Green Party Leadership Interviews: Shahrar Ali

(Bright Green)

As part of a series of interviews with candidates for the leadership of the Green Party of England and Wales, Shahrar Ali makes his pitch to Liberal Base editor, Tom Parkin.

In your bid to lead the party, you’ve stressed that the Greens have just ten years to play a greater political role in saving the planet. What needs to change from within the Green Party in order to achieve this?

The climate and ecological emergency would be my all-consuming priority as Leader. I understand the frustrations of many members that we are not polling or performing better given the raised consciousness that this matter enjoys in public and the fact that people are taking to the streets in greater numbers. We talk about winning credibility as if truth must be subverted to it. That’s the wrong way round – we won’t be able to help save the planet from ourselves if we don’t communicate unapologetically about the scale of the emergency. Under the current leadership we have been too distracted by electoral pacts and Brexit. I would help renew our focus.

If elected, how should Green members measure your success as leader in 2022?

Complete renewal of our primary focus on the climate and ecological emergency – in all our external and internal communications and campaigning priorities. That’s not a one person job, but it is one in which the leader, as primary spokesperson, would have a key role in setting the tone and urgency in media interviews and public speaking. There will also be by-elections and other regional and mayoral elections. I would be on the ground and on the airwaves setting out our Party stall and vision. We should be ambitious about our Green mayoral candidates, nationally – and of course, I am not currently standing as Mayor of London so my energy will be directed across the whole country not just one part of it. I would like to see as the net effect of my two years as Leader a doubling of membership and double digit percentages in elections. We shouldn’t be satisfied with less. This surge in popularity and growing membership and activists would be built around outreach to BAME communities and the politically homeless, primarily women voters, youth, and disaffected ex-Labour.

What is the greatest single achievement you hope to make as party leader?

To help restore faith in the political process as our best means of overcoming the scale of the climate emergency challenge – to change what’s politically possible to do what’s scientifically necessary. In short, to make politics serve more than just selfish desires but to focus instead on the disadvantaged, the voiceless and those who will be left without an inhabitable planet if we don’t act now – further and faster.

Will the Greens change their approach to local and national campaigning now the UK has left the European Union? If so, how?

I understood as well as the next Green how demoralising the 2016 result was – to our plans for increased international buy-in and reform of the EU institutions. I was at the count in the early hours alongside serving MEP Jean Lambert as the result started to look bleak. The years that followed were not a high point for UK parliamentary democracy and we must now look forward to other means of international cooperation and campaigning, both across the EU and beyond it. We do need to become more resilient and less dependent on imported goods in any event to be able to step up to the climate emergency – whether in food supply or rejection of unsustainable material desires.

What is the most controversial aspect of your platform to stand as leader that may be difficult to implement/convince party members?

It shouldn’t be controversial to refocus our priority on the climate emergency but I have also said that we must achieve better party unity in order to do this – and we cannot prioritise one thing without reprioritising others. I would like to see all our special interest groups review their priorities and make the climate emergency front and centre of their campaigns – the glue that binds everything else. It is also the case that I’ve heard it said that certain things aren’t “up for debate” – and we need to get much better at overcoming this refusal to discuss matters maturely and respectfully, or at least not stop others from doing just that if they do see the benefits of talk; without fear of being bullied.

You’ve previously said there is not enough accountability and transparency in the Green Party. Are there any changes you’d like to see made to the Green Party constitution? If so, what are they?

We are in the process of a wide-ranging review of internal governance and process. What I would say on this is that no matter how well drafted our internal rule book, we always need a good culture and high level of competency and good faith in all our dealings with one another. Without going into details, I have witnessed a deterioration in our political culture internally to mirror what’s going on externally. I want to see a reversal of that trend, and I know we are capable of it, to lead the way externally by being the change we want to see internally.

Under your leadership, would you be keen for your party to advocate re-joining the European Union at the next general election, or should the Green movement ‘move on’ from the issue?

We should indeed move on from the issue. We may already have contributed to the generalised disgust in parliamentary politics by campaigning hard for a second referendum when arguably we should have been seeking to honour a referendum result in 2016 which went against us but we clearly said at the time we would accept if it did. We are kidding ourselves if we claim what happened post-2016 was us accepting the result. I understand the real concerns about corruption but the opportunity for fixing it has now passed and we need to refocus our energies on the climate emergency which has taken a back-burner because of what became a massive political distraction. What I would have given to have bottled some of that political energy of the Brexit omnishambles and redirected it towards the climate emergency! That’s the kind of unity of purpose we are lacking nationally.

You stood for the leadership in 2018 and came second. Why do you think you have a better chance in 2020?

I’ve never said I have a better chance – although actually I think that probably is the case. In 2018, we had already suffered from the failed experiment of Progressive Alliances and in 2020 we have yet another failed experiment under our belts – in the Unite to Remain Lib Dem pacts of the 2019 general election. I argued against those political experiments both times, whereas our current leadership argued for them. I think that shows that I have political nous about what the Party stands for and the capacity to learn from mistakes that have been collectively made – instead of being bound to repeat them. I find it staggering that we should have yet again squandered the hard won political capital of our activists in that way. I don’t think I would be standing for the leadership as an incumbent had I presided over that car crash of a 2019 general election.

(A question I asked Natalie Bennett) – Is the ‘green wave’ here to stay or is there a risk of it losing momentum?

I was Deputy Leader at the height of the Green surge in 2015 so I hope I can evidence a track record of being in the driving seat when we were making those membership gains and achieving our best ever general election result – 1.1 million votes and 123 deposits saved. Fast forward to 2019, under the current leadership, and we only saved deposits in 31 seats, yet we are trying to spin that as a success story. Let’s have less of the spin please and better accountability – I’ve been repeatedly asking for publication of the elections report for 2019 and it still hasn’t been forthcoming. So, I don’t see that we have this momentum now and it’s something that needs to change. We won’t change that by re-electing our incumbents. Better to elect as the new Green Party leader a former Deputy leader with a great track record.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has been pivotal in exposing injustices against people of colour in the United Kingdom and around the world. As leader, how would you respond to the movement and ensure the Greens are better champions of racial equality?

Unfortunately, it’s too early to assess the impact of this movement. For it not to be flash-in-the-pan stuff, we need to use the momentum behind it to reform our institutions, urgently, now. This reform goes well beyond toppling statues but pervades every aspect of our lives – from BME health inequality to poorer life chances and opportunities, to racist policing which has continued since. In 2015, I launched the first BME Green Party manifesto. It’s evident to me that a slew of our policies should be immediately resonating with ethnic minorities and I would be active in taking that outreach further – from pushing for BME candidates in target seats to standing now to help change the face of our leadership team. We need to move beyond our demographic comfort zone by appealing to BME communities and the politically homeless.