'More difference than any other vote'
The next general election promises a breakthrough for the Green Party. And its leader for England and Wales, MEP Caroline Lucas, may be on her way to a seat in the Commons. Erik Jaques meets the controversial politician
All that could be about to change, however, if Caroline Lucas, Green Member of European Parliament (MEP) for the South-east of England since 1999, and the first ever Green party leader for England and Wales (since September last year) has her way.
Don't be fooled by her elfin appearance - this is a woman packing a formidable dialectical punch and has a passionate, vocal approach unmatched in Whitehall. Gordon Brown is pegged as "spineless". David Cameron "exists in a carefully manufactured policy vacuum". Leaders of large energy companies are curtly branded as "robber barons".
She's a prodigious writer, exhorting on subjects as varied as trade justice and animal welfare in articles, reports and books (the most widely known being Green Alternatives to Globalisation: A Manifesto, co-written with the late former Green Party principal speaker Mike Woodin), while her generous blog entries range from in-depth accounts of fact-finding missions to Palestine to vociferous support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
No stranger to controversy, Lucas has been arrested several times for her role in demonstrations, on one occasion taking her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to argue such treatment contravened the European Convention of Human Rights.
She recently hit the headlines after comments she made on a televised debate about the expansion of Heathrow were erroneously interpreted as suggesting air travel was "as bad as stabbing a person the street".
It's no wonder that notorious agit-comic Mark Thomas is a committed fan and has lent his voice to the Green's European election campaign on 4 June. A personality like hers does not go unnoticed. Last year, Lucas was named Politician of the Year by Observer readers in the paper's Ethical Awards. She made the New Statesman's Person of the Year award top ten in 2006, came eighth in the New Consumer Magazine's top 100 ethical heroes list, and was identified as one of BBC Wildlife magazine's Top 50 conservationists.
While appearances on such lists may not reliably translate into electoral votes, she is without a doubt the most credible and recognisable leadership figure the Green Party has known. With a decent base of more than 100 Greens in local councils up and down the country, two members in the London Assembly, and optimism surrounding the European elections, there's clearly a sense that, if there ever was a time for a Green Party to seize the moment, it is now.
Indeed, in a recent speech, Jonathon Porritt, chair of government watchdog, the Sustainable Development Commission, pointed out that 65% of the policies of the Green Party's (then known as the Ecology Party) 1979 manifesto had been adopted by "mainstream" parties.
The next General Election looks set to herald the big breakthrough. Lucas herself has a chance to claim the constituency of Brighton Pavilion - which recorded the highest ever vote for a Green Party candidate in 2005 (22%) - while Norwich South and Lewisham Deptford are also seen as realistic targets.
"To get the first Green MP would make more difference than any other vote," Lucas says brightly. "Entry into parliament of the first Greens would really shake up the whole political system, and I think that's actually quite a compelling message for a lot of people."
Lucas believes the Green Party offers the only viable alternative to the government's leadership on climate change, where bold rhetoric and groundbreaking legislation (the Climate Change Act) remain compromised by policy decisions (airport expansion, nuclear energy, the "intellectually incoherent" carbon capture and storage).
She raises the government's economic stimulus configuration as a prime example of bottling the challenge, citing a study by the New Economics foundation that noted that a mere 0.6% of the money would help engender a lowcarbon economy. "I mean, that is pitiful. It's derisory. It's a betrayal of British workers and it's a betrayal of the environment," she cries, becoming increasingly animated.
Another recent incident that has her incandescent with rage is Labour's reluctance to help Britain's only wind turbine manufacturing plant, Vestas's Isle of Wight operation, out of the financial quagmire. "Britain is the best placed country in the whole of Europe when it comes to wind power, yet this government has managed to set up such a poorly functioning infrastructure and policy framework for renewable energies [that the Isle of Wight plant] is going out of business now because it can't make money," she exclaims.
"It is criminal for them to allow that to happen."
As for the greened-up Conservatives, Lucas remains unconvinced, although she concedes his party's new stance has stoked positive debate and even indirectly turned people on to the merits of the Green Party.
"People start to look at what David Cameron is offering and realise it is completely insubstantial and then they're much likely to come to the 'real thing', which is the Green Party," she says.
"What you see up and down the country is Tory councillors who are as reactionary as they were. They haven't fundamentally changed. If I think about Tory MEPs in the European parliament, they are the ones that are dragging down the ambition of our environmental policy. There is such a gulf between the reality and the rhetoric and I think the public is beginning to see that."
The Green Party argues for a target of 90% reduction in all greenhouse gases by 2030, and has put a President Roosevelt-inspired Green New Deal which Lucas helped devise last July along with eight of the UK's top financial and environmental experts, at the heart of its economic policy. A costed £30B plan for investment in the new green economy, it claims it will be able to create a million jobs at a conservative estimate.
Among its key features are drives to reduce the emissions of buildings (including free insulation for every home) and the creation of new national investment products (such as local government bonds) to fund this work.
It calls for massive investment in renewable energy and overhauls of the electricity grid and public transport. The Sustainable Development Commission weighed in with a report containing uncannily similar advice this April.
"If we had a massive investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, that wouldn't only be good for the environment - it would be one of the quickest ways of creating far more jobs.
"Green energies are far more job-rich than the fossil fuel energies that they replace. So, if we're talking about getting people back to work, if we're talking about really giving a boost to local economies around the country, then an environmental set of priorities is exactly the way to do it.
So there's a real potential win-win out there, and it is enormously perverse that Gordon Brown is staring in the face and yet refusing [to act]."
Lucas is quick to note that the Green Party ethos is already up and running in Kirklees Metropolitan Borough, Yorkshire, where councillors have been instrumental in bringing free insulation to 40,000 households, creating 200 new jobs and saving families £150 a year on average.
For all that, the key to a substantial Green Party breakthrough is convincing the electorate there's more than one string to their bow.
Policies include tough planning rules to increase the amount of affordable housing, a higher minimum wage (or "living wage"), a "truly ethical" foreign policy (cancelling UK debt to 52 of world's poorest countries, increasing overseas aid budget by 1% of UK's gross national investment) and an educational system devoid of SATS and league tables. And, perhaps attuned to the increasingly vocal public abhorrence of fiscal greed, there is a striking proposal to raise income tax to 55% for those earning more than £100,000 a year, and to 70% for those making more than £1M.
Lucas concedes that people in areas where Green councillors have yet to make an impact assume they are a single-issue party but claims that, given a chance, sceptics can be converted.
She points to her first electoral success as an example of the party's ability to demonstrate their competence. In 1993, she won the Green Party's first ever seat on Oxfordshire County Council (a post she held until 1997). Today, Oxford Green Party has five county councillors and seven city councillors, one of which (Elise Benjamin) is deputy mayor.
Another point Lucas is keen to make is that, while many in the UK have an image of the Green Party as political also-rans, the party's many incarnations across Europe are afforded far more respect by both media and public.
"The UK media's coverage of what happens in Europe is pitiful. If you compare it to other EU countries, I often see the German news or the French news or whatever when there's been an important decision in the parliament then it gets on the front pages the following day," she says.
"Whereas in this country it probably isn't there at all. And, if it is, it's on page 11 with some completely misleading headline. I do think the national media has the responsibility to cover much more seriously decisions that affect people's lives here in Britain to an enormous extent.
Ninety percent of all environmental policy in Britain basically emerges from the European institutions, and over 50% of social policy, so people need to be able to understand that process as much as possible so they can influence and shape it."
With 43 representatives, the European Greens and the European Free Alliance (which consists of parties representing stateless nations) is the European Parliament's fourth largest group.
Lucas is a solid European politician, and has a pretty impressive list of achievements to her name. For example, as a member of the Trade and Energy Committee from 1999 to 2004, she forced the European Commission to undertake legal investigations into the British nuclear industry and promoted green energy as the alternative. As Parliament's Rapporteur (draftsperson) on a far-reaching Commission Communication on the impact of air transport on the environment, she persuaded the European Parliament to support the introduction of new environmental charges and noise restrictions on airlines. And, as a member of the Environment Committee, Caroline has amended legislation to strengthen the case against GM crops.
As a part of the Green coalition in the European parliament, she has also played her role in pushing the EU's extensive "climate package" legislation towards reality: by 2020, European governments will have to cut emissions by at least 20%, increase renewable energy use by 20% and reduce energy consumptions by 20%.
Lucas despairs over the package's shortcomings - and hopes that it will be considerably scaled up in the wake of an international climate change agreement - but acknowledges that, if it weren't for the Greens, it would not have been anywhere as stringent as it currently is.
Our time is up, European electioneering beckons. But, before she goes, Lucas ponders the question of whether or not we are ever likely to see a member of the Green Party in 10 Downing Street in our lifetime; after all, Labour went from its first MP to lead the government in a mere 24 years - and that was without overwhelming environmental imperatives.
"Look at Germany, which had [Joseph Martin] Joshka Fischer as foreign minister, who was one of the most high-profile, well liked foreign ministers in the whole of Europe," she concludes. If we can have a foreign minister, we can certainly have a prime minister!
"What we need to do is paint a more compelling picture of what a low-carbon or zerocarbon economy would look like, what a green society would look like, the benefits in terms of stronger local communities, stronger local economies, much better public transport, much more flexible working hours - there are so many things we can hold up and say these are the positive benefits of making that transition."