Sian Berry fighting to win London Mayoral contest
Joe Lo interviews Sian Berry, one of six Green candidates for the London Mayoral Election.
Selection ballots for the London Mayoral and Assembly elections will be sent by email to all Green Party members in London tomorrow, Monday 3 August. You can find more of Bright Green’s coverage of these elections here: https://bright-green.org/tag/london-elections-2016/
Although the bookies are billing next May’s London Mayoral election as a straight fight between Labour and the Tories, Sian Berry, one of six potential Green candidates for the role, says she is aiming to win. Although this seems a long shot and Ladbrokes has it at 100/1, she makes a convincing case on why it is possible, if still unlikely.
“There’s every chance that Labour or the Tories could pick a candidate who’s inexperienced and not very exciting and we could look a lot more exciting than them and fire more people up on the ground. If we get that point by Christmas then who knows? Once you’re in the top two, because of the voting system, all bets are off, we could win.”
The voting system means that everyone gets to cast two votes, a first preference and a second preference. If your first choice doesn’t get into the top two and your second choice does, then your vote goes to your second choice. So if Labour or the Tories come third, their voters’ second votes could go to the Greens.
On top of this, there is the trajectory of the Greens’ past results. In 2004, we came seventh behind the BNP, Respect and Ukip candidate and boxing promoter Kellie Maloney. In 2008, with Berry as the candidate, we came fourth and, in 2012, we beat the Liberal Democrats and finished third.
Then there’s recent examples from the continent. Just last month, coalitions of radical activists got Mayors elected in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia and these are the kind of broad-based, grassroots campaigns which Berry wants to emulate. “We need to work with a much wider range of groups, not just the environmental movement but the union movement, housing groups and others.”
Joining in with community campaigns is, of course, a good thing to do in its own right but it is also a way of attracting more members. After the Green surge though, don’t we have enough members? Last mayoral election we had 1,200 in London and the figure is nearly 12,000. “To knock on nearly every door, to speak to every person, to leaflet every train station and do all that, even 12,000 members isn’t enough,” she says, “we need to recruit more.”
Many more are there to be recruited, she says: “A lot of activists in the groups I’m looking to work with have thought about joining the Green Party but haven’t yet because…well, maybe we don’t look like them, for one thing.”
So is the party too white and middle-class? “Demographically we certainly are,” Berry agrees, “if you look at the new members who joined in the surge, I don’t know about class, but we’re certainly still white, even in London. We’re improving but we’re still nowhere near 40% which is the ethnic minority population of London. It’s quite self-fulfilling. If you’re from an ethnic minority and you see a sea of white faces then you may not think that’s the sort of group I should join.”
Would a non-white Mayoral candidate help? There are two standing, Benali Hamdache and Rashid Nix. “If I agreed with that, I would be putting myself out of a job,” she jokes, “but positive discrimination is a really good thing. We’re having ethnic minority balance as well as gender balance on this year’s London Assembly list and I think that’s a really positive step because it’s worked really well with gender balance. Although you wouldn’t tell from looking at it now, the Green Party used to really struggle to get women to put themselves forward for things.”
Two women she praises as role models, along with Natalie Bennett, are Caroline Lucas and Jenny Jones. Caroline has endorsed her for selection for this campaign and the two of them proposed the idea of her standing for Mayor back in 2008.
That campaign involved a lot of fighting for media attention and to be treated as one of the four major parties. She eventually achieved this, she says, which led to invites to all the hustings, Evening Standard coverage and slightly more television airtime. After last years’ TV debates and the Greens’ raised profile, fighting for airtime and column inches will not be such a problem this time.
Media performance is an area where Greens were criticised in the general election but Berry is confident of her abilities here and it’s easy to see why. Although, Bright Green’s interviewer is no Paxman, she is quick with a detailed and confident answer and is very warm and likeable.
Since 2004, she says, she’s been doing tough media interviews as part of the campaign group Alliance against Urban 4x4s where she went on Richard and Judy and debated with aggressive people from Top Gear and Autocar magazine. “Also, I’ve taken on Boris and Ken at hustings on many, many occasions and I’m still alive. So having to deal with people like Paxman and Andrew Neill, it’s my bread and butter. I do genuinely enjoy that rough and tumble side of things.”
She won’t be facing Ken and Boris this time so what does she think of her rivals? Not much, is the short answer. For the Labour ones, “none of them seem very exciting, it’s all MPs, none of whom seem to have a particular feel for what being the Mayor is like as opposed to being a good, smooth politician.”
And the Tories? Jenny Jones caused controversy in the party recently for suggesting that many Greens would give their second preference to Zac Goldsmith, the Tory frontrunner with a reputation for environmentalism. Berry doesn’t agree, “I think she’s wrong about that because he’s a Tory! I can’t see it happening.” Her logic is simple but undeniable and will echo the views of many in the Green Party. She adds that she doesn’t think he’d be that tough an opponent either.
Previously the Party has backed Ken Livingstone but Berry says that’s because of Ken’s individual qualities. “Ken Livingston is not the Labour Party,” she says, “we don’t have to give an endorsement for second preference so if any of the Labour candidates want it, then they’re going to have to do something good. At the moment, I can see us not backing anyone but it’s not up to me.” In typical Green fashion, it will be subject to a vote, near the end of the election.
With the endorsement of Caroline Lucas and the experience of having run before, it’s no surprise that Berry is the bookie’s favourite to be selected as the Green Party candidate and, if selected, she certainly has the confidence and ambition to be in it to win it.