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GREEN PARTY leadership hopeful Shahrar Ali has put himself forwards as the “radical” candidate in the upcoming election.
Despite an unprecedented public consciousness around global warming, the Greens fell short of votes once again last year to gain a second MP. Ali believes the party has not been bold enough, and lost credibility in 2019 when it entered the “unite to remain” pact with the Lib Dems. If elected leader, Ali says he would put an end to “disastrous” electoral alliances, proudly stand up the Greens as an eco-socialist party and speak up for Palestinian rights.
The former deputy leader and current spokesperson for the Greens, who’s worked with the party for 18 years, also hopes to become the country’s first ever black and ethnic minority (BME) parliamentary party leader.
Shahrar Ali, you were the deputy leader of the Greens between 2014 and 2016 and ran for leader two years ago. Why are you running again in 2020?
One of the main reasons for standing is my increasing frustration about our failure to make progress. With the raised environmental consciousness we should be polling 10 per cent even on a first-past-the-post system. Why isn’t that happening?
In 2019 we did well in the EU Parliament going from three to seven MEPs. But in the general election we advocated a “unite to remain” alliance and this was an absolute disaster for us; getting into bed with the Lib Dems in particular.
Most Green Party members and activists considered that proposition unacceptable. I was horrified to see that political mistake happening again after 2017. That is why I’m standing again because I would like to think of myself as a politician who makes fewer mistakes and learns from them when I make them.
Do you believe the Greens’ pact with the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru to avoid splitting the Remain vote hurt the party’s chances of securing another MP in 2019?
Yes, we know it’s been a major factor because we were feeling it on the doorsteps. We were putting every resource into target seats, and really what did we have to show for it? And I think what we lost really was credibility as a political party that does politics differently. There are times to compromise in politics but this was a compromise too far essentially.
Extinction Rebellion and the youth strike movements have brought the climate emergency into the mainstream in just under two years in a way that arguably the Green Party has not been able to do over many decades. What should the party learn from these movements?
The Green Party unlike other parties do put campaigning central to how they do politics. Even constitutionally, we aren’t just about gaining seats in elections, we are about social and ecological transformation. So that has always been part of our remit.
I support Extinction Rebellion’s campaign aims and I don’t feel like the Green Party has been bold enough with that radical edge on the campaign front and that is something as leader I would want to energise the party around.
I would put the climate emergency number one, front and centre of everything we’re doing, including building allegiances with all those campaigners and the youth in particular. They’re showing us the way and they’re putting our leaders to shame.
What else would you do differently if elected leader?
Another area where I think we have a lot of strides to make is in BME communities. We need to be reaching out to these communities especially during the heightened consciousness around institutional structural racism and the Black Lives Matter protests.
I work in medical education and I can see first hand the impact of health inequalities on the disproportionate deaths in BME communities who are also key workers.
They are most impacted by the Covid-19 crisis and I want to make sure that we can articulate a vision of environmental and social justice that will bring them out of poverty traps and make sure that we are prioritising those people in society that we most rely upon.
The Green Party often faces criticism for lacking diversity and sparked anger last year when MP Caroline Lucas announced her “Dream Cabinet” - an all-white line-up. What would you do to change this and how would you ensure the party appeals to more BME voters?
We still have a long way to go. I campaign regularly for organisations like Uprising, they put serious commitment to try and increase leadership among BME youth and I launched their environmental leadership campaign programme just over a year ago.
So I think we can be an active catalyst towards bringing BME communities into politics and into green politics in particular, because you see a lack of diversity with large environmental groups as well, not just our party and that is not right.
Where I have seen the biggest changes taking place across society and generations, it’s always the marginalised and vulnerable who are at the helm, particularly when overcoming their own injustice. To be a credible party we need to tackle that and it would be a great thing to elect someone who would effectively be the first BME leader of any political party.
What are your priorities?
Number one priority is the climate emergency. This is a real opportunity for us to explain why. We are a party of social justice as well, we are an eco-socialist party and I don’t think we need to be shy about using those terms. We should be bold about using the word socialist.
Why is campaigning on climate change a social issue? We know right now that people across the world, largely in the global south, are suffering the negative consequences of our own over-consumptive practices in the West, through rising sea levels, drought, disease, shrinking ice caps.
Climate action is a justice issue and my campaign slogan is Climate Justice Matters just to drive home how we can be both environmentalists and social justice activists; they are my priorities.
Labour introduced a package of radical green policies in the last election. Do you worry that people will vote for Labour instead of Greens because they have now adopted many of your policies?
I find that, although it’s good other people are talking about our policies, only we will actually be able to do them justice. Also Corbyn was getting many things right but I think under [Keir] Starmer it is more of an opportunity for us because I don’t think he gets it.
I’ve had many people from the Corbyn era saying they would be joining the party if I were elected or would join to vote for me.
You’ve said that you want to make the climate emergency the number one priority. Why did the Greens move away from this in their election last year?
I wouldn’t put it as strongly as that. I would say that we have always had that in our messaging and philosophy but we haven’t been articulating it strongly enough, for example when we’ve been distracted by Brexit.
Every time we debated those issues in Parliament we lost time on what I would regard as the number one emergency, which was the climate. We can say that we needed Europe to build international relations and a better climate agenda but the fact is that we’re also democrats.
When the people come back to us in a referendum and give us an answer that we don’t like, we still have to reconcile ourselves to it. So I think we were narrowing ourselves unnecessarily by making it all about Brexit, which was on top of the climate emergency.
Our manifesto in 2019 was Brexit and the climate emergency. Even some organisations, Friends of the Earth, weren’t pegging us at the top of some of their manifesto reviews. And I was incredulous at that. If it were up to me it would be about the climate emergency on its own.
You have been a staunch supporter of Palestinian human rights. How would you continue your campaigning on this issue as leader and would you be more vocal than the current leadership on this issue?
We have long as a party campaigned for the rights of the oppressed against the oppressor in the world. But I do feel that politics generally across the parties have all found it more difficult to speak freely on Palestine.
So our party, for example, advocates for BDS (boycott, divestments and sanctions movement) but we haven’t been talking about that. I believe this is because of the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] working definition of anti-semitism. Many political parties have adopted that, we haven’t.
That debate is still happening in the Green Party and I see ourselves as the last hope, actually, among the political parties to put the IHRA definition in its place.
So there’s a motion going to the next conference proposed by me which, I hope, will be an opportunity for us to say no to that definition which has been responsible for stifling legitimate criticism of Israel.
There is a diversity of opinion in the party but there are many Jewish Greens who are against it because they want to continue campaigning using BDS, which that definition would prohibit. So adoption of that definition would directly contradict our campaigning aims on Palestine.
International relations are imperative, we can’t build a movement unless we build a movement between injustice happening locally and injustice happening globally.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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