As election discussions heat up in the run up to the seven-party TV debate, we met up with local Green Party candidate, Jonathan Elmer, to discuss, over a warming cup of Chapters tea, what a vote in the direction of his environment-focussed party will mean for our country.
So the Green Party now has more members than both the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, and its party membership has almost tripled in the last eighteen months. What do you think lies behind this increasing popularity?
I think there’s a number of issues that rest behind that. Before the last election, and actually going back quite some time, people have had a level of faith in the mainstream parties to deliver on environmental issues and that has been, time after time, absolutely dashed. It’s come across that it’s no good bolting on environmental concerns to mainstream policies that contradict those environmental objectives, which is what the other parties do. All of the mainstream parties have their sort of ‘tie break’, what they term sustainable growth, which we feel is a little bit nonsensical in a world of finite resources, and you can’t tag your environmental concerns onto the side of that. You need a party that actually integrates these things, which I think people are beginning to realise.
You say that the other parties have had a poor approach to climate change. What would the Green Party have done differently?
Well, I think tackling climate change is actually tackling economic issues – if you think again that climate change is driven by carbon, which is driven by production and mass scale production, and the way we generate energy to fuel our economy. All of these things connect together so you need to look at everything and, I’ll say it again, in an integrated way. We need a different sort of economy that doesn’t drive consumption of natural resources, so an economy that actually promotes reuse of materials within recycling policy, and absolutely reduces the consumption of virgin resources and reduces the production of waste coming out the other end. We call that a steady state economy. So tackling climate change is more about economics and adopting different economic principles and valuing different things within the economy, which aren’t currently valued, even financially, and don’t seem to make any impact on the overall price of the commodity. Costs to your health and future generations should come through in the costs, but that isn’t factored into the formula. The economy needs to be restructured so that it is constrained by the availability of natural resources, especially when those resources and systems are essential for our survival and that’s not the case at the moment. Tackling climate change is really a part of that wider thinking about restructuring the economy.
So what do you think are the most important areas that need to be addressed to tackle climate change?
Well, there is an obvious thing that need to be done, which is to move towards energy generation that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, and our economy is dependent on fossil fuels… That’s because our economy is a carbon based economy. That’s how it works and we need to turn it into a low carbon economy and the way to do that is for the country, individually and collectively, to legislate against the use of those forms of energy generation. I’m not saying to move straight away because we are dependent on them, but there has to be a rapid transition towards clearer carbon energy generation. You can’t bring online new forms of carbon energy generation, like shale, because all you’re doing then is reinforcing and entrenching a carbon based economy. We’ve got to start thinking we need to get rid of these things, so we leave them in the ground and, actually, we know that if we are going to avoid a temperature change of more than a degree, we have to leave 80% of known hydrocarbon fuel reserves in the ground. Now I’m not going to rely on a current capital economy to do that for me. It’s not going to happen. Those reserves have a value to a capitalist economy and so they are going to be extracting them. You can’t rely simply on economic forces to solve the problem.
I was interested to read that the Green Party is not in favour of nuclear energy, which is often seen as a transition between fossil fuels and renewable energy. What are the reasons behind this?
Like other forms of energy generation, we’re not going to cut it overnight. It will form a part of the transition, but we are not in favour of building new nuclear power plants and the reasons for that are really very simple. You can get energy more cheaply, in terms of the investment in infrastructure, by building renewable energy generation plants. Obviously wind, but also geothermal and tidal power. All those sorts of things are cheaper and more productive in terms of cumulative money spent than nuclear power and are built faster. They are better, more viable solutions. Why would you use nuclear power given those circumstances? The cost of energy from wind is due to get cheaper than the cost of nuclear by 2020. Building nuclear power stations will lock us into what is essentially a big PFI deal with the big French energy giant, that will require us to spend a certain amount of energy for a very long time into the future as part of the deal for them to build power stations. So it doesn’t make economic sense to do that, aside from considering all the pollution related issues associated with uranium, of which there are many.
What do you think is preventing people from voting for the Green Party at the moment?
People don’t tend to vote for parties that they don’t think have much chance of winning. But I would say to people at the moment that now is the best time ever to vote for the party that you actually believe in and their policies, because it’s not like it used to be, where voting for the Green Party would increase the likelihood of another Conservative government. People tactically vote. They vote for their second worst thing to keep out their worst thing but because of UKIP on the far right, pulling votes from the Conservatives, we’re, in effect, balancing the situation by pulling votes in the other direction, although I would argue that we’re not a left wing party, but that’s how we’re perceived. So there is a balance in terms of the votes being distributed to the smaller parties on both sides of Labour and the Conservatives.
You’re not really a left wing party but this is a very common perception. Why is that the case?
I’m involved in the Green Party and I’ve been involved in it quite intrinsically, and I know lots of people and we always scratch our heads over this. I guess it’s because a lot of our policies are based on pragmatism. So we wanted to, for example, renationalise the East Coast Main Line because we know that it has worked better under public ownership. The evidence shows that, but it doesn’t mean we are going to be publicising it for ideological reasons – it works better when it’s not privatised and that’s the case for all sorts of infrastructure-related areas. But it’s more that the Green Party has a strong belief in the importance of local sustainability and that means that we are fighting for the interests of local businesses against the interests of multinationals, and I think that small scale builders and traders are people that might be of the right wing mentality. We think it’s very important for communities to have a bit of independence in all sorts of areas, economically and democratically. That’s not a left wing argument, you can’t actually place it on the political scale.
It’s been a bit of an eventful week for the Green Party after Natalie Bennett’s interview. Do you think that Natalie Bennett is a leader that people can believe in?
I think she is. I think obviously she’s not the same as the other party leaders. I suppose she’s not the savvy, cruel politician that the others are. The reason that she went so badly wrong in that interview was that she wasn’t prepared to simply bluster and avoid the question. She wanted to answer the question truthfully but couldn’t, because she couldn’t remember the figures and I have to say that, if I was in her position, I would have said that. ‘Sorry, I just can’t remember the precise figures but I’ll get them over to you.’ But she didn’t say that. She was obviously caught on the hoof and I’ve heard her in so many other situations and she can be absolutely professional and capable. So I think it was just a bad day for her. I don’t think it characterises her and her capability. She just wanted to be truthful, she didn’t want to avoid the question. She wasn’t being cynical basically.
One of the policies that is likely to interest our readers is that the Green Party wants to scrap tuition fees, is this realistic?
I think that we should move towards a system of funding higher education like Scotland has, which they manage within their budget. Obviously it’s now related to a student loan and students don’t have to pay their loan until they’re earning at least £21,000, which for most people now is an average income. It will be means-tested as time goes by, which I think will be the case for the vast sums of money that the government currently pays to keep higher education running and expects to be paid back in the future. But it will never come back in the future. The government still has to pay for higher education, it’s doing that now. It’s happening. There’s a bit of a sort of, I think, a sleight of hand here, mystical accounting, because higher education has to be paid for now and the loans that we expect to get paid off in the future just aren’t going to be paid off because it’s not going to happen. So you have to think again anyway as the current system’s not going to work as it is, and it’s far more sensible to have higher education as some sort of taxation. People have mooted the graduate tax, which is one way of looking at it, but personally I’m of the view that higher education doesn’t just benefit graduates, it benefits the whole of society. Therefore the costs should be covered by the whole of society. So I think it should come under general taxation.
Do you think that the party’s more radical policies, for example ending the special relationship with the US, legalisation of cannabis, and abolishing the monarchy, are putting voters off?
I’ll take those one at a time. But firstly the special relationship with the US. I mean what is the special relationship with the US? I really don’t know… We’d still want a sort of special relationship with the US but it’s not going to still be based on our country just stepping up to everything the US wants. We’d still negotiate that compromise and work with the US, but it’s not going to be just about doing what the US says and following them into every battle that they go to, which seems to me to be absurd. I think that most people would support that.
The next thing you brought up was the legalisation of cannabis. It’s more decriminalisation of cannabis, which is subtly different. This is not about giving free range to druggies to get stoned. It’s about enabling people to not be criminalised by possession of a drug, and that’s very important because, if you’re in possession and you have a serious problem that’s affecting your health, then the last thing you want is for there to be some barrier against achieving rehabilitation and that’s exactly what criminalising those people does. It stops you coming forward and saying ‘I need to get off this drug’… The very action of saying that results in confession to a criminal act, essentially getting a criminal record, destroying your career and all of those things. Removing criminality from the whole network of drug production to sales is very important because, you know, if huge amounts of money are made in the sale of drugs, the state has no idea who has the main control over that process. Masses of amounts of money being made illegally that are completely under the radar and can be spent on militias and those sorts of things. So actually removing the criminality from drugs is not just important to the end user, but for the whole process.
I just want to dwell on the last point you made about abolishing the monarchy. We don’t in fact support abolishing the monarchy…you can’t abolish the monarchy. They are a family. They exist. But we do support creating a system of government that removes the principle of hereditary power from all levels, not just the monarchy and the head of state, but for example the hereditary peerage in the House of Lords. We feel that should be an elected chamber so this is a part of a set of much broader political values about reforming democracy. So we would remove their privileges that they have as a consequence of their position, that other people don’t expect, and we would remove them from any role in Parliament, as it were.
Now we’ve spoken enough about the national picture. I’m interested to know what brought you to stand as a candidate in the next election?
I’m committed to all the things I’ve talked about so far and I want to see the country change and move in a positive direction. What brought me to all of this ultimately was traditional concerns over the environmental threats that the globe is facing, and the inaction of mainstream politicians in this country and across the world. It really is inaction. Still, year on year, we are producing more carbon emissions than the previous year. We haven’t slowed down, we’ve sped up, so everything that’s been done about climate change has achieved no positive effect at all, which I find extremely frightening. I was an ecologist by background, so I’ve got a good understanding of ecosystems and how they enable us to survive. People often think we are separate from all that now. We live in houses, we produce our own food. What’s the problem? Why do we need ecosystems? I have to say we need to go back to Key Stage 2 science here. All the oxygen in the air we breathe, every single oxygen molecule comes from a plant, and that’s been the case for about the last four billion years. The atmosphere is the way it is because of life, and we’re dependent on other life to be part of cycles. We are part of what we call the carbon cycle, and plants, they are the organisms that produce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on the other side of that cycle. That’s important to understand. Just, as I say, the balance of gases in the atmosphere has taken something like four billion years to come about. We are rapidly changing it in about 100–150 years. It seems absolutely nonsensical and people who think that that is somehow alright, I think it’s ignorant. I’m sorry if that sounds a bit rude, but ecosystems are complex and partially understood. It’s an area of science that’s still developing and part of the reason is that there are so many factors that relate to their stability and, when you consider a system that has more than three factors that relate to its outcome, then it gets complex, sometimes chaotic. So I wouldn’t say I understand ecosystems, and I’m an ecologist, but I know we are dependent on them for our survival and so I wanted to be part of a political movement that actually saw this as one of the mo
t important issues that the planet faces.
What are the local policies that you are proposing for this election?
There are various issues in relation to the city that, if I were elected, I would certainly do my best to do something about. I’ve done a lot of work campaigning against what we call the ‘County Durham Plan.’ It was flawed in so many different areas. The first was a proposal for mass scale residential development all around the green belt of the city. We managed to stop that. We’re not against development. We think that development should be focused on brownfield sites, not the green, and we also think the proposal is a huge economic threat to the city because a lot of our income in the city is based on tourism. The last thing we want to do is spoil the appearance of the city so I’ll continue to make sure of that… Also the other issue for the city’s permanent residents is the continuing conversion of properties in the city into those that are only rented to students. I know you are students and this article is going out to students, but what I’m saying is that the university needs to be prepared to make the investment to build college buildings and support students in that way, and make sure students have residences that they can afford through their own resources. It seems to have become increasingly reliant on the public sector for providing that need but that’s resulted in permanent residents being increasingly removed from the city. Because houses have been increasingly sold and converted into properties that are only rented to students, the age structure of the city is changed very, very dramatically, so that’s had an impact on services. So you get less of a demand for schools and less need for services for old people because the vast majority of people who live in the city are between twenty and thirty years old. This has been happening since the 1980s, and is increasingly spreading out to the outskirts of the city as the properties in the centre have all been converted. It’s not good for the balance of Durham’s community. I don’t think anyone would argue with that, so I will continue to campaign around that sort of issue.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Well yes, one thing that’s quite important if you’re reading this and you’re a student. Please remember to check that you’re registered to vote because the chances are that you are not if you haven’t re-registered yourself over the last few months.