Larry Sanders is the Green Party candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon. As a member of a smaller party, life isn’t the easiest when it comes to election season. “We haven’t got the money to get out all the leaflets. The Lib Dems and the Tories are pouring leaflets through the doors, but we’re completely self-financed, which is very nice, but it’s a difficulty.”
This, however, doesn’t seem to be prohibiting local support for his party and their policies. “There’s a lot of receptivity to the ideas. People aren’t hostile to us, but it’s very hard getting it across.” The famous ‘Green Surge’ has certainly been kind to Oxford, with record increases taking the party by storm. Whatever the outcome of the election, Larry is happy to have made some sort of impact: “We’re leaving behind local Green Parties – a north Oxford Green Party, an Abingdon Green Party and probably a Botley Green Party; the first two are quite well established now.”
We soon get into a pretty intense discussion on housing, and the current problems with would-be-home owners, young people whom Larry tells me have joined the Greens in a “disproportionate number”. “It’s people that are really seeing that they’ll never be able to afford a house”, Larry reasons, “They’re in precarious, low paid jobs. In my mind, those things are ailments of what’s going drastically wrong in this country.”
The Greens claim to be the “only party that can provide housing for most people to be able to afford”. Larry explains that they plan to do so by an increase in social housing, mentioning community landtrusts as something he also feels the party should consider and endorse. It seems completely contrary to the Conservative’s plans to extend the Right to Buy scheme, and reduce the number of social houses available for quotidian living. “They are at opposite ends of the scale”, Larry agrees.
The local hustings appear to have revealed leanings of the local electorate towards the Green Party. “Someone was asking about Trident, and why we should spend so much on it. It was surprising because the audience will largely vote for parties that will support Trident.” Larry is definitely aware of how support for various Green policies crosses a lot of conventional political bounds: “When people look at issues without the party label, the Green Party always comes out top, or nearly top”, he mentions a couple of times, seemingly frustrated by the electorate who tell him they empathise with the Green causes, but will continue to vote for parties they’ve always voted for.
Arguably, one of the Green Party’s most divisive policies is their plan to end austerity cuts. “Austerity is a stupid idea.” Larry states bluntly. “It doesn’t work.” This feeling is certainly mirrored by other local Green candidates, such as Witney’s Stuart Macdonald, who is also very adamantly against austerity following the deaths of two men in Witney once their benefits were cut. “It sounds sensible”, Larry concedes, “it seems plausible because we think in our household we need to reduce our debt, but governments aren’t households.”
Indeed, Larry seems to dispute the notion that the deficit, a topic which has been at the forefront of the majority of the leader debates so far, is actually a big deal. “This ‘huge debt’ is not huge by historic measures at all. We don’t have a flourishing economy. What the Conservatives did by cutting expenditure was to give us an extra two years of depression; there has never been a depression in history which didn’t eventually emerge. The question is, how long it takes, and what kind of economy we have at the end of it.” Here, he calls extensively on Simon Wren-Lewis’ article, ‘The Austerity Con’, and urges students to “have a look at the intellectual material” before they blindly agree with politicians. Larry is scathing of the Conservative’s use of the deficit as a means by which to justify their austerity; “The Tories have a view that the less the government is doing, the better. They have an ideology that the debt excuse allows them to use”.
It’s this competitive economic environment that Larry sees as the causation for a lot of the current ailments of the country. “It makes sense”, he states, “if you can’t have a decent income, its hard to have a decent life.” However, he feels that issues such as decent health care and housing also come into play here – “We can’t have a proper society unless we deal with the issues. They’re interconnected”, he explains, “but to live in a society where harshness and the fear of falling off the edge becomes more prominent has its impact.”
Its this sort of environment that Larry feels leads to the growing increase in mental health difficulties faced by larger numbers than ever. With previous experience within the NHS, and specifically working within the mental health sector, Larry feels that he is aware of some of the root causes as a result of the country’s current economic situation. “We have half a million more children growing up in poverty, and that has its consequences, both on the children and on the families.” He also cites the current exam culture as a main factor in developing problems for young people, but addresses the fact that treatment is not what it needs to be: “Innovation is out because survival is the best they can hope for.” Although Larry does not necessarily subscribe to his party’s view that mental health is the ‘Crisis of our time’ (“There are lots of crises of our time”, he retaliates), he is very much aware of how big an issue it currently is.
“Every college has a different method [for approaching helping students with mental health difficulties]”, he muses, returning the discussion to the immediate Oxford setting. “The issues aren’t actually that different from one college to another.” When working for NHS Mental Health Trust in Oxford, Larry witnessed an investigation into the provisions offered by the University. “We found that people usually got a pamphlet with a huge pack of information on day one, which they never look at again”. We spend some time on this topic, with Larry drawing on professional and personal experience when contemplating what could be done better to help people –he’s a big fan of increased talking therapies.
Whilst talking about other issues directly relevant to students, tuition fees inevitably come up. “Party policy is to do away with fees”, Larry instinctively reacts, “education is a good thing and fees just don’t encourage it.” He’s definitely aware of the impact that student loan debts will inevitably have upon the majority of us in the next few years: “If you turn up to buy a house, the mortgage lender’s going to have to look at the fact that you have a £50,000 debt.” It is this which leads him to oppose Andrew Hamilton’s suggestion of £16,000 fees for Oxford as strongly as he does. “Oxford is already out of line in terms of its class intake, and its private school intake, and [raising fees] will make it worse.”
The future employment prospects of students here also worry Larry. “It’s harder for people to choose careers that are closer to their hearts. A larger number of people have opted for lesser paid jobs because they find them more satisfying for their own personal reasons.”
“There’s a clear distinction between going into the financial services, banking, accounting and all that, and artistic endeavours – because the bonuses of the former are better. People spend years in the wilderness trying to get into the theatre, but that becomes harder to choose.”
As such, the Green Party move away from emphasis on individual wealth and their general policies have been dubbed a “peaceful political revolution” by leader Natalie Bennett. I ask Larry if he feels this describes the party’s aims, and am somewhat taken aback by how casually he responds “My little brother, who’s just about to run for President of the United States, uses that phrase”. However, Larry feels that this description is accurate. “We’ve gone in a direction of domination towards inequality and the impact of massive wealth on the remnants of democracy are powerful. If the changes we need are so massive its not wrong to call it a revolution. It’s not a military one, so it is a peaceful one”.
I ask him how he feels about the notion that the Greens are too ideology heavy. He responds quickly, firmly stating that “We have practical policies – housing, the £10 an hour Living Wage. There is an ideology behind it”, he concedes, “but if it means we’re impractical and dominated by ideas and not trying to impact the real world, then I think it’s a mistake”.
Is it this which attracts so many young people to the party’s politics? “If you have no history of voting, you’re much more open to ideas. I think times are changing and there is more anger at the way things are going, but I think that younger people are facing the harder end of this. At the beginning there’s much more insecurity, and you can see that there’s so much that can go wrong in your life. You can see that there are some parties and policies that would make it easier”, Larry contemplates, not directly tarring the Greens with that brush, but definitely leaving it unsaid.
I finish off our chat by discussing the vote swap websites and exchanges that have recently emerged on mainstream media. Where other candidates have advocated tactical votes, Larry is firmly against it: “I wouldn’t approve even if the votes were coming to me. I think the crucial thing is for people to vote for what they believe in.” Despite this, he sympathises with the cause – “It’s easy to understand voting tactically” – but doesn’t feel it helps his party. “The impact of voting Green, even in an area where you’re not going to come close to winning, the impact will be enormous. Oxford West and Abingdon is supposed to be a race between the Lib Dems and the Tories, two members of a failed government. It’s kind of a game, and people are saying that they want to vote Green, but they also have to keep the Conservatives out.” He pauses, and shakes his head. “I think it’s all crazy. The differences aren’t that big enough to vote that way. If you want to society to move in the directions of the party, then vote Green.”