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How I nearly joined a cult of men in yellow jumpers - but got out in time to dodge Nick Clegg

It's great being a Lib Dem - you don't have to believe in anything. For a brief moment in 1996, I thought I'd found my people.

Oddly I do know how someone can become a Lib Dem. It happened to me in 1996. For an entire day I thought I was one. It was quite freeing. You could, I felt, be a Liberal Democrat and just think whatever you liked. You didn’t have to believe anything. Amazing.

Obviously this didn’t happen out of the blue. Someone had sent me to a Lib Dem conference, where I wandered around, lonely as a Lembit.

Up until then I’d never actually met a self-confessed Lib Dem in my life, and I think the fact that these people could just blast out policies with no coherence whatsoever must have been what I found most appealing.

Earlier that year had been the horrible massacre at Dunblane, but there I was, listening to loons saying we should all have greater access to handguns. Wow, I thought, these people are kinda out there. All of these excitable blokes and Shirley Williams induced in me some kind of trance. I went to bed thinking I’d found my people.

When I came to, I realised that my people were not middle-class men in jumpers and I felt bloody awful.

That morning, at a fringe meeting about why there were so few women in the party, only blokes spoke.

A woman put her hand up to say something and the chairman said, “Let’s take a question from the little lady in canary.”

Christ, what had happened to me? Some sort of alien abduction? I left and, like most people, never thought about them again for a decade.

Then suddenly, just before the last election, they started banging on about civil liberties and I found myself sitting next to Vince Cable at a discussion. Cable, who had prophesied the recession, said it could bring about all the preconditions for fascism.

“Blimey,” I thought. “Am I a Lib Dem?” It was happening again. Even unlikely people got taken over. At the same conference, Brian Eno was milling about in the green room. He had become one! When I suggested to the organisers that they get him on stage to do a speech, they had no idea who he was. Politicos have the collective cultural hinterland of a whelk.

“Roxy Music,” I found myself yelling at puzzled Liberal Democrats.

“Never heard of them.”

So when Cleggmania happened, I thought: I won’t get fooled again. I went to another Lib Dem gathering for which my notes for an entire week read, “Went up a tower for dinner with Norman Baker. (Transport?) He had an altercation in a taxi and is a conspiracy theorist. I just want to go home.” No one else appears to have made any impression on me whatsoever.

But that’s how they do it. This blankness is like political Rohypnol. How else can you explain their power? Trust me, you really don’t want to stand too close to them.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

Green Party
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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.