Speech to Conference by Caroline Lucas

7 November 2010

I'd like to start by thanking the organizers, and the Scottish Green Party, for such a warm welcome.

I'm very grateful for this opportunity to salute the fantastic work you are all doing to foster local parties and build grassroots support.

Building on what you have achieved already as the Scottish Green Party.

The first Green councillors elected here in Edinburgh and in Glasgow, joined by new colleagues in Aberdeenshire – congratulations.

And I'm sure we can look forward to many more taking seats in the 2012 council elections.

Green MSPs using their influence to work with other political parties to abolish student tuition fees, securing support for marine renewables, and persuading Scottish Ministers to start a universal home insulation scheme.

And Green Party membership in Scotland is steadily growing and growing.

Greens in England and Wales also have much to celebrate.

The by-elections for Norwich City Council in September.

For the first time, the Greens are the largest party in a local authority. What great news for the people of Norwich, and what encouragement for other communities up and down the country.

And what a fantastic base for electing more Greens at every level, including Westminster and the Scottish Parliament.
In the local elections in May, we made our first breakthroughs on Reading, Reigate and Rochford councils, and won our second city council seat in Cambridge.

It's a clear sign of our growing challenge to the three main parties.

But it also means more communities that now have the kind of principled and committed representation that the public want and deserve.

So, successes in local elections.

And great work being done by Green representatives in dozens of local authorities, in the London Assembly, in the European Parliament and in the Scottish Parliament.

Was there something else?

Brighton. It was one amazing night for us all. I can't tell you what a privilege it was to stand on that stage, and represent this wonderful movement of ours. So many thoughts crowding in – and fortunately crowding out the fact that none of us had slept in 24 hours! How it started here in Britain, over 30 years ago.

People, and then the Ecology Party, as the first political movement based on ecological principles. On what we have come to call Green principles. And the years, the decades, of work by so many thousands of people, over so many years, believing against all the odds, ignored or even at times ridiculed, by the mainstream, yet never losing faith. A long journey, a difficult journey – where the odds have been stacked against us all the way.

But the results showed us, and the wider world, that the big guns don't always win in politics.

That's a wonderful message to put out.

The idea that politics can be different.

It puts me in mind of the Critical Mass cycle rides.

You might remember when the police were trying to stop the London rides, using one of the many hundreds of pieces of anti-protest legislation brought in by Labour, that they tried to find out who were the leaders of Critical Mass, so they could serve an injunction on them And of course, it doesn't have any leaders. It's spontaneous.

People gather, and when the time is right, when everyone is ready, someone chooses to pedal off. It's as simple, as powerful, as that. And with Critical Mass, as with the Green Party, it's not the one at the front who matters. It's everyone who is there.

All of us here today, and all our members and supporters, past and present.

And the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, of people who put their faith in Green candidates. They are what made it happen in Brighton. It's been a long journey.

But it's also the beginning of a new one, as a political party represented at Westminster at last.

We have been given the chance to be that new voice in politics. That is a great responsibility.

And like the achievement of this historic victory, the responsibilities that come with it are shared.

As too is the challenge ahead to build on the collective wins and achievements. As the Holyrood elections approach, it's crucial to grasp that challenge head on.

There are tasks we now face together, as Green parties.

First, what we want to achieve, and how we articulate this for the many people who, for the first time, are looking to the Green Party with interest. People who are open to what we stand for but do not necessarily identify themselves as Green voters.

We have always sought to combine aspiration and pragmatism.

We dare to think big, to imagine the world that we want, not the world we are told we have to put up with. Some of our ideas have become mainstream.

Lowering the voting age to 16, for example, was seen as a bit of a joke when we first put it forward. Now, it feels like an idea whose time is coming.

Or the living wage, the supposedly radical idea of paying people enough to be able to afford to live a decent life, to pay the bills and put a bit by – an idea which Green London Assembly Members Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson fought for and won on the, and which is now being picked up across the country.

Including, of course, by Green MSPs who have combined their campaign with calls for a clampdown on excessive salaries at the top of the public sector, and for fairer taxation on high pay and financial transactions.

But we are also pragmatists. Our experience as elected representatives has taught us that sometimes the best can be the enemy of the good, and that it's right to concentrate on the areas where we can make real improvements to people's lives now. Idealism and pragmatism – I believe that Green parties needs both.

More than that, I believe each one of us needs both.

We shouldn't see ourselves as one or the other – idealist or pragmatist. We all need to keep our eyes on ideals, to influence the debate, to shape the future. And we all need the satisfaction that comes from making a difference here and now.

It needs discipline to get the balance right.

But we can be daring and imaginative, and also practical.

For example, I've said before that I'd like to see the law changed to allow candidates for Parliament stand as job shares. Nothing would do more to open up politics to women.

Now I know the Daily Mail and the rest of them have poured scorn on the idea and say its ideas like that which make us unelectable.

Fine. Let them. But I also know that this too is an idea whose time will come.

We've been told that job-shares are no good for all sorts of professions, from doctors to lawyers, and in every case the men and women in those job shares have proved the doubters wrong.

It's little different from the time when we were told that women didn't have what it took to be pilots, or a blind person couldn't serve as a magistrate.

These battles must be fought, and whatever the criticism, I will fight them and I know you will too.
And of course, we will also continue to repeat the apparently heretical notion that a world of finite resources cannot sustain a system of infinite production and consumption, however much politicians of the other parties act as if the contrary were true.
So we must never lose that radical perspective.

That is the first challenge.

The second is about welcoming new members.

Some have come from other parties.

Labour members, who have finally realized that even with the passing of Blair and Brown, they are still stuck in the New Labour nightmare.

Labour's leadership campaign was a demonstration of political amnesia on a positively heroic scale.

The gang of four men – the “geeks in suits" in Dianne Abbott's words – collectively chose to forget as much of Labour's record as they possibly could. Iraq? PFI? The BAE bribery scandal? Growing inequality? Rising carbon emissions? They act as if they were out to lunch while it all had happened.

And with the anointed Ed Miliband seemingly paralysed by whether red or another shade suits him best, many Labour supporters know that the party will never again truly represent them.

They've had enough of Labour. Some have had enough of politics full stop.

But others still believe that it is important to be involved, and still want to work to defend the vulnerable, stand up to big business and vested interests, and take care of our natural environment.

To those people, I say the Green Party is the only alternative.

Our Green parties are gaining members from the Liberal Democrats too. Perhaps their anguish and sense of betrayal is all the more sharp, for being so unexpected.

Could they really have imagined during the election campaign, when Nick Clegg could hardly open his mouth without saying the word “fairness", that they would be voting for the most brutal, savage cuts in a generation?

Cuts that are knowingly aimed at the most vulnerable? Cuts that, as even the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently confirmed, clearly hit the poorest hardest, and women most of all?

Cuts which are as economically illiterate as they are socially devastating, because it is at a time of recession that we need government investment in jobs all the more.

Cuts which are decimating communities up and down the country.

Those on the growing housing waiting lists, who wait in vain for a decent home that they can afford.

Young people, out of work, and seeing the services designed to help them, slashed.

Now let me make clear, I am not against political parties working together. Greens have co-operated with other parties on local councils and in the European Parliament.

Other Green parties in Europe have entered coalitions. And at Westminster, I have voted alongside members from all the other parties when this was the way to represent our policies and our values. I know, too, that this sometimes means difficult decisions and compromises.

I don't criticise Nick Clegg and those around him for agreeing to work with other parties.

But I do criticise him for the terms of that deal. Amongst Liberal Democrats, the rebellion against this coalition is growing.

But what an irony it would be if Liberal Democrat members, appalled by their alliance with the Tories, should switch their support to the Labour Party.

A Labour Party which, with its obsession with privatization and PFI, has spent the last 13 years paving the way for the coalition's assault on public services, increasing inequality, toadying to the rich, undermining our civil liberties and plunging us into an illegal and ruinous war in Iraq.

With the principles and courage to be honest with the public about the greatest issues of our time, such as climate change, I say to Scottish Liberal Democrats who feel betrayed by their leaders, the Green Party is the only alternative.

And there are Conservatives too who see that the kind of government Cameron offers – vacuous on the outside, and shamelessly favouring the rich and powerful underneath – is not for them.

Many people were taken in by Cameron's silky words on the environment. Vote Blue, get Green. No wonder he was paid so much when he worked in Public Relations.

It sounds so much better than Vote Blue, Screw You. Now we see the reality.

The Sustainable Development Commission, there to tell government uncomfortable truths: axed.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which has advised on new environmental standards since the 1970s: axed.

Funding for environmental protection: cut.

Green energy targets, weakened.

And nothing, not one single thing, in the Queen's Speech to protect our natural world or deal with climate change.

Is this what they mean by the greenest government ever?
And what of supporters of the SNP?

I'm sure they share our disappointment that open cast coal extraction has increased significantly on the SNP's watch and that nationalists have failed to oppose deepwater oil drilling. They talk about an energy revolution, but look closer, and their economic strategy is built on an addiction to oil.

Did anyone who voted SNP expect them to block crucial minimum wage legislation designed to tackle the fact that around 1/5 of Scottish public sector workers earn less than £7 per hour? Yet they have done just that.

What about student debt – the SNP did a U-turn on their promise to provide travel concessions for young people in education, and have failed to properly tackle the rising debts that discourage so many from continuing to further and higher education.

On PFI, the SNP continue to allow new projects to start up and give their blessing to raiding future public budgets so as to deliver years of subsidy to private shareholders.

Even on the core issue of a referendum on independence, the SNP have left behind them a trail of broken promises. They have played politics with the constitutional future of Scotland and the Scottish people deserve better.

So to disillusioned SNP voters we say – take a look at what the Greens and you will see a party that stands up for its principles. A party with a future.

And most important of all, we should be there to welcome those who have given up on politics altogether. We must offer them hope, and live up to Green values.

Young people, who give up on politics before they have even begun, because they listen to the messages coming from the big 3 parties, and hear nothing at all that speaks to them about the things they are concerned with – climate change, global poverty, the state of the world that they will soon inherit.

We must make sure we reach them, too.

So a third challenge is how to build a stronger party, one which represents more communities at local and, in time, at national level.

The tired SNP government has run out of steam.

The Tories are an electoral sideshow in Scotland and their Lib Dem bed fellows have betrayed the trust put in them by voters.

Labour goes into the Scottish elections ahead in the polls but commanding little public enthusiasm and still riven by the same New Labour vs Old Labour conflict.

In contrast the Greens are a fresh face, looking forward to a fairer and greener future for the country, and with a decade in parliament behind us now in Scotland.

Looking forward and on course to win MSPs in all 8 regions next year. Building on the incredible achievements of previous MSPs in winning money for home insulation, community action on climate change and on the way the budget is presented to Parliament.

By welcoming new members, enabling them to contribute to the fullest possible extent, we can turn their, and our, desire for a better country into more local parties, more candidates, more Green representatives and finally into more Green administrations. I spoke earlier about responsibilities. One that I feel particularly heavily is the Green Party in England and Wales' role as an opposition party within Westminster. I doubt that any of us expected the realignment of British politics that has come in the aftermath of May's election. But its implications are becoming ever more clear.

And one of these is that, on a whole range of issues, there is no effective opposition to the coalition and its plans.
And that makes the role of Green Parties even more important than ever.

Take nuclear power. The Conservatives are in favour. So are Labour. And now that the Liberal Democrats have joined forces with the Tories, their ability to put the other case is fatally compromised.

And so we have the prospect of a resurgence of a dirty, dangerous and discredited form of power just at the moment when we should, as a nation, be investing in the energy sources of the future. And that's why we need the Green Party.

The inability of the other parties to mount effective opposition is bad for democracy.

It denies the public the right to have the vital issues of the day debated and scrutinised in Parliament.

Take Trident. The public are hardly clamouring to replace it. Particularly at a cost of perhaps £100 billion, after the costs of servicing and the inevitable delays are taken into account.

And like many senior military figures, they don't see how it will make this country any safer. But again, the Tories are for it. Labour are for it. And the poor Lib Dems are to be let off the leash for the night to vote against, safe in the knowledge that it will go through anyway.

And remember, this isn't a minor disagreement about the detail of legislation. This isn't Clause 94 of the Local Government Finance Bill. This is a question of whether Britain will spend £100 billion expanding its nuclear arsenal. Yet there is no serious debate. This isn't democracy. It's a conspiracy of self interest. And that's why we need the Green Party. On so many issues, from the creeping privatization of public services to detention without trial, from pursing GDP growth targets at the expense of our long-term economic interests to savage cuts in support for social housing, in Westminster there is nothing to choose between the three main parties. And so this responsibility falls to us.

Housing is a prime example where the Green Party can offer something very different - and succeed. We have the right policies, from a rapid expansion of affordable and sustainable housing and cracking down on abuse by private landlords, to making the VAT treatment of new build and renovation fairer.

We also know that these policies are affordable and will secure tens of thousands of jobs across the economy in trades such as plumbing, carpentry and electrical installing, as well as reducing poverty and ill-health.

Yet those in dire need of good quality secure housing face a bleak future as the government cuts kick in.

Despite compelling social, economic and environmental benefits, housing just doesn't have the same pull with the political elites as the arms trade or the nuclear industry. As a result, housing is starved of investment and nothing is done to tackle high rental rates or bring empty properties back into use. The result? My surgeries are filled with people facing growing debts and ultimately homelessness. That is why I have pledged make housing one of the corner-stones of my work in Westminster in the years to come.

Friends, it is a great pleasure to be joining you for the first time as Britain's first Green MP.

My personal journey and that of our party owes much to one man in particular and to whom I want to pay special tribute today – Robin Harper.

As many of you will know, Robin was first elected as an MSP back in 1999 creating a platform for England and Wales to win its first Green seats in the European Parliament a month later. By leading the way Robin helped make the steps that followed easier – contributing to Green credibility and helping to build momentum.

This is Robin's last conference as an MSP and I know you will all join me in thanking him for his dedication and immense contribution over the years.

I can think of no better way of repaying Robin than by making sure that Greens build on the historic success of this year's British general election and secure the best ever results at Holyrood next year.

The Scottish and Welsh elections in 2011 will be the first real test for the Liberal Democrats in particular since entering into the coalition.

I can only imagine they are bracing themselves.

Not only are they presiding over savage cuts, but they seem to enjoy wielding the axe.

And that enthusiasm – with George Osborne and Danny Alexander competing to give the best impression of Freddie Kruger – gives the lie to the idea that these cuts are necessary because of the current recession.

We can see that they are ideologically driven. Many Tories, and some Liberal Democrats, want a smaller state and will use the financial crisis as the excuse to achieve it – even at the risk of plunging us back into recession.

Next year's elections are also a test for anyone who claims the title progressive.

For the last 2 centuries progressive politics has depended on ever rising economic growth and prosperity in order to bring about a redistribution of power.

And as the economy has grown, so elites have been persuaded to give up a little bit of their wealth and power.

They have accepted a little more taxation and redistribution; they have allowed political power to be spread a little more thinly.

That's not surprising. It's easier to ask people to take a smaller percentage of an ever growing cake.

But it has two consequences.

First, it gives the illusion of greater equality, while allowing for greater concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few.

And so Britain can, after 13 years of a Labour government, be more unequal than before they came to power.

Second, the prosperity itself may be built on rotten foundations. Already, we in Britain consume three times more than the world can sustain on an equitable basis.

The growth that has paid for our welfare state is built on the exploitation of natural resources and on the exploitation of people here and around the world.

We use up our resources and say we are better off.

We haven't considered that by any rational measure, we are becoming not richer, but poorer. That economic growth is becoming uneconomic.

We don't think of the consequences of our actions in years to come.

This is seen most clearly in the approach to climate change.

The next 8-10 years are going to be absolutely critical in terms of getting our emissions in the industrialised world to peak, and start to come down. If we don't act within that briefest of windows of opportunity, then the chances of avoiding the worst of the climate crisis get very much slimmer.

And that means fundamentally challenging our current growth model.

We cannot address climate change, slow the loss of threatened species and habitats, manage chronic water and resource shortages and put an end to over fishing and continuing soil erosion, whilst pursuing pretty much the same kind of economic growth that brought these natural systems to the edge of collapse in the first place.

The real challenge then for progressive politicians is to grasp that an incremental approach to tackling climate change is doomed to fail.

It's a challenge Greens are ready to face.

It's why voters from all the other parties are now turning to us.

It is just one example of why we the Green Party need to be represented in Westminster and in the Scottish parliament.

Why for all those years, so many worked so hard towards the moment, when we would take our place at the heart of British politics. The long journey has been worth it. Now we are there. Now our work together can begin.