22 February 2013
"Thank you…. It’s great to be in Nottingham, just up the road from Leicester, where the remains of the last English king killed in battle, Richard III, were recently found underneath a council carpark. Not one of our favourite kings, and man who today sounds particularly unwise in crying “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” About as unwise as George Osborne crying “Plan A, Plan A, Always Plan A for Austerity.”
Last time I was addressing conference, I had been leader of the Green Party for four days, and those four days had been such a media whirl that I tended to end conversations by saying "right, where's the next journalist?"
The five or so months since have been a similar, if more varied, whirl.
I have been to Bristol to support our excellent mayoral campaign there.
In Lancaster I spoke at the University of Lancaster at lunchtime and the University of Cumbria in the evening.
I was delighted to be in Margate helping the Isle of Thanet Green Party get off the ground at a rousing 70-strong meeting in the memorable Walpole Bay Hotel.
In Manchester I was interviewed on community radio just before they switched to their weekly slot out of Jamaica, and in Oxford to open their spectacularly good festive Green Fair.
Last week I was in Cambridge at a 50-strong public meeting on a winter's Friday night, and another evening enjoying a lovely Indian buffet with the Surrey Greens.
There's been a wide range of media too. The Any Questions Buckinghamshire audience, which cheered roundly at everything from the living wage and decent benefits to my simply saying "I am a feminist", was a delightful surprise.
On The Andrew Marr show, I got four minutes to explain how we'd deal with Britain's economic and environmental crises, before Jeremy Hunt got 30 on the NHS. I would have loved to swap that around!
All of that travelling has left me with one certainty – that whenever and wherever I give a speech calling for renationalisation of the railways, I’ll get a great response from the audience – and I’ll have no problem filling in the bit of my speech that reads “insert today’s travel disaster story here”.
Some have suggested that the travelling and speaking sounds glamorous - I have to reply that it often isn't. This week I was having a quick chat with BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire drivetime, in between my train getting into Coventry and a talk at the University of Warwick.
I needed somewhere quiet - which is how I came to be crouched between two buildings in the Transport Police Car park, using them to block out the sounds of the trains on one side and the buses on the other. Glamorous it wasn't. It probably looked quite suspicious!
We are, however, going to have some glamour at this conference, at a grand party tomorrow night. You might have noticed, in the Guardian on Monday, or from your conference pack, that this conference marks the Green Party's 40th birthday.
In fact, Elisabeth Whitebread and her team of volunteers are organising a whole year of celebrations - do talk to them if you've got some colourful memories to record for posterity. And don't miss tomorrow night's party - our own Darren Johnson has been selecting the soundtrack, although I do suspect he might also be taking to the dance floor himself - and this time without a certain Boris to spoil the pictures.
That anniversary left me with an obvious temptation today -to speculate about where the Green Party might be in 40 years' time, when I hope to come along as a proud retired spectator, leaning on my walking stick, watching our latest Green prime minister outline how Britain, having long cut carbon emissions to less than 10 per cent of 2009 levels, is exceeding its targets for cutting other resource use, is vastly improving its soil, air and water quality, how inequality has reached new record lows, with top salaries for every organisation in the country at no more than five times the lowest paid staffer. And they are staffers now, the failed neoliberal experiment of outsourcing having ended, with enforcement of the decent minimum wage and contract standards ending the obscenity of zero-hours contracts and long-term casual employment...
I could go on, for it is important that we present a positive image of how we want to reshape Britain in a jobs-rich, low-carbon future.
But it’s also pressing to highlight just how wrong the current direction of the Coalition government is, and how the Labour party is failing to be the effective opposition that the country desperately needs.
Before I do that, however, there’s another, tragic, anniversary I have to highlight – a 10-year anniversary. For it is a little more than 10 years since the great, 2-million strong anti-war protest took to the streets of London, and a little less than 10 years since the Labour Government utterly ignored the views of those people, and millions of others, and started the Iraq war.
A Guardian survey last week showed that 55 per cent of Britons agree that "the London marchers were right", because "a war sold on a false prospectus delivered little but bloodshed". And the Iraqi people are still struggling, and dying, as a result of the consequences of that war.
Yet Ed Milliband, who HAS apologised for the Blair government’s immigration policy, has failed to apologise for the decision to take Britain into an unjustifiable war.
We’re still waiting for Sir John Chilcot’s report into the war. That’s one landmark that we can expect future historians to look back on this year.
Another may well be even bigger – a turning point. What I’ll hazard a guess the historians might say “the year the British people said ‘no more’”.
Up and down the country, as I’ve travelled around, I’ve founds groups and individuals saying “no more”.
“No more” to poverty wages – people working fulltime, yet unable to meet the cost of even the basic necessities. Or stuck in a part-time job they can’t survive on, unable to get any more hours.
“No more” to child poverty – children who go to school hungry, children who don’t have a proper winter coat, children who can’t go on the school trip their peers will be talking about for weeks.
“No more” to shivering pensioners shivering under layers of quilts in drafty, cold homes they can’t afford to heat.
People increasingly are saying “no more” to zero-hours contracts, which trap workers in continuous uncertainty – will they get four hours’ work this week or 40? Will they be able to pay the rent? Will they be able to buy food?
“No more” to workfare - the unemployed being forced into such alleged "educational" roles as stacking for Poundland for not just low wages, but no wages at all.
And people are increasingly saying “No more” to the demonisation of benefit recipients. They recognize that nearly all of us are only one medical incident, one traffic crash, away from disability, from depending on the support of the state.
None of us can be sure that employment is certain, that we won’t find ourselves applying increasingly desperately for jobs where employers, faced with hundreds or thousands of applications, don't even reply to all applicants.
One group of people who are very firmly saying “no more” are the Occupiers at the University of Sussex in Brighton, who I visited this week. People in the front rows can see that I’m wearing a yellow ribbon – that’s the symbol of support for the Occupation – and it was great to see larger yellow squares in windows of offices and accommodation all around the university.
We’ve seen thecomprehensive failure of the outsourcing model – the dreadful litany of A4E, G4S, and the awful Atos – yet somehow the university administration thought they could sneak through a privatisation. Well done to the student occupiers for saying “no more”.
Another group saying “no more” to great effect is UK Uncut. I’m sure many people in this room took part in their action against Starbucks, the fast growing but mysteriously totally unprofitable coffee chain that infests our high streets like a particularly pernicious weed.
And another group saying “no more” are the bee campaigners. Just yesterday I was at Defra, helping to hand in a 41,000-strong petition against pesticides from Causes.com. They are saying no more to putting the profits of the chemical companies before the health of an essential link in our ecosystem - and our food growing.
So many people and groups are saying “no more”.
But sadly, mysteriously, one group that isn’t saying “no more” is the Labour Party.
Well, maybe it isn’t so mysterious…. They’re only offering more of the same that we had for 13 years under Blair and Brown.
We know that it was Labour who championed the “light touch” regulation of the financial industries that the Tories have only continued, Labour who abandoned all interest in supporting manufacturing and farming and was content to allow the jobs, the cash, the people of Britain to concentrate more and more in the south east corner of the country.
We know that it was Labour who started the marketisation of the NHS, that's become the privatisation of the NHS, it was Labour who championed the undemocratic Academy schools that have morphed into Michael Gove’s Free Schools, it was Labour who dotted the country with immensely expensive, but immensely profitable, PFI schemes that today's babies will still be paying for when they are parents.
And we know that Labour is failing to challenge the government’s deeply divisive, deeply corrosive, deeply dishonest “strivers versus shirkers” rhetoric.
We are living too in a Britain in which the mistakes, the great errors, of the past, have not been properly acknowledged, let alone dealt with, even though they are glaringly obvious.
We know the neoliberal model of a globalized economy in which we specialize in casino banking, arms sales to human-rights-abusing regimes and pharmaceuticals, while leaving it to the rest of the world to make our goods and grow our food, has hit the buffers: hit the buffers economically, and hit the buffers environmentally.
We know that we can’t keep living as though we’ve got three planet Earths to exploit.
Yet the Labour Party is content to mutter empty platitudes about being “one nation”, keep its head down, not apologise for the mistakes of the past, and not offer any change in direction, just hope that the incompetence and economic failings of George Osborne’sPlan A of austerity will deliver government back to them in 2015.
And the Labour Party is failing to speak up on the environmental issues that so desperately need attention.
Indeed, when Ed Miliband gave his Autumn Conference speech, he entirely “forgot” to mention the environment. It’s so important to him, that after he’s spent weeks carefully memorizing it all, that that was the part – the entire topic of the environment – that slipped his attention.
Yet we only have to look around us here in Britain, look at the statistics, look at the fields, look at the woods, to see that this “green and pleasant land” is groaning under the strain of human exploitation.
Scientists tell us that hedgehog numbers declined by over a third in just the past decade. Moths are fast disappearing – three species extinct in Britain this century after 62 last century. And sparrows – remember city sparrows? Those of you who are too young to remember them might want to ask your elders about them.
And of course the immediate environmental degradation that we see all around us in Britain is only a tiny part of a much bigger story – the despoliation of the earth, the threatening of our very future by human-caused climate change.
It is no longer any question to any sensible, unbiased person that climate change is here – traditional conservatives on the issues, from the International Energy Agency to the World Bank – are thoroughly convinced it is real.
It is just about one thousand days until COP 21 – the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. That’s when we’re supposed to have an agreement to replace Kyoto, to come into effect by 2020.
Yet we know that we must act today, tomorrow and the day after – take immediate, direct, swift action.
In practical terms in Britain we know that we must now pass a fit-for-purpose Energy Bill, one that gets serious about energy conservation, and provides policy certainty for the big investment in renewables that we urgently need - decarbonisation by 2030 is the important aim - one for campaigners to really push for.
And we must abandon the mad idea of fracking – smashing the very ground under our feet, using vast quantities of water and chemicals to pollute our water tables, creating 1,000s of lorry movements across our countryside.
The independent Committee on Climate Change tells us we can’t frack and meet our legally binding emissions targets – but we also can’t afford to ruin our countryside, damage tourism and farming, and our quality of life – for this anyway uncertain prospect.
In British politics it’s only the Green Party that gets climate change – has the ideas, the plans, the vision, to create a low-carbon, jobs-rich economy. And in the coming three years we have the chance to convince voters that we can fix our economic and environmental crises together – that this isn't an either-or choice, but an essential pairing.
First in May, on the 2nd of May, just 10 weeks away from today, we have the council elections. This is a real chance to grow the number of Green councillors up and down the country.
And that's a good in its own right - I will get later to a short account of the many achievements of Green councillors around the country.
But it is also a chance for many more people to have local elected Green representatives.
Then in 2014, about 15 months away we've got the European elections - Britain's one and only nationwide fair - that is proportional representation - election. That's a big opportunity. It would take only a net swing of 1.6 per cent for us to treble our number of MEPs, to six - and the Scottish Greens are also feeling pretty confident so it could be seven overall.
That will mean many more people across Britain will have elected Green representatives all around them - will come to think of Green as one of the choices just normally available on the political smorgasbord.
We can combine with that the growing Green track record across the country and at levels of government….
I can start with Caroline Lucas, our immensely effective Green MP. When David Cameron says, as he did just recently at Davos, that he wants to make multinational companies pay their taxes, we can tell him: 'Caroline's already shown you how'.
In the Tax and Financial Transparency Bill of 2011, she set out how companies could be made to declare their earnings, profits and staff in every country in which they operate - exposing to scrutiny those curious Cayman Islands and Delaware subsidiaries that somehow on 1.5 staff members and an office dog scoop up 20per cent profits for multimillion pound trades.
Caroline, in her Land Value Tax Bill, now before parliament, has shown how Britain's profoundly regressive, profoundly damaging system of council tax could be replaced by a far more equitable land value tax, which would also help rationalise land use and deal with our housing shortage.
And she’s a leader on drugs policy - generating a debate about how we can replace the failed war on drugs with a different approach. She just launched an e-petition calling for a full review and cost benefit analysis of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.
In Brussels, we have two hardworking and highly effective MEPs. Jean Lambert and Keith Taylor. There the Greens have done great work with the recent adoption by Parliament of the “youth guarantee”, which would ensure a job or genuine training opportunity for every young person who’s been unemployed for four months. And there’s the widely publicised changes in fisheries policies, in which the Greens played a big part.
Then we can move on to our first Green council, in Brighton and Hove. Despite the pressures of running a minority administration, and with particularly savage funding cuts from the national government, Brighton has, to pick just three achievements
- Introduced the Living Wage for all council staff and have reduced high/low pay ratio to 10:1
- approved and are rolling out a city-wide twenty miles per hour speed limit
- protected eligibility criteria for social care, kept all branch libraries and children's centres open and protected funding for the third sector.
Then up and down the country, we can point to smaller groups of Green councillors and even individual councillors making big differences to their communities.
In St Albans where we have just one Green Councillor, Simon Grover got 11 asks included in the Council's budget this month, the second year in a row that he's had significant impact on the budget. His measures from last year have already seen an expanded market in the city and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of solar panels fitted to Council buildings. In the next 12 months, St Albans hopes to see a new youth centre, a cycling action plan and a procurement policy for the Council, which supports local businesses first. That's what just ONE Green Councillor is achieving.
In Kirklees, when the principal of a newly formed High School Academy threatened a much loved middle school system by extending their intake to cover years 7 and 8, they had the misfortune of being in an area covered by Green Party-led Kirkburton Parish Council. Green councillors threatened a Parish Poll. The very next day, realising they would lose, the Academy dropped their plans and the middle school system, which was so important to local people, was saved."
After the County Council cut local bus services in Suffolk, Green Parish Councillor Robert Lindsay, fought hard to ensure a bus service was reinstated on market days serving local villages to en route to Sudbury. With 15,000 households without access to a car in rural Suffolk, Robert was ensuring they weren’t left stranded.
By 2015, when we expect a general election, we'll be able to put that record - and by then much more - before voters. And whereas in 2010 we had to work very, very hard indeed to convince the voters of Brighton Pavilion that we could beat the first past the post system (that they could elect a Green to Westminster) this time, up and down the country, from Bristol to Lancaster, Norwich to Huddersfield, we'll be able to say to voters "Brighton Pavilion did it; you can too!"
Of course that's a big ask, and doing more than returning Caroline in 2015 is a huge challenge.
But it is important to remember the message that appears on billboards advertising financial products - "past performance is no guarantee of future returns" - also applies to politics. It's important to remember that, not just if you want to keep your cash out of the hands of the casino bankers, but important too if you think about politics.
We are heading into new times. Past political performance is no guarantee about the future.
Green Party campaigners up and down the country are working with anti-cuts campaigners - defending local libraries, defending local youth clubs, defending local Sure Start centres. And that’s a critically important part of our work.
But it’s important that we stress that simply being anti-cuts isn’t enough – it isn’t radical enough – it isn’t going to deliver the radical change in our society that we must make NOW. We don’t just want to go back to 2006 – back to when under a Labour government more than a quarter of children and a quarter of pensioners were living in poverty, when the minimum wage was, as it still is, greatly below a living wage.
It doesn’t have to be like this: the increasing number of people saying “no more” have it right.
The Green Party has a positive alternative vision, of a country where the minimum wage is a living wage, where benefits are set at a level allowing a decent life and granted ungrudgingly to all who need them, where there are warm, comfortable low-carbon homes for all, including the 1 million empty homes now found in parts of the country blighted by the unbalanced overdevelopment of the South East. A country living within the limits of our one planet.
A country with a jobs-rich, low-carbon economy, with orchards and richly growing fields, vibrant manufacturing industries, and strong local economies built around small businesses and cooperatives. A country fit for the 21st century - and a country that can look forward to a stable, comfortable 22nd.
That was the kind of vision the founders of the Green Party began with forty years ago. I congratulate all of you for carrying on that vision … and I look forward to working with you over the next four days as we hone and polish that vision, and the ways in which we can deliver it.