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Sian Berry interview: ‘Crisis shows why we need a universal basic income

Highgate councillor wins internal elections to stay as national co-leader

25 September, 2020 — By Richard Osley

Sian Berry is a councillor in Highgate, a London Assembly member, the Green Party’s mayoral candidate and now re-elected as its national co-leader

THE government should have given everybody in the UK a regular basic income to prevent them from going hungry during the coronavirus outbreak, the co-leader of the Green Party has argued.

In an interview with the New Journal after retaining the leadership of her party following internal elections, Sian Berry said: “If we had a universal basic income [UBI] in place at the beginning of this crisis, people running things would have been able to concentrate their efforts on the testing, because everybody would have had that guaranteed security.”

She added: “There would have still been people who would have lost a lot, like the businesses that also need to pay rent, but nobody would have been in danger of going hungry. You could have saved all the effort by not messing around saying ‘furlough this’ and ‘when are we going to cancel it’, and being asked ‘what are you going to do about the self-employed’.”

The government’s furlough scheme – the funding of salaries to people unable to work due to the pandemic – is due to come to an end next month, leading to fears of a new wave of job losses.

Yesterday (Thursday), chancellor Rishi Sunak introduced a new set of support measures for the winter months.

The Greens, however, have been among the loudest supporters of a UBI, although Labour briefly considered a trial under Jeremy Corbyn.

“When the government spend half a billion on eating out schemes, you know there’s money to be invested in alternatives,” Ms Berry said.

She is the only Green councillor at the Town Hall – beating off an all-out attempt by Labour to unseat her in Highgate two years ago – but also serves as a London Assembly member and the party’s mayoral candidate.

Alongside Jonathan Bartley, a councillor in Lambeth, she won leadership elections last month. They are held every two years in the Green Party.

As the UK saw more restrictions imposed this week, Ms Berry said: “Lockdown is the thing that worked before and the New Zealand process of having the goal of eliminating it and getting back to individual cases which you can fully track and trace is where you’ve got to be.

“Either that means, less lockdown and more track and trace capacity or really heavy lockdown because your track and trace isn’t up to scratch.”

On a hire bike with fellow London AM Caroline Russell

She said the Greens were on the rise, starting off by winning seats on councils across the country.

The party had not been outflanked on the left by Labour during Jeremy Corbyn’s years, she said, and more activism and interest in green issues now meant “there’s just a bigger pool of people on the broad green left.”

She added: “I think there’s a sense in which just the change of one person at the head of the Labour Party has meant the chattering classes have the attitude that ‘all that rabble has gone and we can get on with politics in drawing rooms again’.”

“But they are making a mistake if Labour put distance between themselves and the wider movements. The distancing that Keir Starmer did from Black Lives Matters when they toppled the slave trader statue in Bristol… that’s really, genuinely letting down a huge part of your base.”

“There’s a political space for the Greens now and I think we are the best allies to that wider grassroots movement but it won’t do the movement any good if Labour turns its back on it. We’ve all got a bigger job here: Preventing the populist right from running everything and taking away our rights.”

She said she supported the mission behind attempts to cut down air pollution post-lockdown and make cycling and walking easier as part of Transport for London and the council’s experimental traffic orders, which in some cases have proved controversial.

Sian Berry watching Theresa May fail to win a majority at the 2017 snap general election

“In this case, the consultation and the changes that can be made are continuous,” she said.

“Nobody’s used to that at all, so they are suspicious and don’t believe if they make comments, things will be changed. So we’ve got to work on that and help people.”

She added: “Highgate [Ms Berry’s ward on the council] hasn’t got a low traffic neighbourhood yet but there has been a long debate and quite a lot of discussion and consultation about ideas for reducing our rat running, which in some ways makes it better because people have already been thinking about these ideas.

“But it also makes it worse because people think that any emergency thing will be a stealth way of bringing in the thing they didn’t want last time.”

Flashpoints about road changes in Camden have developed in Haverstock Hill, the Euston Road, Parkway and, in her own ward, Swain’s Lane.

“I can understand where everyone is coming from on this but I think the right thing to do is to act quickly to prevent gridlock and pollution coming back, and to really help people to get about by walking and cycling,” Ms Berry said.

“You forget during lockdown, how cooped up people were and just having  space outside their homes to run about a bit was incredibly valuable. People’s memories are quite short and people are accepting the roads being full of traffic again. And people shouldn’t.

“By default, the roads should not be full of traffic. You’re completely justified in using your car if your nearest doctor’s surgery is too far away or if you’re too old to walk, but if it’s within 15 minutes and you can walk or cycle – then you’re good.”

During environmental campaigns in Camden in the early 2000s, she would put fake tickets on ‘gas-guzzling’ cars, warning drivers of the emissions they were generating

The London mayoralty and City Hall elections were postponed this year due to the Covid crisis, but she will be back on the ballot paper for a new date next May.

She said the current goings-on at the London Assembly were often unhelpful as the row over funding for Transport for London – and the whole in its finances – raged between Labour mayor Sadiq Khan and the Conservative challenger Shaun Bailey.

“Politically, if the government wanted to help Shaun, whose campaign is disastrously bad, it could have either done lots of things in this crisis to help London and claimed all the credit, Or they could have done things to hurt Londoners and blamed the Mayor,” she said.

“I am very indignant that what they’re doing is things like pulling the free travel for young people, not giving us the housing grant we asked for, blackmailing us over TfL and not helping with Hammersmith Bridge. They’re using that to bash the Mayor when the opposite strategy would have been much more ethical and right, and might have actually won them some votes and not wasted everybody’s time with all these political rows.”

But she said that Mr Khan had “not been a visionary mayor” during his time in office so far.

“He’s never set out his London mission on Green stuff. So the things like the traffic reduction or the ULEZ [Ultra Low Emissions Zone], where his policy was this ridiculous compromise of taking it to the north and south circular,” she said.

“He’s stubbornly by all the way through when it really does need to be the whole of London.”

She added: “None of the Mayors apart from probably Ken Livingstone have properly used the powers that they’ve got. Bringing in the congestion charge, at that time, was more or less the only power that the Mayor of London had: things to do with transport and road pricing, and he did a load of really good things – bringing in Oyster – and there was a direction of travel and a mission that was clear from the policies

“.And I just don’t feel that from Sadiq Khan.”

“He’s been treated by the government in ways that would obviously make him more defensive but there ought to be a mission in there for what London ought to be. He lacks that leadership quality. He’s good in a crisis, when something goes wrong and he’s very good at bringing Londoners together. But that’s not the only job. You’re supposed to be building something better.”

Ms Berry said she would be looking to improve the number of affordable homes large enough for families on developments and ensuring tenants had a proper say and vote in estate regeneration schemes.

And she has a different opinion to the way many enthuse about the regeneration of the King’s Cross railway lands, once one of London’s biggest opportunity sites and where the penthouse flat in the gasholder development is now on the market for £7 million.

“King’s Cross was the last gasp of a really bad period where everybody was just building these tiny one bed flats, basically for investment,” she said.

“At the time, the campaigners kicked off so hard about the need for family units and not for everything to be shoved off to the top. But everything we said about that place, it’s there. That and Elephant [and Castle] are the big sites where we really didn’t get what we should have done.”

She said she hoped there would be a different approach when swathes of land in Kentish Town – the Murphy’s Yard site and Regis Road – are developed in the coming years.

‘We’re not seen as a novelty any more’

SIAN Berry says the Greens are being taken more seriously than ever before, telling how in a less enjoyable past she would spend “half the media coverage explaining that we are not Greenpeace”.

Working from home

She had led the party before – in 2007 – but the role was then called the “principal speaker’”and Ms Berry admits that it was treated like a “novelty”.

But with climate change now at the forefront of political debates, she said: “When I go onto a debate or the telly, they are like: Here’s Sian, she’s co-leader of the Green Party – and there’s no snidey questions or weird ways of undermining us.”

In the past, she was introduced on This Week by Andrew Neil as a “woodland elf”.

“That whole  thing of how they used to treat us is now reduced,” said Ms Berry. “We are actually treated much more like normal politicians. And I think the Green wave across Europe has helped with that as well.”

“You can look across Europe and you see Greens in government. I get to see the foreign minister of Finland when they come over and we’re in the cabinet in New Zealand. We just won mayors in France – six, I think, in big cities. It’s more normal now to have a Green in a serious job doing serious things.”

She said this week: “In the past, we were always seen as a smaller party so even if you’ve got the best candidate ever, you still have this sort of penalty for being the Green one, but that’s changing.”

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