John Harris

Journalist & Author

Green party’s Adam Ramsay: ‘We can replace the Lib Dems as the third party’

Will the latest generation of green activists finally help the party break through?

If there is such a thing as a new, non-mainstream politics, its loudest expression has not been heard in party offices, or council chambers, let alone the House of Commons. Instead, it’s been a new crop of protest movements – UK Uncut, Occupy, the spontaneous coalition that briefly came together over the issue of unpaid work experience – that has most glaringly embodied a new mood, repeatedly kicking issues into the headlines with far more oomph than you get from most politicians.

Thirty years ago, increasing numbers of people combined such activism with membership of the Labour party. That still happens, just about, but there is a much more solid intersection between protest and less conventional politics – which is what brings me to a scruffy coffee shop near Paddington station in central London, and an hour-long conversation with 26-year-old Adam Ramsay. One of the Green party’s brightest young minds, he currently has his sights set on a council seat in his adopted home city of Oxford, but he’s also an energetic specialist in direct action: back in March 2011, he was one of the 150 people arrested when UK Uncut activists occupied Fortnum & Mason, and among 10 later found guilty of aggravated trespass.

Ramsay joined the Greens in 2001, when he was 15. “I was in Scotland, where there’s PR,” he says. “There was a Green MSP, and a socialist MSP. That was the first flavour of multi-party politics in Britain.” The Labour party, he says, “looked boring and old and not relevant to what I was interested in. This was two years after the Battle of Seattle: a lot of what people were talking about was global power systems, the WTO, the IMF, the world bank, climate change, global trade rules.”

There are, he explains, three elements within British green politics: the kind of veteran “ecologist liberals” represented by the Greens’ London mayoral candidate Jenny Jones; more left-leaning people who joined the party towards the end of the 1980s, like their current leader Caroline Lucas; and Ramsay’s own lot: what he calls “the Iraq war generation, which blurs into the cuts generation: people who are students now”. The middle group, he says, tends to side with his faction, and the result is an increasing emphasis on such issues as inequality and the public/private balance, as well as the Green staples of sustainability and climate change. “There’s more of us now, so we win,” he says. “And in terms of ideas and energy – we run the party.”

Ramsay’s political activities extend into the distance. By way of a day job, he’s the activism, volunteering and events manager at the Oxford-based People & Planet, an organisation integrally involved in Occupy London. He’s on the board of trustees of the pressure group UK Feminista, and serves as the co-editor of a vibrant blog called Bright Green. He’s also a member of Compass, the group that grew out of the Labour party, but now admits Greens, Lib Dems, nationalists and people with no party ties, providing a flavour of how politics is changing, at speed.

One question has to be asked: the great Green breakthrough seems to get talked up every six or seven years, but – notwithstanding their successes in Brighton and Norwich – the great leap forward has yet to materialise. Why is that?

“Well, we’ve been very good at failing. And the problem with that is you get very good at explaining away that failure: ‘It’s the electoral system,’ and all this bollocks. Partly it’s about ambition, and leadership. We should be saying is: ‘We can replace the Lib Dems as the third party.’”

When Ramsay was arrested at Fortnum, one slightly awkward aspect of his history was gleefully seized on by the Daily Mail: the fact that his upbringing was, as he puts it, “properly posh”. He was educated at the fee-paying Glenalmond college, whose old boys have included the ITN veteran Sandy Gall, one viceroy of India, a handful of Scots rugby internationals, and Robbie Coltrane. Is his background an issue for him?

Tellingly, his answer starts with a flourish of old-school leftwing language. “That’s not the struggle my politics was forged in. I still have friends from that world. But it’s not like I found myself surrounded by privilege and was driven to reject it; I found myself cross with the IMF, and then I realised: this about a whole system.”

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