Conversations with Alumni: Siân Berry, co-leader of the Green Party

Image Description: a headshot of Siân Berry against the backdrop of a drawing of Oxford’s skyline and the text ‘Siân Berry: Alumni Series’

This week’s alumni is Siân Berry, a former Materials Science student at Trinity College who went on to become politically active within the Green Party. Since 2018 she has been co-leader of the party alongside Jonathan Bartley, and in addition she sits on the London Assembly and is the Green candidate in the upcoming London mayoral election. I discussed the roots of her political interest, her time as JCR Entz Rep, her pitch to the electorate and her top book recommendations.

So to start off, what are the overriding memories of your time at Oxford?

That’s a really hard question because it’s four years of my life when I literally grew up. It’s being away from home and making a life as an adult, making friends that you keep forever. And also, the privilege of being in a beautiful city that’s easy to get around and do everything within reach on your bike. 

I was a student on a full grant. They had student loans, but they were top up loans. It was tough financially, but there was so much within Oxford – it’s a very privileged place to study to get help with that – the living costs were low as my rent was subsidised. So I think we were really well looked after and all that changed once we moved to London. Everyone was quite equal, and then when you get to London the cost of living shoots up and the differences between people from different backgrounds became really magnified.

Did you always have this particular ideological persuasion? Or did it happen to you whilst you were at university?

No, ultimately I didn’t. I just lived my life basically. And my college, Trinity – I was the Entertainments Rep on the JCR committee. I was not at all in any way political or trying to change the world. It was once I got into the real world and started to see people from wildly different backgrounds, the injustice in the world, the climate crisis approaching and then reading around the issues. It was at that point I decided that the world needed to change and I should be doing something about it.

A lot of young people, as you know, have been drawn to climate activism as a result of the school strikes and Greta Thunberg. Does this give you hope for the future?

Yeah, it really does. Part of my job is going into schools and universities and meeting young people. Compared with me at that age, they are so much more engaged with the world. Obviously we’re talking about people who grew up as digital natives, absolutely plugged into the rest of the world. I think young people these days are so clued up, and so recognising the urgency of this and that there isn’t necessarily time for them to get into positions of power.

I do have an influence on decisions that are made on the world and political policies now, but there’s not time for those young people that are going to get to my position at my age before it might be too late.  So I think we have a real responsibility to make sure we listen, that we involve young people, that we give more power to young people, and we get more young people elected, because it is the generation that are currently in their teens, or 20s, who are going to have to live with and deal with the consequences of us failing now. And when we’re talking about the London elections, one thing we’re going to do is launch policies to empower young people because it’s absolutely vital.

You are running as the Green Party candidate in the upcoming London mayoral elections. Very briefly, what is your pitch to the voters?

This is not the first time I’ve stood for that, and my pitch is no different now. Although, I think in the context of the growing climate crisis, and the Coronavirus crisis, a lot of the things we’ve been saying about how to build more resilient and sustainable communities. So we’ll be talking about transforming the city in lots of ways that link up – creating the greenest city in the world, helping people to get around, creating new opportunities, new businesses, and sorting out the housing crisis in ways that are fresh, that are new, that are not just ‘build more homes’, but more homes that are efficient. I think a lot of people are making the links between those different areas now, and are listening more to our message if it’s more linked up – it’s more about transforming the system rather than just individuals.

We are now a year into Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party, and it’s quite clear that he’s moved away from Corbyn and his brand of leftism and tried to appeal to the moderate factions of the party a bit more. Have you seen former Labour supporters flock to the Greens much? Or are you perhaps tired of journalists and commentators only viewing the Green Party’s appeal to left wing, potential Labour members?

We are more left wing than the policies and the stances that Keir Starmer has been putting out. So that’s clearly something that is attractive to people who’ve seen maybe particular rollbacks, or particular policies. Things like saying that the Black Lives Matter protests were a rare moment not like a real ‘movement’. Things like the stance on Corporation Tax, the way they’ve been dealing with Brexit – we stand out as being firmer on all of those things, more ethical and more on the left. 

So people are moving to us but they’re not flocking to us, and we don’t really want that. We do want to grow our membership, but we want to grow it in a sustainable way, in a way that we can genuinely grow. And we’re working towards the local elections, the London elections, and we’re building up over the next three years towards the next General Election. And we do want as many members as possible working for that, but we’ve got to be bringing them in in a way that isn’t just a matter of people suddenly turning up. That would be destabilising to a party in a way that’s very stable at the moment.

Obviously, people often tend to think of elections as a two horse race between the Labour and Tory candidate, so why should people who are perhaps sympathetic to the ideas of the Greens decide to vote for them?

You know, it’s a mischaracterisation of the London election systems, because we have two rounds of voting like in France, where they vote for the president in two elections. In that election everybody stands in the first round, and in the final round there’s a runoff. And it’s the same in London. So everybody in the first round in France votes for who they want, they vote with their heart, and then there’s the final round.

It’s the same thing for London. There’s a lot of people who put me as the second preference, who would, I think, prefer to put the Greens first and use Sadiq Khan as their insurance in the final round to make sure that we don’t get someone terrible. I think a lot of people are getting a little bit wise to this now and the two-horse race rhetoric, but it is a constant battle for us to get into debates to be involved in the polls. And we’re doing much better in London, I think, than we are in the rest of the country on this because we don’t use first past the post, so more and more people spontaneously say they want to vote for us. And as the election approaches, hopefully, more people will be thinking about the fact they’ve got these two votes and what to do with them best – and there are votes for the London Assembly where there’s a proportional system.

There is this cynical perception in some quarters that climate activists and groups such as Extinction Rebellion are made up of middle aged, middle class white activists from the South of England. Do you think that this is quite an overly cynical and pernicious view of climate activists in the UK?

It is extremely! I’ve been involved in the climate movement, I’ve been involved in the road campaigns, and they’re not largely around the south, they’ve been up in the north of England! There’s lots and lots of activism that is distributed right around the country. And I’m seeing a much wider age range of people involved as well. I’m seeing people my age and a bit older who were involved in the 1990s road protests and the climate activism around the big G8 protests regarding globalisation. That’s roughly when I joined up with the movement, and people from the student movement are learning their trade, they’re getting involved.

And there are people who started with this in the 1970s are still around. A much wider range of ages are now involved in direct action and putting their bodies on the line about something that is genuinely a huge crisis. And the fact they’ve all linked up together is really, really positive -it’s such a broad movement. Certainly in London, we see a lot of Black, Asian, young people, older people involved in the movement, and lots of people from the South American countries who are at the frontline of things like deforestation. They’re a big community in London, and this is not something you can simplify down to just a few people anymore. It’s big, and it’s growing, and it’ll only grow further.

Do you have anything in particular that you’d like the readers of the Oxford Student to like read or watch or listen to? 

When I told you before about when I was in my mid twenties, and I decided to become more political, I read an awful lot of stuff around that time. And I think that there are three novels, partly in this sort of canon of socialist, dystopian literature. One of them is The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists – it’s so good, and it’s so well done, and I absolutely loved that really important book. Everyone should read it.

The other ones are The Handmaid’s Tale, which completely made me such a feminist and teaches you lessons we can still learn from things that are going on today. I think the way they’ve turned it into a TV series is great because they’ve taken on that spirit and there’s lots of parallels with today still in that. The third one is less obvious – The Iron Heel by Jack London, which is not the most famous book by him. But it’s rollicking, it’s an adventure story about oligarchy taking over. 

I have to admit that I have the first two on my bookshelf, and I always meant to get around to reading them. I never do because The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is just so long!

There’s lots of basically what are lectures – because he gets involved in politics halfway through, you get pages and pages of basically like political speech. I think it’s great because it’s that in an English town in the south, and it’s full of details in the way in the same way that The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London are in that you get sort of lists of the incomings and outgoings of the household. 

Again, it’s the same things we’re worrying about today: whether people should have that extra £20 of Universal Credit and the difference it makes to their lives – the people making those decisions have no clue how much £20 means to people. I studied science, I did Metallurgy, so nobody at college was telling me to read stuff. The reason I read a lot of these things is because when I moved into my post-student house, my friends brought their wider reading with them. And we made a library and I just went through it like a rush.

Image credit: Background by Tian Chen, photo supplied by the Green Party