In an exclusive interview for Left Foot Forward, Caroline Lucas reflects on her time in parliament, gives her verdict on the last five Tory prime ministers and expresses her concerns about Labour under Keir Starmer.
Caroline Lucas is one of the most prominent parliamentarians in the UK. A household name on the left, she has served 13 years in the House of Commons, sitting as the sole MP for the Green Party. Earlier this year, she announced she would be standing down at the next election. In light of this, Left Foot Forward spoke to her about her time in parliament, her reflections on a tumultuous period of politics and what she intends to do next as part of our series of interviews with retiring MPs.
Lucas is initially humble when speaking on her achievements since entering parliament in 2010. “As a single backbench MP it’s very unlikely that I’m going to suddenly bring in a new piece of legislation,” she says.
However, she then goes on to point to a series of things that have her mark on them, starting by saying: “In terms of policy, one of the things I’m most proud of is persuading the government to introduce a new GCSE in natural history”. She continues: “I think perhaps a better way of measuring the difference that having Greens in any room where there’s any kind of power is it does change the conversation.
“And I think, for example, 13 years ago it was inconceivable that parliament would declare a climate emergency. I remember suggesting keeping coal in the ground and I was looked at like it was a totally ridiculous idea.
“The campaign against fracking – and that involved obviously also taking peaceful direct action – but I think that the work that I was able to do around fracking in parliament did contribute significantly to the changing view around fracking in parliament which even survived Liz Truss trying to bring it back through the back door when she was prime minister.
“So I think there are issues on the political agenda that wouldn’t be there if you didn’t have a Green in the room – in this case if I weren’t there in parliament.”
With Lucas having played a part in these campaigns on climate and the environment, has the UK got closer or further away from taking the action it needs to address the increasingly urgent climate and ecological emergencies than when she was first elected? Lucas starts by telling Left Foot Forward: “We are better off than we were then”, pointing towards the fact that renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels and there is a “momentum now behind green energy”.
Alongside this, she says that “nature herself has kind of stepped in with the number of, what were, freak weather events now regularly occurring”, This, Lucas argues, has led to climate denial being an untenable position for other MPs to maintain. She says: “When I first went to parliament, I think there probably would have been a number of MPs on the Tory side who would have been relatively comfortable challenging climate science. Now they don’t challenge the science. They challenge the policy. They challenge whether or not you have to act fast.” Reflecting on this shift, she goes on to say: “Maybe we have to go through this stage as well before we actually get to the blindingly obvious – that action on climate is cheaper if you take it now than if you take it in 30 years time.”
Lucas’ self awareness when talking about her successes in parliament is reflected when she is asked what she regrets over the 13 years she has spent as an MP. She doesn’t prevaricate and instead takes the question head on.
On her biggest regret, she tells Left Foot Forward: “I think maybe it is that I voted for the Brexit referendum.” With the Greens having been vocal campaigners against Brexit and for a People’s Vote, it’s not hard to see why. Explaining why she decided to vote to hold the initial referendum, she says: “I voted for that referendum in good faith because I’d been a member of the European Parliament for over ten years.
“And during that time I said so many times that if only people understood how the European institutions worked, if only we had a bit of media focus on what we do in the European Parliament, then if you could see that actually democratically elected members of the European Parliament are taking part in democratically agreed votes that change the lives of people in this country, I naïvely thought if only people could see all of that they would understand the importance of EU institutions and perhaps learn to like them a bit more. And so I believed that the referendum campaign could have been an opportunity to have a serious debate about the future of the EU.”
“And as history has shown so plainly, that was such a misconception. And maybe looking back it was naïve to think that we could possibly have had that debate.”
Brexit is just one of many issues that has made the last decade and a half of British politics chaotic and febrile. The financial crash, austerity, the covid pandemic and the cost of living crisis have all played their part. Since Lucas entered parliament in 2010, there have been no less than five different Tories occupying Number 10. Having served as an MP through each of these prime ministers, Lucas gives a damning verdict on them.
“I suppose he started off better than he finished”, she begins on David Cameron, “For a while he was hugging huskies and he ended up saying ‘let’s get rid of the green crap’. And we know that by getting rid of what he called ‘green cap’ – in other words environmental measures – he ended up costing every household hundreds of pounds more every year because their energy is more expensive, because their homes aren’t insulated.”
On Theresa May, she says: “Living through Theresa May when she was prime minister, I was horrified by her total lack of appreciation of complexity in the sense that it was Theresa May who would come out with sentences like ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – it was just such a pointless, foolish thing to say.” While Lucas says that May was “in her own way more honourable” than the other Tory prime minister’s we’ve had before and since, she then goes to say, “albeit, as soon as I say that, I remember those immigration vans she sent round which were telling people to ‘go home'”.
“The trouble is, you compare everyone with Boris Johnson”, Lucas says. Johnson, in her eyes, was “such a toxic, delinquent, reckless prime minister that anybody in comparison pretty much with him comes off slightly better than they should”. Her criticism only gets stronger from there. She says: “He didn’t give a shit about hundreds of thousands of people’s lives. And when I think the true story of Covid is properly told and when I hope that people can focus on it instead of focusing on the latest awful thing that’s filling our headlines, I think that people will recognise that the choices he made have been responsible for the needless deaths of so many people through Covid.
“And that’s before we even get to the fact that he prorogued parliament when it suited him when it got in his way. He lied continually about whether or not he had an over ready Brexit. He just has no moral compass. Words begin to fail you really when it comes to Boris Johnson.”
While Lucas speaks at length about her assessment of the other PMs, she offers just a one word judgement of Liz Truss – “Lettuce, what more can I say?”
As for Rishi Sunak, Lucas tells Left Foot Forward: “What he has done on climate has just been so dangerous, because there was a broad consensus in parliament around climate which was still there in 2010 in the sense that the Climate Change Act had been passed and – to their credit – some of that had happened under a Tory government, and that had gone through with only a handful of people voting against it.
“And what Rishi Sunak has chosen to do is to unravel that climate consensus, to wreck it, to deliberately deconstruct it in order to chase a few more votes to try to shore up his failing popularity. And by using climate as a wedge issue, I think he’s just shown the most unforgivable recklessness when it comes to the climate policies.”
While she is unsurprisingly damning about the prime ministers who have been in office over her 13 years in the House of Commons, Lucas has had to work closely with MPs from other parties. By virtue of being the only MP for her party, working cross-party has been central to much of her work. As a result, she offers strong praise for MPs on the opposition benches who she has worked with over the years.
She tells Left Foot Forward: “I work really closely with people like Nadia Whittome and Clive Lewis on the Green New Deal, and we have an all party group on the Green New Deal and we work very closely together on that. I enjoy working with Barry Gardiner actually on the Environmental Audit Committee just because he’s such a terrier when it comes to cross-questioning ministers. From the Liberal Democrats I work very closely with Wera Hobhouse on environmental issues, green issues. Plaid [Cymru] are very good on social issues and I’m probably closest to them of all the parties in Westminster.”
However, such praise is definitely absent from her assessment of the likely next prime minister – the Labour leader Keir Starmer. She starts by acknowledging that she and the Green Party would “prefer to see a Labour government than a Tory government”, but goes on to ask “what kind of Labour government” we are likely to get.
“I think there are real concerns over the U-turns that Keir Starmer has been performing – whether that is on what was originally a £28 billion commitment for green investment, he was going to scrap tuition fees, things like the two child benefit cap which is a really, really obscene policy and his own frontbench have said its obscene yet he has now said that he is not going to reverse that.
“He’s better on oil and gas to the extent that he’s said he won’t give licenses to new oil and gas. But then there’s a totally incoherent position of saying that he will allow Rosebank to go ahead. Whereas if he had said were he to get into government he would have tried to roll back that decision it would never have been taken in the first place, because the signal that would have given to Equinor, the Norwegian investor who is going to go ahead with Rosebank would have thought twice. So on oil and gas, there’s a problem there.”
Lucas says that on the economy and other issues, Starmer is operating with a “lack of ambition” which is “so desperately disappointing because he seems to think that if he just plays it incredibly safe, then he can tip-toe into Downing Street”, before going on to say “I think he needs to worry as well about the number of people he simply won’t be inspiring to get off their chairs and down to the polling station at all – and right now it is incredibly hard to say what Keir Starmer stands for”.
Given that Lucas spoke to Left Foot Forward the day after the major vote in parliament on whether the government should call for a ceasefire in Gaza, she also criticises Labour for failing to vote to support a ceasefire. “I think it was incredibly disappointing that Labour is on the wrong side of history on this”, she says.
Our conversation closed by looking not at the past, but to the future. With Lucas standing down at the next election, she is hoping that her Green colleague Sian Berry will replace her in her Brighton Pavilion constituency. After a difficult set of local elections for the Greens earlier this year, in which Labour retook control of the council, Berry will need a fierce campaign to keep the seat Green.
Whether it is Berry or someone else that replaces her though, Lucas has some advice for her successor: “Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away with Brighton being the centre for entrepreneurship, for independent, vibrant shops and businesses […] but it’s also a city of great inequality and of people who are really struggling”, adding, “So I think it would be about just remembering the full complexity of this city and to reflect that in the work that they do”.
What many are no doubt keen to learn about the future is what Caroline Lucas does next. When she announced she would be standing down earlier this year, Lucas said “the intensity of these constituency commitments, together with the particular responsibilities of being my party’s sole MP, mean that, ironically, I’ve not been able to focus as much as I would like on the existential challenges that drive me – the nature and climate emergencies”.
It’s not surprising, then that she finishes our interview by saying: “The climate and nature stuff [is] what gets me out of bed in the morning”, and “I know that I want to keep working on climate and nature”. She admits that she doesn’t “yet know what that will look like”. But given that she has already driven these issues up the agenda as an MP, as an MEP before that, and as the most prominent Green politician in the country, even with Lucas leaving parliament, she will no doubt remain a major public figure fighting the climate and ecological emergencies as her campaigning activity enters its next phase.
This article is part of a series of interviews with MPs standing down at the next general election. The other interviews published in the series are:
- Ian Blackford MP – reflections on eight years in parliament
- Ben Bradshaw on Keir Starmer, trans rights and parliamentary culture
- Margaret Hodge on fighting extremism, challenges facing the country and what the next Labour government must do
Chris Jarvis is head of strategy and development at Left Foot Forward
Image credit: UK Parliament – Creative Commons