Tesco, hurricanes and Chernobyl

I’ve left Chelsea tractor country this week for Hove and the Green Party’s autumn conference.

This is a huge one for me: as Campaigns Co-ordinator I’m running a stand promoting this year’s big green energy and local shops campaigns; I have a big policy motion on the agenda to bring together our policies to help small businesses; and on Saturday I have two fringe meetings to chair and a rehearsal on the beach for activists who are coming to Scotland next month as part of a 100-day blockade of the Faslane nuclear weapons base. (The weather forecast is for a hurricane so I’m a little worried we will all be swept out to sea.)

And on top of all that I am standing as a candidate for female Principal Speaker on next year’s executive so I’ll be making my hustings speech on Saturday to try to convince the Party that I would be a worthy successor to the great Caroline Lucas MEP as one of our main public faces.

It took ages just to write all that down, never mind fitting it all in over the next few days, and of course I’m also aiming to blog all this here, so we’ll see how that fits in – please excuse me if my grammar goes all John Prescott in the rush.

It is fitting to have our conference in Brighton and Hove this year – along with Norwich this is the Greenest city in the country. For the last two general elections, Brighton Pavillion has been our best parliamentary constituency and we have twice as many councillors here as the Liberal Democrats. So, imagine my dismay on emerging from Brighton station this morning to find the place thick with the ‘yellow menace’.

I try not to get too frustrated with the LibDems, I really do, but their lack of principle does get to me. Most of them, particularly on local councils, seem to have joined simply to get elected. In contrast most Greens are first and foremost interested in ‘the cause’ and can’t wait to tell you the gory details of their conversion.

This will sounds like a joke, but one of the major sponsors of their conference is actually Tesco. Yes, you read that correctly. Tesco is of course sugaring the pill - using the conference to promote their new ‘Community Plan’ and boast about their aim to be a ‘good neighbour’. But if the LibDems are prepared to let Tesco propagandise to their members in exchange for a few quid, then you have to wonder where else they will be prepared to compromise.

I could go on about this for a dozen pages, but I think the real problem with the LibDems was put best by the Green Party protestors who this morning picketed their conference to expose their record on local councils, supporting road-building and airport expansion virtually across the board. Given they were holding a ‘Climate Crazy Ming’ banner, I’ll have to admit we’re not above a bit of name-calling when it’s deserved!

Almost the whole of the conference today is taken up with education issues. We’ll be updating our education policy over the next six months, so have invited a very wide range of interesting groups and individuals to Hove to tell us what they think we should be doing.

This agenda was set up months ago, but it’s a stroke of luck that there has been so much noise on the subject of ‘the purpose of education’ and ‘the state of childhood’ lately. There are definite signs that many influential figures are moving towards the Greens’ point of view in this area.

As well as the recent open letter to the Daily Telegraph, signed by everyone from psychology professors to poets, the Children’s Society and the Archbishop of Canterbury have also chipped in during the last week to launch a two-year inquiry that will look at the effects of recent changes in education on children’s wellbeing.

The sessions today made it obvious that most Greens are once again way ahead of the agenda on an important issue. We have always insisted education practice should be about developing human beings not economic units, and negotiated between the young and their teachers - not a quantified ‘service contract’ to help employers and parents mould young people in their image.

At a packed fringe run by the Young Greens today, our student rep at the London School of Economics described it as ‘a production line for the City of London’ and criticised current education practice - starting in schools – for turning kids into corporate clones at younger and younger ages. The other main speaker was keen to see the student voice given real power in schools, sitting on governing bodies as well as helping to design government policies and the curriculum. She was right – how can we expect young people to begin turning up to vote at 18 when they have had no power over their lives at all before then?

But while our philosophy on education is bang on target, it is true that many of the specifics of our education policy do need updating. This is not our fault but simply thanks to the vast number of new initiatives and ‘reforms’ brought in lately by New Labour (many of which we wouldn’t even have suspected of Thatcher at her height).

In fact, in contrast to most criticisms we hear about Green policies, the policies we have on education are packed full of things we are in favour of, but doesn’t cover half of what we’re against (these include student loans, tuition fees, SATs, trust schools, and selection - in case you were wondering).

This evening I’m off to see a film about Chernobyl. I’ll post more tomorrow when we’ll be talking mainly about social enterprise (and no that does not include Tesco’s ‘Community Plan’).

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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.