Ewan Somerville, Online News Editor of Forge Press, had a chat with the co-leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas about a range of issues facing university students and the future of her party. Here’s the interview in full!
The 2017 General Election
Why did you not do as well as you’d hoped in the 2017 general election?
“I think we didn’t do as well as we’d hoped because there was the Corbyn surge. We’d been the beneficiaries of a surge in 2015 when we’d been the only party that was anti-austerity. In 2017 Jeremy Corbyn seems to have cut and pasted quite a lot of our manifesto and taken the Labour party further to the left.
“I think it was interesting on the doorstep how many people said they still would like to vote Green – that their hearts were with the Green Party – but because of our archaic and undemocratic electoral system, they felt compelled to put a cross next to the box for Labour. But I also think that’s something that is not necessarily going to remain that way; I think that we’re in a time of ‘swarm politics’, as its been called, where people swarmed to the SNP when they were anti-austerity in Scotland, they came to us in 2015, and they’ve come to Corbyn now.
“I think there are two good reasons why that might not last. One is around Brexit, because I think people are getting increasingly frustrated with Labour’s failure to offer any real opposition to Brexit and given that’s the biggest political issue of the day I think young people in particular are feeling more and more fed up and betrayed by Labour’s spinelessness, frankly, on that issue.
“It’s also certainly the case that he doesn’t get environment: Labour is committed to Hinkley nuclear power, they’re committed to HS2, they’re committed to Heathrow expansion, they’re committed to more road building – they don’t really have a sense of what a sustainable economy would be, and so I think for all of those reasons that the outlook for the Greens is still looking very positive.”
Young people and politics
More broadly in terms of engaging young people in politics, do you think it is the case that young people don’t really care about the environment as much today?
“I don’t really think I agree with that argument, and it is interesting that the reason the Conservatives are now suddenly pretending, rather farcically, to be party of the environment is because of advice they have had through focus groups and polling, which is that the environment is a way to reach young people and they know that their own track record on that area isn’t good.
“No, I think that if you look at the number of campaigns for divestment at different universities across the country – and all credit to Sheffield for having done really well on that – on issues like fracking actually young people are deeply concerned about the environment.
“I think at the last election it was just a sense that one heave would get Labour over the line so people were prepared to just swallow concerns about that and give him the benefit of the doubt; I think what they have seen since is going to certainly demonstrate that he doesn’t get the environment and he certainly isn’t delivering on any kind of opposition to Brexit. So, as I say, I think it will come back to the Greens.”
What would you say are the biggest issues faced by university students today?
“I think there’s a real inter-generational crisis happening to be honest. University students in particular, but also young people in general, are facing some pretty tough challenges. Partly to do with things like finding somewhere to live, having a roof over your head and finding a job that is meaningful.
“My kids are at uni and they will say that lots of their colleagues just don’t really expect to get a good job, which is a terrible indictment of the situation we’re in now. Being forced to live in quite often over-crowded, bad-quality housing, because the rented sector is so poorly served. Any hopes of getting into the ladder for some sort of home of your own is getting increasingly difficult.
“I think Brexit has potential – if it happens, and I think there is still an if about it – but if it happens I think that it is closing down people’s possibilities and horizons at the very time when you want to be looking outwards. So, I think there are issues around Europe, around housing, around the economy, around public services generally.
“I think there’s a growing concern around the commodification of education, where you find that some of the university courses are being closed down because there isn’t enough funding for it. The funding is going to those bits of the university that are more likely to get kinder research grants being given to them by the private sector.”
UCU lecturer strike
Just focusing on that commodification for a couple of questions, the UCU strike that I’m sure you have heard about: there are 1,300 members of staff at this university who are part of the UCU and, unless some resolution is reached before February 22, they will be striking over the course of four weeks. Do you stand with those lecturers, and do you feel it’s fair that students’ education is being disrupted like this?
“I think it’s incredibly tough and my heart goes out to any students’ education that is being disrupted because I know just how stressful that is. But I guess I would say that the UCU are doing what they’re doing because they feel driven to do so.
“They are not doing it lightly, and it is precisely because they care about the quality of student education for the longer term that they’re feeling this is the only way to make their voices heard.
“So, I would support them in it. I hope very much that the government draws back before we get to that point because, as you say, it is going to be pretty disruptive. But I think on balance, from what I know of UCU members and their commitment to delivering a good experience for students, they are doing it for and hopefully with students to a great degree. I think those times when the NUS and the UCU together are hand in hand, I just think that is incredibly powerful.”
Vice-Chancellor salaries have been a massive issue, particularly at Bath University. But Keith Burnett, who is the outgoing VC here, has a salary of £420,000 a year and last academic year he spent £50,000 alone just on travel and hotel expenses. What would you say about this?
“Crikey! That’s pretty obscene, quite honestly. One of the Green Party’s policies is around having some standard differentials between the highest paid and the lowest paid in any given organisation and I think when you have such a vast discrepancy between the person whose paid the most and, you know, I don’t know how much a cleaner gets paid at Sheffield University but I don’t suppose it’s even a fraction of that amount. I just think it’s incredibly corrosive in terms of a sense of growing equality and dignity in work really. I don’t think there is any justification for salaries of that kind.”
Variety in higher education
Do we live in an Oxbridge-centred society still, and are universities such as Sheffield that like to present themselves as quite innovative with, for example, their apprenticeship schemes changing this?
“I think that the fetishisation of Oxford and Cambridge is not a healthy thing and that valuing a whole range of broader skills is incredibly important. I’m not aware of the scheme that Sheffield University is running but if it’s about making the academic work here more closely related to gaps in the jobs market then that is certainly positive.
“I wouldn’t want to say that is any more important than learning for its own sake because I strongly believe that if you want to do a course in ancient history and there isn’t an immediate opening for ancient history then I still stand by your right to learn for learning’s sake because I think the kinds of skills you gain in doing that are very broadly applicable.”
Making universities more inclusive
Some students I have spoken to here in Sheffield are, among other things, calling for a more LGBT+ friendly curriculum. Do you think this is a way to make universities more inclusive?
“I think the curriculum and what goes into the curriculum is very important and incredibly reflective of the dominant values of a society. For a long time (my background is Eng Lit) we fought to have more women on the curriculum so it wasn’t just Shakespeare and Dickens and the romantic poets end of. But you could see all the ways in which women’s literature is so impt, and so just in the same way as that was a battle more 10 or 20 years ago.
“I think there is a battle now to make sure that the curriculum does represent the broad diversity of creativity which is there in every sector of our society and we should be valuing and celebrating all of that, so yes broaden it.”
Young Greens vs. Labour Students societies
We have the Young Greens society here and more broadly across national university campuses. You’ve spoken about Labour and how they’ve been the dominant force in the election in terms of attracting youth, and that seems to be the case on university campuses as well whereby the Labour Students’ societies are attracting much more students and are much more popular than the Green societies. Do you think that is where one of the problems lie for the GP in connecting with young people?
“No, I think that is entirely a product of our electoral system I genuinely do. If you look at some of those sites where people vote blind for a set of policies without knowing which parties they are associated with, the Green Party still wins because our policy base is so rigorous and has been developed in that direction for over 30 years, and there isn’t a fight in our party about our policies like there is in the Labour Party. If Jeremy Corbyn was to stand down no one knows what the LP would stand for because there are so many different views within.”
Is that down to size?
“I don’t think that’s just down to size, I think it’s also down to the fact that Labour have got a massive fight going on, although they have quietened it down at the moment. But essentially if you sit in parliament – as I do alongside the LP – there is a massive gap between the front bench and practically everyone else in the party because they don’t agree with the direction that Corbyn is taking them in.
“So, I think that in terms of the actual offer: what the GP stands for in terms of the unity and rigour behind our policy base is more attractive than not being quite sure what LP would stand for if Corbyn wasn’t there. I think the big thing is that Labour is usually, but not always, a better bet in terms of getting rid of the Conservatives.
“Students tend – a vast generalisation – but to an extent they tend to be more left of centre, they are looking for a party that’s more likely to be able to fight the Conservatives. But what you’ve got here in Sheffield are the council elections coming up where the Greens have got a really good chance in a number of seats – we’re trying to keep our seat that Alison Teal is in, and just what she has achieved in terms of the courage of standing up for her conviction in defending those trees from being cut down in that PFI deal, and seeing a Labour council trying to bang her up in prison ought to be a microcosm. In fact I think if most students saw that they would be horrified, rightly so.
“So, if we can just change our vastly unjust electoral system – and again, that’s an irony – Jeremy Corbyn standing for the many not the few and yet he champions an electoral system that precisely ensures that the voices of the many aren’t heard.”
Stand alone vs. electoral pacts
During the election the Green Party called for electoral pacts and compromise deals to be made whereby a party would compromise a seat and get behind the strongest opposition party in a given constituency, in the interests of weakening the Tory majority. Labour resisted this in a lot of cases so do you regret calling for it, as had Labour compromised those seats the Tories could have a majority today?
“I regret the fact that Labour didn’t engage with us on that. I regret the fact that the snap election meant that what was designed to be a four-year strategy had to be constrained into 3 months and that was incredibly difficult, and it meant that the level of trust was harder to build up fast enough in constituencies to make those kinds of discussions more likely to happen.
“Having said that, there were a number of seats where a difference was made even if some of it was achievements at the local level. So in Oxford, Abingdon, for example, the Greens stood aside, which meant the Liberal Democrat was able to win against the Conservatives.
“Now there are some discussions going on in some council seats and now the GP stands a greater chance of winning in some of those seats where the Lib Dems will stand back, so in some cases it has worked but essentially I think the bit that got missed in terms of the condensing of a long term policy into a short period was, for us, all about proportional representation.
“That was supposed to be the thing by which the Greens would seek agreements around potentially standing aside if whoever was the most likely candidate to win would go back to parliament and champion PR because until we break down this log jam of a voting system that simply ignores the views of the vast majority of people, then we won’t get the progressive politics we need and I don’t think we will with Labour either.
“I know each time there’s a general election we’re always told one more heave will get labour over the line and I don’t think it will. Not in a sustainable way, anyway. Not in a way that actually means they’re there for a reasonable amount of time and able to do anything very positive.”