Election interviews: Jonathan Elmer, Green Party

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Palatinate and Purple Radio have interviewed all 5 candidates for the City of Durham constituency in the 2019 General Election. We asked each candidate the same key questions on local and national issues, as well as three questions directed more specifically at issues within their own parties. Here, interviews the Green Party’s Jonathan Elmer.

Would you be able to summarise your local constituency-specific manifesto in one minute?

I’ll do my best – one minute isn’t long. Looking specifically at students, students are a huge issue for Durham city because the University is growing so fast, and obviously the Vice-Chancellor is very unapologetic about that range of growth. It has a massive impact on Durham, which is actually quite a small city. It also has a massive impact on the students as well, who I feel are being increasingly commoditised; so less focus on the growth of students and their learning, and their individual needs, and more focus on the chunks of money coming into the University, which adds up to most of the income of the University. I think that has to change – the Green Party has policies to change that. But at the same time, we’re very concerned about the housing that students have to live in, the cost of college accommodation, and the standards and the varying rates of accommodation. All of that needs consideration.

You mentioned things surrounding student housing there. It’s been a prevalent issue and it’s something that Purple Radio itself has been investigating over the past year. Some work has been done to resolve these issues, however housing remains an unnecessarily major cause of stress among students. What do you propose to deal with this further?

Well I think the County Council has a role to play here as well, especially when it comes to the private rented sector, affecting people living out of college. There’s a licencing process that the council has aimed to administrate. That requires landlords to bring their houses up to a certain standard. We want to see that licencing requirement expanded to every landlord, not just those who, at the moment, take in a certain number of students. That needs to cover everyone, so that every rented household reaches a habitability standard that we really need. That’s very important I think. But at the same time, the rent prices are really high as well, but they’re still not as high as the colleges. The University has a big part to play there, and actually, it’s really quite important that Durham University stops looking at the private rented sector just as an easy means of providing accommodation, and of enabling their expansion.

The University is growing so fast, and the Vice-Chancellor is very unapologetic about that

It’s been three and a half years since we voted to Leave the EU, but we still haven’t left. If you were elected as the MP for the City of Durham, how would you work to get us through this crisis?

This is an appalling crisis, and a lot of people predicted the quagmire that this might up in, as it very well has. If we end up voting for a party (the Conservative Party or the Brexit Party) who want to push Brexit, that doesn’t mean everything is over. It means we’re bogged down into another few years of trade negotiations with other countries around the planet. So while those negotiations are taking place, the deals we’ll be trading on and the terms we’ll be trading on will be very poor indeed, and it will really affect British business and our exports. That’s very concerning. The Green Party feel that now that we know so much more about the situation, it really is appropriate to say to people in the country, ‘we’re ready to have another vote to see if we want to go forward with the deal that’s been negotiated’. The Greens strongly support Remaining in the EU, and we will campaign for that. The reason why we feel that it’s so important that we remain in Europe is because the world isn’t all about Brexit, and it’s so much more important that we focus on green issues affecting the planet, like the climate emergency that’s looming, especially on the younger generation. You can only deal with things like that together, collectively, working together with our partners – not in isolation. Isolating ourselves and stepping off, and relinquishing our influence over the rest of Europe is a very troubling step when it comes to tackling the climate emergency.

Just on that area of the climate emergency, the Green Party obviously have dealing with that as a major part of your manifesto. A major report by the UN last year said we have until 2030 to avoid irreversible damage to the planet. How does your party propose we deal with the climate emergency?

This is principally through a policy that we developed actually around 10 years ago now, called the Green New Deal. You’ve probably heard of the Green New Deal – the Labour Party talk about it all the time, and it’s being talked about in the United States as well. It actually came from our very own Caroline Lucas, who proposed it as a means of addressing regeneration of the nation after the banking crisis. At the time we proposed it, and it was pretty much ridiculed by all the mainstream parties; but now people are starting to take it on board. What the Green New Deal actually means is looking at every sector of the economy – housing, industry, farming etc – and thinking how we can decarbonise all of this. We need to go through that transaction. It’s not going to be cheap – it’s going to be really quite expensive, but that’s another question entirely – but it needs to be done. We should have been starting this ten or twenty years ago, not having a deadline of 2030 or 2050. There’s no point in kicking this can down the road; we need to deal with it now.

There’s no point in kicking the climate emergency can down the road; we need to deal with it now.

Obviously there has been an increase in awareness in climate issues recently, even though, as you said, we should have maybe started this process ten or twenty years ago. In spite of this new awareness in the past year, the Green Party is still only polling at between 2% and 4% in the polls. Where do you think that is coming from?

Well the reason for that is simply because of our electoral system, the ‘first past the post’ system. It’s not because people don’t agree with Green ideas. In this country, because of the first past the post system, you vote for the party who is winning or the party who you think is the most likely to defeat then. People come up to me after presentations, saying ‘I’d love to vote for you, but it’s a wasted vote – you’ll never get in’. So this isn’t about people not caring about Green issues, it’s the fact that they see getting rid of the Conservatives or Labour, depending on the area. They’re seen as the only available options in the election. It’s very sad indeed, and we need electoral reform, and we need to bring in proportional representation.

There is the idea going round that there could be a hung parliament. So do you not think that some voters, or some of your potential voters, are considering your ideas and your policies?

Yes, I mean there are constituencies around the country where we do have a very good chance (where we came second last time around), so we’re the main contenders. We’ve got places like Bristol, the Isle of Wight, Sheffield, and obviously Brighton. So we stand to potentially increase our number of MPs in this general election. If there’s a hung parliament, that’ll put us in a strong position to influence thinking on both sides of the House. We won’t form any form of alliance with other parties if there is a hung parliament; we’re vote for bills that we agree with, but against bills if we don’t agree with them. There isn’t going to be any sort of agreement, like the coalition that took place.

Let’s move onto another issue that’s very important at the moment – the NHS. It’s under immense and unprecedented strain at the moment, so what does your party propose to do to alleviate some of the pressures of the NHS and its staff?

You’re absolutely right. It’s an appalling situation for people working in the NHS, which lacks nurses for example. The Conservatives pretend that everything is ok, while children are lying on the floor being treated without a bed, and pretending that they’re putting more nurses in than they actually are. I mean it’s just embarrassing frankly, the state of politics in our country. It’s frankly appalling what has been happening to the NHS. We know that there are trade negotiations taking place now that are really being pushed by American drugs companies; they want to be able to sell into the NHS at a much much higher price. At the moment, because of its size, the NHS is one of the biggest public sector employers on the planet. Because of its size, that gives it block purchasing capabilities, which enables it to get the best deals for drug purchasing. The US drug companies don’t like that at all – they want to see it broken down into much smaller units, and effectively privatise the NHS. That’s what the Conservative administration have already started to do with primary care trusts. We’re going through a process by which eventually, when the time is right, the NHS will be sold, will move towards an insurance model. People like Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Prime Minister have already said they would support such a model, so I think that it’s a very black day for the NHS if the Conservatives end up getting elected.

We won’t form any form of alliance with other parties if there is a hung parliament

So what specifically will your party spend on? You’ve said the Greens would spend £100 billion on the climate emergency but only £6 billion on NHS –

Which is quite a considerable amount to be fair, and comparable to what the Labour Party are proposing. Yes, money does need to be injected into it, but it’s not just about money. It’s about the fact that there are aspects of the way in which we provide care that need to be improved as well. For example, mental health care needs to be put on a parity with physical health care. Social services need to be amalgamated with the NHS. It’s about treating problems at their cause, and creating a situation whereby the NHS isn’t having to deal with such an emergency health crisis in the first place. In general, health and wellbeing in society is a very important issue for the Green Party, and that’s about the size of food we eat, our lifestyles, our jobs, our climate, our travel, our nature – all of that should actually integrate to make us healthier people, and reduce strain on the NHS.

Just to go back to the £100 billion climate fund and £6 billion NHS spending figures – they’re quite considerable amounts of expenditure. Without doing massive increases in taxes or letting down other aspects of society, how do you plan to fund that?

Well there will be increases in tax – I’m not going to pretend that that isn’t going to happen. There’s quite a lot to say here so I’m going to be as efficient as possible in the way I say it. First of all, our taxation system is archaic and creaking beyond belief. We want to sort out and streamline the taxation system. At the moment, you’ve got various different forms of income tax for example; capital gain, income tax, national insurance… all of these different forms we want to amalgamate together to create one income tax. We also want to create something called the Universal Basic Income. Now this is very important because it provides a safety net to people who don’t have wealth or don’t have a job. It’s a question of taking all the benefits that people are currently able to claim, rolling them together into one big pot, and sharing them out equally across all of society. Everyone is entitled to that, whether they’re in work or not, whether they’re rich or poor. That means that, for example, the level of tax on your income isn’t that relevant because you’ve got another form of income if you’re poorer. So it’s all about a streamlining of the tax system.

We also want to raise the tax bands of the wealthiest in society so that those people say more of their fair share. We want to make sure that those people are always paying tax, instead of shoving their money in various dark corners around the world, like tax havens; as well as making sure we can track them down and ensure they’re paying their tax, such as big coffee providers, Google and Amazon and all of those companies who manage to, pretty effectively, avoid paying corporation tax in our country.

Our taxation system is archaic and creaking beyond belief. We want to sort it out and streamline it

You’ve also got very wealthy individuals – billionaires, the likes of people who are in the Telegraph, the Sun, the Daily Mail, none of whom live in this country and are able to make sure that they, with their huge fortunes, are able to avoid paying tax in our country. There are some pretty wicked people around, pulling the strings of our society, and we want to shine a light on them. There’s actually got a lot of money to be made there, through tax avoidance. We also want to scrap many of the vanity projects that the previous administrations have brought in that really aren’t helpful to our nation, such as HS2 and Trident. Scrapping both of those will save a lot of money. Look at our manifesto – it is balanced. The last thing I should mention actually is a new tax, called the Carbon Tax. Anybody involved in carbon-generating activities will pay a tax in accordance with the amount of carbon generated.

Very quickly, lastly – another part of your manifesto involves scrapping student fees for university students and writing off the debts of current students. Considering economists have estimated the costs of doing this to be around £33 billion, do you think that this is actually feasible?

Yes it is, we’ve actually costed it. I’ve just explained to you where we’re going to find the income to do all of these things. It has to be done as well, because we have to move back to a situation where individuals going to university have their costs covered by society, and not them as an individual. It has to benefit everybody to have a university system, to have our students from around the country going to university, and learning a bit to compete in the modern world. We don’t think that individuals should be solely responsible for paying for that. It’s not just impacting on individuals, but it also impacts on the ways universities operate – they see students as a source of income, which has had really appalling effects on Durham here. So yes, we very much see that as feasible, and see it as a worthwhile and important thing to do.

You can listen to our interview with Jonathan Elmer by searching ‘Purple Radio Team’ on Spotify, or by visiting https://anchor.fm/purple-radio-news-team.

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