2013: the year Britain said "no more"

The Green Party's Natalie Bennet argues this year will be a turning point for the nation.

How will history look back on 2013? I think it might well be regarded as a turning point – “the year the British people said ‘no more’”.

Up and down the country, as I’ve travelled around as Green Party leader, I’ve founds groups and individuals saying “no more”.

They are saying “no more” to poverty wages – people working fulltime, yet unable to meet the cost of even the basic necessities.

They are saying “no more” to workfare - the unemployed being forced into such alleged "educational" roles as stacking for Poundland for not just low wages, but no wages at all.

They are saying “no more” to the 1 per cent collecting more and more of the wealth of our society, while the share for the rest, particularly the poorest, is squeezed more and more..

People are increasingly saying “no more” too to the demonisation of benefit recipients. They recognise that nearly all of us are only one medical incident, one traffic crash, away from disability, from depending on the support of the state. None of us can be sure that employment is certain, that we won’t find ourselves applying increasingly desperately for jobs where employers, faced with hundreds or thousands of applications, don't even reply to all applicants.

As I spoke to open Green Party conference in Nottingham on Friday, and as I attended its sessions yesterday, I’m was wearing on my jacket a small yellow rectangle of ribbon – a symbol of support for the Occupation of the University of Sussex, which I visited this week.

We’ve seen the comprehensive failure of the outsourcing model – the dreadful litany of A4E, G4S, and the awful Atos – yet somehow the university administration thought they could sneak through a privatisation of services on campus.

But the students have said “no more”. And looking around the university, at the rectangle of yellow in windows in offices and accommodation, it was great to see the resistance spreading.

Another group saying “no more” to great effect is UK Uncut. Like lots of Green Party members, I really enjoyed its action last year against Starbucks, the fast growing but mysteriously totally unprofitable coffee chain that infests our high streets like a particularly pernicious weed.

But sadly, mysteriously, one group that isn’t saying “no more” is the Labour Party.

Well, maybe it isn’t so mysterious… They’re only offering more of the same that we had for 13 years under Blair and Brown.

We know that it was Labour who championed the “light touch” regulation of the financial industries that the Tories have only continued, which abandoned all interest in supporting manufacturing and farming and was content to allow the jobs, the cash, the people of Britain to concentrate more and more in the south east corner of the country.

We know that it was Labour that started the privatisation of the NHS, it was Labour that championed the undemocratic academy schools that have morphed into Michael Gove’s free schools, it was Labour that dotted the country with immensely expensive, but immensely profitable, PFI schemes that today's babies will still be paying for when they are parents.

And we know that Labour is failing to challenge the government’s deeply divisive, deeply corrosive, deeply dishonest “strivers versus skivers” rhetoric.

We are living too in a Britain in which the mistakes, the great errors, of the past, have not been properly acknowledged, let alone dealt with, even though they are glaringly obvious.

We know the neoliberal model of a globalised economy in which we specialise in casino banking, arms sales to human-rights-abusing regimes and pharmaceuticals, while leaving it to the rest of the world to make our goods and grow our food, has hit the buffers: hit the buffers economically, and hit the buffers environmentally.

We know that we can’t keep living as though we’ve got three Planet Earths to exploit.

Yet the Labour Party is content to mutter empty platitudes about being “one nation”, keep its head down, not apologise for the mistakes of the past (including the Iraq War), and not offer any change in direction, just hope that the incompetence and economic failings of George Osborne’s clearly failing Plan A of austerity will deliver government back to them in 2015.

That’s not good enough, and it’s increasingly clear that the British people are saying “no more” to the shallow, sterile politics that sees Labour almost indistinguishable from Tory, each chasing a few tens of thousands of voters in a small percentage of marginal seats.

This article is adapted from the speech given by Natalie Bennett at the Green Party spring conference in Nottingham. The conference continues until Monday.

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.