Greening the city: an interview with Siân Berry

Andrew Dolan talks to Siân Berry about her plans to democratise the Green Party’s London mayoral campaign and the future of the Greens

August 3, 2015 · 12 min read

sian-berrySiân Berry outside London’s City Hall. Photo: Sven Klinge

London Green Party members are currently voting on their candidate for next year’s London mayoral election. The result will be announced in September, signalling the beginning of an eight-month campaign that may turn out to be as significant for the Greens as the previous year and a half. During this period Green Party membership more than trebled to almost 70,000 and the party achieved its highest-ever vote in the general election.

Although it failed to improve on the one seat it won in 2010, the ‘Green surge’ has nonetheless dramatically transformed the party and consolidated its position in a changing political landscape. Parties outside the main three secured a historically high 24.8 per cent of the vote in May and with growing support for proportional representation and a referendum on the UK’s EU membership scheduled for 2017, there will be multiple opportunities for them to increase their political influence. The London mayoral election is one of these.

Among the candidates hoping to represent the Green Party in 2016, Siân Berry is arguably the standout choice. Having led the party to a record fourth place finish in the 2008 London mayoral election and backed by the party’s only MP, Caroline Lucas, Berry has the experience and profile necessary to compete with what will likely be a heavyweight political line up. Berry’s candidacy could also represent an opportunity to do electoral politics differently.

Following the election of radical women mayors representing ‘citizen platforms’ in Barcelona and Madrid, Berry argued in an article for the Left Foot Forward blog that a similar grassroots approach was needed in London. Specifically, she wants the Green Party to replicate the process through which thousands of people in Barcelona contributed to the development of the programme on which the housing activist Ada Colau was elected in June. At the heart of this democratically designed manifesto were plans for an end to evictions, the construction of social housing and the democratisation of public institutions.

A British Podemos?

Berry’s enthusiasm for the recent events in Spain is obvious. But where others have called for citizen platform-style politics in London or for a ‘British Podemos’, she has a more nuanced understanding of what is possible in the current context: ‘What I’m seeing in London is not so much that there’s an organised pool for something similar to happen but that every time there is a problem, whether it’s related to government policy and its effects on people, or a housing association trying to close sheltered housing, as is now happening in Islington, the grassroots activism around it is so profound and so diverse. People throughout the community are getting together and I get the feeling that things are really bubbling up in London in much the same way [as in Spain].’

According to Podemos’ international representative, Eduardo Maura, ‘Podemos’ ability to stand in the European elections was very much dependent on the social power accumulated by the social movements.’ Berry says that is not yet present in the UK, despite the resonance of campaigns such as Focus E15. She does, however, see an ‘energy’ in communities that has the potential to vitalise the London mayoral election. The first step is to involve people in developing Green Party policy.

Although the detail of how this will be done is not yet clear, it is likely that it will involve a change in the way Green Party election manifestos are formulated – typically, at present, by a manifesto group that draws from the party’s Policies for a Sustainable Society document to produce a manifesto that, in the case of the London elections, would then be approved by the London party. Asked whether some party members might be hostile to the bypassing of established processes, Berry is convinced it will not be a problem: ‘I think we are the party that has that approach anyway. Most of our members are also involved in campaigns in the local area and a lot of our members are also very new.’

‘There is little risk,’ she continues, ‘that if we outsource our policies they will be radically different, or against our values and principles. I think they might be more nuanced: we’re not a very diverse party and we probably miss out issues that apply to certain communities that aren’t part of the Greens at the moment. If we went and asked we might find new ideas and slightly different ways of doing things.’

Sounding convincing

With a wealth of experience campaigning on a range of issues, from anti-war to air pollution, Berry has the credibility to sound convincing when talking of the need for electoral politics to respond to and learn from developments beyond the ballot box. She is adamant that the Green Party will not do what she says Labour so frequently does, claiming to listen to people yet failing to change and then banking on its self-proclaimed status as ‘the only credible and serious party’ to secure votes. In contrast, with their historical commitment to working both in and outside parliament, she says the Greens are ‘the right party to do something [like this] and ought to be structuring our campaign not as a list of policies but instead recognising problems to solve and then going out to talk to Londoners about how to do it.

‘Otherwise, although we’ve just put together a really cracking manifesto for the general election, there is a danger that for London we’ll just pick the really good bits and just promote them in a marketing kind of way to people. I think we have to be much more activist in our approach.’ It’s through talking to Londoners, Berry insists, ‘that the Green Party might just end up with a manifesto that wins the election’.

In addition to encouraging participation and creating a winning manifesto, Berry hopes that this approach will also have an impact on Green Party members and result in better councillors where they are elected. Berry is encouraging prospective councillors to spend ‘more of their weekends involved in community campaigns – not as a cynical thing [but] because it’s good in its own right and because if you’re thinking about being a councillor then this is what being a councillor is about.’

As a councillor herself, for Highgate, in the London borough of Camden, Berry adds: ‘I spend a lot of my time at meetings with civic societies, with local campaigners, with people trying to stop a planning application or to save a park. I want our members involved as a way of [understanding] what being a councillor is like so we have better councillors. We’re not just working towards London 2016, we’ve got London council elections in 2018, which is a real challenge for us. Council elections are first-past-the-post and only every four years and it’s very, very hard for us to win them.’

A shared idea, a shared platform?

Berry is of course not the only one who seeks to channel the energy and ideas of the grassroots towards the upcoming London mayoral election. The independent campaign Take Back the City was launched earlier this year and is currently creating a ‘People’s Manifesto’ based on contributions from communities, campaigners and trade unionists, with the hope of electing a ‘Mayor of London who will make our voices heard’. Berry acknowledges the importance of independent campaigns of this nature and even hints at the possibility of encouraging a mutual exchange of second preferences were the Take Back the City campaign to take off.

When reminded of the party’s 2012 London mayoral candidate Jenny Jones’ recent statement that many Greens will in fact register their second preferences for ‘the very green, committed and passionate’ – and Conservative – Zac Goldsmith were he to stand, Berry is adamant that Jones is ‘very wrong. No matter how wonderful the Conservative was – and they could be ten times greener than Zac Goldsmith – they would still be a Conservative and have right-wing economic policies and I just don’t see the London Green Party saying give a vote to a Conservative.’

Returning to Take Back the City – with whom Berry has been in contact – she admits their model is ‘very similar’ to how she would like to run the Green Party’s campaign, and the policies that the People’s Manifesto so far contains – from rent controls to tackling air pollution – are ‘exactly the sort of thing we want to do as well’.

For Berry, ‘The more people asking Londoners how they think London should be run and the more people that feel involved the better.’ Yet for practical reasons, she is focused solely on a Green Party campaign for London Mayor rather than the type of coalitions witnessed in Spain, where the recently emerged left-wing party Podemos has supported citizen platforms rather than running its own candidates.

If the Greens were to enter a coalition, Berry explains, they ‘would no longer be the party that came third last time, they would be something else, and it would give the BBC the perfect excuse to cut us out,’ since a party’s share of air time is related to its most recent electoral performance. ‘We are an established political force,’ Berry elaborates, ‘and in Britain the media is very conservative and so something that has sprung up entirely from the grassroots, expecting to win London in a year, is asking quite a lot. Having somebody who has the platform, who can go on TV and talk about anti-austerity, sorting out the housing crisis and really rethinking policing – who knows what can happen?’

Beyond a mainstream media presence, the Green Party’s greatest asset in the election will be its membership, which in London is now over 12,000. When Berry stood for London Mayor in 2008 it was just over 1,000. Despite the electoral influence of the media, both traditional and social, such an increase in ground campaigning capacity cannot be discounted.

New members

The numbers behind the Green surge are now well documented. But what is less known are the politics of those who have joined. A sizeable contingent of new members share a history of social movement activism and anti-capitalist politics. Although the Green Party has since its inception been characterised by a relative ideological diversity, in a recent internal governance review some of the members who contributed expressed worry over the possibility of ‘political infiltration’ of the party – a concern that may grow as thousands of new members integrate into the party over the coming months.

Berry, however, is adamant that there will be no such problems: ‘People aren’t joining because they are radically different to us but because of the things we’ve done and said, and our policy processes and our manifesto and our philosophical basis – which everyone has to sign up to in order to join – appeal to them. If people have joined by mistake then that’s okay. But I think most people know what they are getting into and if they want to change certain things then we’ve got processes for doing it.’

She acknowledges, however, that some processes ‘don’t stand up to this level of membership. They’re either too cumbersome, or in the case of four members signing a policy motion, not cumbersome enough.’

Green and other colours

Berry also wants to improve the Green Party’s lack of diversity. Many of those who have joined, she says, have done so ‘because we look like them. It reflects the current membership and it reflects the image that we have. In Camden, for example, 25-30 per cent of our members should be BME [black or minority ethnic], yet they are not. It’s maybe ten per cent. It doesn’t at all approach representing Camden in that way. I think we have to make a more concerted effort to go out and recruit people. On one level, people join what seems to look like them. And if we don’t look like BME people we’re not going to attract them to the party. We can’t just assume that the Green surge will fix that.’

Berry’s suggested approach is informed by the activist ethos that underpins her ideas for the London mayoral election. It is essential, she explains, that the Green Party gets ‘involved in people’s campaigns, things like Take Back the City, or [goes] out into places such as Tottenham to canvass.

‘During the general election, when we went to the big estates, which are not demographically our best areas and not necessarily where our demographic software would tell us to go, we got a fantastic reception. The big estates were taken for granted by Labour – hardly anyone ever visited. We rocked up and explained that we wanted to help and we got a really good reception. But it’s not one thing fits all, it’s a process.’

‘We’ve got a really good grouping now called Greens of Colour,’ Berry adds. ‘They are thinking of strategies and a couple of people who I’ve just endorsed for equalities and diversity coordinators, are [hoping] to run national initiatives. It’s so necessary.’

Whatever the future holds for the Green Party, Berry is ‘completely’ convinced of the likelihood of a Podemos-style surge, which would see the Green Party shift from the electoral periphery to the forefront. ‘As Paul Mason said,’ she elaborates, ‘when change comes it doesn’t come slowly, especially in cities that are so self-contained. I think the particular combination of the online spreading of ideas plus the ease with which you can organise online to get people into places and onto the streets, works at a physical level in the city really, really well.’

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