Caroline Lucas: People are looking to the Greens for leadership

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Yesterday Caroline Lucas was elected as leader of the Green party in England and Wales. She made her first speech to the party conference as leader yesterday.

Thank you all for this great honour and responsibility.

To become Green Party leader at this time, when we stand together on the verge of so much, is tremendously exciting.

This year, we’ve seen more and more people looking for our leadership – yours and mine – to enable them to make real changes in their lives and in their communities.

Leadership like that shown by the Greens in Norwich, who – at the local elections in May, achieved an historic breakthrough –

—  by being the first Green Party to become the official opposition on a city Council.

—  by winning more seats than Labour across the entire city, and more votes than any other party for the second year running.

Norwich Greens have firmly established their challenge to Labour at the next General Election –

And it’s now clear that, if anyone can claim this scalp and replace Charles Clarke in Westminster, it’s our newly elected deputy leader, Adrian Ramsay.

Leadership like that shown by all our elected members, up and down the country, who together are delivering real improvements in people’s lives, day in, day out.

Because Norwich is by no means alone. In May’s local elections, Greens made important breakthroughs across the country, in places like Cambridge, and Solihull.

We gained council group status in Liverpool, and more seats in Sheffield, showing that when people elect Green councillors, they like what they get, and they want more.

We showed that Greens can win seats anywhere in the country, in the inner cities as well as in rural areas.

And here in London, Green mayoral candidate Sian Berry won the backing not just of one national newspaper, but of two. Both the Independent and the Observer called for voters to back her in this year’s London election.

In a huge squeeze in May, which saw the LibDem vote collapse and the loss of two of their Assembly Members, we succeeded in increasing the Green vote, and retaining our pivotal role in London politics.

Darren Johnson, as deputy chair of the Assembly, and Jenny Jones, are already making life difficult for Boris Johnson – proving that it is the Greens who are now the most effective opposition party in London.

And I know that Darren and Jenny will go on proving it, because they are two of the most inspiring, hardworking Greens I have ever met.

And let me mention one other crucial result in those London elections – finishing ahead of the BNP.

A vital moment for the state of our national politics, at a time when people feel so betrayed by the cosy Westminster village, that the BNP can present themselves as an alternative.

And so we’re not done with them yet.

Everywhere they stand, we’ll stand. Every street they canvas, we’ll canvass too.

And every time they wrap themselves in the Union Jack, we should be there to remind people that, bigotry, violence and racism have no place in this country.

But this is not the only challenge we face in the year to come.

The European Elections will be a vital opportunity to take the Green message to new people, and to return a record number of MEPs.

It will be a tough election for us, because higher thresholds will mean that we need more votes to return each MEP.

But we’re ready to make the strongest possible case for change, to return our two sitting MEPs, and to gain new ones.

By getting more Greens elected in Europe, we’ll be helping to defend social and environmental rights.

We’ll be challenging the increasing corporate influence in Brussels.

And we’ll be creating a far more transparent and accountable EU.

In my experience, though I say it myself, I can tell you that every Green MEP is worth ten from the other parties.

And I can’t think of better people to be our new Green MEPs in our target regions of the North West and Eastern regions than Peter Cranie and Rupert Read.

But these elections lie on the far side of what will be a tough winter for millions of people.

The gap between rich and poor in this country is becoming a chasm.

Inequality is at Victorian levels, and fuel prices are more punitive by the day.

After more than a decade of a Labour Government – a Labour Government -– one in five children in Britain is living in poverty.

I can understand why people once voted Labour, but I ask them – is this what you imagined would happen?

Did you see a Labour Government pricing the poor out of their right to education with top-up tuition fees?

A Labour government plunging Britain into two wars in support of a right wing American President?

Or turning us the into the world’s biggest arms seller – responsible for a third of global arms exports?

If you voted Labour because you cared about inequality or about access to education, or reducing crime, you must feel like you’ve been betrayed.

And you would be right.

But betrayal is not just about party politics. It goes deeper than that.

It leads people to believe that you can trust no-one.

That everyone is only out for what they can get. That promises are there to be broken.

That’s the democracy we’ve been left with, after Thatcher and Major, Blair and Brown.

And of course, it makes our job that much harder.

We have to help people to believe again, to put aside mistrust and cynicism.

And we need to convince them that another world really is possible.

Not easy. But it has to be done. And there’s no-one else to do it.

Greens in Westminster.

So in the year ahead, we must work to get Green MPs elected to Westminster.

We’ve shown what we can do in the European parliament, in councils up and down the country, and here in the London Assembly – but we urgently need to break the cosy cartel of the Westminster parties.

Take nuclear weapons: None of three Westminster parties dares to take a principled stand against replacing Trident.

Or take foreign policy, where the UK government has authorised the export of more than 15,000 sniper rifles to regimes across the world, tanks and components for military aircraft to China, and heavy machine guns to Colombia.

Labour are even-handed, of course.

Last year, they sold over £5 million of arms to Georgia. And £55 million to Russia.

I ask you – what sort of political leadership looks around the planet and thinks:  ‘What we really need, is more guns’?

The same political leadership that colludes in enhanced interrogation and extraordinary rendition. Or – as you and I would call it – torture, kidnapping and secret detention.

The same political leadership that told the Serious Fraud Office to cancel the inquiry into bribery over an arms deal because it might affect our business relations with Saudi Arabia.

Green MPs will not sell out on issues like 42 day detention or ID cards.

Green MPs would have the courage to argue for more democratic control over the police.

Greens support the police, of course, and recognize the tough job they face.

And our councillors understand that the people who suffer most from crime are the poor, the vulnerable.

But we also see the other side – ordinary communities left unprotected, while the police are used to try and stamp out legitimate protest.

Last month, I joined many other Greens at the Kingsnorth Climate Camp on the proposed site of the UK’s first coal FIRED power station in over 30 years.

And I was horrified to witness yet another attack on our civil liberties, with the police aggressively raiding the camp on several occasions.

Everyone who entered the site was searched.

Police officers took away anything that could be used for “illegal activity”, with efforts being made to strip protestors of such hardcore weapons of choice as bits of carpet, marker pens, and board games.

And in the absence of any serious threat, the police clearly found it necessary to justify their presence with an unprovoked attack -on personal hygiene, confiscating biodegradable soap, and yes, toilet paper.

But we have a serious message for both the police and the government, and our message is this:

Greens will do everything in our power to uphold the right to peaceful protest – and yes, if necessary, risk arrest – to prevent our headlong descent into climate chaos, and to secure the right of future generations to a world that’s fit to live in.

Our support for direct action, and the presence of so many of us amongst the activists at Kinsnorth, have set us apart again as a Party of principle.

On issues from climate change to weapons, from education to inequality, we offer so much more than politics as usual.

Take a simple idea like a windfall tax on the grotesque profits that companies are making from the growing energy crisis.

These are corporations whose profits have increased 6-fold in just 5 years, on the back of a double windfall – from rising oil and gas prices, and the £9 billion worth of carbon trading permits they were given by the government for free.

Just three companies – BP, Centrica, and Shell – together made £1000 profit every second over the first 6 months of this year.

Every penny on the price of oil means a surge of cash into the bank accounts of the world’s petro-giants.

Where does it come from? The pockets of working families, students, the elderly and the disabled.

For every 10% that the price of fuel rises, another 400,000 people are plunged into fuel poverty.

Since I first made this call for action against fuel profiteering, on Question Time three months ago, people from across the progressive coalition have rallied in support of the idea.

The energy giants like to throw their hands up – market conditions, global movements, nothing to do with us.

And they are getting away with it, because this spineless government lacks the political courage to introduce a tougher regulatory regime.

But this money, pulled from your pocket by the basic need to stay warm, doesn’t disappear into thin air.

It perpetuates the glaring injustices in our society, visibly widening the gap between the poorest and richest.

It disappears into the wallets of the men (and yes, they are usually men) at the top of the global pyramid of injustice.

Whose corporations are robbing from the poor to give to the rich and they know it.  And it’s about time they learned that in a progressive democracy, there is no place for robber barons.

Compare our values to those of the current political leadership – remember that four years ago Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, assured business leaders that the government would spend ‘what it takes’ on the war in Iraq.

Yes – a blank cheque.  Whatever it takes. Money no object. As long as it’s for war.

But for fighting poverty, or protecting education, or health care, or defending the environment, we’re always told to ‘be realistic’ – that resources are strictly limited.

Or look at crime:

We already have a record prison population. Over 80,000 people. Their response? Build more prisons. Bigger prisons. Titan prisons.

Do Labour believe it will work? Of course not. But this is not about leadership, it’s about the politics of fear. Fear of the media. Fear of the Tories.

Worst of all, fear of being honest with the public, of admitting that being tough on crime is not enough, that prison doesn’t work, and that we need the kind of sensible alternative that we, the Greens, offer.

Taking the resources about to be squandered on building more prisons and spending these on preventing people from going to prison in the first place – and on rehabilitation so that fewer people coming out of prison re-offend.

Or take climate change:

None of the grey Westminster parties has the courage or commitment to carry through the kind of green energy revolution that we urgently need.

Reducing demand. A massive investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

It can be done. But it means real honesty, and real leadership.

Instead, we have a prime minister who says that climate change is the greatest threat we face – but at the same time gives the go-ahead for a massive expansion of aviation, and prepares plans for a new fleet of coal-fired power stations.

We have a prime minister who says that he feels your pain on energy bills.

But instead of levying a windfall tax on oil profiteering, he rushes off to Saudi Arabia to beg the profiteers-in-chief for just enough more oil to keep us dependent.

And we have a prime minister who insists that his government is taking a global lead on climate change, while throughout his time in Number 11 and Number 10, carbon emissions have been not falling, but rising.

Labour, and the Tories persuade themselves – and try to persuade us – that cutting carbon emissions is painful or depressing or elitist.

As if warm houses and reliable public transport are somehow unpopular, or only matter to the comfortably off.

In a few years, people will look back bewildered and angry that – knowing what they knew in 2008 – none of the other main political parties in Britain confronted the most critical issue of our time.

Take the economy.

We don’t push the kind of materialism that leaves people unfulfilled, kills the human spirit and destroys the natural world.

More people are now realising that the pursuit of possessions doesn’t always make us happier, that consumption isn’t an end it itself, that the richness of our lives isn’t about just how many things we own.

But the three old parties can’t understand that – they’re too out of touch with people’s real aspirations that go beyond shallow, short-term consumerism.

We face huge economic challenges in the months and years to come. But our current political leadership has neither the imagination nor courage to do what’s needed.

Earlier this year, at our conference in Reading, I warned that $100 a barrel for oil was just the beginning, and it was. We’ve been given a glimpse of the future.

The old parties don’t know how to respond.

They’re simply not up to the job. Their advisers only give advice they think is ‘politically realistic’ – in other words, advice that won’t require any major transformation of the economy or business as usual.

Advice that says ignore the facts – you can have your cake and eat it – forever.

As we face a future of accelerating climate change, the need for fresh thinking, innovative ideas and radical action has never been more urgent.

Let me say a few more words about one proposal that has already been discussed at Conference – the idea of a Green New Deal

When the world faced economic depression back in the early 1930s, it was President Roosevelt’s New Deal that got people back to work with a massive investment in infrastructure.

Today we stand on the brink of a triple crisis – a combination of a credit-fuelled financial meltdown, accelerating climate change, and soaring energy prices, underpinned by an encroaching peak in oil production.

These three overlapping challenges threaten to develop into a crisis even more severe than the Great Depression – we need a Green New Deal in response.

First, a major structural transformation of the regulation of national and international financial systems, together with major changes to taxation systems.

And second, a sustained programme to invest in energy conservation and renewable energies, coupled with effective demand management and reduction.

The core would be a 21st century project to make the nation’s buildings truly energy efficient, with local authority bonds being issued to raise the necessary funds for a major investment in insulation, efficiency and renewables, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process.

And indeed Greens have already started doing this.  In Kirklees, for example, Green councillors have spearheaded an initiative to ensure that every home receives free insulation.

£10 million of investment has been leveraged from energy companies, saving the average family around £150 per year off their heating bills.

The Green New Deal is one of the most hopeful ideas in British politics today, a vision of a society where people and the environment come first.

I want to see a country where streets belong to people again, not cars.

Where public transport is clean and affordable, where shops are close to home, where kids can play outside their houses.

Where you don’t waste your life away stuck in traffic jams or in commuting such long hours to work.

Where you get to spend more time with your friends and family, doing things that matter.

Can we do this? Stranger things have happened.

I never imagined when I walked into the Green Party office in Clapham for the first time back in 1986 that one day I’d become the Green Party’s first leader.

I never imagined when I was thrown out of Oxfordshire County Council chamber in 1994 for ‘bringing the council into disrepute’ for – yes – breastfeeding – that I’d be addressing you all here today.

And I never imagined when I had my sons 12 and 15 years ago that I’d have to fight so hard for their basic right to live in a clean, safe world.

If we believe our fight is for everyone’s right to live a decent life, for the dignity of people all over the world, for the survival of the planet, we must not – cannot – settle for the satisfaction of just being right, of being able to say ‘We told you so’ when it all goes wrong.

We are not entitled to stay on the political margins.

We should look for power, win it and use it.

But we can only do that if we come together.

You must all know the experience of going on a march. You are in a sea of people you don’t know. Then you see a banner – for your local party.

You edge your way through the crowds and there you are, amongst people who you know, who are passionate about the same things that you are.

That feeling of strength that comes from working together for shared ideals.

I want to take that feeling out beyond the confines of our Party to reach out to people throughout the country.

We must raise our banner, proclaim our principles and give voice to our vision for the future.

And we must do all we can to ensure that anyone who wants to vote Green can do so.

Everyone who wants to find people who share their vision and optimism can do so.

Our aim must be to build local parties in every part of the Country.

To have candidates to represent every community.

Easy? No. But then, I don’t think any of us joined the Greens for an easy ride or for personal ambition.

We joined because we had no choice. A job needed to be done.

Which brings me back to where we started – with leadership.

I stand here today as the first leader that this Party has ever elected.  A momentous responsibility.

A symbol of how we are prepared to change not our principles, but how we put our principles into action.

Yet though we are making that change, we are only half-way there. Yes, we have a leader. But we must now make that leadership work. To show that we remain distinct from the other parties.

Do we want leadership like Labour? The clunking fist. The centralisation. The rooting out of any local or national democracy.

Placing all power in the hands of one man.

And what hands they are.

Brown has been shown to lack those qualities this country needs in a leader. And because he held all power, his fall is Labour’s fall.

Do we want leadership like the Tories? The PR professional. The marketing man?

Politics as a fashion show. One month green is in, but now it seems green is out. Flying was out. Now it’s in again. Motoring the same.

A leader who is everything to everyone – until election day.

Then it won’t be the focus groups who make policy.

It will be the oil companies, the arms industry, the businesses who want to sack staff without compensation, who want to cut regulations that protect workers and the environment.

Leadership for the elite.

We have to show that politics doesn’t have to be that way.

That you can have a leader, and have true democracy within the party.

That you can have leadership that truly represents the values of the Party and the needs of the country – not one small section of it.

Leadership that can help the party come together, to stick to its principles not sell out in pursuit of power.

That is a challenge. I feel its weight. I can’t do it alone.

So today, I am asking for your help.

I want every one of us, in our own work for the Party, to be a leader.

Every one of us to take responsibility.

To make a real difference to the lives of others and the future of this country.

Every one of us here today to stand for election in our communities, so more and more people have the chance to vote Green.

Every one of us to reach out to our friends and neighbours and family, to encourage them to join us.

If every one of us in the party could persuade just one new member to join, we would transform our ability to fight elections, to represent local people.

Every one of us to contribute our special talents. Research. Design. Canvassing. Activism. Fundraising. Whatever it might be.

More and more of us to work to be elected – to local councils, to the London Assembly and the European Parliament – and yes, to Westminster. To take on the responsibility to serve the people and to represent the Party.

And perhaps above all, every one of us to encourage and support each other, because none of this will be easy.

As leader, I will certainly need all the encouragement and support you can provide.

Now if we were at Brighton or Bournemouth, if this were the Labour or Tory conference, this is where the platitudes and the empty promises would flow, the spin doctors would get to work, and we’d all stand up and cheer.

But that’s not our way.

So let me sum it up in plain, unvarnished words.

We’ve had a good few months since our last conference. Our vote is up, we have more councillors. Achievements we can be proud of.

But think of the responsibility that has fallen to us. The one party to tell the people of England and Wales the truth about the future we face and the changes we need to make.

To meet that responsibility, we need to work ever harder, reach out to those new members, forge new local parties, do all that we can to rally people to our banner.

But to meet that responsibility, we also have to stay just as we are.

Honest with ourselves and with the people. True to our principles.

If I thought that the role of leader was power at all costs – a new Labour pact of selling the party’s soul – I would never have stood for leader.

And you would never have elected me.

The Green Party has always had its leaders.

Thousands of them.

And that is how it must stay.

So until we meet again – lead on.

Thank you.