16 September 2010
Thank you and welcome to Birmingham.
And I want to start by thanking the organisers and Birmingham Green Party, and indeed all those in the West Midlands, who have helped to make us so welcome.
Our membership has grown significantly over the last year, up by nearly a third.
It's such a pleasure to see so many people I don't recognise!
And so I welcome all new members.
New members who share our values and ambitions.
Who will build on what we have achieved already as a party
And who are ready to help to create a society genuinely based on fairness, justice, and sustainability - values that the Green Party is committed to putting at the heart of the political process.
And perhaps we can be forgiven for beginning our Conference in reflecting on our achievements.
For we have an autumn Conference where we can celebrate success.
First, hot off the press, the by elections for Norwich city council yesterday, where the Norwich Greens continued their unstoppable momentum, holding all their seats, winning another and now, with 14 seats, the largest Green council group in the country - ever.
In the local elections in May, we won our second city council seat in Cambridge and made our first breakthroughs on Reading, Reigate and Rochford councils.
Places that now have Green representation for the first time.
So I'm delighted to congratulate our newly elected councillors Adam Pognowski, Rob White, Jonathan Essex and Michael Hoy.
Their success is another sign of our growing challenge to the three main parties.
But it also means more communities that now have the kind of principled and committed representation that the public want and deserve.
And while the London results didn't reflect the enormous efforts of London parties like Hackney, Camden and Lewisham, knowing many of those activists as I do, I share their optimism for building the vote towards the London Assembly elections in 2012.
So, successes in local elections.
And great work being done by Green representatives in dozens of local authorities, in the London Assembly, and in the European Parliament.
Was there something else?
It was one amazing night for us all.
I cannot tell you what a privilege it was to stand on that stage, and represent this wonderful movement of ours, and so, from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much to everyone who made it possible.
So many thoughts crowding in - and fortunately crowding out the fact that none of us had slept for 24 hours!
How it started here in Britain, over 30 years ago.
People, and then the Ecology Party, as the first political movement based on ecological principles. On what we have come to call Green principles.
And the years, the decades, of tireless work by so many thousands of people, over so many years, believing against all the odds, ignored or even at times ridiculed, by the mainstream, yet never losing faith.
A long journey, a difficult journey - where the odds have been stacked against us all the way.
But the results showed us, and the wider world, that the big guns don't always win in politics.
That's a wonderful message to put out to the country.
But that is what we've done, and will continue to do.
To give hope for a better way, a better world.
The idea that politics can be different.
It's as simple, as powerful, as that.
The time when a political party takes, for the first time, its rightful place in our parliament.
It puts me in mind of the Critical Mass cycle rides.
You might remember when the police were trying to stop the London rides, using one of the many hundreds of pieces of anti-protest legislation brought in by Labour, that they tried to find out who were the leaders of Critical Mass, so they could serve an injunction on them
And of course, it doesn't have any leaders. It's spontaneous.
People gather, and when the time is right, when everyone is ready, someone chooses to pedal off.
And with Critical Mass, as with our own party, it's not the one at the front who matters. It's everyone who is there.
Of course, when we set off, it was not spontaneous - far from it.
The campaign we ran in Brighton, from day one, was carefully and creatively planned. I was privileged to have the best campaign team in the country!
And that amazing team pulled together to take on the bigger parties, against the odds, and they inspired huge numbers of members and non-members to get involved, staying focused and spirited until the very last vote was counted.
But what we have achieved, we have done together.
All of us here today, and all our members and supporters, past and present.
And the thousands, the hundreds of thousands of people in the country, who vote for our candidates.
They are what made it happen in Brighton.
It's been a long journey.
But also the beginning of a new one, as a political party represented at Westminster at last.
Now is a moment to pause, and reflect. And it's right to remember those who are not with us now. Those who worked for this moment, who helped make it happen, but didn't live to see it.
We can all call people to mind. For me, it's Mike Woodin, a much valued and much missed colleague from Oxford days, whose ideas and principled actions have played such an important role in shaping this party.
I wish he were here now. I wish they all were. And we must keep them in our minds as we face the next stage on this journey.
Conference, we have been given the chance to be that new voice in politics. That is a great responsibility.
And like the achievement of this historic victory, the responsibilities that come with it are also shared.
There are tasks we now face together, as a party.
First, what we want to achieve, and how we articulate this for the many people who, for the first time, are looking to the Green Party with interest.
We have always been a party that combined aspiration and pragmatism.
We dare to think big, to dare to imagine the world that we want, not the world we are told we have to put up with.
Some of our ideas have become mainstream.
Lowering the voting age to 16, for example, was seen as a bit of a joke when we first put it forward. Now, it feels like an idea whose time is coming.
Or the living wage, the supposedly radical idea of paying people enough to live on - an idea which Jenny and Darren fought for and won on the London Assembly, and which is now being picked up across the country.
But we are also pragmatists. Our experience as elected representatives has taught us that sometimes the best can be the enemy of the good, and that it's right to concentrate on the areas where we can make real improvements to people's lives now.
Idealism and pragmatism - I believe that our party needs both.
More than that, I believe each one of us needs both.
We shouldn't see ourselves as one or the other - idealist or pragmatist.
We all need to keep an eyes on our ideals. To influence the debate. To shape the future.
And we all need the satisfaction that comes from making a difference here and now.
It needs discipline to get the balance right.
But we can be daring and imaginative, and also practical.
For example, I'd like to see the law changed to allow candidates for Parliament tostand as job shares. Nothing would do more to open up politics to women.
Now I know theEstablishment will pour scorn on the idea and say its ideas like that which make us unelectable.
Fine. Let them.
But I also know that this too is an idea whose time will come.
We've been told that job-shares are no good for all sorts of professions, from doctors to lawyers, and in every case the men and women in those job shares have proved the doubters wrong.
It's little different from the time when we were told that women didn't have what it took to be pilots, or a blind person couldn't serve as a magistrate.
These battles must be fought, and whatever the criticism, I will fight them and I know you will too.
And of course, we will also continue to repeat the apparently heretical notion that a world of finite resources cannot sustain a system of infinite production and consumption, however much politicians of the other parties act as if the contrary were true.
So we must never lose that radical perspective.
And there are other challenges.
Every week in Parliament, there are dozens of votes. In each one, I will have to vote for or against.
Green Councillors up and down the land have all had the "between a rock and a hard place" experience.
And it's the same in the House of Commons.
Not least because at Westminster, at the mother of parliaments, I discover, there are no mechanisms to abstain.
So each vote forces us to take a position, and if we are honest, some of these are areas where Conference may not have a fully developed position.
So for all of us, it means redoubling our efforts to bring our policy-making process up to date.
Reaching out to the wealth of organizations at all levels who share our values, and want to work with us.
Together turning our vision of a greener, fairer, more peaceful world into a tangible and compelling reality.
We are helped enormously in that challenge by the news that, since Spring Conference, thousands of people have joined the party.
Some have come from other parties.
Labour members, who have finally realized that even with the passing of Blair and Brown, they are still stuck in the New Labour nightmare.
Labour's leadership campaign has been a demonstration of political amnesia on a positively heroic scale.
The gang of four men - the "geeks in suits" in Dianne Abbott's words - are collectively choosing to forget as much of Labour's record as they possibly can. Iraq? PFI? The BAE bribery scandal? Growing inequality? Rising carbon emissions?
They act as if they were all out to lunch while ithappened!
And so whether the new leader is Burnham or Balls, or someone from the firm of management consultants Miliband and Miliband, many Labour supporters know that the party will never again truly represent them.
They've had enough of Labour. Some have had enough of politics full stop.
But others still believe that it is important to be involved, and still want to work to defend the vulnerable, stand up to big business and vested interests, and take care of our natural environment.
To those people, I say the Green Party is your natural home.
We are gaining members from the Liberal Democrats too. Perhaps their anguish and sense of betrayal is all the more sharp, for being so unexpected.
Could they really have imagined during the election campaign, when Nick Clegg could hardly open his mouth without saying the word "fairness", that they would be voting for a party that would become an apologist for the most brutal, savage cuts in a generation?
Cuts that are knowingly aimed at the most vulnerable
Cuts that, as even the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently confirmed, clearly hit the poorest hardest, and women most of all?
Cuts which are as economically illiterate as they are socially devastating, because it is at a time of recession that we need government investment in jobs all the more.
Cuts which are decimating communities up and down the country.
People like the woman who came to my surgery a few weeks ago, desperate to be re-housed because she, her partner and child were all living in a single room in Brighton, and she was expecting another child very soon.
That's why the Green Party is committed to fighting these cuts every step of the way.
Now let me make clear, the Green Party is not against political parties working together.
We've co-operated with other parties on local councils and in the European Parliament.
Other Green parties in Europe have entered coalitions. And at Westminster, I have voted alongside members from all the other parties when this was the way to represent our policies and our values.
I know, too, that this sometimes means difficult decisions and compromises.
I don't criticise Nick Clegg and those around him for agreeing to work with the Conservatives.
But I do criticise him for the terms of that deal.
Amongst Liberal Democrats, the rebellion against this coalition is growing.
But what an irony it would be if Liberal Democrat members, appalled by their alliance with the Tories, should switch their support to the Labour Party.
A Labour Party which, with its obsession with privatization and PFI, has spent the last 13 years paving the way for the coalition's assault on public services.
Which has presided over 13 years of increasing inequality, undermining our civil liberties and plunging us into an illegal and ruinous war in Iraq.
With our principles and our courage to be honest with the public about the greatest issues of our time, such as climate change, we are the natural home for Liberal Democrats who feel betrayed by their leaders.
And so to those Liberal Democrats, I say, join us. Many of your former colleagues are already here.
Don't give up on politics. There IS a party out there of principle and integrity - and it's the Green Party.
And there are Conservatives too who see that the kind of government Cameron offers - vacuous on the outside, and shamelessly favouring the rich and powerful underneath - is not for them.
Many people were taken in by Cameron's silky words on the environment. Vote Blue, get Green.
No wonder he was paid so much when he worked in Public Relations.
It sounds so much better, doesn't it, than Vote Blue, Screw You?
Now we see the reality.
The Sustainable Development Commission, there to tell government uncomfortable truths: axed.
The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which has advised on new environmental standards since the 1970s: axed.
Funding for environmental protection: cut.
Green energy targets, weakened.
And nothing, not one single thing, in the Queen's Speech to protect our natural world or deal with climate change.
Within the Conservative Party, there are people who are guided by respect for what's good in the traditions of the past; who believe in conserving our natural environment.
Who value civil liberties and fear an all-powerful state;
Who want to see One Nation, and an end to the grotesque inequality that blights our country;
And perhaps most of all, who have been horrified by how New Labour behaved in government and turned to the Tory opposition - perhaps not realising they would provide more of the same.
They too will be welcome.
And most import of all, we should be there to welcome those who have given up on politics altogether. We must offer them hope, and live up to our values.
Young people, who give up on politics before they have even begun, because they listen to the messages coming from the big 3 parties, and hear nothing at all that speaks to them about the things they are concerned with - climate change, global poverty, the state of the world that they will soon inherit.
We must make sure we reach them, too.
That's why the wonderful work of the Young Greens is so important, reaching out to new people and giving them a voice - they have done a brilliant job, and they need to be supported further.
The Need for a Real Opposition
I spoke earlier about responsibilities.
One that I feel particularly heavily is our role as an opposition party within Parliament.
I doubt that any of us expected the realignment of British politics that has come in the aftermath of May's election.
But its implications are becoming ever more clear.
And one of these is that, on a whole range of issues, there is no effective opposition to the coalition and its plans.
And that makes the role of the Green Party more important than ever.
Take nuclear power. The Conservatives are in favour. So are Labour. And now that the Liberal Democrats have joined forces with the Tories, their ability to put the other case is fatally compromised.
And so we have the prospect of a resurgence of a dirty, dangerous and discredited form of power just at the moment when we should, as a nation, be investing in the energy sources of the future.
And that's why we need the Green Party.
It's the same with education. Labour championed the Academies programme, despite all our warnings about the risk of creating a two-tier education system.
Now - surprise, surprise - the Coalition has dropped any requirement that Academies should gain from outside sponsorship, or should help those communities most in need.
Any pretence of a higher social purpose is out.
Michael Gove's plans are simply about an ideological opposition to state education and a chance to allow private companies to make a profit from our schools.
And Labour, having opened the door to this in the first place, cannot mount an effective, principled opposition, despite their heroic efforts to try to rewrite history.
And that's why we need the Green Party.
Take Trident. The public are hardly clamouring to replace it.
Particularly at a cost of perhaps £100 billion.
And like many senior military figures, they don't see how it will make this country any safer.
But again, the Tories are for it. Labour are for it.
And the poor Lib Dems are to be let of the leash for the night to vote against, safe in the knowledge that it will go through anyway.
And remember, this isn't a minor disagreement about the detail of legislation.
This isn't Clause 96 of the Local Government Finance Bill.
This is a question of whether Britain will spend £100 billion expanding its nuclear arsenal. Yet there is no serious debate.
This isn't democracy. It's a conspiracy of self interest.
We saw this in July, when the Liberal Democrats supported the Conservatives to ensure that Trident wasn't covered by the planned Defence Review.
Yes, that's right - a strategic defence review that will not take into account Britain's strategic deterrence. That's the Lib Dem position, because that's what the Tories want, and they are not prepared to put what they have at risk to fight for their principles.
And that's why we need the Green Party.
And so this responsibility falls to us
Friends, it is a great pleasure to return to Conference and reconnect with the lifeblood of the Party.
There is so much to do at parliament - questions to table, answers to chase, amendments to table, votes to make, and all the rest of the behind the scenes activity.
But I remain conscious of how strange, even alien, Parliament is.
It isn't just the odd language, the arcane procedures and strange costumes.
It's an institution designed for, and run by, an elite, who simply don't want to let the people have a real say in decisions.
I want it to change.
But the question is, can parliament reform itself?
I think that the proposed referendum on electoral reform will be the test.
Obviously, each different voting system benefits different parties in different ways.
The Tories gain from First Past The Post, so they back that.
The Liberal Democrats gain from any change, and will take the Alternative Vote if that's the only crumbs that the Tories will let them have.
And Labour, hopelessly divided on this, will try to look like they want change, while hoping to stick with the current system.
They simply cannot put aside political self-interest.
But Greens believe the people should choose, not the politicians.
Of course, at the moment the public won't be given the choice.
The referendum question only has two options: stick with the current system; or go for AV, two flavours of vanilla. Genuine reform is not on the menu.
That's why I've tabled an amendment that would give the public a real choice.
A choice between all the voting system now being used for elections in the UK.
If the other parties decide to oppose it, and deny the people their right to choose, then they will have failed that test.
It is a particular test for those who claim the title progressive, whether it is the Liberal Democrats around Nick Clegg or the Milibands.
This is the time for them to put aside party interest and live up to their rhetoric about trusting the people of this country.
But for us, this might never have happened.
It is just one example of why we the Green Party need to be represented in Parliament.
Why for all those years, so many worked so hard towards this moment, when we would take our place at the heart of British politics.
The long journey has been worth it.
We are finally there.
Now our work can begin.