Sian Berry and Jonathan Bartley

Speaking to Sian Berry and Jonathan Bartley for an extended period, I notice two things above anything else. Rather than common features of interviews – the earnest flag waving around issues or wooden attempts at spin – they are fundamentally human things. Things that demonstrate personality and life so often absent from politics.

First, they both come across as warm, genuine people. Rather than the carefully crafted personas we’ve become accustomed to like that of Boris Johnson, the pair are both casual and conversational. Away from the settings party members typically see them in – on the stage of grand conference halls, or in front of television cameras – they are at ease, freed from the rigidity the former so often dictates. Our conversation is often punctuated with laughter. Their answers to questions aren’t squeezed into soundbites or the rhythm of speech writing. Berry in particular is cheery and upbeat, at points proclaiming “we love Molly!” (Scott Cato) and referring to fellow Green London Assembly member Caroline Russell as “my Caroline”.

Second, the pair undeniably have a real social chemistry. At times they finish each others sentences. They interject to build upon each other’s points. They bounce off each other, one feeding the other’s arguments. And they both share a love for Tony Benn – named by each of them as their favourite politician from another party – “one of my heroes”, says Bartley, “I love Tony Benn so much” says Berry.

Reflections on 2019

There are obvious reasons for them to be upbeat. They entered this year’s leadership election in a fairly formidable position. In 2018, Berry and Bartley became co-leaders sitting on an enviable vote share – 75.5% of first preferences. Since, they have overseen unprecedented electoral success for the Green Party of England and Wales. 2019 saw the party double its representation on local councils overnight. It also saw the party achieve its best ever European election results. And despite not managing to secure a second MP, December’s general election saw the Greens’ second highest vote share ever.

All that’s before mentioning the significant growth in the party’s membership. At one point last year, someone was joining the Green Party every three minutes.

Naturally this record is something they lean in to. But not everything is rosy. There is some disquiet among the membership – not least around the party’s strategy in the 2019 general election, and the decision to enter into an electoral alliance with the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. That alliance – branded “Unite to Remain” – saw the Greens stand aside for other parties in dozens of constituencies.

Their opposition – Rosi Sexton and Shahrar Ali have both criticised this stance. Sexton has branded the 2019 campaign as “wishful thinking”. Ali has made opposing electoral alliances a key plank of his leadership bid.

But Berry and Bartley have no truck with such arguments. Berry describes the 2019 campaign as “undoubtedly a success”. Bartley says the election achievement was “absolutely remarkable”.

To make this case, he points to the political context facing the party in the years running up to that election:

We had Brexit, we had two snap general elections, we had a Labour leader who moved into our territory, that we’d occupied in 2015 and […] we faced the biggest challenge that we’ve ever faced in our history as the Green Party over the last four years. And to deal with two snap general elections and a hole in our finances as a result of mismanagement in 2015 and the political territory, I think what we achieved is absolutely remarkable

According to Bartley though, the party’s success can’t be measured merely by looking at vote shares or tallies of MPs. Instead, he makes the case that the impact the party had on the election narrative was key, arguing that the Greens:

put the whole Green New Deal on the agenda. Because we had Greens in the room, climate was on the agenda of every single leaders’ debate that we were involved in. Everyone was falling over themselves to try and match what we were saying and we had a whole climate debate!

On message, Berry echoes this, saying the Green Party were “leading the agenda”:

We came out of that general election looking consistent, looking like the party that were leading the agenda. A 60 per cent increase in vote in a snap election where resource wise we are so far behind the other parties is a real, genuine, compared with what it could have been, big, big, big boost.

Future electoral prospects

After spending a few minutes discussing last year’s election, Berry somewhat cagily states that the leadership election is about “looking forwards, not backwards”, before going on to argue that it is their record which will set the party up for future election success. For Berry and Bartley, both the 2019 local and general elections have established the ground work on which future Green MPs will be sent to parliament.

Bartley talks of “three ingredients” for winning more parliamentary seats – ingredients which he thinks the party now has:

There are three ingredients to win parliamentary seats. One is second or third places. Second is having your councillor base. And third is four year’s run in […] a four year campaign to win the seat. Now we have all those things set up, which we haven’t had before.

And Berry sets out how this was the model that saw Caroline Lucas elected as the first ever Green MP, and is the model to be replicated:

Look at 2005 in Brighton Pavillion – we were third. So all those second and third places are in play, and the key thing for us now is to have the resources and the ability to focus effort in the way we did on Brighton Pavillion, on more places and get those next MPs. And that’s what we’re properly set up to do now, with a growing professional field team to support people.

Dealing with controversy

But it’s one thing talking up successes, which both do readily. It’s another thing dealing with controversy.

When pressed on the Unite to Remain agreement in particular, Berry is firmly and instantly dismissive of criticism. She cites “some of our biggest swings” coming in constituencies where the electoral pact was in place, and rejects arguments that the agreement could have damaged the reputation of the party as “anecdotal”:

But the idea that it damaged perceptions of us is anecdotal rather than backed up by evidence. There is evidence that the coming together of parties is seen as good in itself, by the electorate.

In other areas of contention during their leadership, though the pair show some signs of humility. In the 2019 general election campaign, Bartley faced a strong reaction from party members, the press and the public over comments he made in which he stated that he would ban halal meat. He issued an apology on Twitter later the same day. He describes being “absolutely mortified” after making the comments and talks of the importance of needing to “put your hands up and say I’m sorry” when getting things wrong. When asked how she felt when hearing the comments, Berry said she felt “terrible for Jonathan” before making clear that they were “not policy” and “not culturally sensitive either”.

Calling for bans on halal meat haven’t been the only controversial point in their leadership regarding discrimination. During their two years at the helm of the party, a small group of members have continually sought to overturn the Greens’ clear and unequivocal policies in support of trans rights. Both Berry and Bartley make pains to express their commitment to the party’s position on trans rights. Bartley says they have been “very, very clear” on this. Berry says that they have “absolutely took this issue head on”. She is also steadfast in her view that the party will not shift its position on the issue:

the whole party is – I think – fairly united on this and it is […] a small number of people [opposing trans rights]. So if anybody wants to change our policy on that I do not think they would succeed in a million years. So we’ll keep restating what we believe as often as we do.

Consistency, consistency, consistency

Moving away from internal contention in the party, it is that latter point, of consistency, that the pair peg much of their hopes of future success. This is particularly acute in the shifting political landscape as Keir Starmer drags the Labour Party kicking and screaming back to the right, which both Berry and Bartley are highly critical of, but that they also recognise re-opens political space for the Greens.

Bartley describes what he sees as both a “shift to the right” and a “shift to authoritarianism” in Labour. And it is this which has caused a “hell of a lot of people” to be deeply disillusioned with Labour’s current offer, observing that they are “coming over to us right now”.

Unsurprisingly, Berry agrees. And for her, this is down to the fact that “we’ve moved not an iota in our political positioning”. By contrast, she says that other parties have “shifted all over the place”.

Bartley brings this point to life by speaking of specific policy areas the Greens have always been unwavering on:

I think one perception that people come out with over the last four years is that the Greens don’t move. Greens are absolutely consistent. They’re consistent in their opposition to austerity. They’re consistent about the climate. They’re consistent in their calls for wealth redistribution. And what we see is other parties moving all the time, but with the Greens you don’t see that.

The Green Party is ready to explode

And it is from this point that we start to get a sketch of their vision for the party moving forward. Far from wanting to be pigeonholed as the continuity candidates, the pair instead draw on the changing political context to emphasise where they see the party’s future.

As Bartley says, this is partially about the party ensuring it steps up to “occupy the left space” left by the Labour Party. But the pair also talk lucidly about the role the party has as the “political wing” of the emerging and growing movements for climate and social justice. Referring to the school strikes, extinction rebellion and the human rights movement, Berry says her and Bartley want to go about “building a mass movement” by connecting more effectively with grassroots campaigns, so that the Green Party can “genuinely become good allies” to them.

Declaring “the climate won’t wait!”, Bartley highlights how the next general election is four years away, and even if that election saw a government elected committed to electoral reform, the first election fought under a proportional system would “six to eight or nine years” away.

As such, Berry calls for the party to start taking urgent steps to tackle the climate crisis through campaigning outside of as well as within elections, arguing these should be seen as in “synergy” as a combined strategy, with one feeding the other. She points to the party’s push for local councils to adopt climate emergency motions as a clear example of this:

the example of getting those climate emergency motions through the councils, starting with Carla [Denyer]. And then we got them through where we had councillors. But we also got them through in places where we hadn’t yet got councillors. And now we have councillors in those areas.

Meanwhile Bartley speaks with increasing urgency about why their leadership pitch has placed an emphasis on this.

We have to have this change now, the front page of Time Magazine today [says] that we’ve got a year. This is the year. It has to happen now.

He continues, shifting our interview from the kind of conversation you have in the pub to a sudden speech steeped in rhetoric and persuasion:

we have to create this movement. We have to absolutely go for broke. We’ve got to reach out – there can be no place for compromise. We have to pull out all the stops. But we have everything in place now to be able to do that. And this is the moment for us to step forward and show that leadership and show that hope and I genuinely believe that we can do it.

Adopting such an approach is – according to Bartley – about ensuring the party is ready to capitalise on the fact that the party is “ready to absolutely explode”. Berry jokingly puts it in milder terms – saying she wants to see the party “fly like a bird!”

On that optimistic note, our conversation draws to a close. Whether or not members believe their view that the Green Party is ready to “explode”, Berry and Bartley remain the clear front-runners in an election race they should expect to comfortably win.

But should members put their faith in them for a further two years, they will have a tough ride keeping up momentum and delivering these lofty ambitions. Green election success is so often driven by ground campaigns at a local level – ground campaigns that have all but ground to the halt since the onset of the pandemic. But if they can acieve a comfortable and convincing victory, and face down strong opposition in the current leadership contest – particularly Rosi Sexton’s insurgent campaign – there’s no reason to think they can’t replicate that success in the challenges following it.

This is the second in a series of interviews with the candidates for the leadership of the Green Party. In addition to these interviews, we also hosted a hustings for candidates on July 27, a recording of which you can watch here.

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Image credit: Kelly Hill – Creative Commons