Marching on Labour

Today was another hectic day at conference. Aren’t they all?

Caroline Lucas gave a superb keynote speech this morning. Always brilliant when she talks about the Labour government’s disgraceful and immoral foreign policy, she demanded that the whole Labour Party be called to account for the war - not just Blair.

Conference was slightly depleted today because lots of Greens have travelled to Manchester to join the huge anti-war march. They are picketing the Labour party conference, which is starting as our’s winds down. Earlier on, in her speech, Caroline had rightly pointed out that Greens are not that interested in the Labour leadership fuss. It drives us mad that people think Brown might be any different to Blair - as believable as Cameron creating an entire new Tory Party with a flick of his fringe.

The rest of my day has really been all about energy. Not expecting an immediate switch to a Green government we are spending a lot of time this year campaigning to change the government’s cosy relationship with nuclear power - whether it’s being wielded through dangerous weapons or used as an excuse not to get serious about saving energy and developing green technologies. The likely renewal of Trident is a particularly urgent problem.

This afternoon we had our first proper rehearsal for Faslane365 (the Greens are joining the Scottish Greens for a 2-day blockade of the nuclear submarine base later this year). Weeks of work fiddling around with props, and detailed planning worthy of the kind of military operation we’re totally opposed to, came off smoothly as a big gang of Greens came down to the sea front and did rather a good job of looking like a nuclear submarine. Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie came along to join us. He has already been arrested in 2004 for taking part in a blockade at Faslane, but says the Scottish police were very nice – interesting because I’m used to dealing with the Met.

My final event of the day, and the last formal event I’ll be involved in this conference has just finished: a fringe event about how we can change energy policy from the ground up by working with local councils to bring in small-scale renewable and combined heat and power (CHP) generation plants.

CHP can use a range of fuels, including fossil fuels, but saves a huge amount of energy by using both the heat and electricity generated in the plant in local buildings. Tom Tibbits our energy spokesperson pointed out that this is actually an old idea that is well worth revisiting and that Battersea Power Station in South London was originally built to both generate electricity and provide cheap heat to thousands of local residents.

Nowadays, CHP can be done without seriously affecting air quality and on a much smaller scale and (for now) the government is also providing grants to help councils and developers put it in. The money committed is pathetic (just £80 million compared with potentially £25 billion to be spent renewing Trident) so a key feature of our energy campaign is for our activists to help get as many grants taken up by local projects as possible, so that the funds are used up and the government has to admit that its energy policy is out of touch with what ordinary people want. We’ll see. There are also householder grants for renewable energy so apply now.

Well, that’s it from the Green conference. I think the coherence of this blog has declined in direct proportion to the amount of sleep I’ve had and the number of events I’ve been organising each day, so congratulations if you have managed to read this far in less than total confusion. Next week back to ‘normal’ life as a 4×4 campaigner.

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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.