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21 July 2015

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.

By 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”.

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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.