Interview: Going for green
Jonathan Bartley, joint candidate for leader of the Green Party, talks to Stephen Tomkins and Charissa King
On 2 September, the Green Party may or may not announce its new leader. If it does not, it will make history – by announcing two new leaders, a job-share partnership between Caroline Lucas, the party’s one MP, and Jonathan Bartley. Bartley’s work will already be familiar to many readers of Reform, as he is a co-founder – and until June 2016 was co-director – of Ekklesia, the Christian thinktank devoted to promoting a radical Christian perspective on current affairs.
Reform met up with him at his Streatham home to talk faith, hope and greenery.
Can you tell me about your upbringing in the faith?
My parents went to a church plant of Holy Trinity Brompton but they were great at letting me find my own path. I always wanted to be a musician, and joined a band at 14. When I was 17, driving back across London from a gig, coming past the Oval, a young man walked out into the road in front of the car and I hit him and I killed him. I went back to the police station, got home at 4 o’clock in the morning and had to wake my dad up and tell him. I was absolutely bowled over by his response: he was just full of love. I woke up the next morning with this huge weight of guilt, feeling I had taken someone’s life and deserved to forfeit my own. I talked to Nicholas Rivett-Carnac, who was the vicar of St Mark’s, Kennington, and physically felt this weight of guilt leave me. I’m not a fan of penal substitution but I can’t deny that I felt the faith in a new way then.
What drew you into politics?
I applied to do accountancy at university but didn’t get my grades. I looked down the list of places left, saw the London School of Economics and thought: That’s a good university, what can I do there with my grades? There was a course called social policy, which sounded interesting. I absolutely loved it – the philosophy and sociology and changing lives. I wanted to develop my own thinking and came across this radical Christian course called Workshop based on the Anabaptist tradition of peacemaking, restorative justice and equality. I did my dissertation on citizenship and the kingdom of God.
I worked in the House of Commons for four years but found Westminster a really dark place. There was a tribalism and no openness to truth – it was just about winning the argument. I worked for a series of campaign groups and felt that there was an absence of good radical Christian thinking, so started Ekklesia in 2001.
Has being the father of a disabled son shaped your outlook?
Hugely. Samuel is our second child, born in 2002 with spina bifida. It has absolutely turned our lives upside down for the better. It has been an eye opener to a world I hadn’t appreciated. Seeing him get his first powered wheelchair when he was three and, after not having been able to move himself for three years, suddenly he presses the joystick and goes round in circles, tears were flooding down my face.
I now see barriers everywhere I go – physical and social. It’s also profoundly changed my political perspective. When Samuel had his first sports day they lined him up to run the 100m, not realising that his power chair can only go half as fast as other children run. The other kids all cross the line, and the cheering subsides and the attention turns to Samuel who is halfway down the track, pushing his joystick as hard as he possibly can. I’m wondering what’s going to happen. Suddenly someone in the crowd starts: ‘Sam-uel! Sam-uel!’ Other parents join in and the cheer him down the track. We always tell our kids it’s taking part that matters, but deep down you want them to win. That day, every single person there actually knew that it was taking part that matters. Having Samuel in that school and having to deal with difference has radically transformed it.
I am a passionate inclusionist, not just for the sake of not segregating children with disabilities but because Samuel’s presence challenges the values of the school. The education system is dominated by league tables and has become about creating economic units to compete in the global market, but people suddenly realise there is so much more to life. It took a two-year battle to get him into the school and thousands of pounds of our own money.
In 2010 you called yourself a floating voter. From there to a party leadership campaign in six years is quite a journey!
That started when I confronted David Cameron in 2010. He was giving an election speech near the hospital I was at with Samuel, and a Tory Party worker invited us to have our picture taken talking to him. I asked Cameron why their manifesto promised to end a non-existent ‘bias towards inclusion’ of disabled children. Suddenly 20 cameras appeared from nowhere and started live streaming this discussion. For 24 hours in the middle of a general election campaign – it had never happened before; it will never happen again – there was a debate about disabled children. It came up in the leaders debates in the evening and we had a meeting with Michael Gove.
That got me thinking: why do general election campaigns have such a narrow agenda –tax-and-spend and maybe the NHS? I realised it’s the voting system. Only a hundred seats change hands, and a few hundred voters in those seats are targeted and persuaded to switch, so all the parties are focusing on a few hundred thousand voters. Disabled children won’t swing an election and so won’t get discussed. Climate change won’t get discussed.
That’s when I joined the Green Party. I looked at all the manifestoes and clearly the Green Party came closest to my faith and my values. I become a passionate about electoral reform, became Vice Chair of the yes campaign in the AV [alternative vote] referendum in 2011. But it’s never for me been about electoral success – though I see the importance of winning elections. It’s about values. You don’t join the Green Party for political ambition!
What direction did your political work take in the Green Party?
I’m passionate about grassroots community politics. Lambeth Green Party was basically four people in a pub. The convenor stepped down and I found myself chairing it. I thought: Let’s ask people one simple question: how can we help you? Two of us pounded the streets from 9 to 6, six days a week, delivering newsletters telling people what we were doing and asking how we could help.
A sheltered housing community, the Glebe, told us: ‘The Labour council want to bulldoze our sheltered housing and flog it off. The LibDem councillors don’t want to know; the Tories we never hear from. Would you help?’ We went round with petitions and posters, got press coverage, and managed to save the housing. It was fantastic. When I stood for parliament here in 2015, residents at the Glebe – people who don’t have a lot of money, had a collection gave us £150 and a number joined our group. That’s real politics.
We had a byelection in Gipsy Hill in 2016, and went from Labour on 70% of the vote and Greens on 8%, to Labour on 42% and Greens on 41%. We were 36 votes away from taking the seat. In the polling district where the Glebe is, 80% of people on the estate voted Green. We realised we have to be the party of the estates, of the people who really need our support.
Does the Green Party do God?
Yes. But there are a lot of the liberation groups within the Green Party, such as LGBTIQ, who are very angry about how they’ve been treated by evangelical Christians, by the institutional church – opposing lowering the age of consent, gay adoption, civil partnerships, gay marriage. That is oppressive and they are absolutely right to be angry and I’m angry about it too. If ever there is anger against the institutional Church, I’m generally on the side of the people who are angry. But yes, there are plenty of Christians and those of other faiths too.
Do you have a sense of why people voted as they did in the EU referendum?
They were screaming at the political establishment: ‘We want control back!’ Labour have taken swathes of England for granted, believing they will keep getting returned in safe seats and just concentrating on marginal seats; the Tories are the same. So people in safe seats have been neglected for 30 years, but they knew in that referendum for the first time that every vote counted and they could send a clear message.
The Green Party has to be the party of the people who have lost control, who are in precarious jobs, struggling to put food on the table. Politicians play the disabled off against the working poor, migrants against local people. That’s what we saw in the referendum and it’s getting really nasty. The genie is out of the bottle and we’re seeing this vile hatred that’s been building up for years because of a broken political system.
Do you think that a progressive alliance is becoming more likely?
These things are changing so rapidly. There’s a growing belief that Labour may never be able to form a majority government again and needs to work with others. Fewer and fewer people are voting for the big parties. Only 24% of the electorate voted this government in. So the system is unsustainable and I think there will be a progressive alliance for electoral reform. Will it be in the next few years? I sincerely hope so.
How would things be different for you as leader of the party?
I was really hesitant because I am so committed to my local area and I love it, but we have invested in the leadership of the local party so it will be sustainable. There will be a lot of media and travel around the country supporting local parties. Leaders don’t make policy in the Green Party, all our policies are made by conference, so the role is primarily as spokesperson.
If we are elected, we’ll be the first job-share leaders of any party in the UK, so a little bit of history will be made. We want to model a new kind of politics. Most people can’t give all their time to politics – they have caring roles, they have jobs, they have family. In the 2015 election, two Green Party members wanted to stand as joint candidates for parliament and took it to the high court. They lost, but they made a really important point. So this is the logical way to set a precedent. And personally, I have responsibilities to support my son so this will enable me to spend enough time doing that.
What is the heart of green politics?
Seeing everything through the lens of the environment. It’s a big story that says we can’t go on consuming at the levels that we do, believing in endless growth on a finite planet. The result is a few hundred thousand of the superrich hoarding resources, controlling politics, an incredibly vulnerable economy and the destruction of the planet.
The Greens are putting things on the agenda. Very exciting things, like the universal basic income that we’ve been talking about for years, which now we hear John McDonnell talking about very warmly. That’s the idea to replace the welfare state which was a post-World War Two settlement – fit for its time but no longer appropriate because of the nature of the global labour market which means you can’t unionise in the same way, and because it can’t cope with the portfolio work and part-time work people are doing. We need to radically rethink our ideas like that.
Are you optimistic about sustainability?
I think people are realising that we have to have sustainable local communities, that it doesn’t make sense to bring things in by lorry from miles away. If you grow food locally it’s cheaper and creates a more resilient local economy. Every pound you spend in a chain store the money leaves the local community; every pound you spend in a local independent shop stays in the local economy, creating local jobs and making the local economy more resistant to financial shocks. The environment is about everything not just saving the planet. So I think I am optimistic because there aren’t many other options.
This article was published in the September 2016 edition of Reform.