Sian Berry: I wish I’d been firmer on transphobia

In an exclusive interview with LFF, former Green Party co-leader Sian Berry says 'I wish that much sooner I'd realised that a better strategy was to be firmer about our values'

Sian Berry

For three years, Sian Berry was one of the Green Party of England Wales’ co-leaders. Her time at the party’s helm came to an end after her fellow leader Jonathan Bartley announced his resignation in July.

But Berry has nonetheless been ever-present throughout the party’s autumn conference – introducing her successors and speaking frequently in policy debates – even getting into the minutiae of minor textual amendments.

LFF spoke to Berry at the conference to discuss her leadership. “I think the party became a lot more professional”, she says when talking about the impact of her time in office. It’s this ‘professionalism’ which she sees as a driver in the Greens’ unprecedented local election success in both 2019 and 2021 – with the party having nearly tripled its tally of Councillors across those two elections. “One of my favourite moments from being leader is that day when we sat and we watched those 2019 local election results come in and we were making the breakthroughs onto new council after new council after new council,” she says, before adding, “we were winning those seats through our own planning, hard work and good strategy”.

This, Berry argues, is a solid foundation for winning more parliamentary representation for the party. Presently, Caroline Lucas sits in Westminster as the Greens’ sole MP. But according to Berry, “a steady, upward path isn’t to be sniffed at all, and the steady upward path that we’re on now will take us to more MPs at the next election, and the one after that, it’ll take us to even more,” and “there will suddenly be a dam that brakes in terms of winning MP seats – in the next election”.

While the Green Party has been experiencing these electoral gains though, discussions on a different topic have been simmering away beneath the surface. An ongoing dispute in the party has emerged over the Greens’ position on trans rights. The party currently has long had clear policies in favour of strengthening the rights of LGBTIQA+ people, with members updating this in March 2021 to support self-identification as the process for obtaining gender recognition certificates. Some party members have opposed these policies, and the issue of trans rights has dominated recent leadership elections.

The extent of this conflict and the number of people seeking to overturn party policy shouldn’t be overstated, however. The members’ ballot that set the order of motions for this year’s conference saw a proposal for the party to withdraw from the Stonewall Diversity Champions Scheme land in twelfth place – below a motion titled ‘Reforming the process for holding the party’s AGM’.

Nevertheless, Berry herself has become a key persona in these conflicts. Following Bartley’s resignation, she issued a statement confirming she would not be standing in the ensuing by-election, citing the appointment of a party spokesperson with whom she disagreed on trans rights as key to this.

Now she’s outside of the leadership, she speaks candidly about transphobia in the Greens’ ranks. She says, “when we were faced with this kind of campaigning against the rights of trans people taking hold somewhat within the party, I wish that much sooner I’d realised that a better strategy was to be firmer about our values and to call out something as wrong.” She continues, “it very much is against our values to make people from minorities feel uncomfortable in our spaces, and to denigrate their right to exist within our spaces”, and concedes “I know that I was not arguing as strongly as I could have been”.

Reflecting on what she would have done differently, she makes a distinction between “being nice, and being good”. “I was trying to be nice, and I think I did that for too long, and therefore allowed the trans[phobia] problem to grow”, she admits. Going further, she says that “not causing trouble can leak into being essentially appeasement – and appeasement always makes the problem grow”.

Since leaving the leadership, Berry’s former colleague Jonathan Bartley told the New Statesman her decision to state publicly her reason for not standing in the leadership by-election was a “political mistake”. When this is raised, Berry initially appears indignant, before laughing and saying “I think what Jonathan means by that – I don’t think he means political in the sense that I would really mean it. I think he means it was a sort of public relations mistake”, suggesting it stemmed from a belief that naming the problem draws attention to it, making sure to add that “in terms of what our views are on the issue – we agree”. She adds, “but in the end, the choice was do I stand up and say: ‘Welcome our new list of spokespeople’, in the knowledge that I won’t be able to say that I disagree with one of the appointments?”

Despite the context in which her leadership ended, Berry remains upbeat when discussing it. Immediately after discussing the conflict over trans rights, she jokingly answers “never do an interview unprepared” when asked what advice she’d give to her successors. She also continues to play a big role in shaping the future of the party – from her work on the London Assembly to debates on conference floor. But with her and Bartley’s time now up, it’s over to Adrian Ramsay and Carla Denyer – the party’s new co-leaders – to steer the Greens to more electoral success, and find a solution to the internal conflict over trans rights.

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