Progressive Alliances should not just happen at elections

When the two local Green parties took the decision to stand aside in last year’s by-election, we did so considering three things:

  • the national interest
  • local interest
  • and, party interest, or put it another way, self interest.

For us, reducing the Conservatives Govt’s majority was of national importance as was sending them the message that Richmond does not want Brexit and neither does it want the closed, small-minded Britain offered by the Theresa May’s Party.

In terms of the local interest, Zac Goldsmith was not a good MP. In his leaflets for the London mayoral election – when he wasn’t accusing Sadiq Khan of extremism – he claimed the following successes:

  • Campaigning on Heathrow, well we all know well he did there;
  • Stopping cuts to Kew Gardens, he wasn’t the only one to fight that fight
  • and finally, getting a cash machine in Barnes!

Not exactly a stellar record – residents deserve better.

As for the party interest, well, standing for election gives you the chance to share your policies with the electorate at hustings. And, I know from having stood in 2015, that these played an important part in us getting the number of votes we did. We got 6% of the vote – the best we’ve ever polled and the first time we kept our deposit. So for us not to stand means we’re denied this opportunity and the possibility of getting more members and supporters.

I can’t tell you how difficult this decision was for the local members. We all joined a political party because we want to see Greens in power, taking the decisions that affect all of us – over education, housing, climate change, the NHS. The Green Party is not a pressure group, we’re a political party like the LibDems and Labour – our aim is to get elected.

Many of you may not know this – but members of political parties tend not to talk to each other, seeing each other as rivals to be defeated rather than colleagues to be collaborated with.

But the Greens like to do thing differently. We’ve been talking to the LibDems in Richmond borough since 2015, a year after they lost control of the Council to the have a Conservatives. In no small part due to the fact the Green Party stood in every ward in 2014. You could say we split the progressive vote and allowed the Tories to leapfrog to victory.

So we’ve been discussing with the LibDems about a local alliance to ensure this doesn’t happen again and bring an end to the Conservative majority. Which is where the party interest came in. We’re realistic. As much as I’d like to be the MP for Richmond Park, that’s just not going to happen any time soon. Getting councillors however, is a distinct possibility and working together with the LibDems can make that happen, sooner, and in greater numbers.

But, would standing in the by-election help that aim? We came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t. If we were truly keen to work with the LibDems to defeat the Tories at a local level, then we had to be prepared to do that a national level.

We spoke to Sarah Olney and got reassurances over Heathrow, Brexit, the environment, Hinkley Point and Proportional Representation. We got assurances from local LibDems that our discussions over wards would be pursued more enthusiastically.

And, you know what happened. The Greens decision to stand aside – while reaching out to local Labour activists to do the same – had an impact. The Labour vote in 2015 was over 7,000. It went down to 1,500. Activists were out canvassing the day before the by-election telling people not to vote Labour. This would NOT have happened if the Greens had stood. Us not standing made it about alliances, and about grown-up politics and doing the right thing for the people and the country.

Roll on to today’s General Election. The same factors still apply.

In the national interest, the Greens want to keep out the increasingly authoritarian Theresa May, who appears to be running her government by diktat, while pandering to the most ardent Brexiteers in her party.

Locally, unbelievably, the Conservatives have chosen Goldsmith again as their candidate. While I have faith that the electorate won’t vote for him, we have to make sure that on June 9th, the lyrics “once, twice, three times a loser’ are trending on twitter.

But at the end of the day, national and local interests have combine with the party’s interests for both the LibDems and Green. In Ham ward the LibDem ward councillor, Penny Frost and I are already working together on a number of campaigns and we need to see that happening more and more across the borough over the coming years.

If a progressive alliance is to work it can’t be something politicians do when there’s an election, it should be something we do all the time. The electorate are tired of playground politics, with winner takes all results and votes that don’t count. We politicians have to start co-operating now and forever, for the common good, for all of us.

How can Zac Goldsmith think he still has the Midas touch?

The decision by Zac Goldsmith to seek re-selection in Richmond Park in the upcoming General Election seems like a desperate plea for attention combined with a lack of understanding of reality. The fact that the local Conservative party has now actually chosen him defies belief. How many elections does Zac Goldsmith need to lose before the Conservative Party stop viewing him as their golden boy?

Last year, when I stood aside in Richmond Park, I said: “I am taking a principled stand, hoping to send a real message to this government: Richmond Park does not want an MP who has failed his constituents over Heathrow and Brexit and is endorsed by UKIP – the people of south west London want a tolerant Britain, not the closed, small-minded one offered by this Government.” 

These factors still apply.

Goldsmith made Heathrow expansion his calling card, but was unable to stop it happening. Clearly he is just one person, but even when he was a member of the party of power, his powers of persuasion failed. An ex-civil service friend tells me Zac was not regarded as effective, since he preferred to stay in his office emailing ministers rather than actually meeting with them. So, not a persuader nor a team player. Further, Westminster data shows (as highlighted by Twickenham resident and political commentator Chris Key) that Goldsmith spoke in Parliament a mere eight times in the year preceding his resignation. Tim Brake, LibDem MP for Sutton, and Tania Mathias, Conservative MP for Twickenham, spoke 153 and 58 times respectively. Re-electing Goldsmith in last year’s by-election would not have put the brakes on Runway Three. Electing him now will be equally pointless.

Leaving the EU is in Zac’s blood. His father James Goldsmith set up the Referendum Party. The younger Goldsmith does not want the UK to be in the EU, whereas Richmond voted overwhelmingly to Remain. There is a complete disconnect between what Zac fundamentally believes and what his residents want. They told him that in last year’s by-election when they deserted him in their droves overturning the 23,000 majority they had given him just 18 months before. Richmond is still Remain – if the local Conservatives had chosen a pro-EU candidate then a race might really have been on between them and LibDem Sarah Olney. Now it appears they no longer respect their voters, making the assumption that he will win their support their again.

The Conservatives could not be more wrong. Voters still remember Goldsmith’s racially divisive Mayoral campaign, with its attempts to link Sadiq Kahn with extremism and terrorism and his leaflets with messages to the Indian community saying Labour supports a ‘wealth tax on family jewellery’ (if the electorate has forgotten, you know rivals will remind them). His campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, was fingered as the one responsible for these vile tactics and, almost as unbelievably as Zac being back, Crosby is now at the heart of the Theresa May’s election campaign. Maybe this General Election will show that like Goldsmith, he and the Tories have lost the golden touch.

The Battle to get Greens elected

I joined the Green Party in 2012 – at the height of the coalition govt and their imposition of austerity and making the poor and the vulnerable pay for the bankers crash.

I joined a political party because being a member of pressure groups, emailing my MP and signing petitions wasn’t enough.

I joined a political party because we can’t keep asking the wrong people to do the right thing. However ‘eco friendly’ a labour, libdem or Tory politician might be, the planet is not fundamental to their thinking.

Yet, very quickly I realised that joining a party and getting elected are two very different things. One is as easy as signing up online, the other requires members, money, time, press coverage, social media presence and door knocking. I don’t need to tell many of you here how many leaflets a voter needs to see before they’ll even read it, let alone vote for the Greens!

I, and others in my local party, know that even if we follow ‘target to win’ to the letter, we could we waiting for a Green councillor for around 12 years! I’ll be retiring then – if I’m so lucky.

The only way we can make this happen quicker is if we stop fighting our nearest rivals and come to some kind of agreement with them. In Richmond and Twickenham we have a Conservative council – in part because the Greens put up a candidate in every single ward in 2014 (for the first time) which split the vote and allowed Tories to leapfrog to victory. So we have a twofold aim – bring an end to the Conservative majority and get Green councillors elected in 2018.

We started talking to local LibDems about this in 2015 when they were at their nadir. They’d been punished at the General Election for the coalition and looking forward couldn’t see how they’d even get enough people to stand in every ward in 2018. In our target ward, we even talked about standing one LibDem and two Greens!

But, then Brexit happened, and the LibDems repositioned themselves as the party for the EU and began their renaissance. Locally, they were still talking, but now saying they had more than enough people who wanted to stand for them and were looking to field three candidates in our target ward.

Roll on autumn 2016 and the by-election in Richmond Park, brought about by Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith’s resignation over Heathrow. I stood against him in 2015, when the residents loved him so he was returned with a huge majority. Then he stood for London Mayor with a racist campaign that dented his popularity and he backed Leave in the referendum.

For months our local party had been asked what we’d do if there was a by-election? We’d been told there was a ‘celebrity’ who might consider being a candidate for either the Greens or a Progressive Alliance. I met with them in September, and having discussed all the angles and permutations decided it was not in their interests or ours for them to stand.

We were then asked to hold off a bit longer with our selection as the Green Party were exploring other options and ‘big name candidates’. I was contacted by various people asking if we would consider a pro-EU, Unity candidate.

During this time, the two local parties in the constituency got on with planning their campaign and setting up canvassing and leafleting. Kingston Greens were incredibly keen to run a candidate as they saw this as an opportunity to get support from other Greens across London to gather data and talk with voters in their target ward. Richmond & Twickenham Greens were less keen as we were very concerned about how our vote would be impacted.

In 2015 we got 6% of the vote – the best result in any of the London outer boroughs, and the first time we kept our deposit. We couldn’t see how we would maintain this percentage. The LibDems were not the pariahs of 2014, and as we all know, their ability to the throw everything plus the kitchen sink at a by-election is legendary.

Then we met with Caroline Lucas, Judy Maciejowska and Kingston Greens where we explored whether we it would be in our interests to stand aside for the LibDems. We said yes, but Kingston Greens said without Labour doing the same, this wasn’t a Progressive Alliance, it was just giving up. In the face of their intransigence we agreed to fight on.

In the background to all this was the Witney by-election with Larry Sanders standing for the Greens. Even with that level of fame cast by him being Bernie Sanders brother, our vote was decimated. Yet, if we had stood a Progressive Alliance candidate, we would have beaten the Conservatives.

The morning of the result Jonathan Bartley called me to ask what we were doing in Richmond Park for our campaign. In Witney the LibDems had over 1,000 volunteers in place and got out over 10 pieces of literature! I knew we could only manage around 4 rounds of leaflets and a 100 or so people.

It was looking more and more like we would have the same result as Witney, our vote squeezed to 1% or so. We couldn’t risk that. Our negotiations with the LibDems over council seats were on hold during the by-election, but we knew the result would have an impact on them.

If we stood and they lost, they would hold it against us. If we stood and they won, they would say they didn’t need us. Us standing was a lose-lose. Our vote would be squeezed, we would be made to look irrelevant and the LibDems would no longer see us as partners to bring and end to the Conservative majority on the council.

We spoke to the LibDems in Richmond and Kingston, offering not to stand, and got written assurances that they share wards with us in 2016.

And, yet, and yet, I wanted to stand for the Green Party. We needed that opportunity to explain our policies, to tell voters why we’re different, to say why we’re the only ones they could trust over Heathrow. But this was not a general election, it was a unique opportunity to oust a Leaver from parliament, kick out a so-called independent endorsed by UKIP and reduce the government’s majority.

The two local parties took a vote and we decided to stand aside and give the Lib Dems a clear shot to run on a Remain ticket.

All of a sudden, the dynamic changed. We actually had more power by not running. Denying myself and the Green party a platform had more impact than if we had ran. And, we still canvassed in our target ward, and we managed to leaflet nearly the whole constituency, to tell them why we weren’t running. It became about us not standing and why, about alliances and Brexit, rather than Heathrow alone. We got more press coverage, social media interest and positive reactions on the doorsteps than if we had stood.

And we did make a difference. By polling day, Labour were telling people not to vote for them, and when the results came in they got less votes than they have members in the constituency – the result was a ray of hope across the country in the wake of Brexit and Trump. Voters are clever enough to know which way the wind is blowing and to make decisions for the greater good.

This is the time for all parties to take national political responsibility. Labour, Lib Dems and Greens should be working together across the country to stop the Conservatives marching us over the cliff of hard Brexit. No one opposition party can win the next General Election. We need to co-operate, now, because the country is in a dire state – climate change refugees, NHS, Brexit, Heathrow, education cuts – and we need to fix it, not leave a divided, broken country for the next generation.

It’s not time for a progressive alliance, or even a rebel one. It’s time for a National Alliance to bring our country back from the brink of extremism, isolation and division. It’s time for us to take power, so we have more politicians like Caroline Lucas in Parliament. And if that means not standing in every constituency at the next General Election so we can actually get Green MPs elected in winnable seats then that’s what we have to do.

  • Remember we need PR, we won’t get it without getting a Progressive Alliance.

  • Remember we’re going to lose 3 MEPs and that has a big impact on our standing and our influence – with a Progressive Alliance we could replace them with MPs.

  • Remember that under the new boundaries, Caroline Lucas’s seat becomes vulnerable. With a progressive alliance, we could ensure her seat is ‘safe’.

  • Remember, we are a political party. Our aim is to get elected. Our objective is power in order to change society and make a difference for everyone.

Five very real risks to our environment from Brexit and how to tackle them

Inside track

Children on BeachThere has been little mention of the environment in the government’s Brexit priorities so far, so it may come as a surprise to hear that an estimated four fifths of all our environmental protections are covered by EU law. As the Westminster government heads towards triggering Article 50 this week, to be closely followed by the repeal bill which will transpose EU law into domestic law, what are the risks to our environmental protections?

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