INTERVIEW: Amelia Womack, Deputy Leader of the Green Party
As the UK’s General Election 2015 race gets under way, Olivia Arigho Stiles speaks to Amelia Womack, the Deputy Leader of the Green Party about the party’s election priorities, mobilising young people and the sea change in European politics.
Few parties in Britain have recently experienced a spike in membership as remarkably rapid as the Greens. The so-called ‘Green Surge’ has seen the party move from the periphery to the near-centre of UK politics, with party membership now exceeding 60,000 and surpassing that of both the Liberal Democrats and Ukip. Alongside the SNP and Ukip, the Greens have been at the helm of major shifts taking place in British politics.
In the new multi-hued political landscape, gone is the prevailing red and blue of the Labour-Tory duopoly. In its stead is a rainbow assortment of parties vying for prominence and airtime in an increasingly crowded electoral contest.
The Green Party’s surge is all the more striking given that it has been concentrated among the 18-24 age demographic, of which 56% did not vote in 2010. It is logical to assume that younger voters disillusioned by the Lib Dems’ U-turn on tuition fees have found solace in the Greens who pledge to abolish them altogether. In 2014 the Young Greens experienced a 165% rise in membership, rising from 1,700 members to 4,500.
Much of this can be attributed to Amelia Womack, the party’s Deputy Leader. At 30 years old, she’s refreshingly young to be a deputy leader of a national political party. Perhaps with the spectre of Natalie Bennett’s disastrous interview with LBC the previous week, Amelia maintains a carefulness and restraint suggestive of intensive media coaching. With the average age of sitting MEPs hovering at fifty years, Womack expresses frustration at the grey (haired) tinge to British politics. “As somebody who’s worked in youth engagement I get really frustrated at the idea that young people don’t vote because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Young people are told that politics should be a buzzword for boring and it ends up having this negative feed back loop.”
— Amelia Womack (@Amelia_Womack) April 8, 2015
She talks animatedly about fostering young people’s participation in politics, telling me, “I was reading up on youth engagement and what we can do to get more young people involved, and one of the solutions was to have young people at the highest levels of your party and in politics. So I’ve been signing up Young Greens to be council candidates and parliamentary candidates. Then the Young Greens told me to put my money where my mouth was and run for Deputy Leader. Through this I really hope I’ve inspired a lot of young people about what we can do in politics, and shown than politics isn’t what a group of traditionally middle class white men are doing in a building elsewhere but that it is something young people can actively engage in, and influence.”
But the traction the Green Party as a whole has garnered with the British people is rooted in their rejection of one policy: austerity. Amelia reflects, ‘People have been joining the Green party because we’re a party talking about messages and policies of hope, rather than fear. People are starting to reject business as usual politics and seeing that the austerity agenda is not benefiting society as a whole. It means that people are looking for alternatives and are coming to the Green Party. We are an anti-austerity party but as are Plaid, as are the SNP. I think that’s an important thing to recognise. There are so many parties looking at the austerity agenda and seeing where those failures are. At the moment I feel like we’re on the cusp of something given that our membership is continuously rising; people are not just wanting to vote Green, but they want to give us support too.”
“Politics isn’t what a group of traditionally middle class white men are doing in a building“
Yet the Greens rise must be placed in a much wider, pan-European context of burgeoning populist anti-austerity movements. The victory of the radical left Syriza in Greece is the most striking indication of this, with sister party Podemos on course to secure victory on an anti-austerity platform in the Spanish elections later this year.
Some commentators have emphasised the parallels between the outsider status of the Greens and Ukip, labelling the Greens the ‘Ukip of the Left’. Amelia laughs when I broach this. “No! We’re really a grassroots party. Our policy is made from our members. It is evidence based policy but we come together and we debate and challenge and discuss it. And that grassroots nature fundamentally stands us out from any other political party. In our manifesto we fight for social justice, we fight to make sure that people are getting a fair deal out of the current political system and that includes pay ratios, tackling zero hours contracts, the opportunity to fighting fuel poverty by ensuring home insulation and all of these different environmental policies.”
“Young Greens are really leading the way on diversity.”
Yet in spite of its progressive policies, the Greens have attracted criticism for their perhaps surprising lack of racial diversity. Although the party has the first BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) deputy of a UK parliamentary party in Dr Shahrar Ali, it also has fewer BME candidates than any other major party including Ukip. In careful politico mode, Amelia demurs, “Our members have created the ‘Greens of Colour’ to support the representation of BME groups in parliament and as parliamentary candidates. Beyond that, I feel that Young Greens are really leading the way on diversity. We have so many young people come to our party its exciting to see the Young Greens being so diverse.”
But while the Greens may be effective at maintaining tight links with their grassroots, can they really represent the wider electorate? Policies such as aiming for zero-economic growth and banning animal testing are not obvious vote-winners for a British public which has been squeezed by public spending cuts and precarious work conditions. So is the Green Party simply out of touch with working Britain? Amelia is emphatic on this point ― “It is the Greens who have been tackling zero hours contracts in, and outside of parliament. It is the Greens who have been tackling the ongoing issue of fuel poverty and it is the Greens in Kirklees who have been giving free solar power to support the most vulnerable households in their communities. There has been a lot of confusion about our policies and manifesto… but our policies are created for this vision of the future – a long term vision. The world we want to live in, in twenty, thirty, fifty, even one hundred years time. You need long term goals to reach an agenda; you have long-term goals in your career, in a business, even in your personal life.”
The Green Party’s launch this week of a boy band parody manifesto video only confirms that they offer a radically alternative political vision and outlook. With leadership dominated by women who emphasise their activist credentials as much as their electoral ones, the Greens have shifted the parameters of what party politics means in today’s Britain. With poll figures plateauing at around 5% in spite of their support swell, it may be fair to say the Greens won’t be a kingmaker in this election. But as Amelia tells me, “getting Caroline Lucas elected again [is the election priority]… People are inspired by the fact that she was arrested for fracking, for wearing the No More Page 3 t-shirt in Parliament. We’re [also] targeting twelve seats where we think the Greens have a real opportunity. We’re especially looking at Bristol West, we’ve got an excellent candidate there [Darren Hall].” Alongside this, Amelia will continue working with grassroots campaigns such as This Changes Everything, “trying to make sure there’s a political movement within the climate movement.”
And beyond this? Where next for the Greens? Amelia pauses. “Let’s get the election over with first!”
Amelia Womack is Deputy Leader of the Green Party and the Green Party’s 2015 Parliamentary Candidate for Camberwell and Peckham, London.
Tweet us your views on #GE2015 @GovtGazette