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
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.