The Green Party’s radical conscience – an interview with Alex Phillips MEP
Often political interviews are dull affairs. A politician runs through a series of rehearsed points, refusing to deviate from them. In some instances, they will have a staffer present, lingering in the corner, ensuring that the line is toed, and keeping an eye on the clock.
These obviously have a clear and important purpose. It’s vital that politicians are able to utilise the press to channel messages to the public. But they rarely offer any insight or reveal anything of surprise or consequence.
This interview with Green Party MEP Alex Phillips – on a balcony at the Greens’ recent conference in Newport – wasn’t one of those. Sure, her staffer was present. But he wasn’t keeping her to pre-agreed soundbites. Instead, he was doubling up as her childcare, looking after her toddler while the interview was in train.
She also deviated from a well rehearsed norm of politics by virtue of being frank, candid, and crucially – honest. Her honesty is such that times she caught herself, laughing seemingly with a mixture of nervousness and mischief, saying “you might not want to put all this in!”
This is in keeping with a reputation she’s developed over her years of prominence in the Green Party. It started with her becoming the most high profile of the left wing dissenters within Brighton & Hove Green Party during the time the Greens ran a controversial and tumultuous administration on the city council. And it’s continued since she became an MEP in May. Her twitter account is a go to channel for the radical left in the party, often digressing from central party lines and being unafraid to reproach figures on the right of the party. Most recently, she was one of few prominent Greens to openly criticise Green Party and Extinction Rebellion activist Rupert Read over his views on migration in the run up to his appearance on Question Time.
From Liverpool Labour to Brighton Greens
Given Alex Phillips’ notoriety for standing on the radical left of the party, our conversation begun by exploring her political background. She recants her family roots, and her time as a young Labour activist in the early noughties:
“I come from quite a political background in that my mum was a member of the Labour Party. So, from a really early age, you know, when I was eight, nine, ten, I can remember her phone canvassing from our living room, and helping her kind of stuff envelopes and deliver and things like that.
“So, kind of coming from a politically active family in Liverpool, it was quite normal for me to join the Labour Party, which I did when I was sixteen.”
But like many Greens of her generation, there was one four letter word that changed everything – Iraq:
“When I was about seventeen, there was that massive march in London against the war in Iraq in 2003. And I dragged my younger sister – who’s not into politics at all – down to London with me on a coach.
“And we spent a day marching and then went back up. And I just thought I’d made such an effort to do this and I’m a card carrying Labour member, yet I’m marching against my own party. So it didn’t make sense for me to carry on at that point. So I left,”
She then explains that still wanting to remain politically active but, alienated from Labour, she read the manifestos of all the other parties. And it was the Greens that she settled on. Not because of environmentalism, which she said was her “lifestyle” at the time. Rather, it was “social justice and human rights, civil liberties – that sort of thing” which drew her to the Green Party.
From then on, Phillips’ life meanders from one political role to the next. But after a stint as co-chair of the Young Greens, her political career was very nearly punctuated by a desire to become a French teacher, before “bizarrely” receiving an email offering her a job working for Caroline Lucas – then herself an MEP – in her Brussells office. After initially deciding to plough on with a PGCE and put politics on pause, she eventually decided to take on the job, spending a year in working in the European Parliament.
And it wouldn’t be long before she was back working for Lucas again. Phillips worked on the successful campaign to elect the UK’s first Green MP in Brighton Pavilion in 2010, and on her re-election campaign in 2015.
“Don’t fuck with people’s bins!”: Becoming the Greens’ most prominent left-wing councillor
Speaking to Alex Phillips, it appears that her political path has been driven by two separate factors. One is a calling, a drive to deliver her ideas for Green socialism. The other is chance. Just as a it was a ‘bizarre’ email that led to her working for Caroline Lucas, her telling of how she became a councillor in a 2009 by-election in which she unseated a Tory seems also buoyed by chance. She freely admits that she wasn’t fully prepared for the role, laughing as she says “I don’t think I knew what a councillor did!” and explaining that “it was a steep learning curve at the beginning”.
But just two years later, Phillips would be re-elected as part of a group of twenty three Green councillors. A year after Lucas’ election to parliament, the Green Party found itself in charge of a local council for the first time ever, running Brighton & Hove City Council as a minority administration.
During that administration, Phillips arguably became the Greens’ most prominent left-wing councillor. In 2012, she was the sole Green councillor to vote against her own party’s budget in Brighton. The budget contained a council tax freeze which would create more long term pressure on the council’s finances already ravaged by central government cuts doled out as part of the Tory-Lib Dem austerity project. The following year, the council was hit by a devastating strike of refuse workers resisting a pay equalisation case which would see workers have their pay cut.
The actions of the Green administration in Brighton spilled out into a major internal row in the party, both locally and nationally. Many on the left of the party were actively opposed to the Brighton administration for implementing austerity, having stood on anti-austerity ticket. And the issue of the bin-strike still has resonance on doorsteps, not just in Brighton but elsewhere in the country too.
When talking about this time, Phillips has a moment of exasperation, briefly holding her head in her hands, before later declaring the Greens handling of the bin strike a “shit show”. She says:
“I think the bin strike – look, it was a really difficult issue, because it was about equal pay.
“Essentially, you don’t fuck with people’s bins! Like, that’s the number one thing that you do not do!
“And if that entails, you know, having to make savings elsewhere… or going into reserves, to bring money forward in order to balance the books, then that’s what you should do. Like, we should have gone into reserves as far as I’m concerned. You know, Brighton & Hove at the time, I think had 13 or 14 million pounds reserves, and it only actually needs about nine. And I think the difference was pretty much what was required in order to do that.”
Clearly, Phillips still believes that the Greens’ decisions that led to the bin strike were flawed. Similarly, she expresses no regrets in her choice to vote down the Greens’ budget. After being the only Green to take a stand in 2012, she was joined by others in following years – including the current leader of the Brighton & Hove city council Green group Phelim MacCafferty. She says:
“It was really difficult voting against the budget, because I was the only one. I was about – I was in my mid twenties – and I pissed off the whole group pretty much. But do you know what, every year after that I was not the only one to vote against the budget.
“So I think it had an impact. It did mean that, you know, it was never inevitable that the budget would go through, and we’d always need a reserve date a week later, because by law it needs to be implemented within those ten days or so. But do you know what? I think that makes for good politics.”
Much was made at the time in the local and national press of the divisions in the local party. Many column inches were handed over to analysis of the divide between mangoes – liberals who were Green on the outside, but yellow on the inside, and watermelons who were Green on the outside, but red socialists deep down.
Phillips – firmly in the watermelon camp – doesn’t mince her words when exploring these divisions at the time in Brighton and in the wider party – although she abandons the fruit analogies. In doing so, she lets out her views on the then leader of the council Jason Kitcat:
“I was no fan of the Kitcat administration… it’s difficult, isn’t it, because all parties are broad churches – including ours, even though its a lot smaller than some of the others.
“But generally speaking I think we’re in two camps. We’ve got, kind of, environmental Lib Dems, who are devoid of politics… And we’ve got like socialists Greens, who may have come from Labour but may not have.
“And the two just don’t work together in an administration very well, especially with a backdrop of massive amounts of cuts. I mean, local authorities saw then at least – it’s probably similar now – the biggest cuts of, you know, any other sector. And we can’t be seen to just implement them.”
Since then, the politics of the Green group in Brighton & Hove has changed – according to Phillips for the better. She speaks highly of the collection of 19 Greens elected to the council this May:
“I think the cohort of new councillors that we’ve got – you know we’ve got quite a lot of young councillors, and their politics are more on the left. And that’s really good,”
Keeping the Greens radical
Our conversation moves from the local to the national – and how the Greens should relate to the Labour Party. Since Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership, Labour have moved substantially leftwards, occupying political territory once the Greens’ preserve. And at the party’s conference in September, the passing of a Green New Deal motion with a commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 placed the party yet more firmly in this position. Phillips says:
“Well I think it’s a great thing that they’re doing that. And it shows that they’re listening to our policies, and movements beyond us, like Extinction Rebellion, and the climate strikers, and Greta Thunberg, and David Attenborough. And you know, it’s not just us. It’s a whole host of different things. And so it’s brilliant. We want them to take our policies basically!”
But she remains unconvinced that the Labour Party can do this alone. Instead, she thinks that electing more Greens will be crucial to ensure that Labour deliver:
“I think what we need to do is we need to get more Greens in parliament to make sure that Labour actually implement their promises. Because at the moment, they’re just promises, and I’m not sure how they stack up with other things.
“So, for example, net-zero by 2030 is brilliant. But how does that fit in with, I don’t know, Labour councils supporting [airport] expansion, building new roads, allowing for new parking?”
She continues by alleging a “gulf between Labour MPs and activists”, and argues that the Labour Party’s pledges must be taken with a pinch of salt, saying Labour could always “thoroughly disappoint you as soon as they get into government.”
“As a previous Labour member, I’ve been burned by that party before. And, you know, they can say one thing when they’re not in government and then do something else.”
And with Labour having shifted to the left, Phillips is clear on where the Greens should place themselves. Others in the party have touted the idea that with Labour now talking the talk on ending austerity, reversing privatisation and so on, the Green Party can return to its roots and place all its emphasis on environmental issues.
But for Phillips this isn’t the answer. She’s instead convinced that the role of the Greens is to ensure “we’re always more radical than they are”, and to place this front and centre of the party’s messaging. Singling out specific policy areas, she suggests the party’s policies on drugs and policing remain far more radical than Labour’s and need to be better communicated. She goes to far as to say that one of her roles in politics right now is “to keep the party radical, and make sure we are left of Labour.”
“We do want a Corbyn government”
Her vision for the Greens as a party to Labour’s left is clear. But the question remains as to how Greens should relate to Labour in the event of a General Election – an issue which has triggered much consternation and conflict within the party since the ‘progressive alliance’ saga of the 2017 election. Again, Phillips is clear:
“My own view on the strategy I think the Greens should take in any snap General Election is that we come to a conclusion on what [is] a marginal seat. That could be 3,000 votes. It could be two. It could be one. I don’t know – we decide what it is.
“And then in those seats where – you know – we could potentially make the difference, or we think we might… then we don’t stand against Labour, in those seats. Because, I mean, we do want a Corbyn government I think. You know, that’s what I would want. But we just need, we also need to have some wins.”
At this moment, as when discussing the Greens in control of Brighton council, Phillips appears exasperated. She expresses her frustration that other prominent Greens are planning to stand against Labour candidates in marginal seats, bemoaning a lack of strategy. She contrasts this to her own candidacy in Brighton Kemptown, where the sitting Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle holds a 10,000 majority – no longer a marginal.
But much more scorn and ire is poured on Jo Swinson and Jeremy Corbyn for failing to work together to prevent a Tory government, blasting the pair as “really arrogant, both of them”.
Since being elected to the European Parliament in May, Alex Phillips – along with her colleague Magid Magid – emerged as having by far the highest profile of the new crop of MEPs.
Given that, along with her open criticism of elements of the party and her fears that it might get “older”, “whiter”, “more middle class” and “a bit more Lib-Demmy”, I ask whether her and Magid would, in the future, be willing to stand on a joint ticket for the leadership of the party, as candidates of the left.
The usual response from politicians asked about their leadership ambitions didn’t come. To my surprise, Phillips was as frank as ever:
“I would be. I love Magid, even though he’s a bloody nightmare to work with sometimes! I do love him! But I don’t think that’s where he wants to be unfortunately.
“Magid I think is very clear in his own mind about what he wants to achieve and what his role is at any given point. So for example, I’ve asked him to stand in one of the Sheffield seats, and he will not stand in the General Election. That’s not where he is at the moment.
“Now, I mean, he has been approached by other people to stand before as co-leader, and he turned it down. I don’t think he knew those people as well as he knows me now. So, you know, I think if anyone’s got a chance, I have with him. But he’s a difficult one to turn, Magid is, because he knows his own mind.”
With this, our conversation draws to a close. By now, her toddler is getting restless. Phillips’ attempts to console him – which she does in French – aren’t working any longer. And her staffer looks exhausted having babysat him for over half an hour – a shift which included preventing several attempts to climb down the escalator to the ground floor.
Over the course of just thirty minutes, Alex Phillips laid out an analysis of where the party has come from, and the direction it should go. What’s clear from our conversation is that her politics is a politics of conviction, of radicalism and of staunch socialism. And it’s clear her voice is one which will remain central to conversations about the Green Party’s political path. Whether or not she remains an MEP after October 31, she will nonetheless remain a hugely influential figure in the Greens, and on the left, for long into the future.
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