservatism means taking the worst of Labour and pulling it down to new depths.
But instead of Gordon the Thug we have Nice Guy Dave to front it.
Cameron won't be outdone in pampering the rich. That's why he's slashing inheritance tax for the richest.
And he won't be outdone in savagely cutting services - even if he's a little quieter on it now until after the election.
As my favourite spoof of the Conservatives' 'we can't go on like this' posters goes, with a smug picture of Cameron wielding an enormous syringe - 'this is going to hurt - don't worry you won't feel a thing'.
Cameron might be able to airbrush his photograph for the billboards, but he can't airbrush our memories of the misery and waste of 18 years of Tory rule.
Moments of inspiration - and determination to see a Green breakthrough at the general election
So yes, there is a lot to feel angry about.
But the last six months has also given us moments of hope and inspiration.
The growth of the 10:10 climate campaign, with people up and down the country taking the initiative themselves to act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not waiting for companies or politicians - but acting out of their own commitment now.
The overwhelming response from ordinary people around the world to the terrible earthquake in Haiti.
The fantastic launch of the Robin Hood tax campaign, an idea that's been around for many years, including in our own manifesto, but now finally catching people's imaginations in a totally new way.
Paradoxically, perhaps even the Chilcott Inquiry into the Iraq war has brought moments of optimism.
At least those who plunged us into the conflict in Iraq have had to face questions.
Does it matter? Aren't we just going over old history?
Blair, Straw, Goldsmith and Hoon - aren't they truly yesterday's men?
Perhaps. But they do matter. The truth matters.
For the past has a habit of repeating itself.
Take the case of Binyam Mohamed, tortured by foreign governments. Tortured, indeed, it seems, with the knowledge of our own Security Service.
Yet those charged by Parliament to oversee the work of these services - Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee - decides not to investigate these grave charges.
Instead, they choose to use the media to attack the senior judges who have defended an individual's rights and freedoms.
But if the Chair of the ISC cannot conceive of the possibility that MI5 may have gone off the rails, then he is not fit to head the watchdog tasked with its oversight.
His ill-considered actions do no service to the intelligence community.
They rely on proper oversight to demonstrate to us all as citizens that their work is being carried out in our interests and within the rule of law.
That is the responsibility that Kim Howells has betrayed. He has let us all down, including the officers of MI5.
That is why he is not fit to continue in office. That's why I call on Kim Howells to resign.
But what do the other parties make of this?
Once again, we see evidence of the corrosive influence of political calculation.
Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat would rather support the cosy Westminster club than admit that Parliament's scrutiny of the intelligence and security services is a farce.
That is why our work is as important as ever.
That is why we are determined to see Greens successful at the next General Election.
Challenges facing the Greens now
Today, we are also looking forward to the six months that are to come.
In May, we have the local government elections.
Our chance to build on the tremendous work of our councillors and our local parties.
One of the privileges of being leader of our party is the opportunity to meet so many people who are serving their local communities with such commitment and energy.
Greens proving that you can stick to your principles and still get things done.
In Norwich, fighting to save day-care centres.
In Lancaster, campaigning against nuclear power.
In Oxford, leading the drive for affordable housing.
In Manchester, saving green space for the local community.
In Brighton, successfully fighting against yet more supermarkets turning the city into another clone town.
And for those here today who have heard about good works in Oxford or Lancaster before, let me add some more.
In South Devon, challenging plans for a waste incinerator. In Kent, making the case for better transport policies. In Leicester, campaigning against open-cast mining. In Camden, pushing for fair rates for local businesses.
Across the country, the same approach: sticking to our principles, and getting things done.
A time for change
This, then, is the background to the upcoming elections.
The pundits are calling it a change election. And they're right. The public wants change.
They want an electoral system that reflects their priorities.
That makes sure the parties don't just concentrate on swing voters in marginal constituencies, but offer policies for the country as a whole.
They want to see the political parties offer genuine reform of the political system, to root out the snouts in the trough mentality that has tarnished Parliament's reputation.
Many people want to see the back of Gordon Brown.
Others to see Cameron properly tested, and the dark underside of the Tory party exposed.
But though people thirst for change, there's little real change on offer from the other parties.
Does anyone believe that Brown has earned another five years in power?
Or that Britain will be a fairer and more just place to live if David Cameron becomes prime minister?
Because if the answer to the problems in our democracy is David Cameron, we need to think again about the question.
Victory and responsibility
So what of the underdogs? The Greens.
What is our place in the electoral contest that is to come? And what are our prospects?
Today, I am going to throw caution to the winds. I'm going to do the thing that all the consultants and spin doctors - if we could afford them - if we wanted them - would tell me not to say.
I'm going to talk about victory.
I believe that on May 6 we can make a truly historic breakthrough. We will win our first seat in Parliament.
It may be Brighton Pavilion, where we lead in the polls and where I've seen the huge commitment of local people to making that historic breakthrough.
It may be in Norwich South, where Adrian Ramsey and his team draw on the credibility and track record that comes with being the official Opposition on the City Council, holding the Executive to account.
Or maybe in Lewisham, where Darren Johnson and the Lewisham party have turned a former Labour heartland into a key election battlefield, proving that targeting to get a single councillor elected makes the bridgehead tha has seen six elected the next time round, and more to come I'm sure in May.
Tony Juniper is generating real momentum in Cambridge. A brilliant candidate in a city that's ready for change.
Gina Dowding in Lancaster Fleetwood and Sushila Dhall in Oxford, also doing a fantastic job.
And we have other great candidates and hard-working local parties who are building up support and laying the foundations for campaigns to come.
Of course, it won't be easy. The system is stacked against us.
The voting system. The media. Party funding - the donations from bi business and from business people who won't even say where they pay their taxes.
That's what we have to beat. And do you know, I think we will.
I believe we can and we must for three reasons.
First, because of the passion and commitment of our supporters all around the country.
People who will go out in all weathers to put round the leaflets and talk to local people because they know how much it matters, and they want to put something back into their communities.
Second, because our policies have never been more relevant to the problems that our country faces. We cannot go on as we are, with such grotesque levels of inequality, and people struggling to keep a roof over their heads, battling against the cuts.
In Brighton, I've spoken to people who are faced with decision of choosing to eat, or heat their homes. The number of people claiming JSA in the city has risen fully 80% in just18 months.
At the same time, we're dependent on resources that are running out, and committed to a way of living that can only be supported by the exploitation of others.
Third, because the people of this country are desperate for change. The only problem is that the main parties haven't changed. The change the public is demanding simply isn't on offer from the others.
They're all content with the kind of deregulated turbo-capitalism that has plunged us into recession, and all just as eager to get back to precisely the business as usual that led to the economic and environmental collapse.
Of course, the old style of politics will not give up without a fight.
The old politics says that ideals are for losers.
That believing in things is naive.
That going into public life because you believe in putting something back into society, or helping to give a voice to those on the margins, is a waste of time.
That is what we are up against. That is what we must defeat.
We want to win. And we have to believe that we will win.
So let us spend a few minutes thinking about what that victory would mean.
Victory and Responsibility
For us, for the Green Party, the battle doesn't end on May 6th.
It starts again on May 7th. It's not winning one or two seats in Parliament. It's what we do with that historic responsibility.
For if, or when, we win, we'll release a powerful wave of optimism. High expectations which we cannot disappoint.
We must be clear from that start what a handful of Green MPs - perhaps even just one MP - can achieve.
We won't form the government.
We won't have a seat in cabinet, or be part of a coalition.
We won't be given ministerial portfolios or plum appointments in the corridors of power.
So why are we there?
Well, of course our first duty will be to the people who elected us.
If I am fortunate enough to be elected, I will first and foremost serve the people of Brighton Pavilion.
But though that duty and privilege comes first, I know the people of Brighton well enough to know that they would want a little bit more.
And so too, no doubt, would those of Lewisham or Norwich or Cambridge or anywhere else where Greens are pushing to win.
To serve the constituency - but also to contribute to the renewal of politics and the building of a fairer and more sustainable future for us,and for the wider world.
So I see that we have three tasks we must fulfil.
First, to open the door to other communities that are on the verge of electing Green MPs. We must show that, when given responsibility, we use it wisely.
We must repay the trust we have been given.
In that way, others will place their faith in us and our foothold will be secured and widened, and in time we'll have the power to do more.
And here we have the example of Green councillors in Oxford and Norwich, Lancaster and Lewisham. Places where one Green councillor has soon been followed by two or three or even six, so we're now in a position where we're on the edge of becoming the ruling party on Norwich City Council at the next elections.
Because when Greens are given the chance to show what we can do, people like it. They want more.
So our first responsibility is to show we can make a difference. But that is not enough.
For our second task is to hold the government to account.
We'll ask the questions that no-one else does.
On climate change. On children in care. On the security service. On training opportunities for young people.
We'll expose the shady deals and corruption, and root out waste.
We have no vested interests to hold us back.
And again, we have proved we can do this, in the European Parliament, in the London Assembly, and on councils up and down the country.
Third, we must show leadership in ideas.
In raising the banner of progressive politics once more, which has so long been trampled and discredited by the compromises of so many Labour and Liberal Democrats.
We are the Party that is ready to address the grave challenges this country faces, from tackling climate change to restoring faith in public services to restoring our reputation as a force for peace and justice internationally.
And again, in local government we have shown what we can achieve.
In Islington, we have a single Green councillor, Katie Dawson.
But in the last council budget, that one councillor was instrumental in bringing in 20mph on all residential roads in the borough, a programme of new apprenticeships, free sports for young people, a million pounds for extra allotments, and a new centre for repairing household items, saving local people money and avoiding more stuff ending up in landfill.
One Green councillor brings in seven new measures, while Labour - with twenty-three councillors - can only manage one.
I think that deserves a round of applause.
So when we are asked what a single Green MP can achieve, I'd advise them - knowing what this party is capable of - to watch that space.
We will not give up
All this gives me great confidence about the future. And it is fitting that the general election and the local elections will be on the same day.
Because what we have achieved in local government shows what we can achieve in Westminster. It has readied us for this moment.
But let us not think that we will be welcomed into Parliament.
Those who have tried to discredit us, or push us to the margins, are not about to give up.
What will they say next? That winning one or two seats doesn't prove anything.
Yet we will expose that too. For once we can show that we can beat the system, then we bring hope to communities up and down the country.
What the powerful in this country and around the world fear most is hope.
That is what they wish to crush.
They want the people of this country to believe that things cannot be changed for the better. To give up.
We will not give up. Every moment of the time we have left until May 6, we will be fighting for a fairer future for this country, and for the wider world.
We're going to Westminster to make a difference
So we have ten weeks, at most. And as usual, things are stacked against us.
So be it. We're not going to waste time complaining. We can't change things from the outside alone. Instead, we're fighting to win.
For if we can beat the power brokers, defeat the elites, the money people and the corrupt - if we can beat them in the election, then we've shown we're ready to take them on once we're in Parliament.
We don't want to win seats in Westminster to sit impotently on the back benchers.
Or toadying to the powerful.
None of us want that.
We haven't come so far, or worked so hard, for that.
We're going to Westminster to make a difference.
To open the door for all those we represent.
To hold the Government and Parliament to account.
To show that you can stick to your principles and still get things done.
That is why we are here.
That is the responsibility we want to take up on May 7th.
Together we can win.
Together we will prove we are worthy of victory.