Caroline Lucas' speech to Compass conference

18 June 2009

Compass Conference

No Turning Back, London, 13 June 2009

1. Introduction

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak. I appreciate that, from your perspective, it was something of a brave decision.

Quite how brave, I didn't realise until I came across some of the blogging about today's conference. To give you a flavour of what I mean, one of the blogs, from a Hackney councillor, who announces that he is "firmly on the moderate wing of the Labour party", runs as follows:

"Bonkers soft left factionalists Compass have just announced that the latest keynote speaker at their annual rally is Green Party leader Caroline Lucas. In my borough, and in Oxford, Norwich and Brighton, the Labour Party is in a strategic electoral battle with the Greens. We don't need a dialogue with these single-issue clowns and their anti-working class policies, we need to attack and destroy them."

I'm pretty sure his views aren't shared by the majority of people here - but they do perhaps demonstrate that, for some, even the dialogue we are having today is perceived to be dangerous and potentially undermining.

Yet talking with one another, and discussing how we, as progressives, might work more closely together, is vitally important.

And there couldn't be a better time for us to do so.

The elections last week were historic in a number of ways; some good, others less so.

2. The Green Party

For the first time since 1989, the Green Party won more than a million votes. Our share of the vote rose by more than any other party. And we had some spectacular results in places where we have already proved ourselves on local councils, such as Norwich and Brighton.

That achievement was, I think, all the more impressive for coming in the midst of a recession. A few weeks ago, the media were predicting that we would struggle to keep our existing seats. Their assumption - against all the evidence - was that in a recession, the Greens do badly.

In fact, our concern for fairness, for social justice, and for an economy that puts people first, not big business, is more relevant than ever during hard times. Policies like the Green New Deal, which would create far more real and lasting jobs than the fiscal packages of the current government, make practical sense to people on the doorstep.

So these elections are the best possible base for us in preparing for the next general election, whenever it might come.

But history was being made elsewhere too, with the BNP elected to the European Parliament for the first time.

3. The BNP

It was hugely frustrating that our candidate in the North-West, Peter Cranie, with support from many progressives and anti-fascists from outside the Green Party, was only a few thousand votes short of defeating Nick Griffin.

We now have a huge responsibility to redouble our efforts to defeat the BNP and everything they stand for.

To turn their advance into a resounding defeat. And I am optimistic that we can.

Like Napoleon before Moscow, the BNP's victories leave them exposed. The more publicity they gain, the more their true colours can be revealed.

I believe that if we work together, then the next few months and years will see the BNP taking a long and cold march back to political obscurity.

4. Labour

But perhaps the most historic moment came with the results in the South-East region, the heartlands of New Labour.

Labour came fifth place, behind UKIP as well as the Greens.

Proof that the era of Blair's Big Tent politics is well and truly over.

New Labour was an experiment: to bring together readers of the Mirror and the Daily Mail in a single political movement.

We now see how badly it has failed. Greater inequality. Loss of trust. Timid reforms.

The tent was so large and so fragile, that the potential to reform politics and society has been squandered.

Perhaps the sharpest example of this is the war in Iraq.

Many Labour MPs voted against the decision to go to war. But as party members, they naturally continued to support the government. And so Britain went to war.

Contrast this with Germany. The governing coalition of Social Democrats and Greens faced the same choice. But had Gerhard Schroeder decided to join the US-led alliance, the Greens would not have just voted against it and then carried on. They would have left the coalition, and the Government would have fallen as a result.

I'm not saying that the decision to go into coalitions is always right, or that Greens in coalitions always make the right decisions - the example of Ireland shows what happens when they get it wrong. But they have the potential, at least, to be effective.

Some people say coalitions are undemocratic, and depend on backroom deals and unprincipled trade-offs.

I say that the opposite is true. Coalitions can often be more honest and more transparent, than a party that tries to be all things to all people, and where the backroom deals include the kind of bribery, bullying and smears that characterise the current regime.

5. Co-operation

So what does this mean for us?

As part of the progressive left, we share many of the same values, including social justice, the strength that comes from collective responses to collective problems, and a genuine belief that power lies not with elites or special interests but with the people.

So I believe we ought to work together. Not by merging our distinct identities into a popular front, but by accepting and respecting our differences as well as our common vision. Not so much a Big Tent, as a camp-site of smaller tents.

How can this be done? I want to outline three suggestions:

First, by accepting we all have a right to exist. I take no pleasure in seeing the Labour Party, which has achieved great things in the past, coming to its current position. Equally, I reject entirely the view that Greens should join Labour and try and reform it from within.

The Greens bring distinctive policies, and a distinctive approach, to the table. On the environment, of course, where our work on ambitious climate policies is well-known, and where our analysis leads us to conclude that market fundamentalism doesn't just need taming, it needs to be completely transformed, as we move towards a steady-state economy - an economy characterised not by more and more quantitative growth, but more qualitative development.

But we are finally gaining increasing recognition for our work on the social justice agenda too. In the European Parliament, for example, Greens have been at the forefront of initiatives to challenge the privatisation of public services. It was the Greens who opposed the liberalisation of postal services, we fought to end the UK's opt-out from the EU Working Time Directive, promoted the rights of Agency workers, and spearheaded efforts to revise the Posting of Workers Directive, challenging the recent European Court rulings which have given more power to the market than to workers.

On the London Assembly, it was the Greens who made the establishment of a Living Wage Unit a condition of their support for Ken Livingstone's budget, and it's Greens on councils up and down the country who have been leading campaigns to introduce a Living Wage more widely.

But we go further than this, calling for a basic income scheme, payable to everyone, as of right; a maximum wage as well as a minimum wage; a tax on land values, to dampen house-price speculation and provide funds for social housing; greater representation of women in politics and boardrooms; providing free social care to the elderly, and raising the single person's state pension to £165/week.

Second, we should continue to meet, and talk, and explore, where areas of agreement lie. Today should be only the start. And if we were putting together a list of where we can work together, I would start with democratic reform, curbing the influence of businesses and lobbyists on political decision-making, restoring our lost human rights, cancelling ID cards and the Trident replacement programme, proper controls on the arms trade, a fairer deal for developing countries. Also on the list would be the policies for a Green New Deal - proposals for a massive investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, creating up to a million new jobs in the UK, addressing fuel poverty by cutting fuel bills, as well as dramatically cutting emissions. That should be more than enough to get us started.

Third, we need a political system that encourages this kind of co-operation. Asking for Proportional Representation isn't just special pleading - it's about encouraging political diversity and co-operation.

That's why, as part of a raft of democratic reforms, alongside the next General Election, we should have a referendum on PR, which should be binding on any incoming government. A citizens jury should be entrusted to take evidence, and put forward proposals for a new voting system, along with a key number of other recommendations to make parliament more accountable to its citizens.

Preparation for this needs to be done urgently, now, by this Parliament. The kind of Tory administration we face otherwise will take us back to an unprecedented age of austerity, slashing public services, and making savage cuts in social provision, from which it will take decades to recover.


New Labour has lost its way. One of the most damning indictments of this government that the gap between rich and poor is greater today than its been since the 1960s. Under Brown and Blair, Labour has become the party of war, privatisation and attacks on civil liberties.

And significantly, in all the feverish debates over the past few days at Westminster, over who might replace Gordon Brown, people aren't staking out different ideological ground - they're simply talking about reshuffling the pack, changing faces, not transforming policies.

That's why the work of Compass in setting out a truly broad-based progressive alternative is vital - and I believe that the Green Party has an important role in that process.

We need a politics of bold government, not incremental adjustment

We need a politics that's about setting the agenda, not feebly following the focus groups

We need a politics that connects emotionally with the public

We need a politics with passion

There is plenty to be passionate about - growing inequality and a climate crisis of such immediacy, that if we don't radically reduce emissions in the next 10 years, we could jeopardise the future of life on this planet as we know it.

A new politics could not be more urgently needed - I look forward to exploring how we best create it.

Back to main news page