Who's afraid of the big bad wolf? Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Greens should relish, not fear, the chance to take on Zac Goldsmith

The last election showed that London is not a Conservative city - and is there for the taking, argues the Greens' Sian Berry.

My excellent colleagues Jonathan Bartley and Jenny Jones have both in recent months made comments implying that Green voters may be tempted to switch or transfer to the Tories if they select Zac Goldsmith. I think they are both mistaken.

I believe Jenny’s comments were really a criticism of Labour that was not quite correctly spun by the Evening Standard - essentially that there isn’t a lot to choose between the right wing Labour candidates like Tessa Jowell and Tories like Goldsmith.

Jonathan’s more recent proposition, on these pages, is less easy to understand. He says that Goldsmith would be “the biggest threat to the fortunes of the Green Party at next year’s London Mayoral and Assembly election”.

He’s brushing over a simple and important fact, however. Zac Goldsmith, though he has an eco-sheen, is still a Tory, and all of the research and data on who votes and who might vote Green tells us the same thing: most Green voters would rather grate off their own nose than vote for a Tory who has backed austerity budgets five years in a row and a benefits cap which will drive poorer people out of our city. People really are not so fickle with their votes.

In the general election, London showed that it has a significant anti-Tory majority. The political opportunity for Greens next year, therefore, is to excite and mobilise this majority. Not to triangulate on the basis of an imagined flight to the Conservatives.

Like Jonathan, I’m standing to be the Green candidate for Mayor of London - I did this in 2008 and my experiences were written up for the New Statesman. want to represent the party again because I believe that we have a unique chance to build on the magnificent ‘green surge’ and engage our new supporters and the wider community with a campaign based on fully fledged Green politics.

I’m inspired by the campaign for Yes in Scotland, which saw a wide range of radical and community-based organisations engaging almost every single member of the population to join in a real political debate about what the future of their country might look like, and I want the same in London next year.

I think that to focus too much on the substantial powers of the Mayor and what our candidate can ‘offer’ to voters (particularly Tory voters) misses out an important part of the Green Party’s philosophical basis: our commitment to empowered, self-governing communities and “a society in which people are empowered and involved in making the decisions which affect them”.

In Camden where I serve as a councillor, I work with a very wide range of campaigners and civic groups. I spend as much time working with the Highgate Society and supporting my local library as I do working with unions, helping residents save trees on their estates and supporting single parents who are challenging the council’s new housing policies.

We need to show people a vision not simply of what we can give them if we win power, but of ways in which we will help them, individually and through their community organisations, to shape London for themselves if there’s a Green Mayor in City Hall. 

Building on what local Green parties are already doing, this is about working alongside local campaigns, making sure that when Canary Wharf Group comes in to talk to the Mayor we bring London Citizens into the room too, and also about real participation in decisions like budgeting - bringing people together to decide how to spend London’s funds for transport, police, economic development, housing and the fire service. In all these areas of policy, the people should set the agenda and decide the Mayor’s priorities in an ongoing and involving way.  

Groups like Reclaim London and Take Back the City are already exploring these ideas, linking up local campaigns, talking about about new ways of doing democracy and holding participatory meetings to find out what people need to live better lives in London.
As Greens, we should be backing these campaigns and acting more like them ourselves, not more like the Tories, if we’re not only to take City Hall but also help to give City Hall back to the people as well.

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
Getty
Show Hide image

I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution