Politics

Green Party leader Carla Denyer on climate crisis, fighting for trans rights and beating Labour

The Green Party hopes to have four MPs after the next election. Is co-leader Carla Denyer the politician to make the greens mainstream?

Denyer hopes the Greens can be an influence on a likely Keir Starmer government. Image: Green Party

“I’ve definitely had climate anxiety at various points in my life, not just at uni but since,” admits Green Party co-leader and general election candidate Carla Denyer.

Finishing off a toasted sandwich and a green smoothie, Denyer is at the beginning of a campaign to unseat the current Bristol West MP, Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire. Climate news tends to be relentless and depressing. But it turns out leading a political party is a better way of coping than doomscrolling.

“I’m an optimist in the sense that we can do at least most of the getting to net zero with the technology we have now, which is a good thing, because we don’t have long. So I guess I’m an optimist in that sense, but I’m not an optimist in that I’ll just sit back and let the free market and technology fix it. That’s not going to happen. It’s people and policies and the way our economy works,” says Denyer.

“So yeah, sometimes I do feel quite depressed about the slow progress in the UK and nationally, but it is much better when you’re actively involved in working towards the solutions.”

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The Greens hope this will be the election they move beyond a single MP. Caroline Lucas, who has held Brighton Pavilion since 2010, is standing down. Four seats is the prize: they hope to hold the seaside seat with candidate Siân Berry, a former leader of the Greens, and are also targeting the new Bristol Central seat, Waveney Valley in Norfolk and Suffolk, and North Herefordshire.

Carla Denyer’s task, alongside co-leader Adrian Ramsay, is to continue refocusing the party away from being a single-issue protest vote and towards a wider political movement which can campaign on its record running councils across England. A party of people who “have clear values, but who are not head in the clouds,” in Denyer’s words.

It seems to be working. May’s local elections saw the party gain 74 seats, taking its total to 812 councillors. Hope of winning a parliamentary seat in Bristol was boosted by the Greens becoming the largest party on Bristol City Council. Crucially, the Greens won every seat available in the seven wards making up the new Bristol Central consitutency.

Carla Denyer’s climate ‘epiphany’ came during a summer at university. Image: Green Party

‘I need to dedicate the rest of my life to trying to stop climate change. That’s a given’

Carla Denyer’s campaigning began at sixth form, when she got involved with a fair trade campaign, and organised a coach from her college to a Stop the War protest against the Iraq war.

“That, by the way, is part of the reason why it never even crossed my mind to join the Labour Party,” she says. “Because as I became politically aware aged 16 or 17, they were busy going to war.”

In the summer between her second and third years studying engineering at Durham, something changed – an “epiphany”.

“It wasn’t quite a single moment. But it happened over a period of a few months in the summer holidays between my second and third year. I think inspired by a short week-long summer course I went on about working in renewable energy, so I had been considering that, but that drove it home a bit more,” she says.

“A couple of books I read over that summer, and I just came back to my third year with a conviction that, ‘OK, I need to dedicate the rest of my life to trying to stop climate change. That’s a given. How am I gonna do that?’ I’m halfway through an engineering degree so I guess I’ll try and get a job in renewable energy. So that’s what I did, that’s what brought me to Bristol.”

Alongside working designing wind farms, Denyer kept campaigning. During a fight against a Tesco opening on Bristol’s Stokes Croft – “you might remember that story because there was a rather famous riot. I was nothing to do with the riot” – she got to know two Green members, joined the party in 2011, and was talked into running for office. “I said yes not because I wanted power myself, but because I realised that might be a more effective way of achieving the change I wanted to see in the world,” she says.

Since being elected as a councillor in 2015, her achievements include making Bristol the first city in the world to declare a climate emergency. Denyer rose through the Green ranks, including a stint working for former MEP Molly Scott Cato, and in 2021 became co-leader of the party in October 2021. Now she is preparing to lead the Greens into a general election.

To win the new seat of Bristol Central, Carla Denyer would need a 30 point swing – Denyer having finished second to Debbonaire in 2019’s poll for predecessor seat Bristol West. But new polling suggests she may do it, and end up representing the city she’s called home for the past 15 years.

“I think Bristol has long felt like a green city,” says Denyer. “What kept me is the very progressive, little bit rebellious spirit of the city.”

Carla Denyer: ‘Do voters want a Labour government with a handful of Green MPs there to keep them honest?’

Any Green politician, member, or voter will be well acquainted with the maths of first-past-the-post. In 2015, the Greens got 3.8% of the vote; 1.6% in 2017; and 2.7% in 2019. All saw the Greens end up with a single MP – 0.2% of the total. The most recent poll-of-polls by Electoral Calculus suggests a vote share of 5.5% in the upcoming election, giving the Greens two seats. That same estimate has a 96% chance of a Labour majority.

“Since we’re almost definitely going to have a Labour government after the next general election, the decision for both voters in Bristol Central and lots of other constituencies as well, is: do you want a 100% Labour government where Starmer can do whatever he wants, and keep U-turning on all those policies? Or do they want a Labour government with a handful of Green MPs there to keep them honest, and to pull them in the right direction on the areas where they’re not so hot?” asks Denyer.

Two decades on from 2003, there’s an echo of the foreign policy dynamic which closed the door on Labour for Denyer. The party’s stance on Gaza has led to internal fears it may struggle to hold target seats, thanks to discontent from younger progressive voters and Muslims. That’s before you get to the £28bn green investment U-turn, two-child benefit cap, or Starmer’s easily-abandoned campaign pledges.

A growing number of the regular doorknockers on Denyer’s campaign are former Labour voters and members, she says. “You might think it was one big reason like Gaza or the £28bn U-turn, but most people you speak to it’s the cumulative effect of all of those. Usually one of them was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Denyer.

“They’ll say things like ‘I was just hanging on with my fingernails, giving them one last chance, and then this happened, and I was like right, that’s it, I’m going to go and get Carla elected’.”

‘It’s going to affect every aspect of our economy and our society’

To that end, if elected, Carla Denyer as an MP would focus on strong climate policy, housing, and proportional representation. But for all the wider horizons, the Greens are still called the Greens. Their logo is still the Earth surrounded by leaves. The reality of climate change is slowly sinking in for many. What will change, that most people don’t realise?

“Food, probably. That a changing climate is going to make life harder for farmers, make it harder to grow good quality, nutritious, affordable food in this country. I think, probably most farmers understand that very well because climate change is no longer a thing that’s happening in the future, it’s happening in the present, so they’re already seeing the results of that,” says Denyer. 

“But I think it’s not something that’s often talked about on the news or in the general public, that climate change is not just about having hotter summers and wetter winters, it’s going to affect every aspect of our economy and our society and our wellbeing.”

Compared to Labour’s now-defunct £28bn, Denyer says “really quite modest tax reforms” proposed by the Greens could raise £50bn a year by the end of the next parliament. For her, it is about “honesty and bravery.”

“When I had my epiphany about how serious climate change was, part of what made me so angry at the injustice of it, was that the people that will be hurt by it first and worst will be poorer people in the global south. A woman on a low income in Bangladesh, say. And it made me really really angry that just because those people are thousands of miles away, and have brown skin maybe, people were counting their lives as being worth less,” she says.

“The fact that climate change is now, a certain amount of it is now hardwired in, is going to happen, and it is definitely going to affect the UK as well – is objectively a bad thing, but I guess it helps to literally bring it home for more people.”

‘Trans people are being used as a tool of a wider culture war’

Carla Denyer became leader after an election in which incumbent Siân Berry decided not to stand for re-election over the party’s “mixed messages” on trans rights, saying: “I can no longer make the claim that the party speaks unequivocally, with one voice, on this issue”. The Scottish Greens suspended ties with the Greens in England and Wales in October 2022, accusing the national party of failing to tackle transphobia. In December 2023, the party cut ties with Green Party Women, who claimed they were cut loose because they promoted “gender-critical views”. In February, a court found the sacking of spokesperson Shahrar Ali over his views on trans rights was “procedurally unfair” – but that political parties can sack people if their views are at odds with the party’s policy.

After the release of the Cass Review into gender healthcare, Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said he was wrong to say “trans women are women”, adding there are “lots of complexities”. Denyer’s stance – and that of the Greens – differs.

“Green Party policy is really clear. It explicitly says in Green Party policies that trans men are men, trans women are women, non-binary identities exist and are valid, and I stand by that. That’s a policy that was set democratically by our members voting at conference,” says Denyer.

“In fact, every time any policy proposal around trans rights, access to trans healthcare has come to Green Party conference, it’s passed. I’m very proud of that.”

Meanwhile, trans rights have become the subject of PMQs mud-slinging, with Rishi Sunak saying Keir Starmer had trouble “defining a woman” in front of the mother of murdered trans teenager Brianna Ghey. 

“What worries me is the way trans people are being, I think, used as a tool of a wider culture war, by some people. I worry for the impact I’m sure that has on many trans people’s mental health, and feeling of safety or otherwise in society.” It feels, she adds, “very disrespectful and dangerous.”

‘People are coming to the Green Party from across the political spectrum,’ says Carla Denyer

There’s a natural tension for a smaller party in a two-party system: trying to define yourself in your own right, while relying on converting members of the big parties. Are the Greens still a protest vote? “I just don’t think that’s an accurate description of the Green Party any more,” says Denyer.

“Ten, 12 years ago that might have been fair enough. But people are coming to the Greens from across the political spectrum, because they see us as the ones that are working hard in our communities all year round, not just showing up a few weeks before the election, and who have the common-sense policies to actually solve the crises that our country is in right now.”

Even if the Greens don’t reach the goal of four MPs in the looming general election, Denyer believes their presence on any level can influence the country’s politics: “We have a saying in the Green Party: Just one green in the room changes everything.”

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