Nine days from Cop26, climate isn’t the Green party’s focus
On the morning of their party conference in Birmingham, newly elected co-leader Adrian Ramsay is on Radio 4, asking the government to grant all UK families a one-off £320 payment for winter fuel.
It’s a policy at odds with their namesake and denotes a shift in manifesto.
Adrian Ramsay and Carla Denyer were named co-leaders of the Green party in October, on a pledge to elect more representatives to Parliament.
In their first speech since winning the ballot, Ramsay introduces Denyer as the “second Green MP” the party will get elected. But not necessarily on a climate ticket.
A large portion of their speech is dedicated to fighting inequality.
Denyer offers scathing criticism of the “old boys club” Tory government that has refused to mandate face masks for too long. Ramsay speaks about “mum of three, Alex” who can’t pay her energy bills after losing her furlough payments.
Policies like taxing high income earners, a pay rise for key workers and a universal basic income end in rapturous applause. There’s whoops and cheers for a call to end arms sales.
During any mention of tackling climate, members stay seated.
Climate and social justice are two sides of the same coin
The party’s shift in primary policy indicates some self-awareness. Caroline Lucas was elected as the first Green MP for Brighton Pavillion in 2011. She is still their only representative.
The manifesto additions could be an acknowledgement there may not be a place in Britain for a party whose sole focus is climate change.
Speaking to PoliticsJOE, Carla Denyer disagrees. “They’re not in competition with each other," she says. The only reason I joined the party was because it sees climate and social justice as two sides of the same coin”.
This would make more sense, if the old focus was also on social issues.
Caroline Lucas, the only Green Party representative in parliament, is at the conference. Meanwhile, a crucial vote on ‘fire and rehire’ is making its way through the commons.
Amina Patel risked her life during the pandemic caring for vulnerable adults in her community.
Instead of thanks, her employer sacked her and rehired her so they could pay her less. pic.twitter.com/Fccf6JiKfF
— PoliticsJOE (@PoliticsJOE_UK) October 21, 2021
The ‘fire and rehire’ bill wants to make it illegal for employers to lay off and rehire workers on less favourable terms. It aims to help many of the groups of people mentioned in the co-leaders’ speech. The Tories have been whipped against voting for it. Fringe parties are crucial in getting the legislation over the line.
It’s striking that a party that claims socioeconomic policies have always been at the heart of their manifesto, wouldn’t send their only representative to the vote.
Mid-afternoon former co-leader Sian Berry takes centre stage, to a standing ovation.
Berry tells the crowd a member had recently written to her, thanking her for “carrying the soul of the Green Party”, which is a pretty good description of the job in hand.
Green Party leaders have little say over the party agenda. Leaders are spokespeople, entrusted to represent the views of the many. They do not have the power to set policy.
Berry hands the reigns of “spokesperson” over to Carla Denyer and Adam Ramsay.
Denyer is a natural public speaker. A broad, beaming smile. Open shoulders and wide eyes. Ramsay, despite having held fort as deputy leader for a significant number of years, isn’t quite as comfortable. Denyer owns the crowd, conjuring applause and laughter, while Ramsay often misses his cue.
The two share a stage, but not a podium. Awkwardly switching positions between each contribution.
I meet them later in a back office. Denyer, head of the table, is eating a banana. Ramsay is wrestling with a small bag of cashews.
The setup is a good indication co-leadership is actioned in name-only. Denyer commands conversation, and leaps in to answer questions before Ramsay can cease crunching.
It’s refreshing to meet a politician like Carla Denyer. She has a clear view of her brief and a passion for grassroots activism. I ask her if voters can take a leader who hasn't held office seriously, she reminds me she has been a councillor for six years and the party’s housing spokesperson since June.
Possibly to their detriment, Denyer was not offered the coveted slot on Friday morning's Radio 4 Today Programme. Ramsay took the interview, offering a largely unexciting debut for the new frontier. I question if he took the slot because he is already an established name. Denyer leaps in: "We decided on Ramsay because I'm recovering from a cold".
She is the picture of good health.
Adrian Ramsay has all the attributes of a Westminster politician. Physically, because he’s wearing a suit, spiritually, by supplying long-drawn, over-considered answers that often lack meaning or substance.
Ramsay is a man burdened by political ramifications, Denyer effortlessly relishes in them.
People have the right to define their own gender identity
Outside of conference, the Greens have only made headlines for one other policy - and it’s not climate change.
Outgoing co-leader Berry stood down in July, citing conflict within the party over transgender rights.
Shahrar Ali, the Green’s spokesperson on policing and domestic policy, wanted to make the party a “beacon for politically homeless women”. His words were at total odds with Berry’s staunch pro-trans beliefs.
The gender row bled into the recent leadership campaign and has exposed a rift within the party more broadly.
During the contest, Denyer described the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Alliance, a group that argues there is a conflict between LGB rights and trans rights – as “a hate group” for its exclusion of trans people.
Ramsay's stance on trans rights has, in the past, been opaque but today he clarifies: “I think people have the right to define their own gender identity according to what feels right for them”.
The clarification could present a problem for the new leaders. The upper echelons of the party do not have the power to set policy. Each member of the party gets one vote.
Speaking to attendees around the conference, this will not sit well with the wider membership.
It’s still got all the hallmarks of a Green conference. No reusable plastics, lentil soup on offer for lunch and visible disgust from conference members at my leather jacket (in hindsight, a poor judgement in outfit).
However, there are some notable new additions. Raphael Hill has set up in front of the hall with a large placard reading: “Trans people are human beings”.
Raphael says Berry’s departure was brilliant for the trans conversation. He says it exposed rifts within the party, and allowed a serious conversation about how the Green’s should in practice create a party culture where people like him can be safe.
He feels comfortable in the new co-leadership, “fundamentally, I know they are allies”.
Immediately after, a member wearing a “veteran conference-goer” badge tells me she’s pleased Ramsay has taken a strict line on protecting “women-only space”.
The push for environmentalism is more prevalent on the outskirts of the conference.
Berry, still evidently popular, says she is pushing for the mayor of London to adopt a tougher ULEZ strategy. The Ultra-low Emission Zone, set to be expanded on Monday, is one of the mayor’s most controversial briefs.
The policy is one of the few remaining relics of a once climate-focused party.
On Wednesday, prime minister Boris Johnson unveiled his plans for net-zero. Johnson promised Britain would “still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes” but in 2050 the cars would be electric, the planes zero emissions and homes heated by "clean sources".
Johnson promised to deliver the plans “without so much as a hair shirt in sight”.
If Johnsonian populism successfully envelops environmentalism, the Greens' focus on a radical social policy, usurping Labour, makes strategic sense. With ambitious policies like Universal Basic Income and a ban on arms sales, they just might.