Lucas, C. (2015). Honourable friends?: Parliament and the fight for change. Portobello Books.
Although this is, to a degree, a memoir of Carloline Lucas’ first parliamentary term from 2010 to 2015, it is also much more than that; it is a searing critique of democracy as exercised through our early 21st century parliamentary system. If you didn’t know it already, this book will convince you that our democracy is not up to scratch; that it is far short of what it could become with just a few simple adjustments.
Lucas’ account is that of a principled politician trying every which way to make a real difference on the biggest national and international issues of the day, frequently frustrated by the anachronistic modus operandi of our democracy. The houses of parliament resemble nothing as much as a 19th or early 20th century gentleman’s club. Why should it be this way? The answer, as Lucas makes clear, is that the members of the House of Commons, particularly those at the top of the two main parties, Conservative and Labour, like it that way.
It’s about grabbing and hanging onto power and denying others access to it. Slavishly defending the the first-past-the-post general election system – which may have served us reasonably well a century or two ago, but is now patently unfit for purpose – is key to the Labour and Conservative parties maintaining their monopoly on undemocratic power. Laboriously corralling MPs into the division lobbies to vote, at huge cost in parliamentary time and tax-payers money when an electronic voting system would do the job in a fraction of the time (allowing them to get much more business done), is about the party leaders maintaining control over the voting patterns of their MPs. Imposing a £5,000 deposit on general election candidates – forfeited if the candidate does not poll 5% of the cast votes – is about denying parties like the Greens the opportunity to challenge the major parties in all constituencies at a general election.
Lucas documents countless ways in which parliament protects itself from change in order to preserve its power and privileges: from major structural distortions like those outlined above to cultural and behavioral norms that encompass sexism and, frankly, plain misogyny. Although published almost 10 years ago, anyone reading the book will recognise today’s parliamentary democracy: very little has changed despite Lucas’ best efforts, with occasional (but not enough) support from other progressive politicians.
Along the way, Lucas gives some fascinating insights into the politics of the major environmental and social justice issues between 2010 and 2015 as well as her own views on them. Many of those views chime with my own and I can’t resist picking out one or two quotes that particularly appealed to me.
This critique of the term ‘wealth creators’ really chimed: “Even an everyday phrase such as ‘wealth creators’ contains powerful assumptions. The chief executive of a supermarket would probably see themselves as a ‘wealth creator’: but what of the staff who work for them? At what point to employees stop creating wealth? As store manager? Someone on the checkout? And what of the engineers who maintain the electricity network that lights the stores? The health workers who keep the workers healthy? The farmers who grow the food they sell? The thousands of other roles that are essential to our complex modern lives? The notion of ‘wealth creators’ is simply a way for the rich and powerful to claim a higher status that truly has no basis.”
And here on growthism: “[Building a mass movement for climate action] would also mean challenging the obsession of the media and politicians about ‘growth’, which is regarded as the overarching objective of the policies of governments the world over. Yet the truth is that economic growth is fast becoming uneconomic: in other words, the cost of clearing up the social and environmental damage caused by the process of growth – running down resources, cutting down trees, polluting the seas, changing the climate – is increasing outweighing the value which the growth creates.”
Since that heady night of May 6th 2010 when Caroline Lucas became the Green Party’s first MP, giving environmentalists and progressives hope that we might be at the cusp of real change, the optimism has waned somewhat. To date she remains the only Green Party member of parliament and, in June 2023, she announced that she would not stand as the candidate for Brighton Pavilion at the next election. After 13 years as the Greens’ sole representative in parliament, where she had to simultaneously occupy every brief that required the Greens to express a view, Lucas has decided that she can better pursue the environmental agenda outside of the House of Commons.
Many people, including members across the major political parties, understand this as a great loss to us all and to the House of Commons in particular. We need more members of parliament like Caroline Lucas: people unafraid to stand up to the crushing anachronism of our parliamentary democracy until it inches towards one fit for the challenges of the 21st century.