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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage