13 September 2013
I’m really delighted to have my own chance to welcome you all to Brighton and Hove.
I think I’m pretty safe in saying that it’s the first time where we have the chance to be hosted by the local Member of Parliament and by theLeader of the City Council.
I can’t tell you what pride and pleasure that gives me.
And I’m sure some of you are already looking forward to doing the same in your own towns and cities.
And that it won’t be too many more years before we meet in London or Norwich, Lancaster or Bristol, and as well as hearing from Councillors about what they have achieved, we also have the local MP to talk about how they are fighting for the Green cause in Parliament.
And perhaps today is also the first time that Conference has been addressed by a suspected criminal.
For I am here, of course, on police bail.
There may even be a delegation from the police here in the hall today, to make sure we all behave.
But if they are, I think we should be pleased.
If the police believe that Greens pose a threat to the established order of things – where big business can ignore local democracy and trash our natural environment at will – then we must be doing something right.
And they are welcome to take down this message in their notebooks.
We will continue to use every peaceful avenue we have to ensure that fracking is no longer able to pose a profound threat to our climate.
And we will continue to work alongside the hundreds of communities across the country, in their struggle against it too.
It is always such a pleasure to have the chance to address Conference.
There is no more thoughtful, or challenging, or supportive audience anywhere in politics.
We are democratic. Our members are in charge. You make the policies. You set the priorities. And you are the guardians of our values.
It is this, above all else, that sets us apart from the other political parties.
When I am asked about the Green Party by other politicians – and as our membership and our influence increases, there is more and more interest in who were are and what we do – then this is often the point they can’t get.
Surely, they say, you can over-ride what the members want. Surely you can prevent discussion on topics you don’t like. Surely you can put the frighteners on people, or use a block vote to push them out of the way.
No. We aren’t like that.
We alone trust our members. Ourselves.
And that is the principle we take out to the people.
We don’t spin you a line.
We don’t pretend you can party on forever, and the earth will keep providing.
We don’t claim that the poor are better off, if you take their benefits away.
We tell the truth.
Perhaps that is why, when political engagement is on the wane, we are growing.
There are now more girl guides than there are members of all the political parties put together.
Greenpeace is larger than the Conservative Party. The Women’s Institute has more members than the Labour Party. Yet the Greens are continuing to grow in membership each and every year.
And in talking about our success, I can’t help but mention our leader, Natalie Bennett.
I’ve seen her grow into the role, and make it her own. A style that is winning praise. And substance, too, in her campaigning work and her energy in driving forward the party locally and nationally.
Now, as leader, it fell to Natalie earlier today to salute the achievements of party members up and down the country.
Community campaigning, election victories, breakthroughs where we’ve never won before, and putting our policies into action on behalf of the people we are here to serve.
That’s one duty as leader that I miss.
But there is one achievement that I cannot stop myself from mentioning.
A bigger challenge than being elected as MP. Or even of becoming a Peer of the Realm.
A bigger responsibility. And it’s right here in Brighton and Hove.
There can be few more difficult jobs in this country, at this time, than running a Council.
And it’s been a tough year for the Council and the local party here in Brighton and Hove. They’ve taken some hard knocks. Learned some painful lessons.
But think what they’d had to deal with.
We’ve had some pretty choice ministers in charge of local government down the years.
Nicholas Ridley. John Prescott. Michael Howard.
But nothing, nothing, compares to Eric Pickles.
What’s his plan? Dump everything on local authorities.
Give them none of the tools or the resources they need to care for local people. And then call it localism.
He’ll tell your Council they should ban speed bumps. He’ll override local democracy and impose new developments, roads, even nuclear waste dumps. You name it.
All in the name of localism.
Imagine his fury that there is one local authority that won’t toe the line.
They know that their job is to serve the people of Brighton and Hove.
No-one in this city voted for Eric Pickles. They didn’t vote for swingeing cuts or for a cap on local taxes.
Eric Pickles, remember, is the man who said it was reasonable for MPs to claim for 2 houses because they sometimes had to work late.
You tell that to the fire fighters, the social workers, the teachers and all the other council staff, in Brighton and Hove and up and down the country, who work late, serving their local communities.
Two homes? They are lucky if they can meet the rent or the mortgage payments on one home, because Pickles and his friends are imposing real-term wage cuts, and slashing benefits.
Eric Pickles tells Councils that they need to balance their books. He lectures them about good housekeeping.
Yet his own department, Communities and Local Government, ended last year overdrawn to the sum of £217 million pounds. On an unauthorised overdraft. And was fined as a result.
The truth is, no-one shows more hostility to local government and local democracy than Eric Pickles.
And when you think his colleagues in power include George Osborne, that’s frankly some achievement.
But that isn’t the only cause of the crisis in local government.
We have a political elite who have decided that the axe must fall hardest on those in the greatest need.
On those with the least political clout.
And that means local councils and the people they serve.
The money can be found to replace Trident, but not to keep our libraries open.
It can be found to speed the wealthy between London and Birmingham, but not for the rural buses that people who don’t drive depend upon.
It can be found to build new prisons, but not treat the underlying causes of crime, such as addiction and unemployment.
Local government is responsible for the basic services that every civilised community needs. Meals on wheels. Public toilets. Care homes.
Not the fashionable ones, perhaps.
Not the ones that make good photo opportunities. Not the ones that their friends in big business see as the profit centres of the future.
If you spend your time in the company of people from News Corporation, British Aerospace and Vodafone, then mending potholes, maintaining street lights or caring for the elderly must seem a bit beneath your notice.
But that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?
Because people are getting a raw deal from politics, and we want to do something about it.
For people now, the vulnerable, hit by government cuts from one side, and ripped off by unscrupulous businesses on the other.
For those who have no-one to speak for them – the prisoners held without trial in Guantanamo – we think again of Shaker Aamer, held without charge or trial for over 11 years.
For the communities in Africa blighted by hazardous waste, the communities in Asia and Latin America pushed aside to make way for mines and ranches to feed the West’s extravagant lifestyle.
For everyone who cares about the natural world, for everyone alarmed that 60% of species have been declining over the last 50 years, and wants it to be protected for them and their families.
For those to come, whose future is being wasted by government and businesses, who, like 18th century rakes, seem intent on squandering our human inheritance, encouraging the rest of us to consume with no thought for the morrow.
And for those in other countries too - those who are already feeling the impacts of our rapidly warming world through flooding, drought and sea level rise.
Securing a safe climate means leaving at least two thirds of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Unburnable carbon.
A rapid shift to renewables and a redoubling of energy efficiency is also about tackling fuel poverty, creating good jobs for our young people, and the prosperity and security of 7 million UK citizens.
If you are Labour, saying that we’re on your side is nothing more than another slick marketing slogan.
For us, it’s the reason we’re in politics.
Much of the time we’re putting the alternative that Labour no longer wants to provide.
The alternative to austerity.
The alternative to zero hours contracts.
The alternative to Trident.
The alternative to a rail system that allows private shareholders to profit while passengers pay some of the highest fares in Europe.
We won’t always get it right. But we’ll always try and do the right thing. Not swayed by big business or block votes or the Daily Mail.
That’s what sets us apart.
And why we are needed more than ever.
All of us have the chance to contribute to this cause
For me, it’s been through the privilege of being able to represent in Parliament the people of Brighton Pavilion, and all those who support our values or who need our voice and our support.
Sometimes it’s working behind the scenes.
Publishing a Tax and Financial Transparency Bill to crack down on the half a million companies that evade taxes each year.
Protecting small businesses from unfair energy contract roll overs and from high business rates.
Being an advocate for the mother fleeing domestic violence, not seen as the main parent because she is too afraid to insist she get child benefit and therefore now being hit by a crippling reduction in housing benefit thanks to the cruel bedroom tax. A woman who is desperately seeking work but cannot afford the price of a pair of tights to wear to interviews.
Sometimes, my role is more visible.
Speaking out about against the media’s sexism, and being challenged in parliament for the “inappropriate” act of wearing a No More Page 3 t-shirt.
Calling out the Government for its mean and miserable act of removing the link between benefit levels and inflation
Getting companies who promote illegal weapons of torture ejected from the DSEi arms fair – and, of course, campaigning for the whole thing to be shut down.
Sometimes my work is cross-party. Like backing community pubs or opposing the badger cull.
And often, it’s about raising issues that few other MPs want to support and where Labour and the Coalition have similarly dirty track records.
Like speaking the truth to power on the scandal of undercover police targeting legitimate protest groups. On secret Courts and the erosion of our personal liberties.
And telling the truth about the scale of the challenge of climate change. Not saying what we think is politically palatable.
But saying it, as it is
I couldn’t do any of it without the support of my amazing staff, to whom I pay tribute again here and now
And I know that when I am joined in the House of Parliament by Jenny Jones, the collective Green voice that is every one of you, every member of our Party, will be heard even louder.
And increasingly, we’re filling the gap left by the Liberal Democrats too.
Who would have thought, just a few years ago, that the Liberals would be part of a government that was introducing secret courts, where you are tried using evidence you can’t even see, let alone challenge.
Liberals supporting a government that pays for lorries to drive around with ‘foreigners go home’ painted on the side.
Liberals backing the bombing of Syria, without waiting for the United Nations to try and co-ordinate an international response.
This is the vampire kiss of this coalition.
You offer yourself to Count David, and before long you are one of them and you’ve sold your soul, and grown fangs of your own.
The way the 3 main parties have become so similar in their policies and their values over the years means that the outcome of the next election is hard to predict.
But whatever else happens, it is a key moment for the Green Party.
2010 was a historic achievement.
The culmination of the work of thousands of people over decades.
And we have to repeat that achievement again in just two years time.
It won’t be any easier.
We have Labour desperately targeting Brighton Pavilion.
They don’t like the idea of the Greens joining them on the national stage.
It gives people too much of a choice. It shows that you can stick to your principles and still get elected. They don’t like that.
So we have to be honest.
Those years of steady progress that we have made are at risk. Single seats on councils. Then Council groups. Then The European Parliament. The London Assembly. And now the House of Commons.
If we don’t redouble our efforts, we may find ourselves going backwards.
We aren’t after power for ourselves, but it matters for those we represent.
And it matters now more than ever.
We have a government that is intent on demonising the poor and vulnerable. That is tearing up the idea of society and of our inter-dependence. That is taking us towards environmental catastrophe.
This is worse than the Victorian era. It is not just about substituting personal charity for the welfare state.
The Government is saying that the poor do not deserve help from the state or from individuals.
Instead, people are encouraged to despise those who have less.
And so you have the grotesque spectacle of boys from Eton lecturing others about how to get on in life.
But where is the alternative
Labour are still dancing to Thatcher’s tune. Private sector good, public sector bad. Enterprise is better than solidarity.
But in many ways, when in power they went further than Thatcher ever dreamed.
She did not kill our National Health Service – but it is Labour’s market reforms have paved the way for the Tories’ break-up of the NHS.
The state now spies on its citizens in ways undreamed of under Thatcher. But where are Labour to protest about the trampling of our basic liberties?
And most shaming of all, we see Labour MPs – heirs to the party of Nye Bevan and Clement Atlee – failing to properly challenge the Tories all-out attack on the welfare system.
So it is time that we as Greens restated some basic principles about our country.
First, we are all in it together. We can’t have a society based on the haves casting off the have-nots, who are then marginalised, demonised, even criminalised.
Successive governments have gone after the enemy within. Miners. The unemployed. Trade unionists. Asylum seekers. Scroungers.
But to exclude others is to lessen, to tarnish ourselves. No-one is outside the pale. They are us. Our friends. Our work colleagues. Our neighbours.
Second, we are one nation.
We cannot have a metropolitan and home counties elite writing a set of rules for themselves and their neighbours, and another set of rules for the rest of the country.
We see communities being asked to do the dirty work for the rich. To take the nuclear waste. To put up with the fracking.
This is wrong. It is unfair. It is, dare I say it, unpatriotic.
For this is fracking at the national scale. Breaking up the land, taking the profits, and leaving local communities to pick up the pieces.
This is the politics of selfishness.
It seeks to free those with wealth from the responsibilities that go with the privileges. And in the end it is the millionaires and the billionaires who gain the most.
This is why we stick to our belief – that fair is worth fighting for.
It’s not just a slogan.
For us, fairness is not a buzzword from a focus group. We know what it means. We believe in it.
And it’s a fight we can win.
Electorally. In Brighton and Hove and across our country.
Morally. Our values are shared by so many people, who may not be members or supporters.
Now we must do more to show all those who see that our country is heading in the wrong direction, that they are not alone.
It is like a march, or a demonstration. We hold our banner high, but we are proud to march alongside others, under other banners, who share the same cause.
We each have our role.
Ours is to give our cause a voice in politics.
No-one else can do this but the Greens.
We have two years until the next election.
Two years to show this to all those who share our values, in communities up and down the land.
And above all, to show them that we can be re-elected here in Brighton and Hove.
That their voice, our voice, cannot be stifled and silenced by the old politics.
We have two years to produce another piece of history.
That work starts today.