Carla Denyer: “Our electoral system is embarrassingly out of date”

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Last October, world leaders and thousands of delegates travelled to Glasgow for COP26. Joe Biden appeared to fall asleep during the opening speeches. Boris Johnson talked about it being “one minute to midnight”. And then, after a couple of weeks of negotiations, a deal was finally agreed on the 13th of November: the “Glasgow Climate Pact”, a compromise which will reduce estimated global heating from 2.7C to (a still high) 2.4C.

According to Carla Denyer, the co-leader of the Green Party and Durham alumna (2005-2009), COP26 was a “colossal wasted opportunity”.

“The agreement failed to get us on track to 1.5C and is woefully short on providing support to the Global South, protecting future generations or safeguarding the natural world.”

Despite this, Denyer adds that “the legacy of this COP doesn’t need to be a failure.” “This is the crucial decade to stop catastrophic climate change and we cannot let a lack of leadership at COP26 stop us in our tracks now.”

Profile interviewed Denyer about what policies the Green Party are advocating for instead, and what Denyer has thought of Boris Johnson’s leadership.

Were you involved in politics while at Durham?

Not party politics, but I was involved in campaigns on issues – mostly climate change and peace.

In my third year I was elected as Environment Rep on St Chad’s College JCR. I used that role to lobby the College’s management to provide recycling bins in student bedrooms – it was frankly incredible that in 2007-08 they weren’t yet doing so. I was able to persuade them through a series of meetings and by presenting a briefing that showed that not only was it easy, but it would save the college money in the long run by reducing the amount of waste they sent to landfill. I went on to win the DSU ‘Student Environmental Champion of the Year’ award for my efforts.

In retrospect it was kind of crazy for me to take on that big chunk of voluntary work while also completing my final years. But I enjoyed the variety and motivation of working on both my Engineering final year project and this environmental project. They say ‘a change is as good as a rest’ and that was definitely the case for me.

Denyer’s graduation from Durham (front right corner)

The 2019 Green Party manifesto pledged to redefine University courses as ‘as learning experiences, not as pre-work training. Education will be for education’s sake.’ What would this look like? How would University courses change in line with this policy? 

Higher Education should enable a democratisation of knowledge and skills which are available to anyone who wants to study for a degree regardless of their age, means or background.

A Green Party Minister for Higher Education would support universities to recognise their responsibility to foster independent and critical thought, to ensure access to university for all social groups, and to seek the participation of the local community in the life of the university. That means that your courses might better prepare you for life, not just for your first job. Your coursemates would come from more diverse backgrounds, and the gap between ‘town and gown’ could soften so that you get to know Durham locals better.

We would commit to lower staff/student ratios, meaning that lecturers and tutors would have more time to support you when you need help.

We would require universities to pay staff fairly, including no more than a 10:1 pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid staff, and end the casualisation of the workforce which means that many junior lecturers are stuck without any job security.

And to achieve this, the Green Party would provide more public funding for Higher Education – to at least the EU average level. We would cancel Student Loan Company debt, and maintenance loans would be replaced with grants. This would mean that universities would no longer have to pursue the harmful ‘grow or die’ business model linked to chasing lucrative tuition fees, and could instead focus on providing a quality education for its own sake.

You said, on Any Questions, that ‘our out of date electoral system in this country is … broken’. How would you fix this? 

The voting system used in Westminster elections is called ‘First Past the Post’. It is an unfair system where the number of MPs and the amount of power that each party gets is not proportional to the number of votes they get. In the last election, on average the Conservatives only needed 38,000 votes per MP seat, whereas the Greens needed over 800,000. And at a national level the Conservatives won just 44% of the votes, but got 56% of the seats, and 100% of the power in Government.

Our electoral system is embarrassingly out of date. There is only one other country in Europe that still uses First Past the Post – Belarus – literally a corrupt dictatorship.

The solution is to switch to a proportional voting system. There are a few options, but the best system for Westminster elections is known as AV+, where electors have two votes – one for their constituency MP, and one for their favourite party. This ensures that everyone has a local MP to represent specific local issues, but each party’s representation is ‘topped up’ if needed on a regional basis using the results of the party vote, so that the number of MPs matches the number of votes.

Frustratingly, the barrier to the UK switching to a fairer voting system is that both the Conservatives and Labour support this old and unfair system. That’s particularly disappointing because every other Labour / Social Democrat party in Europe supports fair votes, except the UK Labour Party.

But the good is that recently one of the big Labour-affiliated unions has changed its policy. Unions have a big influence on Labour Party policy, so is change in the air? I hope so. If you want to help the UK to catch up with the rest of Europe and make seats match votes, join the Make Votes Matter campaign: www.makevotesmatter.org.uk 

You’ve recently described Boris Johnson as ‘a threat to public health’. What did you mean by this? How would you describe the Conservative government’s handling of the pandemic? 

The government’s hypocrisy – represented by the Prime Minister and other senior figures repeatedly failing to follow their own rules – is undermining trust in public health and science. Because of their mixed messages and hypocrisy, it may now be harder for health professionals to persuade everyone that these measures are important.

On top of that, his prevarication at every stage in the pandemic, his reluctance to take necessary public health measures at the time they would have had most benefit, meant the pandemic was worse in the UK than in many other countries.

Let’s be clear what that means – it means more people catching covid, more people ending up in hospital, and more deaths.

How would you like to change the Green Party while you are co-leader? What policies would you like to amend or add to the Party’s manifesto?

Leadership of the Green Party is not like that of others. Our members are our lifeblood – they set our direction, decide our policy and choose our leaders – one member, one vote. So unlike other parties, I don’t have the power to unilaterally change policies on a whim – and that’s a good thing.

“We are using our job as co-leaders to inspire, to organise, to reach out, and to collaborate”

I have, on the other hand, frequently used my power as an ordinary member, before and since being elected as co-leader, to propose motions. For instance, in 2020 I co-proposed three policies that were adopted at our party conference – on decarbonising transport, a ban on the advertising of high carbon goods and services (similar to the ban on tobacco ads), and supporting self-declaration of gender for trans and non-binary people.

When Adrian Ramsay and I were elected as co-leaders in October, it was on a platform of building the party into a powerful electoral force, to win power and influence in every corner of England and Wales so that we can transform society to create a brighter future for everyone.

We are using our job as co-leaders to inspire, to organise, to reach out, and to collaborate. We sit on the Green Party Executive so we do have ‘traditional’ leadership/executive responsibilities too – setting strategy and agreeing the budget for example – but we share our power and work together with party members to achieve our shared goals. To me, that’s what leadership should be.

Image: @Joncraig_Photos

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