William Eichler 20 May 2016

The Green View: localism and devolution

The last few years has seen an upsurge in support for anti-establishment parties and candidates. The rise of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and Ukip has posed a challenge to the two-party system, and the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership has also upset traditional elites.

One of the other beneficiaries — despite losing seats on May 5 — of the anti-Whitehall movement running through British politics is the Green Party. I spoke to their leader Natalie Bennett and House of Lords' representative Baroness Jenny Jones separately — and before the elections — about the increase in their grassroots support, localism and devolution.

By some measures, they have come far. In the 2015 general election they garnered 3.8% of the vote share, an increase of 2.8% on 2010. The First-Past-the-Post electoral system prevented them from taking many seats in Parliament — ‘Caroline Lucas would have 24 fellow Green MPs if we had a proportional system’ — but it hasn't stopped the membership from almost tripling (13,800 in December 2013 to 61,000 in June 2015).

On May 5 they were hoping to make their presence felt at the local level. As it turns out, this wasn't to be: the Greens ended up down three seats. I asked Jones afterwards what she thought the losses were down too. ‘I think there were so many factors at play in this election,’ she said. ‘There was the European Union referendum. There was the fact that Corbyn is now leading the Labour party. There are so many other political influences at play and it was just bad luck for us.’

The central aspect of the Green outlook is localism — a term which has been coopted by the Conservatives, much to Bennett's annoyance. 'I hold Eric Pickles personally responsible', she says while defining it, 'for the fact I now have to say: local people making the decisions about the things that affect them.'

The Green Party's version of localism is dramatically different to the Government's. George Osborne's 'devolution revolution' is characterised by the shift of power away from London to the provinces. A major aspect of this will be an end to central Government funding for local authorities by 2020 and its replacement with the 100% retention of business rates.

Mr Osborne told Parliament during his March 2016 budget speech: 'When I became Chancellor, 80% of local government funding came in largely ring-fenced grants from central government. It was the illusion of local democracy. By the end of this Parliament, 100% of local government resources will come from local government - raised locally, spent locally, invested locally.'

The Green's reject this version of localism. The government's devolution agenda, Bennett tells me, is one-sided: 'we're seeing responsibility for things devolved without the actual funding to do them'.

At bottom, their criticisms are about inequality. 'There's the wealthier places getting wealthier and poorer places really losing out,' she says. Jones makes the same point: 'The government's idea of localism is that everybody should pay for themselves and that clearly can't work in a society where there's rich and poor, and the gap ever widening.'

The Greens wish to challenge this. They are calling for an end to austerity and for the creation of a more equal society. Where would the money come from? 'We need to make multinationals and rich individuals pay their taxes, which they're clearly not as the Panama papers recently highlighted,' Bennett explains, 'and we also need to, when we're thinking about building infrastructure projects, get away from fear and horror of government borrowing.'

Redistribution is a key part of their platform. 'The fact is the government takes a huge amount of tax from us and a lot of that money really ought to go to the sorts of services councils supply,' Jones explains. 'Councils are already struggling and they're having to choose between social services or libraries or resources for primary schools.'

Underlining Green opposition to the neoliberal notion that taxation is inherently bad, Jones says: 'the reason people pay tax is so that they can live in a civilised society and that money has to be shared around.'

This opposition to inequality is also evident in their approach to the housing crisis which, they say, also comes down to a question of distribution. 'There are now more bedrooms per person in Britain than there's ever been before,' Bennett explains. 'There are a lot of places where you've got two people living in a six bedroom house and six people living in a two bedroom house.'

The societal divide is also regional, between north and south. Bennett points out there are more than 600,000 empty homes, many of which are in the north. This, she says, means there should be 'a regional development policy that ensures people are able to live in those communities, in those perfectly good homes, and have economic opportunities locally.'

The Green party wishes to see more 'genuinely affordable' homes built on brownfield sites but, as you would expect, they reject the idea of building on the green belt. Aside from the obvious environmental concerns, Bennett points out this comes down, again, to a question of equality. 'The problem with the green belt building,' she says, 'is what you're talking about building is expensive homes for private sale by mass builders. You're going to need two incomes to have any hope of paying the mortgage.'

The cause of the housing crisis, according to Bennett, is the free market. 'The idea of leaving the market to provide housing has failed for decades,' she tells me. 'It simply hasn't delivered, its not going to deliver in the future. We need something entirely different.'

The surge in Green support has been largely contingent, it seems, on Government austerity and the subsequent rise in inequality. This makes their anti-establishment ideas — their emphasis on inequality and redistribution — attractive to many. Now that Corbyn is at the head of the Labour Party this may not last. Their poor showing in the local elections may be a sign of things to come.

'Greens are quite radical in their policies,' Jones says. 'We think about the future which a lot of political parties have trouble doing.' No doubt the other parties would contest this and respond it's easy to promise radical change when you have no chance of getting into power at the national level.

They might be right. But then radical ideas one day can be the norm the next, and progress rarely happens without people questioning the status quo.

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