Monday, 11 July 2016

Interview - Jonathan Bartley, Green Party Co-Leadership Candidate

Green Left supporter Jonathan Bartley talks to Mike Shaughnessy about his candidature for the Green Party leadership on a joint ticket with Caroline Lucas:

Tell me a bit about your background and how you came into politics?

I am a descendant of the Quaker prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (I think she is my great times four, Grandmother) which may explain my passion for restorative justice. 

My Dad was a Normandy veteran, a medic, who was also there at the founding of the NHS and spent his whole life working in it.  He believed in treating the whole person and hated the more pressured environment where patients became numbers on a spreadsheet. He ended up at St Thomas’ Hospital, but always had regrets about the takeover of the small community hospital where to used to work, by the big teaching hospital.

One of my great loves is music.  I have spent the last 20 years travelling the country, gigging in working men’s clubs, community centres, pubs and bars.  I still play with one of the guys I was at school with. We must have played around 1000 gigs together now.   We have a small record deal, and we are just recording our ninth album.  But, as well as giving me a creative outlet, travelling to so many different places, and meeting so many different people, has given me a great overview of what life is like outside the London bubble.

I studied the London School of Economics and after that wanted to get some political experience so I went to work in the House of Commons on a cross-party basis in the mid 1990s.  What struck me most about that place though, was the narrow agenda.  It seemed everyone thought in pretty much the same way about everything. 

It frustrated me. I have always believed in getting stuck in and believe in radical change.  After the House of Commons I worked for several campaign groups.  I publicly advocated alternatives to the invasion of  Iraq in 2002. I went to visit Palestinians on the West Bank, and worked with peacemakers taken hostage in Iraq (sadly one of them - Tom Fox - was killed).  I was dragged off the steps of St Pauls by police during the Occupy evictions.  I set up the Accord Coalition with teaching unions and the British Humanist Association, to end the discrimination in Faith Schools.  As part of this I have also ended up doing a lot of TV and Radio, over the last 20 years.  I first went up against Jeremy Paxman in 1997. I even did Thought for the Day on Radio 4 for a while, although I lost that gig after I publicly called for Humanists and Atheists to be included. The BBC didn’t like that, but for me it was an important point of principle.

I guess the most pivotal moment for me came in 2010, when I challenged David Cameron in the street about his plans for disabled children. This propelled the issue onto the general election agenda, and it was discussed in the leader’s election debates as a result.  But it got me thinking.  Why don’t issues like this ever normally get discussed?

The answer of course, is the electoral system.  It is the concerns of a few hundred thousand “swing” voters that make it onto the political agenda, because of our First Past the Post System. Not the ones that really matter. Change the system, and you change lives.

So I became drawn into electoral reform, realising quite how our system itself excludes and discriminates, and keeps important issues like climate change off the agenda.  I wrote and spoke a lot about this,  I was then approached to become vice-chair of the “Yes” campaign in the national AV referendum in 2011.  After that I became vice-chair of the Electoral Reform Society.

You are a Green Left supporter, how would you describe your politics generally?

Politics has always been for me, very personal.  

Having a disabled son profoundly changed me. It opened my eyes to a whole world of discrimination and inequality, but the experience (which is ongoing) has also given me cause for hope.  

Perhaps the best way to explain it is to tell a story. We had a two year battle to get my son into his local school. We eventually won. On his first sports day his class lined up to run the 100 metres, my son in his powered wheelchair.  The starting gun was fired, and off they all went.  

But my son’s wheelchair could only go half as fast as the other children could run. As the penultimate child crossed the line, the attention turned to Samuel who was about halfway down the  track.  I wondered what would happen. An uncomfortable silence descended. But then suddenly someone started chanting his name. Then another, and then another, until the whole school was cheering him across the finishing line.

We all tell our kids that it is the taking part that matters.  But secretly we all love it when our kids win!  But at that moment, in that school, everyone knew that it really was the taking part that mattered.  Just for a moment, the values of endless testing, competition and league tables that dominate our education system were challenged, and people were able to see something more important and better.  That’s what happens when you really include difference, and those who may face more barriers or be more vulnerable, than others.

That sums up my politics I think. Whether it be the future of the planet, or the future of my local estate, when you put the powerless at the heart of things, change happens. And that excites me. It’s radical.  And it’s uncomfortable for many people.  The implications are also huge for the richest and most powerful.

That’s why I also took the opportunity to challenge Iain Duncan Smith at the last General Election about the suicides of benefit claimants, during the live TV Welfare debates,  No one else was going to do it.  But for me it was a national scandal that thousands were dying within a few weeks of being certified “fit for work”, and the cases of dozens of claimants who had committed suicide were being investigated by the DWP, even though they wouldn’t admit it.

Of course IDS denied it.  But he was put on the spot  It put the issue on the agenda, and subsequent investigations showed that he had been covering it up.

If you and Caroline Lucas are successful in becoming joint leaders of the Green Party, it will be the first time the party has had joint leaders. How will this arrangement work out practically?

We both believe job sharing makes the leadership stronger. Two heads are better than one! It brings more experience. We both value good communication and that will help us coordinate, plan and, if necessary, work out any differences.

We’ll talk to one another, work out what’s best for the party and try to ensure we play to our individual strengths. For example with my background in electoral reform so it makes sense to draw on that, as well as his experiences as the parent of a disabled child.

Some observers say that a party with joint leadership will have a split identity, whereas a single leader gives a more easily recognised identity. How do you respond to this?

It’s about a different kind of politics - recognising leadership encompasses lots of different qualities and embodying the idea that to open it up to more people means finding more creative ways to do it.  

It’s also a radical new model that is about modern politics. No other party has ever been brave or bold enough to elect a job sharing team into the leadership role and we think the Green Party will recognise that we need to walk the talk, and lead by example when it comes to doing things differently.

We have to open up our political system to many more people.  It’s no wonder it is so out of touch.  Job sharing is just one way of doing it, but it’s an important one.  And I hope that we can blaze a new trail in this respect.

It has been reported that you and Caroline are in favour the Green Party being part of a Progressive Alliance with other political parties that are willing to advocate electoral reform. How do you see this working out?

As Co-Leaders we want to fully explore the idea of a one general election only progressive alliance in 2020 in England & Wales, with other political parties of the Left. The purpose of such an alliance would be to secure a deal on proportional representation and allow the Green Party’s growing support to translate into a fair number of seats in Westminster and on councils up and down the country.

On everything from the living wage to tackling air pollution, the Green Party has a history of leading where others follow. The era of two party politics is over but the voting system hasn’t caught up and as co-leaders we want to do what the Greens do best – set the agenda. We recognise that our party works differently to others and that decisions are ultimately made locally. We want to find a way to enable the national and local parties to fully consider how best to achieve the political objectives of social and environmental sustainability.

This is an exciting and unique point in history and the prospect of power being distributed equally to every voter would change everything.

It has also been reported that you want to create a team of Green Party full-time campaigners. Is this just for electoral purposes, or would these campaigners get involved in social movements?

It’s good to know people are talking about our plans! We’ve not actually said anything as specific as this, but we would definitely like to see the Party’s non election campaigns profile grow. That absolutely means having a role in wider social movements, though it’s highly unlikely the Party will have the resources to fund a team of issue based campaigners any time soon. Our members are our strength and many of them are involved in local and national campaigns so we’d like to work with activists, local parties, the national campaigns coordinators and others to maximise  the impact we have in wider social movements and change.


There’s been a lot of talk about how the Green Party should position itself, on the political spectrum in the Corbyn Labour era, apart from the Progressive Alliance, how do you see this?

We are a party of the Left. But let’s be clear in our message, and if that message is delivered well it can resonate right across the political spectrum.  

I have seen this happen in Lambeth.  I just ran a by-election campaign in a ward we had never worked in before. It was Labour’s safest seat in Lambeth.  But in six weeks, we moved the Green vote from 10% to 41%.  Labour’s vote went down from 70% to 42%.  We missed out by just 36 votes in taking the seat.  Why was there such as huge swing?  It was because we were defending libraries and the demolition of council housing.  Our big swing came from the estates, who deserted Labour having recognised that we were now the natural party to represent them.

But in another part of Lambeth, I ran the campaign in the 2014 council elections which got us our first ever councillor in Streatham.  This was originally a Tory Ward, that had gone Lib Dem.  Again, this was a ward we hadn’t worked in before.  But we went from 8% and fourth place, to winning.  We did this by showing people how hard we would work for them, on the bread and butter issues of making the area accessible, saving sheltered housing, but also getting more trees put in, fixing potholes and pavements, and introducing 20mph speed limits.
   
We don’t have to compromise or change what we stand for.  We just need to be clear in the messages that we present and be aware of the voters that we are appealing to. And I think that with Corbyn as leader, our policies can be even more radical and creative.

When for example we were running the London Election campaign in 2016, we proposed a flat fare policy (huge credit to Sian Berry for this!) across the capital.  

This appealed to working class Tories in the “outer London doughnut” where Tory support is strongest.  So while we were rightly fighting Labour in the inner city areas over estate demolition, and putting power back into the hands of local people, we were also sending an important message to the Tory heartlands that we wanted a more equal London, that we didn’t like that they were having to pay more just to get to work in the centre because they couldn’t afford to live closer in. It was bold.  It was radical.  We didn’t compromise.  But it was a policy with  widespread appeal.  

What is your vision for the future of the Green Party?

In the Green Party it is about our collective vision together as a party, not one person’s vision being imposed.  We really need to build on the good work that has been done by so many people who have worked so hard for many years..  

But I accept that people also want to know what a potential leader’s particular vision is.  I personally believe that this is a crucial time not just for the Green Party but for British politics. The UK is in a crisis unparalleled since the Second World War. The EU referendum has uncovered anger and division that runs far deeper than many of us thought.  Labour and the Tories are locked in self-destruction. Far-right extremism has given us cause to fear for the safety of our communities. Brexit hangs like a Sword of Damacles over our heads while, the triple crises of economic instability, grinding inequality and runaway climate change continue unabated.

We have the fight of our lives on our hands.  Future generations will judge us by what we do now. I want us to seize the moment.  There is an opportunity for seizmic change, and I want the Green Party to play a leading role in bringing that about.  We must communicate a clear and distinctive vision of what we are about, which shows how our economic, social and environmental needs are bound together. A party that knows the way we measure wellbeing must be broader and richer than what we produce and consume.  A party that recognises the realities of everyday life as well as the challenges that face us in the future.  A party that thinks differently, whether it be through job-sharing in the workplace, the way we do politics, or the biggest questions facing the planet.

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