‘Brain-fading’ adventures in Green Land

Published by The Mail on Sunday (8th March, 2015)

The Greens like to do things differently. One of their deputy leaders had just blown a few billion pounds more from their wish-list budget when the chairwoman – who could hardly be seen in her green jumper against the vast green background – announced an ‘attunement’.

This turned out to be a reflective – and to my mind rather long – minute’s silence. ‘It’s incredibly successful if people get stressed,’ explained our host, although several people around me merely used the pause to check social media on their smartphones.

Welcome to the world of Britain’s wackiest political party, on display this weekend at its spring conference in Liverpool.

There is something mildly amusing about a party that insists on meditative breaks, has a keynote speaker identified as ‘a non-binary person from Belarus’ and chairwomen who say things like: ‘I would like to hear from someone who does not identify as a man.’

And a party that uses such a contorted form of internal democracy it ends up with daft policies to ban most cars and seriously debates proposals to extend human rights to all animals.

Yet this is currently the country’s most successful political party, attracting 100 recruits a day from people dismayed by traditional party politics. Bizarrely, the duffest interviews given by its bumbling leader Natalie Bennett only drive up membership.

Joining the hundreds of enthusiastic delegates – a mixture of grizzly bearded hippies, elderly ideologues, earnest young recruits and well-spoken women in charity shop chic – offered fresh insight into what is now the third biggest party in England and Wales. They proclaim the politics of the future.

Yet much of the time it felt like I had stumbled into an Alan Bennett sketch filled with middle-class people munching on non-meat sandwiches as they debated how to save a world wrecked by austerity, bankers and Conservatives.

Bennett (the leader, that is) told her adoring followers the Greens had gone from 13,000 members a year ago to 55,000 members today. This is undoubtedly impressive. But it also means they might play an influential role in determining who runs the country after the next Election.

Many of these new members – half of whom voted Liberal Democrat at the last Election – are young people inspired by the idea of reshaping politics. They were given special badges declaring their status and enthusiastically snapped up green T-shirts on sale.

Presumably they were not the people targeted in a seminar explaining how to use email.

Yet for all these new recruits rushing around excitedly, there were also the same old stalls offering vegan recipes for raspberry cake, T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Still Hate Thatcher’ and angry leaflets denouncing the monarchy.

On one, I found Jon Liebling, a friendly 47-year-old dancer promoting the medicinal use of cannabis. He said he had smoked the drug for 26 years to curb anxiety attacks.

His stall proclaimed ‘United Patients Alliance with Norml Women’s Alliance’. When I asked about Norml Women, he said its founders ‘felt there was too much testosterone in the cannabis movement’ – but they had not turned up and he had forgotten the acronym’s meaning.

The Australian-born Bennett promises a new style of politics – which many people might say she exemplifies with her stumbling interviews and inability to explain key policies.

Yet after she spoke on Friday, managing to avoid ‘mind blanks’ as she promised lots of new taxes, the grey-haired woman next to me could not stop gushing: ‘I am so excited. I am overwhelmed. I feel like I belong here.’

She turned out to be a Labour deserter. And this is why the sudden Green surge is giving her previous party palpitations as it is outflanked on the left. Indeed, electoral mathematics mean it is possible the Greens might not just impact on voting outcomes in May but even be in position to join a coalition led by Ed Miliband.

This is a party that wants to ban the monarchy, House of Lords, much of the Armed Forces, free schools, foie gras and fur – while freeing up drugs, borders, brothels and, said its leader, allowing people to join terror groups such as Islamic State.

Yesterday they chucked in free university undergraduate education, joining the Greens’ desires for free social care, free universal childcare, 500,000 extra new homes and a basic income for everyone costing almost three times the budget of the National Health Service.

Since they also want to end economic growth, I asked their press team how these policies would be paid for. ‘There’s lots of money around,’ replied one party veteran, looking at me as though I was stupid.

A younger colleague said children would not start schooling until six under a Green government – although it is hard to believe this would raise the requisite £350 billion or so needed to close the annual gap between their policies and economic reality.

The Green Party’s emphasis on ultra-democracy is admirable, giving all members a voice – but it means scores of strange ideas end up on its statute books since anything is possible with its Alice in Wonderland politics.

Among the proposals considered this weekend, for instance, is the extension of human rights to ‘all sentient life forms’ with ‘the murder, torture and kidnapping’ of dogs and dolphins carrying the same penalties as when such crimes are committed against people.

I went to one meeting where 19 people were determining a ban on foie gras due to the force-feeding of geese. One young man dissented on the grounds this was discriminatory to dairy cows that were being ‘raped’ and their calves ‘murdered’.

‘To have a ban on the dairy industry would not be popular with the public. It would be a vote loser,’ responded session leader Ronnie Lee – although hastily adding he had been a vegan for 44 years in case anyone might think him unsympathetic to animals.

Then there was the well-attended gender group, which agreed people should be allowed ‘a third option of X gender’ on passports – although the discussion leader then confessed this might create risks for people publicly identified as transgender in many countries.

The meeting also agreed parents should be allowed to avoid putting children down as either male or female on birth certificates.

One elderly Green from Tyneside, doing his best to keep up, admitted he was confused by the latest terms for transgender people. He was not the only one, with talk about LGBITQ people – the ‘I’ turned out to be for Intersex and the ‘Q’ for Questioning.

At the peace and defence group, software engineer Chris Burdess said they needed to review policies that were ‘unnecessarily inflammatory and aggressive’ towards diplomats and members of the armed forces. ‘We don’t want to single them out as evil,’ he said.

But their policy-making process is so ponderous, Burdess admitted this could not be achieved before the Election. Mind you, they have pledges to pass measures that were actually passed nearly two decades ago.

Such eccentricities might be endearing if the Greens had not suddenly emerged as a semi-serious force in British politics. Yet its leaders brush aside criticism of policy absurdities by saying they are merely promoting new ideas and looking long-term.

Downstairs in the Liverpool convention centre was a gathering for fans of fantasy games. Upstairs, they seemed to be playing fantasy politics. But if this shambolic bunch ever got a sniff of power, the entire country would be losers.

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