Interview with Siân Berry, the Green Party’s mayoral candidate
by Ian Sinclair
14 March 2016
As the Green Party’s candidate for the London Mayoral elections on 5 May 2016, this is second time round for Siân Berry.
She first stood for mayor in 2008, coming fourth behind Boris Johnson, Ken Livingstone and Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick – the highest place achieved by the Greens at the time. Impressively, Berry, now 41, also gained endorsements from the Observer and Independent newspapers and the Federation for Small Businesses.
Sitting down to chat to me around the corner from the Green Party’s offices in east London, Berry argues London has changed significantly in the last eight years. The Coalition and Conservative governments have created “a proper crisis” in the capital, she says. “Since 2010 the assault on ordinary people’s lives, the assault on council housing, the assault on people’s welfare benefits – the really horrible things that they’ve done really seem to target the most vulnerable people in society.”
“I think it is much more important now that we elect a campaigning mayor”, she continues. “Somebody who is going to be a real opposition to the government, who is really going to stick up for London and who isn’t going to just do whatever the government wants, and isn’t also going to be on the side of the big companies or the big developers.”
Berry also believes she has changed personally since 2008. “I’ve had a real range of different things I’ve tried and enjoyed”, she says, explaining she was part of a tech start-up, has written three books, worked for the Campaign for Better Transport and assisted with the union-run Sack Boris campaign during the 2012 mayoral race. Since 2014 she has also served as the local councillor for Highgate ward on Camden Borough Council.
She describes herself as a socialist – “a Bertrand Russell kind of socialist.”
“I’m quite utopian”, she clarifies. “I have quite a lot of trust in people. I like letting people run things for themselves. I’m not in any way authoritarian. If you look at the policies I’m putting forward for London, it’s all about having enormous faith in people to do things for themselves.”
Housing is one of the key policies the Greens are campaigning on, and Berry has an infectious, wonkish knowledge of the subject, animatedly listing a number of policies. A renter herself living in Tufnell Park, she notes rent levels “are a serious problem because even if people want to buy they have to rent first… and many people are using more than half their income to pay their rent.” She wants rent controls, and is also pushing for a Renter’s Union to be established. “People who privately rent are realising they need to stick together, they need to plan together, they have rights.” The union would be funded by City Hall but independent from it, she notes, and will create a central, Londonwide organisation for renters to organise and fight extortionate rents, rogue landlords and rip-off letting agents.
Along with backing the building of more council homes, supporting housing co-operatives and establishing a Community Homes Unit in City Hall, Berry opposes the government’s plans to knock down housing estates. She highlights research by Green London Assembly member Darren Johnson that found this so-called regeneration has reduced the total amount of social housing by 8,000 in the past decade. “We think it is better from a green point of view to keep the estates we have, to build on top of them, to infill, to work with the residents on how that can be done best for them.”
This housing policy would be paid, in part, by continuing the Olympic Precept (the extra tax Londoners paid to help fund the 2012 Games) and by raising Council Tax. Berry’s interest in realistically costing policies extends to transport and her proposal to completely flatten the zone structure so there is one cost for all journeys in London, like there is in New York City. “They have got my spreadsheets”, she quips, when I ask if her plans and budgets are supported by Transport for London, who has criticised the proposals put forward by Labour’s candidate Sadiq Khan.
Another significant change since 2008, I suggest to Berry, is the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Is she concerned this will negatively impact the Green vote in May? Berry, it turns out, is very excited by Jezza’s rise, seeing it as part of the same hopeful, democratising political forces that generated last year’s Green Party surge and the energetic Yes Campaign in Scotland. Is Khan part of the same movement? “It doesn’t feel like it”, she replies. “He feels like he is much more part of the old guard in Labour, who are a bit suspicious of the new people coming in and what they might want.”
“It really worries me that Sadiq Khan is going round saying he is going to be the most business friendly mayor ever when the mayor we currently have could not be more business friendly”, Berry says about the Member of Parliament for Tooting’s infamous interview with the Financial Times.
According to a report in Private Eye, Khan’s interest in big business also stretches to accepting over £92,000 in donations from property firms and developers since December 2014. “You can’t accuse people of anything really based on where they get donations from”, she notes, “but you’d think they wouldn’t give donations unless they thought there was an influence.”
In 2008 the Green Party recommended its voters give their second preference vote to Labour’s Ken Livingstone (the mayoral election is conducted under a Supplementary Vote system). However, Berry thinks it is unlikely the Greens will endorse Labour’s candidate this year, though the final decision will rest with London Green Party members in April. “I know Sadiq Khan is not making some people happy with some of the things he has been saying and doing. We’ve got some red lines. Like he is going round saying Gatwick Airport needs to be expanded. It is very hard for Greens to back someone who is that enthusiastic about airport expansion.”
Berry doesn’t just oppose airport expansion – one of her flagship proposals is to close City Airport in east London and use the space for new housing and businesses. Berry has also taken the time to support the thirteen Plane Stupid protestors who narrowly missed being jailed for temporarily closing a Heathrow runway in protest at the government’s expansion plans. “I support direct action at the point in which democracy has failed”, she says. “David Cameron couldn’t have made a clearer pledge not to expand Heathrow. And yet it is back on the table within a few years of him taking power. That’s very, very wrong. So they are right to do what they did, I think.” Her environmental credentials were given a further boost when Clean Air In London – which campaigns on the air pollution that research shows kills 9,500 people in the capital every year – recently scored her top out of all the candidates (Khan came fourth).
With Green membership in London quadrupling in the last four years, Berry is quietly confident she can maintain the record-breaking level of support Jenny Jones received as the Green mayoral candidate in 2012, when she finished in third place ahead of the Liberal Democrats. And as Berry is also first on the Londonwide list of Green hopefuls for the London Assembly in this election (the Greens currently have two Assembly members, both of whom are standing down), even if she doesn’t become mayor, Londoners will likely be seeing a lot more of her in the future.