Election ’17: Green Grass Roots Activism with Ian McCulloch

Ian McCulloch, Green Party candidate for Portsmouth South, talks to Mark Wright about electoral reform, the unpleasantness of Laura Kuenssberg and his party’s proposed second referendum on leaving the EU.

Mark Wright: With the General Election coming up, what do you think are the important issues at both local and national level?

Ian McCulloch: A lot of them come down to one issue, which is the fake austerity agenda in place since 2010. Obviously, there is a massive problem with the NHS, but it’s a problem of underfunding. This is the same with public services generally; services being starved of funds, key people being underpaid or put on short-term contracts. They don’t have job security. Brexit is a big issue, although some within what you might call the Westminster bubble, I think, are using Brexit as a bit of a diversion for other things, claiming that Brexit will cure all of our ills. I believe it is responsible for a lot of our ills. It’s an important subject but there are other issues to consider. The NHS is a big concern for a lot of people and, in the longer term, so is their own security and well-being. A lack of security in their jobs, and concern about whether their savings – if they even have any – will be enough to tide them through.

MW: Do you think that the current electoral system is fit for purpose, and do you think it represents the will of the people?

IM: I absolutely don’t, no. First past the post only works when there are two parties involved, like in the American system. In Britain, we’re increasingly seeing people coming from outside the traditional political structures. The Green Party have started to make in-roads. Then you have newcomers like UKIP. I’m no supporter of UKIP, but they got four million votes in the last election and ended up with one MP. You can understand the frustration of people who voted UKIP and felt that their vote just doesn’t count for anything.

We have been hearing a lot about ‘progressive alliances’ lately, where some people, most noticeably the Green Party, have been happy to stand down, or just not stand a candidate in constituencies where there is a clear challenger to the Tory in that seat. People have said, ‘If you do these alliances, if you don’t stand, then you are denying people the right to vote for who they choose to vote for’. But with the first past the post system, people are having to make very uncomfortable choices anyway. They go into the voting booth and they try to decide who the two most likely parties are to win, and then vote for the one that they dislike the least. With proportional representation, we can make every vote count. If the person you wanted to get in doesn’t get in, you’ll still have some sort of say because you’ll have a second choice and maybe a third choice.

MW: How did you come to represent the Green Party?

IM: I have been a member of the Green Party for the best part of twenty years now. I was a Green Party city councillor in Lancaster, where I used to live. The Greens are particularly strong up there; there were twelve of us on the city council then. I came into it really from a concern about environmental issues. In the ’90s I was quite active with Greenpeace in local support groups in various places around the north of England. I started to feel more and more let down by the Labour Party, once Tony Blair got his hands on it.

I actually voted Green for the first time in my life in 1999 purely as a protest vote. But that happened to be the year that the ward that I lived in switched from having three Labour councillors to three Green councillors, which I certainly wasn’t expecting to happen. That made me think, ‘I’d better find out a bit more about this party that I’ve just single-handedly brought into office in Lancaster!’ And the more I looked at it the more I realised that, actually, everything that had previously made me support the Labour Party were these days good reasons to support the Green Party. I got more and more involved with the party, and it’s brought me to this position now.

MW: There has been an argument that the Green Party has been disproportionately underrepresented with regard to media coverage. Why do you think that might be?

IM: I think the media see UKIP, for example, as good value for money. They can get some soundbites out of people like Nigel Farage, they can whip up arguments quite easily with contentious views. That is principally the reason, I think. People see more value out of getting UKIP on TV rather than the Greens because we’re harder to categorise; we’re not, despite how some people try to portray us, a single-issue party in the way that UKIP really was. It’s strange that it goes the way that it does, to why UKIP get so much time on Question Time, especially now they don’t even have an MP. It has certainly been the case that the Greens haven’t had the representation, across the media generally, that our votes suggest that we should have. A lot of the time it just defies understanding.

MW: What do you think of the way the mainstream media currently reports on politics in general?

IM: There is still a quest for the soundbite. They will pick on an individual thing that can appear contentious and focus on that to the exclusion of details around it. By and large, I’m reasonably happy with, say, the BBC’s political coverage. Everyone on the Left thinks the BBC has a bias towards the Right, and everyone on the Right thinks the BBC has a bias to the Left. So they might not be doing too bad a job of treading a very fine line. There are exceptions: Laura Kuenssberg has pulled off some rather unpleasant stunts. I prefer to watch Channel 4 News; I like Channel 4 News.

MW: The Greens have a policy proposing a second referendum on Brexit, with the possibility that Britain could remain a member of the EU. With Brexit being described as a strike for some of those who feel left behind by politics, is there any concern that a second referendum that reverses the decision could dishearten those voters?

IM: It would be referendum. The only way that it could reverse the decision would be if a majority of people actually said, ‘Hang on a minute’. It would need a significant number of people who voted to Leave to have changed their minds and said, ‘No, actually we would be happier staying in’. It is a referendum, so it would be the will of the people. I think that the first referendum was characterised by some appalling lies on both sides of the campaign. It was portrayed as being a binary vote, in or out, when actually it’s becoming very clear to a lot of people that there are many different ways in which we could leave.

We have Theresa May saying that no deal is better than a bad deal, when actually no deal is the worst possible deal. So I’m very happy with the idea of having a referendum on the finally agreed terms under which we should leave. I think that would be a much clearer and more democratic result than the first one because I think we’ll have two very clear options to vote for or against.

MW: Are there are contemporary politicians or political thinkers that you admire?

IM: I know I’m not alone in saying Caroline Lucas. When canvassing in the local elections last year, I attempted to canvas someone who turned out to be one of the local Labour organisers. We ended up having quite a nice chat, and he said, ‘Obviously I’m going to be voting very strongly for Labour, I’m always going to vote Labour, but having said that I wish we had twenty more Caroline Lucases!’ And I do find that, people from other parties are huge fans of Caroline Lucas.

There are other people who are good in some areas, not so good in other areas. One example might be, say, David Davis. As Brexit Minister, I absolutely oppose everything he stands for and everything he says. When it comes to issues of civil liberties, though, he’s actually really good. And Caroline has worked with him on those issues when she has been in parliament. For me, it is a question of who is the right person on the right day on the right subject.

MW: A policy unique to the Greens is the decriminalisation of the purchase and sale of sex. Why do you feel that policy is important?

IM: The other approaches that we have tried so far are actually extremely damaging to women who engage in the sex trade. We need to protect these people. It isn’t that I want to say, ‘Oh, the sex trade is brilliant’. It clearly is very damaging in itself to everyone involved in it. But criminalising it is actually doing more harm to the people who need our protection. And I think we can protect people better by that decriminalisation.

MW: Where do you see British politics going in the next five years if the opinion polls are correct and the Tories win?

IM: It is difficult to say. There is clearly a worrying trend. UKIP is just disappearing. They have achieved a double victory: they’ve managed to bring the referendum about and secure a leave vote. And there’s now no need for them to be around because the Tories are using exactly the language that they criticised UKIP for using. There has been a lurch to the Right in Britain, and we’re seeing that mirrored in other places as well. A relief in France, at least, that Marine Le Pen didn’t get in, but the person who did get seems to be a French version of Tony Blair. So I’m not massively happy with that.

We had the American Presidential elections last year. There is a great deal of concern that Donald Trump won, but I was concerned when it was whittled down to a choice between him and Hillary Clinton! I genuinely wasn’t sure which one I was more scared of winning out of the two of them. There is this move to the Right. At a more grass roots level, it has become more acceptable to express overtly racist views. We’re seeing more in the way of racist attacks on our streets. And it is possible that things could just continue to get worse in that direction.

But who knows what is going to happen? It could be that, with those sorts of views getting more entrenched in the political mainstream, we’ll get more grassroots activism working in the opposite direction. It is a fool’s game, trying to predict what’s going to happen in British politics anyway. There is a worrying trend towards the Right, there is a worrying trend towards an acceptability of views and actions that were previously not felt to be acceptable. So I’m concerned about the way things are going, but I’m never going to lose all optimism in the British public’s ability to see right from wrong.

MW: The Conservatives are out in front in the polls right now. What do you think are the reasons for that? In your campaigning, do you see this support mirrored in Portsmouth?

IM: I think we’ve all learned to be wary of placing too much trust in polls.  Campaigning has shown very positive support for our ideas and policies, particularly among people who have seen our party leaders speaking and debating on TV.

MW: There has been a lot of discussion amongst our readers about tactically voting to keep the Conservatives out of Portsmouth South. Who do you see as your main competition in Portsmouth South, and what do you say to tactical voters in the city?

IM: Green Party candidates have stood down in constituencies where there is a clear candidate for tactical voting, both to unseat a Tory and to support the process of electoral reform.  Portsmouth South is not one of those constituencies.  The gap between the Labour and LibDem candidates in 2015 was tiny compared to the gap between both of them and the winner.  Since then, both parties have had a change of leader, and it is unclear what impact that will have on the vote.  This is a constituency where the best thing to do is simply to vote for what you believe in.

MW: What do you think of the way the local press currently reports on politics? What impact do you think reporting has on a broader political understanding and debate in the city?

IM: Coverage from The News has been mixed. There have been occasions where I feel that the Green Party has been badly misrepresented, and others where I’ve been happy with the reporting. I think the other parties would say the same thing.  The main difference I’ve seen since the last General Election is that people are coming to the Green Party for our views, where before we have been excluded.  In 2015, I didn’t hear about the Radio Solent debate until it was broadcast, whereas this time I was invited to join the panel.  I’ve also had requests for comment from The News on several occasions.

MW: The Conservatives have a policy to scrap free school lunches, albeit by replacing them with a subsidised breakfast, as a measure to ‘cut costs’ in the latest in a long line of public service cuts. Here in Portsmouth, those cuts have led to loss of services such as Off the Record, Portsmouth Mind, and SureStart Centres. Do you feel the government is squeezing too hard, or is this simply the reality of running a country?

IM: This is a clear example of squeezing too hard.  This is the fifth richest country in the world, we can afford to support and invest in everyone who needs it.  What we need to do is stop spending money where it isn’t needed (roadbuilding schemes that will just increase traffic, HS2, Trident, etc.) and make sure that everyone pays their fair share of the tax burden.  It’s really just a question of priorities.

MW: Where will Portsmouth be in 5 years time under your representation?

IM: Portsmouth will have had five years with an MP campaigning for the city to use its engineering skills to become a hub for the new green economy.  If we are serious about preventing catastrophic climate change, we need a major investment in the technology that will be required.  Whether it’s new, sustainable energy production or technology to reduce our energy needs, Portsmouth has the skills to fill some of the hundreds of thousands of new jobs a green economy will provide.

MW: Where can people go to find out more information about the Green Party?

They can go to the Green Party website. All Green Party policy is determined by the members at conference. It is absolutely true to say that I have as much influence on Green Party policy as Caroline Lucas does. What is more, whenever policy is determined at conference it is laid down in what we call our ‘policies for a sustainable society’, and if you go to this page you can see all of our policies on everything. If it’s there, it’s policy; if it’s not there, it’s not policy.

That’s a good place to go and find out what we stand for. Locally, come and talk to us. We have our meetings at the Rail Social Club in Fratton, first Tuesday of every month at 7:30pm. It is generally open to non-members. There is also a very good idea called Green Drinks which goes on the second Wednesday of every month. That’s a meeting place for anybody involved in any kind of Green – with a capital or lowercase ‘G’ – activities around Portsmouth. People come along from Greenpeace, from various community groups. That’s a good place to find out what’s happening in the city in a much wider environmental area.

 

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.