23 October 2021
It’s an honour to stand before you here in Birmingham, a city with such a rich tradition of political action, solidarity and dissent - and to be reminded of the struggles that gave us the rights we have today, and the prizes that lie ahead if we continue that fight.
On the 25th January 1830, the Birmingham Political Union held its first meeting, attended by over ten thousand people who came together to demand the right to vote.
The Birmingham political union became a blueprint for political unions in other manufacturing towns - and in the wake of its establishment, over a hundred others were formed across the country.
Just two years after the union’s first meeting, following a spring of protest and unrest during which over 200,000 people gathered here in Birmingham alone, the Reform act of 1832 was passed - the first major step towards achieving votes for all.
A hundred and forty years later, in 1972, another display of solidarity here in Birmingham won a huge victory for workers’ rights. On the 9th of January, a national miner’s strike began against austerity pay - but no-one thought the miners could possibly win the dispute.
But in February, workers from across Birmingham joined a picket line at a fuel storage depot to prevent fuel being transported to the power stations and industries that depended on it. Over 15,000 workers joined the action, and the depot was forced to close its gates.
This was the turning point of the strike, and within weeks the government had been defeated.
These stories remind me that changing the course of history is down to us. Even when we are disenfranchised, ignored, and oppressed by those in power - if we act together, the power to make change is in our hands and we can win.
And conference, I think that reminder has never been more needed. These last eighteen months have been gruelling, and tough, and tragic.
We’ve seen a total failure of leadership from those in charge, and a failure of moral fibre from those meant to be providing an opposition.
But we have also learnt many important truths about our society, which we can’t go back from - and we have seen that it is possible to do things differently.
The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the horrific inequalities scarring our nation - those experienced by people of colour; disabled people; those living in poor-quality housing; those in insecure work. COVID held a mirror up to society, and what we saw was unacceptable.
But the crisis also showed what is possible if the collective will is there. Flexible working arrangements, which many disabled people and carers have been demanding for years, suddenly became the norm in so many industries.
The ‘Everyone In’ scheme went a long way to housing rough sleepers in emergency accommodation, showing that when the political will is there, it is possible to get people off the streets.
And at the peak of the furlough scheme, the government was paying 80 per cent of the wages of nearly nine million workers.
Just imagine what would be possible if this sense of urgency and necessity were applied to fighting climate chaos, fixing the housing crisis, or ending the epidemic of poverty that blights the UK.
At times, many of us felt hopeful that the pandemic might pave the way for a different kind of society.
But that isn’t what we’ve seen - in fact, quite the opposite. The number of billionaires in the UK reached a new record during the pandemic while almost 700,000 people were driven into poverty.
Meanwhile, the government is doubling down on its age-old divide and rule tactic.
They blame the most marginalised in society.
They support fans booing footballers who take the knee.
They whip up moral panic over LGBTIQA+ rights.
And they show endless, unrelenting, hostility towards refugees - whether in the media or on the floor of parliament.
It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of such reckless and cruel attacks from those in power. I often do. But the pandemic showed us something else, too: the power of our communities, the strength of the bonds that connect us.
Within days of the first lockdown my Facebook page was flooded with updates from mutual aid groups and community initiatives set up to make sure nobody went without food or medicine.
Across the country more and more groups appeared, and my heart sang to know that many of those were run by Greens - many of whom are in this room - as always springing into action to provide the support needed.
Lockdown made people feel more connected to their communities, and more trusting of their neighbours. When it felt like the world around us was collapsing, we remembered that all we have is one another.
Whether it’s the mass political unions of the 19th century or the striking workers of the 20th, ordinary people have always found a way to come together and fight for one another. Now more than ever, we must remember that.
Because right now, some of our most marginalised communities are under attack - and it’s time for us to stand with them.
The policing bill currently going through parliament is one of the most serious threats to human rights and civil liberties in recent history. The sweeping new powers in this bill would lead to the harassment of young people, especially black and working class people, and would put vulnerable young women at risk of violence.
If passed, the bill would also entrench discrimination against gypspy, roma and traveller communities even further. This group have had their rights systematically stripped away for decades - and this new bill would effectively criminalise their way of life.
Making trespass a criminal offence and giving police even more powers to seize property is essentially a rubber stamp for discrimination against this group. Making an element of their culture into a crime.
Decades of prejudice against GRT people have allowed this creeping criminalisation to take place - and let’s be clear: this bill represents nothing less than state sanctioned persecution of a protected minority group.
It’s down to all of us to stand with a community that has been pushed to the margins, and whose very existence is under threat. We must continue to fight the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill all the way - in the House of Lords and in the Commons - and on the streets.
Because this government knows that protest works - and that’s why this bill would clamp down so hard on our right to do it. It’s a scary reminder that our democratic rights are never guaranteed - they have been hard won and we must fight hard to keep them.
It is particularly sickening to see more powers being handed to the police in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer. Since her death, we have learnt a great deal about institutionalised misogyny and the way that police officers have been able to abuse their powers.
And yet in response to the outpouring of grief and fear from women across the country, the calls for us to just be able to walk home safely at night, we have simply been offered more police. More bobbies on the beat. Undercover cops in bars and clubs. Officers only detaining women when in pairs and advice to flag down buses if you feel unsafe.
But women - and in particular, working class women, women of colour, trans women and sex workers - women know that more police aren’t the way to keep us safe.
What will keep us safe is investment in our communities.
Years of austerity have stripped our towns, villages and cities’ social infrastructure to the bone. Youth centres closed. Domestic violence services cut. People trapped in abusive and dangerous situations because they can’t afford to leave. And the only answer the establishment has for us is more police and more powers for the police. But we know that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail - and violence at the hands of the police has been destroying lives for decades.
It’s time to go back to the start - and rebuild our communities, with the knowledge that we - our friends and neighbours, our teachers and our nurses - are what keep each other safe. We need more funding for youth services, more places for people to come together, and a welfare state that gives people the power to make their own choices.
But we also need to have a conversation about violence against women. From the Me Too movement to the new reckoning with the extent of misogyny in the police force - we have spent years uncovering the way that sexual harassment and violence permeates our society at every level. And yet so little has changed.
So, for a moment, I’d like to talk directly to the men in the room. Have you ever heard a colleague make a sexist joke, and laughed along because it was the easiest thing to do? Has one of your mates behaved towards a woman in a way that didn’t seem right, but you didn’t think it was your place to say? And, for that matter, have you ever treated a woman in a way that you think others might not approve of? For many of you - probably most of you - the answer will be yes.
This is an invitation: the answer starts with you. Challenge your friends. Challenge your colleagues. And most importantly, challenge yourself. We are all responsible for the culture that we live in - and together we can rebuild it.
Because conference, it is down to us to build the world that we want. We cannot rely on those currently in power, endlessly scrabbling to prop up the status quo - no matter what the cost.
Nothing has made that more clear than the current government’s attitude to the climate.
Why is it that they could move mountains to protect the economy during this crisis, but they won’t lift a finger to prevent the climate catastrophe that’s hurtling towards us?
From this government:
We’ve got airport expansion when we need a frequent flier levy.
Millions set aside for road building when that should be spent on public transport.
Potential new coal mines when renewable energy is the priority.
It’s clear that this country’s leaders are simply not interested in making the kind of change we need to prevent climate catastrophe and transition to a greener, fairer economy.
But in this vacuum of leadership from government, Greens are leading the way.
Across the country, our people, are showing that when the government can’t be trusted to take action on the things that matter, we can. In towns and cities, from the countryside to the coast, Greens are working as part of their communities to make a real difference to people’s lives.
And sometimes that’s not easy.
We have 44 Councillors who are the sole Green on their council including Emily Durrant - our Green Councillor in Wales who has won the hearts and minds of her community. For now - these individuals are holding the fort, demonstrating what can be achieved with just one Green in the room.
Two Green council leaders: Caroline Jackson in Lancaster and Zoe Nicholson in Lewes.
Andy Fewings who in Burnley has been working with families living in one of the most deprived communities in the country so that together they can save their recreational ground.
Hannah Clare and Phelim MacCafferty in Brighton and Hove, and the Green group of councillors there, who have worked tirelessly to protect residents throughout the pandemic - supporting people to self-isolate and securing vital government funding to tackle homelessness.
I’d also like to pay tribute to some of the groups in this party who have inspired me immensely in these difficult times.
Greens of Colour who are calling out institutional racism which has been made even more clear during the pandemic.
Our trans colleagues defiantly standing up for their rights.
Our fantastic disability Greens group - pushing for more representation and support for its members.
The list of our amazing Greens is endless - and they’re not just councillors or liberation groups. They’re the people in this room. The activists, the campaigners, the change makers.
My first speech as Deputy Leader was here in Birmingham in 2014. Since then, look how far we’ve come.
Now we stand at a pivotal moment for our party. People across the country are crying out for the kind of politics we offer: one that takes the climate and ecological crisis seriously, one that listens, and one that puts power back in people’s hands.
So let’s take our offer to people’s doorsteps; let’s stand with people in fighting for what matters to them; and let’s make our Green voice heard.
Like the activists who came together in their thousands to win the right to vote, and the workers who stood shoulder to shoulder with striking miners to win fair pay, we stand here today in Birmingham, together.
Let’s go out there and demand a better world.
Let’s set out a vision of what’s not only possible - but essential.
And let’s fight for it - together.