Challenging the “toffs and the cronies” – an interview with Molly Scott Cato
Molly Scott Cato is a familiar face among Greens. She’s part of a small number of people – less than a dozen – that have a degree of name recognition within the public at large. Having been an MEP from 2014-20, she latterly made a name for herself for, among other things, her fierce opposition to Brexit and her put downs of fellow parliamentarians.
This prominence would ordinarily make her an instant favourite in internal Green Party of England and Wales elections. But the party’s selection for its next member of the House of Lords is a little different to most. Of the contests party members will be voting in this year, it is by far the most unpredictable. And Scott Cato isn’t alone in having a national profile in this race. She’ll be facing competition from three term deputy leader Amelia Womack, Kirklees councillor Andrew Cooper and Extinction Rebellion spokesperson Rupert Read – all of whom are well known within the party and have strong support in its different wings.
From one parliament to another
In light of this tough competition, Scott Cato is seeking to set herself as distinct from the rest of the pack. When Bright Green spoke to her, it is her experience in the European Parliament which she leans into to convey this. She talks up her “substantial legislative experience”, which she describes as “unique” and shared only by Caroline Lucas, Keith Taylor and Jean Lambert – all three also former Green MEPs.
It is from this parliamentary experience that Scott Cato describes having developed an ability to work on a cross-party basis. With no one party having a majority in the European Parliament, cooperation and negotiation between parties is central to the legislative process. This parliamentary arithmetic is somewhat similar to the House of Lords, where the government does not command a majority as they do in the Commons. On this point, Scott Cato again contrasts this experience with that of her fellow candidates claiming you “only get that as an MEP in British politics”.
However, it isn’t only parliamentary experience that Scott Cato draws on in making the case for her candidacy. There are two particular strings to her bow that she claims will be valuable to bring to the House of Lords.
The first is her interest in and understanding of constitutional matters. She describes herself as having a “longstanding and deep interest in constitutions” and being a “constitution nerd”. The second – perhaps predictably – is her background in economics.
Working within the Lords to abolish the Lords
It is on these topics – as well as on climate – that Scott Cato becomes energised. She speaks passionately on Britain’s broken democracy. When asked what her priorities would be if she becomes the next Green peer, constitutional reform is the first thing she brings up:
I intend to continue the tradition of putting down a motion to abolish the Lords, because I think that’s the only way you can legitimately then enter the House having made it very clear you think it should be replaced with a democratic chamber.
She then speaks of her desire to emphasise “constitutional reform more widely”. She describes her “absolute priority” being “protecting democracy” and is scathing about the “two-party system” of British politics:
There’s so many things that are being trashed about the country because of the two-party system. It’s not just about the Green Party. It’s about the two main parties, so called, having an excuse to just be not very good all the time, or dreadful. Because when it comes to the election, you just have to wave the other side at them and people are all supposed to herd off like sheep into the other party.
For Scott Cato, the result of this, as well as the UK’s lack of a written constitution, is a system without real democratic oversight or accountability:
the government can play fast and loose. It’s all about gentlemen’s agreements. We haven’t got gentlemen in politics now. So we need to have a system of rules. So whatever I do in policy terms, to me that’s an absolute priority. Nothing’s more important right now.
This focus on reforming democracy might not be surprising territory for a Green. But it does sit somewhat uncomfortably with the chamber Scott Cato wishes to enter. The Scottish Green Party refuses to take any seats in the House of Lords – given its fundamentally anti-democratic nature. Why then, should Greens in England and Wales accept peerages?
Scott Cato’s response is that while she takes the Scottish Greens’ position “very seriously”, she comes to the conclusion that “where the power is, there should be Greens”. She also makes the case that it is from within the Lords that Greens can make a powerful case for its abolition:
I also think that it’s really important that we make the case in the House of Lords to the reasonable peers that are there that, for the working peers, as opposed to the toffs and the cronies, for the working peers, they should also approve of the argument to have a democratic chamber because if they did then their position, all their work would have much more authority than it does now.
Making the case for a new economy
Scott Cato’s second priority – the economy – comes as little surprise. She has long been the Green Party’s finance spokesperson, and sat on the European Parliament’s committee on economic and monetary affairs. On this, Scott Cato is clear – she wants the Greens to be established as a “credible commentator on the economy”, and to be making the case for “radical economic policy”.
While she praises Labour’s former shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s approach, with the Labour Party moving to the right under its current leadership, she argues there is new space for the Greens to be the only party advocating for genuine transformation of the economy. That space is, according to Scott Cato, growing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic – with there being an “increasing openness to radical policy”. And she also claims that economic ideas are becoming increasingly mainstream – citing agreement with core policies from the Financial Times:
it’s extraordinary now, but mostly the FT agrees with us, whether it’s on monetary policy, whether it’s on the COVID response, whether it’s on tax policy. It’s extraordinary.
But for Scott Cato – as with many Greens – her second and third priorities are intertwined and inseparable. It is the economic system that is “trashing the environment”, and any attempt to avert the effects of catastrophic climate change require an uprooting of dominant contemporary economic thinking:
to me a lot of what needs to be changed there is about the economy. So whether it’s a carbon tax, or whether it’s accepting that actually GDP is a really crap way to measure the economy, which is being made completely clear by the COVID crisis.
So you’ve got to spend those two hours sitting in your car belching out carbon dioxide, so that you can sit in an office that wastes energy, so you can got the sandwich shop to buy a plastic wrapped sandwich because that all counts towards GDP. Whereas if you were sitting at home, having a relaxing breakfast with the family and spending more time with your children before you did your work, that wouldn’t count towards GDP.
Therefore it’s obvious that your patriotic duty is to go out and destroy the environment and over consume. It’s absurd all of that is just driven by a mistaken way of measuring the economy.
Trade unions and a just transition
Central to the Green vision of overhauling the economy for a sustainable future is the idea of a ‘just transition’. This would seek to ensure that in moving from away from a carbon-intensive economy to one which centres ecology, workers and communities are not harmed. Instead, their lot should be improved.
But people have in the past expressed concern at Scott Cato’s attitude towards trade unions. She has at times been critical of the Labour Party for being too closely connected to trade unions. And she’s also criticised the position of some unions on the preservation of industries which are harming the environment.
Scott Cato dismisses this concern as unhelpful and unfounded. She describes such concerns as a “politically motivated” and “hurtful”. And on allegations that she is “anti-union”, she says “nothing could be further from the truth”.
Describing herself as “a lifelong union member, and a big supporter of trade unions”, she talks about having spoken at the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Festival, and says that the Greens are a party that “believes in trade unions”:
I think it’s important that we show very clearly that we are a party that believes in trade unions. And anybody who’s not a member should join up. I’ve never had time to be active – apart from picketing and stuff – but I’ve never had time to be a union representative. But I think it would be really good for more Greens to do that, to show that we are completely behind the principle of unionism and organising workplaces
According to Scott Cato, trade unions in the UK – especially PCS – are doing good work on climate:
The unions are making very good proposals for a just transition, no worker left behind, reskilling, retraining and all of those things that we also support.
However, her criticism does come forward, saying that there will be points where Greens will have to “come apart from the trade unions”. In particular she highlights the aviation sector:
we’re going to have to sometimes make a case that we do understand that jobs will be lost in the aviation sector. But we’re completely committed to retraining those people and making sure that they have a job elsewhere.
Whereas, if you’re a traditional union organising aviation workers, you will just fight for everyone of those jobs. So I think there’s going to be a difference. But it could be a very constructive and fruitful dialogue I think.
The members will decide
Speaking to Scott Cato, it is clear that she has an awareness of the opportunities and the limitations of the office she is seeking to occupy, as well as an understanding of what she sees her role within the Green Party and wider politics ought to be. Rather than talking broadly of all the ills facing the world, she hones in on her own interests and skills. This is perhaps a recipe for being an effective parliamentarian. The question now though is whether it will be sufficient to convince enough of the membership to place their faith in her.
Relatedly, it is also clear that she doesn’t err on the side of caution when speaking publicly – including when speaking about potential allies. In our conversation, she is occasionally sweary and often fiery. Her honesty about her views and her aversion to ‘politician’s answers’ may well win her favour in some parts of the membership, but it could yet alienate others.
As we enter the final week of voting in this contest, we’ll soon find out whether her parliamentary career was set to end in Brussells, or whether Westminster could soon be joined by a Green who “was and remain[s] a professor of economics“.
This is the first in a series of interviews with the candidates for the Green Party’s next member of the House of Lords. In addition to these interviews, we also hosted a hustings for candidates on July 26, a recording of which you can watch here.
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Image credit: Molly Scott Cato – Creative Commons