Amelia Womack: ‘You might not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you’
Since September 2014, Amelia Womack has been one of the Deputy Leaders of the Green Party and has recently launched her parliamentary campaign in the South East London seat of Camberwell and Peckham. Bright Green caught up with her in Central London to find out what is behind the huge hike in the polls that the Greens have experienced amongst young people and to understand what the #GreenSurge looks like from her vantage point.
You’ve become Deputy Leader at a time when the party is rising hugely in popularity. How does that change your perspective of being a young politician?
It’s obviously really exciting, this is a very different party to even a few months ago when I ran for Deputy Leader. I feel like we’re on the cusp of something right now, when every piece of work we’ve put in is an opportunity to make a change. I think our popularity is a result of the fact that we’ve been out there on the ground talking to people. As people look for an alternative they remembered having talked to Green Party members and hearing about Green policies and have turned to us – they have woken up to what the Green Party is. One of the challenges now is making sure that we’re providing the strongest voice we can. We’ve got so many battles to fight now and we’ve got to make sure that our voices are heard even despite the fact that the press coverage we get is fairly limited. The role of social media is significant at this crucial moment –all our members have done incredible work across social media and I think that’s been a real opportunity for us.
What about the challenges of increased popularity and membership?
At a local level, we’ve got more new members than we have old members, so it means that a lot of local party are very fresh and very new. One of the issues we foresaw was the lack of support – as a small party we don’t get donations from big business and millionaires like UKIP do and that has its challenges, especially when there’s a certain amount of infrastructure to support over 50,000 members. But we’ve had a big recruitment drive and we’re getting Regional Coordinators across the country and with those in place I think we can give the support to our regions.
Because we rely on our members for everything, we need to make sure people don’t get disillusioned with the party because we’re not going to take over Parliament at the next election. We have a real chance to come 1st or 2nd in 12 seats and that’s an incredible step. But we need to be pushing for Electoral Reform now – we are no longer in a two or three party system and we need to make sure that votes matter and make sure that when people vote Green they can get Green representatives.
What inspired you to take up the role of Deputy Leader?
It hadn’t really crossed my mind before some of my fellow Young Greens suggested it. I’d been doing research into youth engagement in politics around the time of the European elections and knew that one way to get young people involved in politics is to have someone under 30 at the highest level in political parties. So when one of the co-chairs of the Young Greens suggested I should try for Deputy Leader, I thought it would be a real opportunity to meet the evidence and hopefully inspire more young people to get involved.
The key is when you have young candidates running to make sure that they are not just token candidates, that they’ve got the chance and the potential to win elections.
I think your plan must be working because the popularity of the Greens among young people is rising rapidly…
A lot of other parties and politicians are chasing the ‘silver vote’. Meanwhile for years, the Young Greens have been very active and well organized. Spurred on by them, the wider Green Party membership has put a lot of effort into building the young vote and has been steadily developing policies for young people. This has paid off as young people have felt more and more rejected by Labour and the Lib Dems, and have come to see the Green Party as a natural home.
So you were talking about getting to operate at the highest level, and you are standing in a key constituency against a very prominent politician, Harriet Harman. What are the opportunities and challenges of doing that?
Yes, ‘Deputy Leader vs Deputy Leader’, that is an intentional choice. But beyond that, we know that people are very disillusioned with Labour and we want to offer real alternatives. In Camberwell and Peckham the fight is between Greens and Labour so you don’t have to vote Labour to keep the Tories out. This means that we can give people the right to vote for what they believe in rather than just vote tactically. Realistically, Harriet Harman is in an ultra-safe seat, but this is an opportunity to provide a Green voice and put the challenge out there, make sure that we’re challenging her on all the inconsistencies of what a traditional Labour voter wants from the Labour Party and what Labour is at the moment.
Voters are almost justifying what the Labour Party has done by supporting them time and time again even though they no longer represent the voters’ core values. And I think this constituency is a key place to be discussing that.
Tell me some of the issues on which we are challenging Labour in your constituency.
Obviously one of my main stances is young people and the fact that the Labour Party’s position on young people is just as isolating as the Coalition’s – under a Labour government there would still be cuts in benefits for the under-24s, there would still be tuition fees that are limiting people’s access to education, and we’re not going to see an end to uncertain employment. 24% of ‘new’ homeless people going into the system at the moment are young people who have experienced benefits cuts, and in Camberwell over the last 10 years youth homelessness has risen from 18 to 200 people as a result of a lack of rent control in the private sector. The Green Party are the only party that are talking about rent control which is fundamental in this current economic environment.
Harriet Harman has been speaking up for women, but the Green Party is unique in terms of the very strong and deep relationships that we have with the feminist movement. How do you experience being part of the leadership of a party that is so close to feminism?
So many people coming through the party must have been personally inspired by Caroline Lucas and Sian Berry. When she was a Mayoral candidate, Sian Berry was a young woman and I think it has paved the way for what young women can do in politics. Caroline Lucas giving a feminist voice and not being afraid to challenge the status quo I think has inspired a lot of women about what the Green Party can do. Still, we can’t be complacent and I would like to see us and achieve our goal of 50% non-male candidates – it would show that we really practice what we preach.
At the same time, it’s fantastic that Harriet Harman is also working on the feminist movement because we should all make sure that we challenge these inequalities in our political systems and modern lives.
The Greens have been trying to fight against some of the public’s stereotypes about the party, one of them being that we are is too idealistic. How do you see us overcoming those?
One of the things I’m really proud of about our policy is that it’s evidence based and that when we are talking about the £10 living wage, that is based on a statistic that came out of the Living Wage institute and is based on solid research on inflation which shows that this is the salary that people should be earning to make sure that we are not forcing people into fuel poverty or below the breadline. It’s that evidence that gives core strength to our policies. Every time we talk about having a fully costed manifesto, journalists challenge us on the issue but the fact is they always discover that we’ve looked at the economics and done the maths and balanced the books.
I know we’re getting much more diverse in some ways, like involving lots of young people. How do you think we stand on other issues of diversity such as race?
I don’t think it’s solely a GP issue, it’s pan-political. Parliament is very male, white, middle class and I think we see that across politics in general. We need to prove to people from all kinds of different backgrounds that politics does relate to them, to show that even if you might not be interested in politics – politics is interested in you. Rashid Nix, our Parliamentary Candidate for Dulwich and West Norwood candidates, has been running his campaigns on the slogan ‘Vote Green Get Black’ and has been giving talks about why the Green Party is the right party for black people.
In fact, our leadership at the moment doesn’t have a single white man in it, with myself, Shahrar Ali and Natalie Bennett – I think that’s a good step for diversity. In fact, when the Green Party’s London European elections list was put together, we found that because of our policies on gender and ethnicity, and because we worked to encourage people from different backgrounds to run, we ended up with a list that was naturally gender and ethnicity balanced. That really proves that the encouragement and the opportunity to vote for people from a diverse list, means that you get diversity within the party.
If you were to change one law in the next 10 years as an MP, what would that be?
I think the policy that has the biggest opportunity to change many of the social problems we have in the UK is the Citizens’ Income. It can really challenge our relationship with the benefits system. Citizens’ Income would not only be an opportunity to get people out of the benefits trap, but would also address the problem of the working poor who are finding it hard to claim benefits because they don’t know what their rights are, or what they can actually ask for. Even for people who are self-employed and have quiet months, a Citizen’s Income would mean there’s not so much risk. It could really promote entrepreneurship, innovation, and for young people it would mean support when they are studying and opportunities to be more entrepreneurial or try things out.
I think a Citizen’s Income would also change our relationship to work and what we believe the value of a job is.
You may find that horrendous jobs which are currently minimum wage (think call centres), would be much better paid because people would be able to wait for the right job if they had that safety net.
Any last words…
Just and encouragement for GP members to come forward as Parliamentary Candidates. We have a commitment to stand candidates in 75% of seats so that we can give people the opportunity to vote Green. To do that we need people to stand, especially non-male and non-white members of the party. I really think we can reach the goal of standing people in all these seats and then the next challenge would be to stand in 100% of seats. With the increase in our membership, it’s a good vision to work towards.
This article is part of a series of ‘Green Challenger’ articles in the run up to the General Election. Read Josiah Mortimer’s interview with Bristol’s Darren Hall here; and Adam Ramsay’s interview with Edinburgh’s Peter McColl here.