With the election just around the corner, the Greens of England and Wales have their sights set on a second seat in Westminster, in Bristol West. The stakes are high, as the result will determine how the country will be reshaped by Brexit and what direction it will take, and the Greens have been leading a historic grassroots movement to create a ‘progressive alliance’ to prevent the Conservative Party getting a majority. We spoke to MEP and Green parliamentary candidate for Bristol West Molly Scott Cato.
Green European Journal: On the 18 April UK Prime Minister Theresa May, leader of the Conservative party, announced a snap general election to take place on the 8th June. Why?
Molly Scott Cato: PM Theresa May had said she wouldn’t call an election, but she realises that once she starts negotiating Brexit, it’s going to become clear to people that what they voted for isn’t available and that the economic damage that we said would happen as a result of leaving is going to start happening, and so she’s going to become very unpopular very quickly. In the previous parliament, she only had a majority of 12 so she didn’t think she’d get through the Brexit negotiations; she’s too weak. It’s definitely a sign of weakness, though she now makes out it’s a sign of strength and that she’s trying to strengthen her hand to become a stronger negotiator, but of course that’s just a really false narrative because there’s really no negotiating to be done. You’re either inside or outside the single market so what we will be negotiating are things like how much we pay for Erasmus and other side issues. There will be an agreement about EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU fairly quickly I believe and that is a very important issue that needs to be resolved – both sides have an interest in making that work. And on the other things – the economic issues – if we won’t keep to the rules we can’t be part of it. It’s not about having a strong hand in negotiations; Theresa May is going to use the majority she’ll probably get, unfortunately, to completely dominate Brexit, and change the country in a way that most people don’t want. She’s using Brexit to give herself vast amounts of authoritarian power that she plans to use in an undemocratic way, in my view.
The reason she chose to do it on June 8th, I think, was because she had a little window between the French elections this month and the German elections in September, so I think she assumes the real nitty gritty of the negotiations won’t start until the autumn really and then will run for about a year.
And what’s the political landscape that this is taking place is?
The other side of it is what’s happening with Labour. Labour was unbelievably weak during the EU referendum campaign, and there was a strong suspicion that the Labour leadership actually were opposed to the European union all along because they had been, in the 1980s, part of a sort of left opposition to Europe. If they’d been active we wouldn’t have lost. So it’s hard not to feel angry about that actually. And half of their voters are for leaving and half are for staying in, so they’re completely ruined by Brexit – it creates a fundamental fault line in the party and they’ve been very weak in their opposition. When the bill to trigger article 50 got to parliament they said they’d vote for it whether or not their amendments were accepted because they were trying to please their pro-brexit voters. It is really damaging to the country that Labour is so divided and feeble just when we need a strong opposition, we’ve got entirely the reverse.
In relation to Labour, the Green party of England and Wales has been trying very hard to create a ‘progressive alliance’, could you explain where this idea stems from?
The progressive alliance is based on the fact that we have a very unfair electoral system. When you ask people how they’re going to vote, the first thing they think about is who can win the seat; they don’t think about who they’d like representing them, or what policies the parties stand for. So now, with the Tories [the Conservative Party] being so damaging, a lot of people’s first thought is ‘How can I stop the them from winning?’ and then they tend to think ‘That means I’ve got to vote for Labour’, but obviously, it doesn’t. So, the progressive alliance is a way to organise tactical voting. In a way, it’s the first step to getting a fair voting system because at the last election – in 2015 – we got a million votes and we got 1 seat in parliament. By contrast, the Scottish National Party got one and a half million votes and got 56 seats, and Labour got a seat with every 30,000 votes on average, so the system is grossly unfair.
The progressive alliance is saying ‘If we fight each other on the Left, the Tories will get a massive majority so let’s try to cooperate and either not stand in seats or support each other in various seats’, but the trouble is, Labour and the Liberal Democrats didn’t get seriously involved in the discussions at all. Greens have stood down in some places, but given that we’re the party that is most underrepresented relative to our vote share, we need other parties to stand down for us – we need to have seats where we can win. That just didn’t happen at all. Basically, the other parties have failed to cooperate and the beneficiaries will be the Tories – it’s very sad. But maybe it got people thinking about proportional representation and the unfairness of our electoral system. So maybe in the long run it will do some good.
From talking to people on the street, and from your own campaign, what do you think are the main issues that people are worried about? Is it the same issues that they normally vote on or is this election exceptional?
The issues people mention to me are actually exactly the issues I’m working on. I work mainly on stopping corporations avoiding paying their taxes – people often spontaneously bring that up as an issue – and the other two main issues are the complete crisis in our public services, which is caused by the Tories’ utterly misguided economic model, and Brexit. My main aim is to challenge Tory lies, about a strong negotiating mandate, and about needing to cut public services and get the deficit down when actually, there’s been nearly a doubling of the national debt under the Conservatives and they’ve utterly mismanaged the economy and put us at real risk, as well as destroying our public services. We’ve got people in corridors on trolleys and hospitals are bankrupt – it’s a dreadful situation. There’s a crisis in the schools and in prisons too with underfunding. It’s a downwards spiral, they’re just underfunding and cutting jobs, they give tax cuts to the rich, there’s less to invest.
Have your 3 years as an MEP affected how you view Europe, and how you campaign and your message in this election?
Often when people become MEPs, or work in Europe, people say you’ve ‘gone native’, because you end up supporting it more. But I think it’s more about the fact that you find out more about it. British people have a very poor understanding of the European Union institutions, and I had a pretty poor understanding myself, and obviously there’s still things I’d criticise, but most of what British people think about the European Union is just based on ignorance and misinformation. Once you become a part of those institutions, you really understand better how they work and the real value of European cooperation. I’ve opposed Europe and the European Union myself in the past, but in a globalising world, it’s inevitable for countries to cooperate and the European union is an amazing example of how that’s been possible. That’s why we’ve pledged that when we can see what’s on the table, in terms of the Brexit deal, people should have the chance to decide whether that is actually a better future than staying in the European Union. I think it’s democratically necessary that they can say that. And if it goes ahead, as the negotiations start, it’s a very important job to make sure that they don’t have a bonfire of regulations and obviously as a Green MP, my job would particularly be focussed on the environmental regulations. We’ve already had leaks showing that they’re discussing trade deals and the need to weaken legislation against trade of endangered species and climate chance legislation.
So apart from giving people a final say, what’s the official UK Green position on Brexit?
That pledge has been our position since the beginning, and is key. Additionally, we’re saying that if and when we lose EU legislation to protect, for example, clean air and environmental standards, we need to replace it with an environmental protection act, a clean air act, and a court that holds the government to account for those laws, for when we don’t have access to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The other thing is making sure that people can see and understand what’s being negotiated away and what rights we’re losing. We’ve also got a particular focus on young people. Our position is that there should be an amnesty for anybody under 26 – if you’re still young enough to have an interrail card you should retain all the freedoms of being in the European Union. You should still be able to travel freely and be able to work or study in the EU. Brexit is a huge topic that’s going to affect every aspect of our national life and we’re being careful to focus on things that are key to green values.
The Green Party has recently stated that the environment is key to their campaign for the election. Do you think that signifies a shift in how they situate themselves within the political arena?
I don’t think so. We’ve always had a holistic approach to politics, so we see all these different policies as being interconnected and we’ve always suffered from the media only letting us speak when it’s about the environment. So to counter that, we’ve tried very hard to draw attention to our other policies, sometimes then facing criticism from our own members that we don’t talk enough about environmental policies, but with green policies, the environment is always right at the heart. You’re not necessarily going out every day banging on about climate change, but you are focussing on building the renewables sector, opposing cuts to subsidies for example, and fighting to retain European Union environmental protections. We also focus very much on the need for public ownership of the NHS and railways in recent years. This time, Labour has picked that up, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll still be supporting that in a year’s time, so we have to stay consistent to that message, because it’s actually very popular, it’s what people want and it’s consistent with Green values.
Has Brexit influenced other European elections and the rise of populism?
What we are seeing across Europe is the failure of social democracy. That’s really worrying, because social democracy is part of the bedrock of how democracy functions in Europe and those parties are incredibly weak. We’ve talked about Labour who are just terminally divided and weak in terms of their power even though people are liking their policies, and you saw a collapse to under 6% of the social democrats in the Dutch elections, as well as in the French presidential elections earlier this month. That’s not only disastrous for them but also quite concerning for the political system. In terms of the populist far-right, they have been consistent for the past 10-15 years and don’t seem to be increasing that much, except in the Austrian presidential elections where the far-right candidate got almost 50% of the votes. Otherwise there seem to be about 25% of people across Europe who are either racists or nationalists or are just fearful and see that strong leadership as a response to globalisation.
In terms of Brexit’s impact on the rest of Europe, according to the polls support for the EU went up in most countries, because people have seen that Brexit has been disastrous. We’re not even quite aware yet of how the vote was won and the role that was played by propaganda – manipulative psychological propaganda, using social media. It was a strange campaign; I’ve never been in one where people were so psychologically disturbed and aggressive. It’s something we’ve really got to stop because it’s completely distorting outcomes and undermining democracy.
What would you say is at stake in this election, and how decisive will the outcome be for Britain’s future given that the incoming government will steer and oversee the Brexit negotiations?
It is the most important election of my lifetime. It’s not just about Brexit itself, it’s about the way the Tories have decided to play Brexit. They’ve used Brexit as a power grab for the far-right in the Tory party, whether it’s about destroying the regulations that have protected us for 40 years, or whether it’s about, for example, stopping proportional representation to the London Assembly, or cutting benefits for old people. They’re using Brexit and the big lead they’ve got in the opinion polls to put a load of appalling stuff in their manifesto that in normal times they could never win on. It’s very disturbing. Okay, the Tories have been going for 200 years serving the class interest, through ruthlessness and efficiency. But in this case, I think it’s quite an egregious example of using power in a way you know will not serve the interests of most people, and you know is not what most people want. Theresa May is using a particular situation with Brexit to harness and exercise that power in a way that’s essentially undemocratic, because her party will do things that most people don’t want and that will damage most people. Only 24% of people want hard Brexit. People in this city will lose their jobs, people are emailing me having nervous breakdowns about Brexit – all of that destruction will be carried through by the Tories who are exploiting the fact that Brexit has really undermined Labour and that Jeremy Corbyn [leader of the Labour Party] is unpopular with middle of the road voters. That makes it a very significant election; it’s not just significant in terms of policy, but in terms of the way it’s going to change our democracy and very much undermine democratic life in this country. I think our response to that has to be one of resistance. We have a political system based on government and opposition, but we have to go beyond just opposition.
We have to have resistance, in a city like Bristol we have to have cooperation on resistance between our great cities, all of which will be represented by Labour yet we have to find alternative sources of power. We have to be more like the French basically in terms of our electoral system, because ours hasn’t represented us well for a long time, but after this election, it will be a tiny minority who are served by the government and the rest of us have to organise and cooperate to stop them destroying the country, destroying our lives. I believe we can do that. I think we’re heading for some kind of constitutional crisis because all our issues here are constitutional issues effectively at the end of the day. If we had a written constitution, we wouldn’t have had such a messy risky referendum and if we hadn’t had a government and opposition system, Labour’s weakness wouldn’t have been so damaging, and if we’d had a strong second chamber that was democratically elected, there would have been some more significant opposition to the Tory Brexit and so on. The weaknesses of our democracy have been revealed and that’s another place we have to focus our energies in the times ahead. It’s going to be interesting times.