Biking the election trail

Sian gets out and about as the Greens fight for more seats in 3 May elections

This year’s local elections have now kicked off in earnest. There’s no polling in London this year, so I’m not standing anywhere but, as Principal Speaker, I went up to visit local parties in Norwich and Colchester last weekend to help with canvassing and launching their local campaigns.

Norwich hardly needs the help. They already have nine city councillors and two county councillors and look set to break through in new areas this year to become the second largest party in the city. After the launch photos in the town centre I helped canvass in a ward where they currently don’t have a councillor and had trouble finding anyone who wasn’t Green-friendly. Similarly in Colchester, the doors in the ward where we aim to get our first borough councillor elected were a joy to knock on.

At the local shopping centre in Norwich I also helped the local ‘bag ladies’ (really a campaign to replace plastic bags run by the ‘Women Acting to Keep the Planet Unpolluted and Peaceful’ group) to promote their new design competition to create a reusable green shopping bag for Norfolk to rival the madly trendy, sold-out several times ‘I am not a plastic bag’ by designer Anya Hindmarch.

Gorgeously, both Colchester and Norwich had devised itineraries that involved putting me on a rickety bike to get from place to place – does that happen in any other party, I wonder? I couldn’t complain, except about the heat after I’d failed to read the weather reports and worn my big winter coat while everyone else was in vests. (Note to self: climate change means you can’t rely on April weather in April any more.)

Last Monday I joined Caroline Lucas MEP, London AM Darren Johnson, Councillor Keith Taylor from Brighton and my fellow Principal Speaker Derek Wall, for the main national launch of our local election campaign. We picked a room in Millbank Tower, of all places, to hold the press conference. Caroline said that, just as New Labour had vacated the building, now it was time for them to vacate local government. Seeing as Labour are only standing in two thirds of council seats this year, it’s something they seem to be taking on board already.

The most exciting fact about these local elections is the virtual guarantee that we’re going to exceed an average of 10% of the vote where we stand, after getting a tantalising 9.75% outside London in 2006. We’re fielding a record number of candidates so we’re standing for the first time in some places, but we should break through the threshold without a problem.

An average of 10% sounds impressive enough, but its full significance doesn’t become clear until you look back through our historical results in local elections. People outside the Green Party are always pointing out to me the received wisdom that ‘the Greens aren’t as strong now as they were in 1989’. The 15% we got in the European elections that year is still seen as the ‘high point’ of green politics in the UK, and as something we’re still trying to repeat.

But, in fact, a glance at the local election results from 1989 (an average of 8.6%) shows that this year we are going to do much better than we did then, and now with more than twice as many candidates and many more chances of winning seats.

The thought that we have quietly created a new ‘high point’ – and that this is the result of a record of success and a solid build-up of support, rather than a sudden rush of interest – has helped keep me in a good mood all week.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.