“Why didn’t we save ourselves when we had the chance?” the actor Pete Postlethwaite warned in The Age of Stupid, a 2009 film about the climate crisis. The words “haunted” Caroline Lucas when she entered parliament the following year as the Green Party’s first and only MP, she later recalled, fuelling her desire to prevent the worst occurring. Now, as Lucas, 62, reveals that she will not stand at the next election, the message still appears to be a guiding one.
“I want a bit of time to breathe and think about what comes next,” she explained over the phone yesterday (8 June), the day of her announcement (after what she admitted had been particularly little sleep). “As the only MP for my party, I currently work around 70 to 80 hours a week trying to cover everything, and that means there isn’t a lot of time for reflection on how best to focus on the nature and climate crises.”
The need for such focus is only growing: Canadian fires have smothered New Yorkers in smog, a Chinese heatwave is killing livestock, and Antarctic ice is at its lowest level on record. Yet Lucas has long been aware of these threats and has also long had to navigate a packed diary. Has something changed to make her feel more can be achieved outside Westminster than inside it?
“No, this isn’t a reflection on the parliamentary process,” she insisted. Having Green MPs in parliament is essential for “holding the government’s feet to the fire”, be it a Conservative or a Labour one. Instead, it is about her personal path. “After 11 years in the European Parliament, and maybe 14 years in Westminster by the time I finish, just personally, I would like to take a bit more time to think about how I try to advance [the green] agenda.”
If Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, embodies a “Rachel 1” and “Rachel 2” split between restraint and radicalism, as Jason Cowley, the New Statesman editor, wrote in his recent profile of her, then Lucas has been all “Caroline 2”. Time after time she has championed ambitious progressive thinking – from ripping up a copy of the Illegal Migration Bill to leading a campaign for proportional representation. Some suggest a few more ideological concessions, such as on nuclear power, could have made her party more electable nationally. But on environmental issues, including opposing coal and promoting a Green New Deal, she has helped to set important precedents. “I have said the previously unsayable, only to see it become part of the mainstream,” she wrote in a letter announcing the decision to stand down.
Lucas has never been a shadow minister, but she has consistently provided the official opposition on the environment, says her former staffer, Chris Venables, now deputy director of politics at the Green Alliance think tank. “She is always the one tabling the amendment that no one else will make the time for and asking the question no one else will ask.” Whether it’s chairing an all-party parliamentary group on fuel poverty, booking a room for a butterfly event, or messaging Greta Thunberg on Twitter to invite her to parliament in 2019 (which Venables says led to the UK’s declaration of a climate emergency), her influence has been crucial, he says. “You cannot underestimate how she’s helped the wider environmental movement be heard.”
Yet even as Lucas takes stock of positive change since 2010, she is outraged about the current government’s direction on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “The sheer perversity of our political system means that, although a majority of the people in this country want to see greener action, we have a government that likes to talk a green talk but is literally giving out 100 new licences for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. It is absolutely incoherent; it’s extraordinary and unacceptable. So I do feel frustrated that we have a system that doesn’t properly reflect what the vast majority of businesses and individuals want to see.”
A voting system that translated more of the Green Party’s vote into parliamentary seats would help, Lucas believes, pointing to green progress in Germany and the Nordic nations, where there is proportional representation. But she adds that British Conservatism poses a particular challenge. “I think the particular kind of Conservative government that we have right now is more focused on internal benefits for the Conservative Party than for the country. We’ve seen vested interests again and again, on everything from Covid contracts through to subsidies for fossil fuels. I don’t think we should be under any illusion that our current government is deeply dangerous. And that means that we need all the pushback we can possibly get.”
Would Labour do better than the Tories on the environment if they come to power? Perhaps. Lucas describes three prior Tory prime ministers (Cameron, Johnson and Truss) as “bad, worse and even worse”. Yet both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer cause her concern. “It feels like there’s so much triangulation and manoeuvring going on. I think they both underestimate the hunger in the country for far more transformational change.”
Lucas’s political journey began slowly. Her mother and her father, who ran a small central heating company, were unquestioningly Conservative. When she joined the Greens in 1986 her bemused parents asked, “Why don’t you join a proper party?”, she wrote in her 2015 book about being a parliamentary outsider.
Lucas, however, had become convinced of the former Green Party co-chair Jonathan Porrit’s arguments that social justice and environmental justice issues were interlinked. From then on, Green politics increasingly dominated her life. She became one of the party’s MEPs in 1999, its first Westminster MP in 2010, and its intermittent leader and co-leader from 2008 to 2018.
Her work in Brussels was particularly influential in persuading her to run for a Westminster seat, she explains: “On the policy side, we were really making a difference. But on actually changing political debates in this country, frankly, we could have had 25 Green MEPs and it wouldn’t have changed the conversation. Because as we found to our cost during the Brexit referendum, the media was singularly uninterested in what happened in Brussels.”
The void she will leave in Westminster presents all parties with a challenge and an opportunity. For the Greens, few think the party can win Lucas’s Brighton Pavilion seat with a different candidate; Labour won a comprehensive victory in Brighton and Hove in the local elections in May. Lucas, however, is optimistic about Brighton and the party’s electoral chances elsewhere, pointing especially to the Green co-leaders Carla Denyer, in Bristol West, and Adrian Ramsay, in Waveney Valley. “This is a good time for the Greens and a very necessary time for us too.”
Just as important though is whether Labour will step up on green issues. Lucas was “very pleased” to see their announcements of a £28bn climate investment plan and potentially banning new oil and gas licences. She credits the latter to Labour feeling threatened “in no small part” by the Greens winning their best yet local election results overall. She also notes, however, that “Starmer is famous for nothing if not a degree of flip-flopping”.
Many in green circles and beyond now eagerly await Lucas’s decision on what she will do next. Yet if she wanted to swap the Commons’ green benches for long walks in the green South Downs, few would begrudge her the rest. Arguably, no British politician has done more to transform the image of green thinking from one of fusty sandal-wearers to one of quick-witted, eloquent political discourse.
And to the next generation of nature defenders, Lucas has this to say: “Every tonne of CO2 matters and every one that we manage to avoid being emitted into the atmosphere matters. I’m really sorry that you’re having to clear up the mess of my generation, who didn’t act fast enough. But there is still absolutely everything to play for.”
[See also: Who is the real Oliver Dowden?]