The Green Queen is abdicating. Caroline Lucas, so far the Green Party’s only ever Westminster MP, wrote to her constituents this week “with love and gratitude” to tell them that she is standing down at the next election. 

Brighton’s two other MPs, Labour’s Lloyd Russell-Moyle and Peter Kyle do not have much in common with each other, but they came together to praise their neighbour, the member for Brighton Pavilion. For Brighton Kemptown Russell-Moyle paid tribute to a “force for progressive politics…above the chaos of local government politics”. Brighton and Hove’s Kyle thanked a “unique voice” who “treated me with kindness and friendship.” 

Few would disagree with them. Queen Caroline is practically a national treasure and has been an adornment of political debate for decades. She can be imperious but she is a supremely able communicator, who exudes decency and clarity. For more than twenty years she has been in the top tier of regular guests on the BBC’s Questiontime and Any Questions. 

For all that, with her customary shrewd judgement and grace, Caroline Lucas has picked a good time to quit. 

She made the best of her “lonely” status in parliament. As she pointed out in her campaign literature she didn’t have to follow “the party line”. As far as the public was concerned she was “the greens” and could say what she pleased. With her gone, the Greens will have to refashion themselves for the electorate. The new Greens are unlikely to retain Lucas’ reputation for polite good sense – although that may not bother them too much.

She has been the official leader of her party for relatively short bursts, between 2008 and 2012, and as co-leader with Jonathan Bartley from 2016 to 2018. No leader before or since has attracted similar enduring and respectful attention. Not Jonathan Porritt, who inspired her to join the party. Not David “Son of God” Icke. Not Sarah Parkin. Not Baroness Jenny “Brexit” Jones. Not Natalie “Brain Fade” Bennett. As to the current leaders of the Green Party, that is a tricky pub quiz question. Answer: Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay. 

Thanks to proportional representation, Lucas served in the European parliament for a decade. Then, over four general elections, she steadily built Brighton Pavilion from a four-way marginal into a safe seat, where 57.2% voted for her. Her majorities went up from 1,252 in 2010 to 19,940 in 2019.

That represents an impressive personal vote. References to the Green Party all but disappeared from her posters and leaflets while the welcome page of her web site is headlined “What I stand for and why.” She had a very good chance of holding her seat at the next election. Any other Green candidate not so much. The local unpopularity of the Greens could even have dragged her down. 

In this year’ local elections, the Greens were thumped in Brighton by Labour. Labour gained 18 seats, to give them a total of 38 councillors on the 54 member council. The Greens lost 13 councillors, including Phelim Mac Cafferty who had been leader of the Green, minority, council. 

Cafferty distinguished himself by taking a jet plane to Glasgow to protest outside COP26 with Greta Thunberg. But locals lost patience with the Greens running the city. There have been repeated disputes and strikes by refuse collectors. Brighton Council dropped to 302nd for it’s recycling performance. The council adopted a policy of encouraging weeds to grow on pavements and, as an austerity measure, it was proposing the closure of most public toilets. 

Lord Bassam, who as Steve Bassam was a previous Labour leader of the council, denounced the Greens as “an ideologically driven council, riven by factions that, despite warm words, wastes public money and fails to deliver essential frontline basic services.” Lucas tweeted a green heart and “so disappointed” for the defeated council. As an effective constituency MP, she kept herself detached from it and did not back all its actions.

Elsewhere, the Greens did their best in twenty years winning 480 seats in all, 6% of the total in contention. 6% is nothing to get excited about it does not point to a Green wave in a first-past-the-post general election. 

The Green Party took overall control of a council, Mid-Suffolk, for the first time. In Brighton’s neighbouring council of Lewes, the Conservatives lost all 19 of their seats, resulting in 17 Greens, 15 Liberal Democrats and 9 Labour Councillors. In a foretaste of what may be widespread wrangling between “progressive” parties, Labour and the Greens have formed a coalition to keep the Liberal Democrats in opposition. The local Conservative MP Maria Caulfield, who captured Lewes when the long-standing Liberal Democrat Norman Baker retired, told me gamely that it had “always been a marginal seat”. 

Lucas said this week that she would be happy to see the Greens prop-up a Labour minority government, similar to the Scottish Greens’ support for the SNP in the coalition government.  The Greens are unlikely to win so much leverage at Westminster. Still, her comment highlights why some Green fundamentalists have accused Lucas of being a “watermelon” – green on the outside and red within. She habitually votes with Labour and had more time for Jeremy Corbyn than most of the parliamentary Labour party, even if she agreed with them as a staunch EU remainer. She is not as close to Starmer. Following Rachel Reeves’ climbdown on funding on Friday, Lucas was quick on the airwaves to denounce the inadequacy of Labour’s Green New Deal.

Like Corbyn, she is a protest march person rather than a disrupter. Her radicalism began with visits to the women’s camp against US Nuclear Weapons at Greenham Common. Lucas says “it is entirely legitimate to take peaceful action” and has given lukewarm backing to Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil.  She prefers direct action targeted against environmental damage rather than throwing paint or disrupting traffic. She is proud of her arrest and acquittal for blocking fracking successfully at Balcombe in Sussex. 

By chance the last Conservative MP to represent Brighton Pavilion died this week. Sir Derek Spencer served as John Major’s solicitor general until he was swept away in the New Labour landslide of 1997. It hardly seems credible today when Brighton is so popular with LGBT+ communities, that Spencer once openly criticized Brighton Council’s decision to give £5,000 to the local Pride festival because “it is going to attract gays and lesbians from all over the South of England to an area where families like to go”.

Caroline Lucas has been married since 1991 with two grown up sons. She blends her radicalism with nice-but-firm middle class manners, perhaps moulded as a boarder at the independent Malvern Girls School and Exeter University. Aged 62, she is of the generation of feminists who have fought for women’s rights and campaigned against male violence. She was once mocked for floating the idea of an all woman, all white government of national unity to pull the UK out of its difficulties. 

In Scotland, the Green Party’s campaign for gender self-ID, contributed to the difficulties of Nicola Sturgeon and her coalition government. It is another issue which Lucas has skirted deftly while upholding the party line when required. That has not satisfied everyone. 

In 2018, the Green Party was rocked when the father of a trans woman activist faced serious child abuse charges. Lucas suggested talks with a feminist organisation WPUK (A Woman’s Place UK). She was accused of being a TERF – a trans exclusionary radical feminist – by some sections of the Green party and her messages were subject to “TERFblock” software.

With Lucas standing down, sensitive trans issues may become central to all parties battling to succeed her. Labour will fight for her vacant seat much harder than they would have done. Eddie Izzard, who prefers Suzy Izzard, and who grew up in Sussex, is rumoured to be interested in standing for Labour. 

In her resignation letter Caroline Lucas says she has been frustrated by the time taken up representing the Greens at Westminster on all political matters. She is looking forward to finding ways to counter “threats to our precious planet”. She will conduct that search as a private citizen. Farewell Green Queen, you were bigger than your party.   

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