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
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496