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  1. The Politics Interview
2 November 2021

“We’re not hiding our policies from Tory voters”: Green Party leaders Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay on their plan to win

The newly elected co-leaders on attracting Labour and Tory voters and distancing themselves from Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion.

By Anoosh Chakelian

For years, Adrian Ramsay and Carla Denyer have been two of the most successful Green Party politicians you’ve never heard of. Now, they are co-leaders of the Green Party of England and Wales – at a time when the climate has never been a bigger concern for voters.

Elected at the beginning of October, they are still working out how to run things together.

Squeezed around the end of a boardroom table in a meeting room plastered with an enormous photo of a bull’s head, they met me at the end of a long, late-October afternoon at Green Party conference in Birmingham (hence, perhaps, the theme of the wallpaper).

They had delivered their first co-leaders’ speech to a hall of members (the party now has 53,000), and been on a treadmill of media interviews. Ramsay had been up since 5am for an interview with Nick Robinson on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

They made an amusing pair to interview. Denyer, 36, distinctive in green trousers, pointed black boots and tightly cropped hair, was chatty and expressive – barely concealing any irritation at silly questions, and interrupting with gusto when she was bursting to answer. Ramsay, 40, suited and bespectacled, was quiet and nodded along (to the point where I had to gently usher him to respond).

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Deputy leader of the party from 2008-12 before going on to run two environmental charities, Ramsay is known as one of the Green’s most experienced strategists – having been on the leadership team that helped propel Caroline Lucas to her parliamentary seat of Brighton Pavilion in 2010. He co-wrote the party’s internal strategy for winning elections, “Target to Win”.

“We don’t speak for Insulate Britain – we don’t always agree with how every demonstration is run”

From 2003-11, Ramsay was also Green group leader and city councillor in Norwich – then the city with the most Green councillors, and still host to one of the largest and most active local Green cohorts in the country.

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A renewable energy engineer and councillor on Bristol City Council – where the Green Party’s largest local government group has the same number of councillors as Labour – Denyer brought a motion in 2018 calling on Bristol to declare a “climate emergency” and pledge to reach net zero by 2030: the first such declaration in Europe.

She is also most likely to be the Green Party’s second MP, as the candidate for Bristol West – where the Greens achieved one of their highest swings by finishing behind only Labour in the 2019 general election.

[See also: Who ran for the Green Party leadership election 2021?]

Both vegans (“we think there is a role for individual personal choices, but our priority is system change”) and long-time environmentalists (Ramsay joined the party at 16), they are nevertheless unlikely to be seen on the barricades/glued to the M25. Neither come from the protest side of the climate movement, and they distanced themselves from the Insulate Britain roadblock protestors that had caused weeks of traffic mayhem when we spoke.

“We feel there’s a role for protest groups, especially when an issue is urgent and has not been addressed through the traditional routes,” said Ramsay. “But that’s not to say we always support every tactic of every organisation. We don’t speak for Insulate Britain – what we do is put forward political solutions.”

They also disassociated the party from Extinction Rebellion. “We’re not the ones organising those demonstrations, and therefore we don’t always agree with how every demonstration’s run,” said Ramsay. “Some protests have probably been more targeted than others, for example the one at Farnborough Airport a couple of weeks ago highlighting the impact of private jets.”

Now that the Glasgow Cop26 climate conference is upon us and the government has released its net-zero strategy, will the Greens be forgotten?

“I don’t feel left out, to be honest,” laughed Denyer. “We’re back-to-back with journalists asking us about this!”

Aren’t the Conservatives and Labour now taking up all the oxygen on carbon, though?

“Obviously it’s positive that both those parties are now, finally, after decades, feeling the pressure that they need to have some environmental policies that are heading in the right direction,” Denyer continued.

“But they’re not anything like going far or fast enough. Part of our job here as Greens is to help pull the Overton window in the right direction, by arguing for the bold climate policies the science actually demands.”

[See also: What the trans rights row really means for Siân Berry and the Green Party]

They list government policies taking the UK in “the wrong direction” for the planet, including a road-building programme, airport expansion and plans for a coalmine on the Cumbrian coast.

After we spoke, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a cut in air passenger duty on short-haul flights (in a Budget that Lucas described as an “utter moral failure”), and Conservative MPs voted not to stop water companies dumping sewage in rivers and beaches.

“The list goes on and on,” said Ramsay. “Yes, everyone talking about ‘net zero’ is fantastic, but let’s see the range of policies adopted that are going to deliver that.”

Alternative policies from the Greens include a carbon tax on “the most polluting industries”, as well as insulation and renewable energy for every home.

They are radical on the economy, too, proposing universal basic income and wealth taxes, for example, which Denyer described as “objectively quite far to the left”, and a one-off winter fuel payment of £320 to every household, funded by landlords paying 1 per cent land-value tax.

If the party has trebled its councillors by “winning seats in rural and urban areas from Labour and the Conservatives”, as they pointed out, don’t such policies risk putting off disillusioned Tory voters in the southern “Blue Wall” seats, or small-C conservatives exercised about the natural world?

“We’re not hiding our radical economic policies when we talk to Tory voters”

“We’re not hiding our policies when we talk to those people,” insisted Denyer. “There are lots of people who might have voted Conservative in the past who haven’t voted Labour, but they’re not necessarily right wing when you actually look at what policies they support.

“In fact, they often support quite left-wing policies but they don’t like the Labour Party as an institution.”

An example she gave is public ownership of public services, like energy provision – something that tends to poll well. “It’s a no-brainer for many people, and it’s a longstanding Green Party policy, so I think it’s time we shout about it.”

Yet when it comes to attracting new supporters, both co-leaders admit that the language the party uses – like “Green New Deal”, to refer to new manufacturing jobs in sustainable industries – can sound remote to the ordinary voter.

The party, and its new leaders, are trying to change the language they use. “We will still use the phrase ‘Green New Deal’ – there’s no point making up another badge that nobody’s heard of and then trying to teach them that!” Denyer laughed.

“But it is important to talk about what that actually means with concrete examples, things like a mass insulation programme, which would reduce everybody’s bills and give them warmer, more comfortable homes, and create loads and loads of evenly distributed jobs.”

While the phrase is “well-known among campaign groups and Green supporters”, Ramsay said, the focus now should be “about getting across what it means for everyday lives”.

The Green Party leadership election was triggered in summer after the previous co-leaders, Jonathan Bartley and Siân Berry, decided to stand down.

Bartley has since expressed his frustration to the New Statesman about the way the party is run – suggesting its structure is not up to seizing political opportunity, with leaders having no more say over policy and other big decisions than members, who vote on everything. Berry was concerned about internal divisions over gender self-identification for trans people – a particularly polarising issue for the wider British left.

[See also: Why the Greens are missing their moment]

Despite these difficulties, a wide contest opened up, and has been described to me by party insiders as the first properly competitive leadership election they have seen.

Denyer and Ramsay believe they won because of their emphasis on electoral success. A key part of their campaign pitch was their electoral record, plan to get a second Green MP and first Green Welsh Assembly member elected, and vow to professionalise the party.

“We’re a party that’s serious about winning elections and taking our message out to the broader public”

While the Greens now have a record number of councillors on a record number of councils (gaining 99 seats in May’s local elections to make a total of 457 seats on 141 councils across England and Wales), three London Assembly members and two peers, they still only have one MP: Caroline Lucas.

“We both have experience of winning elections. We’re a party that’s serious about winning elections and taking our message out to the broader public,” said Ramsay. “I think our party members recognise that you need a track record of representing the wider public on a broad range of issues.”

“And working with people you don’t necessarily agree with,” added Denyer.

So how many MPs will they win by 2030? Former leader Lucas predicts at least five.

“We will be building a pipeline of constituencies where we’re looking to break through, and I’m sure it will be of that sort of order,” Ramsay revealed.

What are the Greens’ top target seats?

“Bristol West has got to be right up there,” Ramsay replied. The party doubled its vote there in the last general election. “There are many areas of the country with high concentrations of councillors – in cities like Sheffield and rural areas, for example: our largest group of county councillors in the country is in Suffolk. [But] we’re not about to unveil our target list.”

Between November 2020 and now, the environment has risen from the most important issue facing the country among 13 per cent of British voters to 25 per cent. In the last general election, the environment was a top-three voter priority for the first time.

Yet the Greens have felt as if their moment has arrived before, only to be disappointed. There is a sense that the party did not grasp the momentum of what was labelled the “Green Surge” ahead of the May 2015 general election, when it rose up the polls to overtake the Lib Dems – but when the election rolled around, it fell back to a vote share if 3.8 per cent.

“We need to be more prepared to harness future Green waves”

Denyer and Ramsay want to reform the party to prepare for surprise future political shifts and tipping points. While this wouldn’t be a power grab on their part as leaders, they insisted, they do want to “get that balance right” between members influencing policy and “how we actually run the party and make things happen, being able to be nimble and effective”, said Ramsay.

“As a party it’s about being ready to make the most of… future Green waves to come,” he added. “You refer to the 2015 ‘Green surge’, which we did make the most of, but I think we can be even more ready for it this time, in terms of how we then galvanise that support and turn it into electoral success.”