Westminster village green
Three weeks after she made history by being elected the UK’s first ever Green Party member of parliament, Caroline Lucas is preparing to do it again. Ever the political outsider, she has yet to move into an office, and is instead preparing her maiden speech to the Commons camped out in the canteen of Portcullis House, the Westminster office block for MPs.
Tomorrow the environment is on parliament’s agenda in the Queen’s Speech debate, and with it the best chance Ms Lucas is likely to get to be called on to address her peers. Only, much to the environmental crusader’s bemusement, Westminster conventions could still rob her of the chance to speak at all. ‘You write the speaker a note - you don’t even email - that is just what you do here,’ she explains of the anachronistic protocols which bind MPs wishing to speak in the chamber.
‘Hopefully he might look favourably on it. But I could still be here from 10.30am until 8pm, waiting to see if the speaker will deign to catch my eye.’
As it happens, speaker John Bercow does deign to glance at Ms Lucas, and, at 3.30pm on Wednesday 26 May, the newly elected honourable member for Brighton Pavilion delivers her speech. Sure enough, the front page of the following day’s Independent newspaper brands it ‘a historic moment for Britain, our political system and anyone who cares about the environment’.
But aside from the symbolic victory her election represents, it is unclear whether Ms Lucas’ single Green vote will allow her any tangible influence on the new coalition government.
Ms Lucas argues it will - and views her role in the House of Commons as far greater than simply the holder of a mere vote. ‘It is about the voice you bring,’ explains the former anti-nuclear protestor, speaking fast and earnestly. ‘It is about shining a spotlight on the gap between the rhetoric of the other parties - especially on the environment - and what they actually deliver. I also think that the Green role is to bring new ideas to the table.’
Many of these ideas are set to revolve around housing - and are aligned with the sustainable interests of the sector. ‘Housing is going to be a central issue for me in parliament,’ pledges the Green party leader. ‘Not only because it is so resonant in Brighton, but also because if we get it right it brings together ideas about social justice; it’s such a basic right.’
On a national level, aside from a £44 billion investment into low carbon infrastructure that the Greens have long been calling for, one of her new ideas is to call for a £4 billion grant for local authorities to expand social housing through converting and renovating existing homes - which she says could create 80,000 jobs. On a local level she plans to push for more affordable housing in her Brighton constituency, which she won last month with a slender majority of 1,252 votes and where the Greens also secured 12 seats on the council.
‘There is not enough affordable housing,’ she says. ‘It has been estimated we need 11,000 new homes in the coming years in Brighton and there is a huge waiting list. We are campaigning for more new build, but you also have the problem of people with London salaries coming down to live there which inflates the prices.
‘To address the shortages we [the Green Party] have been pushing to bring empty homes back into use - we have estimated there are around 1,100 homes in Brighton that have been empty for more than six months. Also, Brighton has a long-established direction of co-op[erative housing] and self-build [homes] and we would like to build on that.’
With just one Westminster vote, Ms Lucas acknowledges that she will not be able to deliver much of this. However, she points out that many longstanding Green policies such as community land trusts are now being embraced by the other major parties.
For instance, on the Conservative’s ‘Green Deal’, the party’s carbon reduction pledge for housing which would entitle every household in Britain to £6,500 of energy efficiency improvements, she points out that the Greens have been calling for a ‘green new deal’ for several years. She confesses she has not examined the coalition version in detail but labels its existence ‘positive’ and adds ‘if we could insulate every home in Britain it would make such a big contribution to reducing our carbon footprint then it has to be part of the answer’.
Yet Ms Lucas’ face contorts at the suggestion there is a cross-party political consensus on tackling climate change. ‘There is a broad consensus on the language,’ she corrects.
So now there is a parliamentary champion to fight the environmental cause, how will she go about making a difference? Having spent 10 years as a member of the European parliament she is now seeking to perform a pincer movement on the UK legislative process. Her MEP seat has now gone to Keith Taylor, a Brighton councillor and the party’s national spokesperson for planning and regeneration, and Ms Lucas is seeking to take full advantage of having ‘a voice at both ends’.
‘I am very grounded in the council work the Greens have been doing,’ she adds, ‘so there is a huge local authority presence that we can draw on beyond my single [parliamentary] vote. Whether it be through [asking] parliamentary questions, direct discussions with ministers or whatever, I need to be free to challenge without being too immersed in the process. Part of my role will be snapping at people’s ankles over issues.’
Martin Bell, the former BBC journalist turned independent MP for Tatton who won his seat campaigning against Westminster sleaze, thinks that she can make a real difference despite being a minority of one. ‘Caroline is in a much stronger position than I ever was,’ he says. ‘The government has a smaller majority and she can support whichever issues she thinks are appropriate.
‘In terms of tactics, she should undertake constructive engagement; I don’t see the Greens going into opposition for opposition’s sake. Of course she has a whole party to run which I hadn’t, but she can very successfully play the interface between politics and the media - she has a high media profile.’
While Ms Lucas is not shy of milking publicity for the Green cause, she is reluctant to be personally cast in the role of eco-champion outside office hours.
This is mostly a political reaction to the criticism often levelled against the Greens that they represent a middle class aspiration for a lifestyle out of the grasp of poorer people - however, it also feels like a personal one. For instance, she professes not to live in an ‘eco-home’ - just a well-insulated energy efficient home.
‘I try to live a green life,’ she says. ‘But I want to draw back from setting myself up as a green case study. First, because I am not; and second, I believe we should be making it easier for everyone to afford to live in homes that are properly insulated and built to the highest standards. By making a particular thing about a person’s ability to do something, we take away from the fact it is the government’s responsibility to make sure we can all live in a greener way.’
To make the point she hones in on the notorious wind turbine on the prime minister’s west London home: ‘[David] Cameron’s wind turbine summed up exactly what’s wrong - it wasn’t even a very clever place to put it. It’s all about saying “look at me, I’m living a green lifestyle”.’
In the public eye of mainstream politics, Ms Lucas may eventually need to soften to the idea of being a green case study. In the meantime she seems much happier being the outsider, leaning back on the many years she spent as a minority voice since she joined the party in 1986.
‘Experience teaches you about when to co-operate and when to remain and challenge,’ she says. ‘You need to do both, but the political trick is learning when to do each. I was a local councillor in Oxfordshire back in 1993 and indeed for some of that time was the sole Green councillor - so that “69-votes-in-favour-and-one-against” situation is familiar - I have been there before.’
But the workings of Westminster are far from the seafront Bohemia of Brighton or the big-picture international thinking of Brussels - and will take some getting used to.
‘This is a bizarre place - it’s such an eye-opener,’ she admits glancing around her at former government ministers hunkered down in secretive conference - mostly spinning away to journalists. Already she is well recognised by many of them, receiving nods and smiles from all angles.
As if on cue, a pinstripe clad man with slick, side-parted hair butts in. He extends his hand with the assumed familiarity of a used-car salesman and exudes a long, nasally intoned ‘hi’. ‘Did you get my email? Can I count on your support next week?’ Clearly Ms Lucas’ solitary Green vote is already in demand.
Having made history twice in a month Ms Lucas has set the bar high for the next few years. But given that she believes this parliament could be the most important ever in terms of laying policy foundations to save the planet, her wish to make an early impression is understandable. And just think what she could achieve when she gets an office and some staff.
Lobbying Lucas: what housing wants from the Green MP
John Doggart, chair of the Sustainable Energy Academy: ‘The big thing she needs to focus on is reducing emissions. One way she should try to fund this is by using the £3 billion a year winter fuel allowance - we should take it away from those that don’t need it,
invest it into the homes of those than do, and then transfer it all over.’
Richard Baines, director of sustainable development, Black Country Housing: ‘There are two things Ms Lucas needs to prioritise - both for retrofitting the existing housing stock. The first is to put in place a plan for how best to spend money when we eventually get it. The second is to try to ringfence as much money as she can for retrofit schemes. She should also to push to make sure that the government introduces its green investment bank.’
Matthew Bush, sustainability manager, Metropolitan Housing Partnership: ‘I hope that Caroline Lucas acknowledges that housing associations are sustainable businesses, which are well placed to support the Green agenda, are already investing in the long-term future of housing in our communities and have a great track record of environmental responsibility.’