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Jonathan Bartley: ‘The climate emergency is more serious than coronavirus’

11 min read

The Green Party co-leader on gaining Labour voters, why Extinction Rebellion’s “messy” disruption was necessary, and how his party is going “hell for leather” to win seats at the next election.

There were at least two reasons for the spring in Jonathan Bartley’s step on the morning we met. The latest easing of lockdown rules, allowing people to socialise outdoors in groups of six and enjoy organised sport, had coincided with a balmy day in London.

The House magazine arranged to go for a stroll the Green Party co-leader on Tooting Bec Common, a short stroll from his home in Streatham, south-west London. It is here that Bartley, 49, often takes walks with his 13-year-old black labrador, Wallis.

The Common was filled with many other breeds of dog and their smiling owners, as well as a discernible sense of optimism that days were getting brighter in more ways than one. Bartley had a game of tennis planned for later that day, but first he wanted to discuss the second reason for his cheer: early shoots promising a Green Party surge.

Five weeks out from the local elections, opinion polls were showing rising support for the party jointly led by Bartley and London Assembly Member Siân Berry. Wearing a basketball jacket and Reebok trainers, and with sunglasses resting on his head, Bartley suggested that what he described as the “disappointing” performance of Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, was partly responsible for the Greens’ recent uptick.

“It looks like younger people who voted Labour in 2019 are coming across to us,” he said.

“There’s a disappointment in Starmer’s failure to talk about the climate and ecological emergency. Where’s the big-picture Green New Deal? Where’s the plan for transforming the economy? Electric vehicles look like the best they’ve got.”

The Green Party’s fortunes are determined in large part by the flavour of the Labour Party.

The three-and-a-half-years Jeremy Corbyn spent as Labour leader were “really tough” for the Greens, because the now-independent MP “took a lot of our policies,” Bartley admitted. “In a way, we welcomed that because ideas right across the economic agenda that we had been talking about – a four-day week and universal basic income, for example – were taken on by Labour.”

However, “now they seem to have been at best muted, and at worst ditched” by Starmer.

We need to reach net-zero by 2030 – we will have reached 2030 by the time we get a Labour government

Bartley, black coffee in hand, said there was now an ideological gulf separating the two parties. Starmer was taking “a more authoritarian approach” to protest and “was not really standing up” for it, he argued.

The Labour leader said the actions of police officers at the vigil for Sarah Everard last month were “deeply disturbing” and “wrong,” but did not call for Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan police commissioner, to quit. He has been under pressure to criticise police officers involved in the recent Bristol protests, who are accused of using their shields to injure protestors.

Bartley sees a gap in the market. “We all go out and get arrested – non-violent, direct action is in our DNA. It’s our philosophy. A lot of people who have been involved in protests will naturally see us as their home now.”

A councillor in the borough of Lambeth, Bartley lives with his partner who moved in with him just before the start of the lockdown early last year. “We’ve had a year of living together for the first time. It’s gone really, really well and I know it doesn’t for everyone. I feel very lucky.”

Like many others, the pandemic has been a considerable challenge for the father of three, who became joint leader of the Green Party in 2016. One of his children – 18-year-old Samuel – has spina bifida and “significant support needs” which have been “tough” to manage during the many months spent in lockdown. He has formed a bubble with his 80-year-old mother, who lives alone close by in south-west London, to look after her and do her shopping.

He is one of countless people who have discovered a passion for gardening during the long spells confined to home. Perhaps surprisingly, Bartley is a late convert to the fork and spade, describing the vine, rockery and other mini-projects he has been working as a “source of energy”.

“I know it’s a cliche, but the garden has been a really important space for me.”

People during lockdown have seen a different way of doing things and had a glimpse of a greener way of life

It’s at home via a series of Zoom meetings with colleagues that Bartley has been devising a strategy for building on what he believes is a growing public appetite in the UK for a radical green agenda. 

“There’s no doubt that people during lockdown have seen a different way of doing things,” he said, raising his voice to compete with the parakeets in the tree opposite. “Whether it be nationalising the railways, creating low-traffic neighbourhoods or just appreciating the importance of preserving green space, people have had a glimpse of a greener way of life.”

He believes that public support for a much bolder response to the climate emergency could grow as the country emerges from the pandemic and the focus shifts to rebuilding the economy.

“When there’s an emergency, you should borrow to tackle it,” he said.

“When we said in the past you could borrow £100bn, people said it was an absurd idea. Well, in a year the government has borrowed somewhere between £300bn and £400bn.

“The climate emergency is more serious than coronavirus. Imagine if you planned for the climate emergency, which we do know is upon us and which we can anticipate, and the policies that we could create to face it. The old conventions and lies have been totally broken open.”

Turning to the government, Bartley described Boris Johnson’s environmental agenda as “embarrassing”, not transformative.

“Where is the government’s transport strategy? There isn’t one. What is the government doing about getting rid of gas boilers and replacing them with alternative, greener fuel? Where’s the action on frequent flying? It seems like the government wants to encourage domestic flying.”

Bartley reiterated Greta Thunberg’s metaphor about the house being on fire: if your house is on fire, you call the fire brigade immediately. You don’t ask them to turn up in a week or hope it eventually puts itself out.”

Bartley cited the Green Homes Grant scheme as an example. The heavily-promoted government promise to help people pay for energy-saving home improvements with work such as insulation and double-glazing was scrapped just nine months after it was launched, with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee criticising its shoddy implementation. “I called up as soon as it was announced and nobody ever got back to me,” Bartley said. “It was a disaster from start to finish.”

Despite the snub from government, Bartley is convinced the Green Party has reasons to believe it is helping shape the agenda.

One of them is the emergence of campaigns like Extinction Rebellion (XR). The movement’s colourful, large-scale and at times disruptive protests have earned it many headlines over the past few years. The action, XR says, is designed to highlight the gravity of the threat posed by climate change and prompt politicians into taking urgent and meaningful action.

However, its methods have divided opinion. The sight of protesters occupying the roof of a London Underground train in October 2019 led to accusations that the movement was choosing the wrong targets: in this case, one of the more environmentally-friendly ways for Londoners to travel around the capital, and working-class people who couldn’t afford to not make it to work.

“I don’t agree with everything Extinction Rebellion does,” Bartley conceded. “But movements are messy. They always have been and they always will be.

“Every great movement from the suffragettes through to the present day doesn’t get it right 100 per cent of the time, but you’ve got to step back and assess the net effect. 

“What Extinction Rebellion did was challenge dominant thinking within environmental NGOs that you can’t give people the whole story because it’ll scare them and convince them there’s nothing they can do. They blew that wide open by saying ‘this is an emergency’.

“These movements have been the answer to our prayers.”

By Bartley’s own admission, Extinction Rebellion appeals to a narrow section of society. But the Green Party has been able to reach a more mainstream audience with its climate emergency message through an unlikely spokesperson: David Attenborough.

He said Attenborough’s “coming out, of sorts” had been a huge boost to the green campaign. The documentarian’s prime-time warnings of the threat posed to the natural world by climate change “appeal” to people like his mum “in a way Extinction Rebellion does not”.

The Green Party may be united by its environmental mission but it has not quite managed to avoid getting caught up in cultural rows that have become a common feature of political discourse.

The feminist writer Julie Bindel recently claimed in The Spectator that the party had a “woman problem”.

Party delegates at this year’s spring conference voted against a motion calling for biological women to be included in a list of groups facing oppression. Bindel argued that the party’s “rush” to be inclusive of trans people had come at the expense of biological women and quoted a party executive member as saying “women are set to leave the Green Party in droves” over its trans policy.

Bartley sidestepped our question on Bindel’s accusation, saying: “I don’t want to pronounce on it as a man,” and instead pointed to the number of women in the party’s top team and in its membership.

“I have no evidence of that in our membership numbers,” he said. “Our membership is still majority women, as much as we know from tracking the data – and it is still growing.

“What I do know is our three parliamentarians are women, our two London Assembly Members are women, and we have consistently had [female] leaders of the Green Party. I think that speaks for itself.”

So what’s the plan for Green Party? What does it want to achieve?

The polls made encouraging reading for Bartley and co. on that spotless spring morning, but the fact remains that first-past-the-post means adding to its one seat in the House of Commons, occupied by Caroline Lucas, would be a huge challenge even if it gains significant numbers of votes from Labour across the country.

Bartley reveals the party is in the process of drawing up target seats for the next general election, scheduled for 2024. Local parties will submit bids to be target constituencies and successful applicants will have party money pumped into their campaigns come election time.

How many seats? “I’m certainly not going to put a number on that. After a few years in the job I have learnt to not put numbers on things,” Bartley responded, laughing.

But he insisted the party is “absolutely serious” about growing its presence in Westminster and is going “hell for leather” in preparation for the next election.

Bartley acknowledged that ultimately, for all of his disagreements with the current Labour Party leadership, the Green Party’s best route to securing more seats in the House of Commons is through Starmer winning the next election on a manifesto commitment to electoral reform. 

“It’ll require Labour to have a commitment to proportional representation,” he said.

“If we are running at seven or eight per cent in some opinion polls, that is millions of people who aren’t getting representation in parliament. Who knows how many MPs we’d get under those circumstances?”

In the meantime, the Green Party doesn’t plan to stand still.

“We can’t just wait around for a Labour government. There is little prospect of Labour winning the next general election, so are we really going to wait another eight years? We need to reach net-zero by 2030 – we will have reached 2030 by the time we get a Labour government!”

Bartley predicts that environmental movements in the UK will go from strength to strength in the next few years, and coalesce around the Green Party as their political voice. 

“If we felt we had reached a point where there was nothing more for the Green Party to achieve and no reason for it to exist, then that would be fine – but the chances of that are negligible.

“There is a lot of momentum for the Green Party and I’m very optimistic for the future.”

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