Caroline Lucas's speech to autumn conference 2011

9 September 2011

 

CONFERENCE SPEECH, SHEFFIELD, 9 SEPTEMBER 2011

Thank you for that introduction and for your warm welcome. It's great to be here in Sheffield.

And what a chance to see first-hand the excellent work of the City's two Green Councillors - Jillian Creasy and Rob Murphy - and the whole of Sheffield Green Party.

Campaigning to cut pollution and save lives with a 20 mile an hour limit on all residential roads.

Providing the only opposition within the Council to deep and avoidable cuts to vital services.

Standing up for local people over the threatened closure of care homes.

So on behalf of Conference, as well as the people of Sheffield, I'd like to thank you for everything that you are doing.

And where better for us to be this autumn, as the Coalition's nasty edge becomes ever clearer, than here in what was once a Liberal Democrat stronghold?

For this is not a true coalition.

This is a Tory government being kept in power by the Lib Dems.

It's no wonder the people of Sheffield gave them a bloody nose in this year's local elections.

In a coalition, the idea is that both sides get some of what they want.

But with this so-called coalition, the Conservatives have everything, and the Lib Dems get a bodged referendum that wasn't even in their manifesto.

And what a sad irony that their own unpopularity in the country helps lose them that referendum.
Of course, the Lib Dems have five seats in Cabinet. What a chance to make a difference.

We have Chris Huhne there responsible for clean energy and fighting climate change.

Yet in the past few months alone, his Government has slashed support to marine renewables, caused chaos in the solar industry, promoted new deep water drilling, and given the green light to shale gas fracking.

Then there's Vince Cable at Industry. Whose sole idea for more employment seems to be boosting the arms trade?

Who missed the chance to see Northern Rock turned back into a mutual, rather than sold off to the highest bidder?

And who has failed to secure the far-reaching banking regulation that he once promised.

We have Danny Alexander at the Treasury. And one of his top ideas for reducing the deficit? Selling off our forests.

And Nick Clegg, of course. The Minister for meeting angry people and being shouted at.

Is it any wonder, then, that people inside and outside the Liberal Democrat party are asking - if we're not getting what we want, why stay in?

But it's worse than that.

The Lib Dems aren't getting what they want.

But they're also helping the Tories give the rest of us things we don't want, and never voted for.

Like privatization of the NHS. Like the cuts in services. Like £9,000 tuition fees.

That's not why most people voted Lib Dem last year. Not in Sheffield. Not in Eastleigh. Not in constituencies across the SW of England. Not on the university campuses.

And is it any wonder that former Lib Dem supporters are increasingly turning to the Green Party?

A Party whose members decide policy, and whose elected representatives stick to their principles, and still get things done.

Now, in this hall today are people from all kinds of different backgrounds. Former Conservatives. Former Labour. Many people who would never have been involved in politics at all if it hadn't been for the Greens.

We welcome you all.

But I have a special message for those Lib Dem supporters who are beginning to despair of the path their leadership has taken them down.

If you became involved in politics to serve your local community, to protect the environment, or to challenge inequality, then join us.

We are working for the same ends. You'll find many former Lib Dems among our ranks. And your contribution to politics in our country is more valuable than ever.

And there is so much to be done.

 

FOI and NHS

Take the growing influence of big business in government.

You'll remember how Francis Maude and other Tories boasted of how they were getting rid of all the over-paid consultants?

Good news, you might think. Except that our investigations show a different picture.

Instead of paid consultants, government departments are using secondees from big business to advise ministers and help manage public services.

There are now so many that the government has to admit that it can't count them all. It can't say even which companies they come from or what they're doing.

Now there are very few businesses that will lend their top employees to government for nothing.

No, they expect something in return. Influence. Access. The inside track on the next fat contract.

How typically Tory. What looks like a reform turns out to be making the situation even worse.

Now if the Lib Dems were in opposition, this is the kind of issue we'd have expected them to take up.

But no. They're too busy saying sorry for the Coalition's mishandling of every crisis going.

And Labour's leadership, who still have a lingering love affair with big business, are silent too.

So it's down to us. We're the ones putting the questions. I have today written to the Cabinet Secretary, Gus O'Donnell, to ask him to investigate the position on secondees.

After all, when Vince Cable's own Department for Business can't even say where 14 of its own staff have been seconded to, you have to wonder.


ENVIRONMENT

And look at the consequences of this pandering to big business.

Take the new draft planning policy framework.

The Government is tearing up protection for precious landscapes so their friends the developers can make more money.

Gone is the policy of building on Brownfield sites before Greenfield sites.

Gone is the duty to ensure that new developments minimise the need to travel and don't jam up the roads.

Instead there is to be a presumption in favour of so-called "sustainable development", a concept which the Government conveniently declines to define, no doubt giving lawyers jobs for life as they debate competing definitions for years to come.

And let's be clear. Of course we as Greens recognize the need to build more homes.

We have a housing crisis in this country. And I see it first hand in my constituency in Brighton, with a housing waiting list of over 12,000.

But it's not the planning system that is preventing the building of more homes. It's the lack money.

And I have to say to Eric Pickles, the Captain Mainwaring of Communities and Local Government, that cutting the affordable housing budget by 60%, as this Government has done, is a very strange way of demonstrating any kind of commitment to more house-building.

It's not just planning.

The Government is also ramming through nuclear power, with hidden subsidies, to please their corporate friends at EDF.

And worse, the shockingly cosy complicity between the Department for Business and the nuclear industry to play down the significance of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

This is a Government that simply cannot be trusted, and that is why we Greens will continue to make the case that nuclear power is unsafe, uneconomic, and unnecessary.

And over Climate Change, we see everything that's wrong about this Coalition.

The warm words. Behind the scenes lobbying. Inaction and delay.

A failure to be honest with the public and explain the scale of the problem.


We had thirteen years of this under Labour.

We simply don't have the time to carry on ducking the issue and hoping future generations will pick up the pieces.

 

LABOUR

A year ago, as soon as the Coalition was formed, we saw the responsibility that would fall to the Greens.

Labour were simply too compromised by their record in office to make their criticisms remotely credible.

On student fees. Who introduced them? Labour.

On PFI? Who introduced it? Labour

Privatisation of the NHS? Who accelerated this? Yep. Labour.

The party of Nye Bevan. It was their 2006 Health Act that first let American health firms in to run NHS services.

And paved the way for the Tory's final assault on our National Health Service.

Now they are out of government, they have seen the scale of public opposition.

And perhaps they are not getting quite so many visits from health industry lobbyists.

But it's not enough simply to oppose the Tory Bill. If we are to save the NHS, we have get rid of Labour's 2006 Act as well.

That's the challenge we face.

Increasingly, the media and the public see that what passes for the "official opposition" in Parliament is not up to the job.

We Greens, inside and outside Parliament, must help provide that vital independent and principled check on the excesses of the political elite.


POSITIVE VISION

We must also provide people with a positive vision. With practical remedies for our country's ills. That's how we can rebuild people's hopes and trust.

Take the public services. They've been under attack for so long, underfunded for so long, that we've forgotten how good they can be.

Imagine the National Health Service freed from the market.

Consultants who perform operations, rather than dream up reorganisations.

Staff who have the time to care for patients.

Cooks and cleaners on decent wages and permanent contracts, who can take real pride in their work.

An NHS run on its founding principles by people who believe in putting something back into society.

More responsive to patients, though. So that vital services like mental health and palliative care would get a fairer share of resources.

More local, too. National standards but much more scope for initiative for each hospital and GP practice.

That way, there'd be less bureaucracy and more scope for the NHS to work with other agencies on social care, drugs treatment and supporting carers.

That's the NHS the people want. It's the NHS the Green Party wants.

Maybe, just maybe, we could help make it happen. Maybe it's not too late.

And if we are to succeed, we must stick to our principles, convince people there is a better alternative, and show we have the policies and the skills to govern wisely and well.

And being a Party that is growing in membership, that is winning the battle of ideas, that is proving that there is an alternative to the self-interest of the other parties - that is a Party that can speak with authority in the media and at every level where we hold office.


ACHIEVEMENTS

And with that authority we have had an impact that we can all be proud of.

We have kept reform of Parliament on the political agenda, despite the opposition of entrenched forces who want the doors of the Westminster club to stay firmly closed.

The Party's proposals for reform - changes that would make the House of Commons more efficient, more effective, and better able to hold the government to account - are now being debated in Parliament.

Better still, there is cross-party support particularly amongst the new intake of MPs for reform.

Outside Parliament, we have used our new credibility to highlight the wrong-headed and hypocritical.

Take David Cameron's initial response to the Arab Spring.

Here is the chance of a generation for the Arab nations to determine their own future, free of despotism and of outside interference.

And what was Cameron's first response? To go ahead with a delegation of arms dealers to the region.

Once, our protests would have been laughed off.

This time, Cameron had to face up to tough questions, and see first-hand that not everyone in this country shares his immoral and irresponsible attitude to the arms trade.

My most important responsibility, of course, is that of representing the people of Brighton Pavilion.

Every week, dozens of people come to us with their problems, their concerns.

Let down by government agencies. At the sharp end of the cuts.

Being their advocate, helping to guide them through the maze of central and local government, putting them in touch with the right agencies or charities - perhaps most importantly, showing them that there are people on their side - is a huge responsibility and a huge privilege.

 

 

BRIGHTON

I never thought there would be a moment quite like the moment when we knew we had won our first Westminster seat.

But now, a year on, we have secured another extraordinary achievement.

A whole community has put the running of their city in our hands.

Again, Brighton leads the way - though again, there are many other places around the country that will soon follow suit.

It shows we offer much more than a protest vote.

We have been trusted with a budget of over £700 million pounds a year.

Working on behalf of 250,000 residents.

Running 35 primary schools.

Providing critical services to thousands of vulnerable people.

And supporting hundreds of businesses and social enterprises.

Our first 100 days have been very busy - but very productive too.

Tackling inequality is a major priority. Greens are promoting a Living Wage for the city.

Already, around 340 of the lowest paid council staff and school workers are set to see their wages rise to £7.19 an hour.

A Living Wage Commission starts work in October, with business leaders, public sector bodies and trade unions all taking part.

We've taken steps to reduce the ratio between the highest and lowest paid council workers.

And we've started with both the Chief Executive and the Leader of the Council taking a voluntary reduction in their salaries.

We're working with partners to increase the number of apprenticeships available in the most deprived areas of the city.

And we're exploring all possible avenues to provide more affordable and sustainable homes, as well as a Tenants Scrutiny Panel to give council tenants the right to scrutinize any issue of concern to them about the way their homes are managed.

We want a Greener city too, of course.

One of the first announcements of the Green administration was the launch of the largest programme of solar panel installation ever seen in the city.

Clean energy and local jobs. The Green New Deal in action.

Our victory in Brighton is another huge responsibility for our whole movement.

But showing what we can achieve will give hope to communities up and down the country.


STATE OF THE NATION

That hope is needed now more than ever.

I spoke earlier about our analysis and our values.

Why those two words in particular? Because they sum up what we have to offer.

We see things differently.

I think we see them more clearly, because we don't have any vested interests to get in the way.

We don't come to an issue like criminal justice and ask - what will the editor of the Daily Mail think about this?

We don't look at nuclear power and say - the most important thing here is what our pals in the nuclear industry want.

We don't look at banking regulation and tax reform and say - how do we keep our friends in the city happy?

And it's because we're free of all those vested interests - all the corporate lobbying, all the kickbacks and secret donations and the rest of it - that we can see things clearly and speak the truth.

 

SOCIETY IN CRISIS

For years, we have spoken of the dangers our country faces from within.

How globalization and unrestrained capitalism have been eating away at the fabric of our society.

How big corporations and cynical marketing have left people feeling manipulated and exploited.

How consumerism excludes those who don't have money and enslaves those who do.

How, in a society where individuals are defined as consumers not as citizens, those who cannot afford to consume effectively become non-citizens .

And we've spelt out how this greed-based economy was built on sand.

On the myth of cheap resources and on exploitation.

Alienation. The undermining of community spirit.

These are the practical effects of decisions by government.

Starving local authorities of the means to provide alternatives for young people.

We pointed out how crime was a symptom of this malaise.

How unless you got to the roots of these issues, then building more prisons or putting more police on the streets would at best buy you some short-term relief - but at the expense of a worse problem in the future.


THE RIOTS

Well, now it is the future.

We've seen scenes on our streets that might have come from a dystopian sci-fi film.

A kind of collective madness in which troublemakers and gang members are mixed up with ordinary people acting out of character.

Such behavior must be condemned.

But while some politicians have spoken at length about a sickness in society, perhaps the riots have shown most clearly a sickness with politics itself.

It fell to David Cameron to deliver this response - but it is one that might have come from Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, or Ed Miliband.

The first instinct of the typical politician is to shed responsibility and try to pin the blame elsewhere.

So we have attacks on the police not only from gangs on the streets, but from the Home Secretary and Prime Minister.

The truth is, the police faced an unprecedented situation and though there are lessons to be learned, recriminations are a distraction.

The second instinct is tough talk.

Talk of calling in the Army. Of water cannon and baton rounds.

Heavy sentencing, cutting benefits, making people homeless.

All panicky and unnecessary responses made against the advice of the experts.

The third is to use rhetoric to cover up inaction. So we have Cameron's inane sound bite about a security fightback being followed by a social fightback.

How wrong can he be? It's not about society fighting back against alien invaders.

The people who took part in the riots are from our society.

They are our neighbours and our work colleagues. We sit next to them on the bus and visit the same shops.

Casting them into outer darkness is exactly what you would expect from a ruling cabal who will not accept that the divisions in society are largely of their making.

And where are they to go, these enemies of our society, when the fight-back has been won?

Prison? Internment camps?

I fear Cameron already has the answer in his mind - though he will not speak it clearly.

 

It's the idea of ghettoes, where the undeserving poor can be kept and contained through heavy policing, CCTV surveillance, and the use of benefits as a stick to intimidate, without the need to use the courts, with their inconvenient interest in evidence and justice.

That is Cameron's vision.


BETRAYAL

I want to be plain about this. That vision is immoral. It is a betrayal of everything that we should be proud of in the traditions of our country.

It is a betrayal by the same elite that has gained so much at the expense of the rest of us.

Where is the leadership that those at the top should provide?

Well, when it came to putting themselves first, the leadership was there.

Those on the streets who grabbed what they could from JJB Sports and T K Maxx were little different from those at the top who took what they could from Barclays or RBS.

It's wrong to take things you haven't earned, whether it's stealing from a shop or looting a bank.

Of course we should condemn the rioters.

Anything else would be a betrayal of the people we represent.

Of the vast majority of people who took no part in the troubles.

Including people in desperate circumstances, remember;

Who could never afford the designer clothes and fancy electronics apparently there for the taking , and yet who knew it was wrong to steal and stayed away.

Yes, we should condemn the rioters. Everyone should do so.

But how can those MPs who spent £8000 of public money on a TV set condemn the looters and expect to be taken seriously?

How can a Cabinet Minister whose experience of life is Eton, Oxford and a series of well-paid City jobs lay down the law on how we could prevent further riots - and expect to be listened to?

How can a Prime Minister, who couldn't put himself closer to the News of the World, with its twisted values and its culture of criminality, now talk about the rule of law?

Those closest to the excluded in society had been warning for years of the dangers.

So why could the ruling elite not see what was coming?

Perhaps because they were too busy fiddling the system, awarding themselves pay rises and bonuses.

Why did they not work to lessen the gap between the richest and poorest in society?

Because they were the richest, and wanted very much to stay that way.


CROSSROADS

I don't believe it's only a coincidence that the further we move away from the European model of social democracy, in which the state works to include people at the margins, not push them further out - the worse our social problems become.

In looking to the United States for inspiration in responding to these disturbances, Cameron is, in effect, giving up on the British tradition of policing by consent.

Do we believe this is right? Or have we so lost faith in our future that we want to abandon one of the things that should make us proud of our country?

Greens don't often talk about patriotism.

But I believe that true patriotism is seeing what is right, what is great about our country and doing all we can to protect those values.

Tolerance. Fairness. Community spirit.

And these values are more at risk than ever. It's up to us to fight for them.

And we're not alone. We have many allies. Campaigners, charities, trade unions, faith and community groups.

The many people in the public services who work incredibly hard for their communities.

Committed business people who want to engage positively with society.

Above all, there are all those many millions of decent people who are frightened by what they've seen but know instinctively that repression - Cameron's crackdown - will solve nothing.

There's no shortage of people who want what's right. The only problem is, there are so few of them in traditional politics.

That's why our Party is so important. Why it is growing. Why its influence is increasing. And why we have, in the space of a year, won our first seat in Parliament and won control of our first Council.


CONCLUSION

When I first became leader, I set out my belief in the direction that our party should take.

It was a single phrase - to show that you can stick to your principles and still get things done.

Well, we've stuck to our principles.

We've continued to say things the others won't, to tell the truths they'd prefer to hide.

No New Greens. No Greens Lite.

No picture of a tree instead of a torch to try and make out you care about our planet.

We've stuck to our principles - and people are increasingly able to see that we can get things done.

As councillors, as Assembly Members and MEPs.

In Parliament. And now in Brighton.

We're being tested to deliver the kind of leadership that people want.

Not the kind that makes big promises and then runs up unimaginable debts to pay for them.

Not the kind that keeps the majority comfortable by exploiting or marginalizing the minority.

Instead, the kind that tries to find a place for everyone.

That doesn't leave people behind.

That looks to support communities, not cowering behind iron gates but coming together in streets and parks.

That supports jobs that mean something to people; that you can be proud to have; that won't be scrapped at the whim of bankers in New York or Shanghai.

That provides service not as another way to increase shareholder value or meet daft Whitehall targets, but because we know how much people depend on those services.

On their side - not working for BP or E-ON or ATOS.

We know this is the way politics should be.

The Green Party is making it happen.






Back to main news page