• Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

The Student in conversation with Elaine Gunn, Green Party candidate for Edinburgh West

ByVaishnavi Ramu

Dec 10, 2019
Elaine Gunn, Scottish Green Party candidate for Westminster, Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, October 25, 2019.

The Student speaks to Elaine Gunn, the Green Party candidate for Edinburgh West, to find out why she thinks the party is the way forward.

When did you first start to consider entering politics?

Elaine: It was quite a quick decision. I kind of flirted with the idea for a few years, I liked the thought of it. But I didn’t feel robust enough in myself to go into it because I know that, particularly for women, politics can be a horrible place. It wasn’t until this summer that I really hit the wall, just watching what was going on down south in Westminster. I was like, “I know ten women on the school run who can do a better job than this if we put all our heads together.”

I had an experience with my kids one morning – I’ve got three kids – and they’re quite young, six eight and nine years old. They woke me up arguing about whose turn it was on the telly. This had been happening all summer! So I went downstairs and I’d not had any breakfast, or coffee, and I negotiated with them on getting a rota set up that they were happy with. And it took forty five minutes of disagreements, and people putting forward ideas and getting shut down and so on. I came out of that and I went to the kitchen; by that time my husband had come downstairs and I said to him, “You know what, honestly I should be negotiating Brexit, because if I can deal with those children – which we were able to be pragmatic about – we can do this.”

And that was it. I decided like that. I sent an email to the Green Party later that day because I had been a member since 2014, I had just been kind of quiet. They got back to me and it snowballed into something.

Why did you choose the Green Party? What is it about their values you personally identify with? 

Elaine: The Green Party strikes me as a really secure party. If you look at all the literature the rest of the party are issuing, it’s all about saying, “Oh they’re rubbish, oh they’re bad, they’re lying about this, it’s all a mess!” Mainly, the literature that I’ve seen from the Green Party, is “this is why we would be good,” not “this is why everyone else is hopeless.” I really respond to that and I really like that approach, I find it a lot more positive.

The culture in the party is really positive, it’s very inclusive, and I felt very welcome as a woman who is new into politics. I’ve had a lot of jobs in the past, quite often when you come in and you’re competent very quickly, they find it very difficult. But there’s been none of that here, they’re like “brilliant, she’s really good, let’s get her doing stuff.” They’re really a very secure party in terms of how they feel about themselves, I think that’s just what draws me to them.

I also share so many principals with them. I am completely against nuclear weapons, I am completely for treating animals as sentient beings and giving them rights as well as protections; obviously, the biggest thing we are campaigning for this time is the climate crisis. And, as I’ve got three kids, I’ve kind of had to read about that. I’ve had to force myself it is true, it is important. A lot of people whose kids have grown up, or they don’t have kids, they’ve got the luxury of thinking “no, this doesn’t really feel like it affects me so I can afford to ignore it.” I don’t feel like that at all. The Greens have been talking about this for thirty years and a lot of them saw it coming, and they were written off as disorganised hippies. That’s not the case. Some of the folks I’m meeting are so competent, so knowledgeable, and I would trust any one of them to run a country.

You’ve worked in communications and in finance, which one can imagine is a very different environment to that of the Green Party. How do you think this compares ad how will help you as an election candidate? 

Elaine: You know it puts me in a really good position, because I went through a massive process of personal change and growth after I had the kids. Most of my career was before I had my kids; I’ve done bits and pieces since I’ve had them, but not full-time, not as immersive as before. But I still remember what it was like to work in those quite traditional, quite conservative environments; so I’ve probably got quite a good understanding of how to communicate with those people in ways that they want to listen. Because this whole disorganised hippie thing, it’s followed the Green Party around for a long time, and it is a barrier for people hearing that message. If someone sees a person with floaty scarves and beads and stuff, and they’re quite conservative minded themselves, they will not take them seriously.

But then you look at some of the people in the Green Party. We’ve got the lead candidate for the Holyrood list in Inverness, who has been living in Findhorn, in Morayshire; and they’re completely self-sufficient. They’re ready for climate change, completely, all over. They saw it coming. They’ve developed water purification systems, which provide better quality water than what comes through the taps from the council, they provide their own power, they grow their own food. I mean these folk, they saw it coming, and they didn’t waste time trying to get people to listen to them before they were ready. They were just like “right, well somebody’s got to know how to deal with all this when it happens, so that better be us.” It feels like they’ve got the credibility in this debate.

The Green Party has often been called idealistic, particularly when it comes to economics, as its policies promise radical change; for example, introducing a basic income for everyone. What would you say to people who think such policies are unrealistic? 

Elaine: I see all these radical policies as an investment in the health of society. So we know that it equality creates a healthier society, we know that poverty – apart from being horrific for the people living through it – if we want to talk about it in the economic context, it’s not sensible economically to have such a huge proportion of your workforce so stressed, and kind of anxious about trying to make ends meet so they have to sign off work. If we’re going to look at it in this context, it makes no sense to have your entire workforce stretched to be that stressed and anxious.

I don’t like to look at it in a purely economic context, I like to look at it more holistically and say, “ok, I actually want human beings to be well and happy.” If there’s stuff as a government we can do to help them being well and happy, why would we not do that? And I always get a bee in my bonnet when people say, “oh that’s well and lovely, but how are you going to pay for it?” My answer to that is always this: nobody ever questions where we find the money to go to war, to bomb other countries, or to rustle up a billion pounds to get the government propped up by a separate party; nobody ever asks “where are you going to get the money for that?” It’s only ever when people propose really radical things that will help normal people, that folks start questioning it. We find money where every government finds the money, because every government finds the money to pay for its priorities; it’s just that the Green Party would prioritise health and well-being of everybody rather than corporate profits and multi-billionaires.

You want to prioritise families and people over these big corporations. You’re a Mum of three children. What kind of policies do the Green Party have that stand out to you that will help families to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle? You will know that it is cheaper to buy things in plastic and overall, it’s cheaper to be less sustainable. How would the Green Party change that? 

Elaine: So I think that, firstly, we’re looking at a kind of contextual shift away from it being the responsible of the individual to make smaller changes – and hope that everybody happens to be able to do that – and actually legislating for bigger picture changes. So the Scottish Greens have released the ‘Green New Deal.’ That’s a document, basically a blueprint, for a more eco-friendly Scotland; and it could also mean a more eco-friendly UK if something wonderful were to happen and we were elected as a majority Green government!

It’s talking about things like massive redirection of funding into public service, so creating a publicly owned energy company that focuses on renewables, low carbon energy, so that people carry on with their normal lives knowing that the state is providing them with the means to live a greener lifestyle. There’s all sorts of stuff that we can do to influence the rest of the world – not necessarily in the context of devolution – it’s likely that Scotland will need to be independent in order to be as transformative as we’d like to be. But things we can do locally like bringing the tree planting in Scotland up to the EU average. At the current rate of planting, it will take us up to one hundred years to get to that average, and we just don’t have that. It’s more about creating systemic changes that make it easier to live green lifestyles, because once all your energy from houses is coming from renewable sources, you’re going to have to worry an awful lot less about whether you happen to use one plastic straw of the day – you’re not going to feel quite so bad about that. The other thing that we could do is that would make a huge difference, not just for the environment but for people’s lives, is to really invest in public transport systems; to create a proper, inter public transport that allows people to get in and out of city centres without people having to resort to cars. Keep it low carbon, electrified, make it easy for people to get about the country without having to use their cars and that will help them not lower their carbon footprint individually.

It’s not just about climate; we’ve got an opportunity to create a better country by doing things that happen to be good for the climate, it feels like a total enmeshed win.

The Green Party attracts a lot of young people, which is great. How important is it to you, and the Green Party, to get the vote of young people? 

Elaine: It would be wonderful to get the vote of young people. Because I’m a Mum, and I’ve had to adjust to my outlook on life as a result of having kids, I’ve learnt a lot of stuff I had no idea about before I was a Mum. My political awakening came because I was a parent; my feminist awakening came because I was a parent, and it just made a lot stuff that had flown under the radar really visible to me. And I am now absolutely convinced that the kids know better than grown ups. Absolutely convinced. I watched it with my own kids: their instincts are spot on. Their instincts are to share, to be inclusive, to question and understand rather than just to accept what they’re told. I believe that shift in that culture and mindset is difficult for a lot of people of older generation mindsets, but I think it’s what the world needs.

I think the job for people in my position – and I’m kind of middle-aged, I think I qualify as a ‘Zennial?’ I was born just at the end of Generation X and I grew up with a lot of the millennial stuff, but I don’t really fit into either category. I think for people in my bracket, where you’ve got this kind of analogue childhood and digital adulthood, our job is to understand and be secure in the fact that we can trust young people to make decisions. And actually, to make better decisions than many of the older generations.

That’s got a lot to do with how folk are bringing kids up these days: there’s much more focus on the rights of children. You can see in the Scottish Parliament in the last couple of months that they’ve passed a bill to outlaw smacking of children. And whenever you talk about that kind of thing, there are a lot of people who go into “oh, it never did me any harm,” but the fact is that the evidence shows that it does do harm, it’s just that people find it very difficult to acknowledge, because it means something quite painful for them personally.

But what we’re saying now is a generation of young people who have grown up, potentially, a lot more physically safe, possibly a lot more emotionally educated, than folk of my generation and older. And that means their instincts are better: they are braver, more visionary, and I really think that my job as an older person is to try and convince people that it’s safe to trust them. That we need to listen and be led by young people because I think their instincts are better than others.

Young people are often ambitious, and the Greens have ambitious goals. They want to cut emissions by 2030. You’ve touched upon this in your previous answers, but how exactly does the party hope to achieve this? It’s a major change in just over a decade. 

Elaine: As we talked about before, the creation of a publicly owned renewable energy company; so creating incentives for the private sector to go carbon neutral. Influencing other countries – again, this is one of the ones we’d have to be independent so we could set up our own trade deals, but we would be introducing additional taxes on imports from countries that don’t adhere to global climate emissions targets.

There’s more than that: I don’t want to not give you a complete list!  We do have big plans, and I think a lot of the bigger parties are starting to get this, that it’s important, or at least that it’s important to voters.

Heat networks is another policy. So we were talking about investing of these, which I hadn’t heard of before I got active in the Greens, it’s this concept that you can funnel heat around networks around local areas, that can be from renewable sources as well. Rather than everyone having a gas burning central heating system in their house, having one renewable heat network per district instead. Again, investing in public transport – because a huge part of our carbon emissions are people driving cars. I get it, we need to design a public transport that works for people and release it, because at the moment it just doesn’t work; especially for voters in Edinburgh West. I live in Ratho, which is just on the other side of the bypass, and it probably would have taken me three quarters of an hour to get here on a bus. Those buses go every half an hour. I don’t have time to do that because I have to go and pick up the kids from school, and I won’t be unique in that struggle. What we need to do is include all these little satellite villages and towns in the city that are creating all the traffic coming in. I heard last week that St John’s road is one of the top two polluted streets in the UK for air quality, and I found that really hard to believe because I always think in Scotland we’re much cleaner, I mean you go down to London and you can smell it in the air. But the air quality is terrible, and it’s because all the traffic needs to come through that one area. I mean it’s fine if you want to go from Glasgow to Edinburgh, there’s a train every fifteen minutes; but if you want to come from just outside of Edinburgh, it’s a completely different kettle of fish. That’s the kind of transport system the Green Party wants to see: linking up all these villages together, so that you don’t have to get into a car.

Moving onto Brexit, what is the Green stance on independence? Do you believe in a second referendum for independence, and why do you believe in one for the EU? 

Elaine: So, the Green’s position is that we are pro-independence. The reason we are pro-independence is for the reason that it will enable us to meet climate targets, as that will give us all the power we need to enable us to make the changes in our manifesto happen. I know that there’s obviously going to be a problem there with the timings, as it looks likely at this stage we will be out of the EU before we get the chance to hold and declare an independent Scotland, if that’s the result that’s returned from a second referendum.

We do want to see a second referendum; the manifesto commitment in 2016 that we were elected on included reference to holding a referendum in the event that there was a strong public show of support for independence. For example, a petition with a million signatures on it. Now, the pro independence parties in Holyrood have got a vote share of over a million votes, so I would consider that mandate to be fulfilled. We’ve also got other public displays of support, like the massive marches. I think the count in Edinburgh last October was like 2% of the population of Scotland that walked through the city; if that’s not a massive public show for independence, then I don’t know what is.

Now I know that a lot of people don’t want independence for Scotland, and I really feel for them, because it must be really hard. In the same way I came to terms with my end of the UK grief at the end of the first referendum; because I did! I would have voted no, but then with six months to go I was like “are you really challenging yourself on this? Are you really paying attention to things that don’t support that the things you want to be the case?” And I noticed that a lot friends that I really respect were pro independence, and I was like “if these folk feel so strongly about this, I think I probably need to look into it.” And I did, and the scales just fell from my eyes and I was like “oh no! I’ve got it all wrong!” And when I went through that process there was an associated period of grief. To decide that Scotland should be an independent, is to decide that the government in Westminster really isn’t working for us, and that the current constitution isn’t working for us; and that Britain isn’t necessarily a universally wonderful thing. And that’s a really hard thing for people to face, especially if their British identity is really strong.

It comes back to what we were saying before about that personal security, about being able to look at things that don’t fit your world view and being able to accept them, even though you don’t really want to. It takes a bit of courage and a bit of commitment to challenge yourself like that. So that’s the process a lot of people went through in the 2014 referendum; and I actually believe the debate part of the independence process is pretty much finished. Everyone’s done all the arguing about all the evidence and if people aren’t convinced now, in the light of Brexit against Scotland’s specific vote, Boris Johnson being Prime Minister, climate breakdown; if people haven’t been convinced by that evidence that Scotland would be better off independent, I’m not sure they ever will be. But what I do see on the other side of that is that you scratch the surface on the polls that are saying that we’re fifty-fifty split at the moment, and underneath that we’ve got an overwhelming majority of young people who do want independence. We’re talking 61% of under 25s or something, and I think I even saw in a younger age bracket 71%. That’s massive, and I think that will be overwhelming when the time comes.

So I genuinely believe we are in a process towards Scottish independence, and unfortunately for people who support the union, that process will be quite painful because they’re going to watch something that they really care about and value, by degrees, be taken away. I really feel for them, because it must be hard to look into the immediate future with Brexit and what looks like to be a Tory majority government. It must be really hard to face that prospect without the hope that independence might hold something better. That’s something that really keeps me going; that I really believe that it will happen, and when it does happen, it will make lives a lot better in Scotland. And that keeps me kind of sane on the days I want to hide because it’s all so horrible.

SNP currently hold the majority of seats of Scotland; the Liberal Democrats are a bigger party and Labour is the main opposition party. Is there a reason why, or two specific reasons,  why people should vote for the Greens when the other parties will be more influential? 

Elaine: We just have to get more Green voices into Westminster. We’ve talked a lot about the constitution, and I completely agree it’s important, but we’ve got ten years – the IPCC told us last year we had eleven, so now it’s ten – to make the changes necessary to avoid complete climate breakdown. Absolutely, you could vote SNP or Lib Dem, and they’re making good noise about climate change; but they don’t have thirty years of experience in the climate arena that enables them to back up what they’re saying.

From a personal point of view, my experience with the Greens is that they’re actually very good at negotiating and influencing. You can see that working in the Scottish Parliament. Whereby we have a situation where parliament is almost fifty-fifty split on the constitution; and every time we get to budget time, the pro union parties refuse to engage in budget negotiations until the SNP take independence off the table. It falls to the Greens to become the opposition in those circumstances. For example, in this year’s budget we were about to lose half of our hours at the local library, the Scottish Greens put pressure on the SNP draft budget and said “no, we need more money for local governments, or we will not support your budget,” and they secured an extra £4m for local government.

So that’s another reason: we don’t need to have a large number of us in there to have an impact. We just need a few people who are willing to negotiate, compromise and find consensus even when they disagree. I mean we’ve got massive disagreements on policy with the SNP, but we know how to make concessions and how to come to agreements, even though we have different policies on specific things. So I would say don’t underestimate the ability of people who have those skills in negotiation to actually make a difference, even though, what seems to me, in a fairly toxic environment in Westminster; I think at this stage they might actually welcome someone in there who is adult enough to say, “ok, so we all disagree, but these are the things we can agree on, please let’s work on them.” Maybe that’s me giving too much credit! But you won’t know until you try.

There’s been a lot of allegations of Antisemitism in Labour and Islamophobia in the Tories; what is the party’s stance on tackling such issues? And how important do you think identity politics is today?

Elaine: I think it comes down to something quite basic. If you get people’s survival needs met, they will be less liable to other groups of people. So what we’ve got, and what was whipped up to frighteningly efficient degree with the run up to Brexit, was this image of the EU as this oppressive other that was making people’s lives miserable. A lot of people swallowed that, they really went for that as an idea. It’s because they’re miserable; and human nature, when you’re stressed and anxious, leads to you to look for something to blame for that.  The parties who were pro Brexit collected all that blame and put it on the EU, and also to immigrants. I find that absolutely awful; and even though I wasn’t entirely convinced by the pro remain campaign, I voted remain because I wanted to show my support for people living in this country.

It’s going to take a long time to be completely rid of this in politics unfortunately. It comes down to this need of ‘othering’ people; basically people will project whatever they dislike onto a certain group of people. It gives them the luxury of not having to worry about it themselves,  but it’s still there and you still need to acknowledge it. That’s where the personal security comes in again, the Green Party is doing incredibly well in terms of equality and inclusivity. We’ve got gender balancing in place; we’ve been able to create a space where women can network, and that’s a trans inclusive space as well, where women understand that trans right and non-binary rights do not infringe on women’s rights. Again, it’s leading by example isn’t it? Calling it out when it happens; and not being afraid to do so for fear of losing votes or something like that.

We don’t pick up an enormous vote here at the moment, and I’d like to think that the people who do vote for us do so because we are visibly vocal on these points. And that we do champion equality; that we’re not just saying it, we follow it up with action. We don’t do terribly well in ethnic diversity in the party; we find we struggle to attract people of colour. We are trying to figure out what’s going on there, what we need to do. We have got one woman in Glasgow, and she’s amazing, she’s like third on the list for the Scottish elections; and if she was elected she would be the first black person in Scottish parliament. That would be amazing, but we need to do better, and we know we need to do better. I think that perhaps a lot of other groups don’t know that.

Identity politics is difficult, because the more scary and stressful things become, the more people fall back on identity as a source of reassurance and comfort. And that’s what we can see with Brexit, despite all evidence that we’ve seen since it came through that it’s going to be bad for the country; and we can see it. The pound is through the floor, there’s unrest everywhere, people are becoming entrenched in the stress and anxiety as this leads to entrenchment. In terms of addressing it, if we get people’s basic survival needs met, so that nobody has to worry how to put food on the table, how they’re going to feed their family, where they’re going to live, they will immediately become less likely to look for somebody to blame for their problems.

If people aren’t starving, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to turn them against people who may be “taking their jobs” and are from a different country. That’s the only way I see out of it, and unfortunately, being a realist, it’s going to take a bit of time to work its way through. Unfortunately there are certain groups of people where those views are so entrenched, we’re just going to have to wait for them to fall away naturally.

You say you hope that the people who do vote for you here vote on these values; what are some of the key concerns that you’ve found among constituents here, and how would you address these concerns if you are elected? 

Elaine: The main thing that I am coming across on doorsteps is that everybody is sick of all the fighting about Brexit. Whether people voted remain, or leave, they’re united that it’s just a shambles – and that it’s not being dealt with competently, or sensitively, at all. The Green’s support a people’s vote on Brexit, so once there is a deal on the table and everybody knows what they’re voting for, we would like to see a vote with remain on the ballot paper just to try and ratify what’s been done in parliament.

There was a real opportunity when Brexit came through, even though it had been a terrible campaign, to say “ok, we didn’t expect that. But we are where we are, let’s get Brexit done in the least damaging way possible.” It was actually, when I think of it in terms of the UK’s fitness to have relationships with other countries, which at the moment I’m really questioning, a good opportunity for us to go back to the people and say, “ok so this is what you’ve said, you want to leave the European Union, now let’s have citizen assemblies, local votes, local hustings, and drill down exactly what that would look like for you? What kind of Brexit did you want? Did you want to stay in the single market? Did you want to keep the same currency? Did you want a hard Brexit?” All these positions are valid, they’re maybe not mine, but they’re all valid, and there was a real opportunity manage Brexit and made people feel like they were listened to; because I think one of the main problems that led to it in the first place is that people didn’t feel listened to, and they voted for anything but this. So there was a real opportunity to turn that around, and it was completely missed because the Conservative government decided that “we’re going to decide what Brexit we have, we’re going to make it really extreme, really right wing.” And that did absolutely nothing to to reconcile the people who voted remain, and it created chaos in parliament which has now alienated a lot of the people who voted leave.

That has by far been the biggest issue; and not just that, but also how the politicians conduct themselves in Westminster: the fighting, the arguing, the disrespect shown for various politicians. I’m not a member of the SNP and I don’t support a lot of their policies, but I do find it really offensive when a member of the SNP gets up to speak in parliament and basically everybody gets up and leaves. That happens. If Ian Blackford gets up to speak, the Tory benches just get up and leave, because they’re not interested in what Scotland has to say via the medium of Ian Blackford. They’re looking at what’s happening and think that it’s an absolute shambles, and we’re not getting anything done. People are going abroad and finding they can’t get any currency for the pound anymore.

My background is in finance but also project management, and I was always very good at getting stuck into a situation that had become ridiculous, and going “right ok, we are where we are, we just need to figure out how to get out of this mess.” And then try to get people on board with that; because I’ve got people skills, negotiating skills, compromise skills, nine times out of ten most people would come with me. And when most people are with you, you don’t need to worry about the few stragglers who will oppose you no matter what you do or say, because they’re determined not to take any part in it. That’s what I think I would bring to the role of MP for Edinburgh West: somebody who can go right in there and sort it.

Image: via Elaine Gunn