I’m a few minutes late when I stumble into Parliament’s Meeting Room Q, the line to get through security having taken longer than I’d been expecting. It’s a damp Monday evening and Parliament is in session, but here in Portcullis House – one of the more modern wings of the Palace of Westminster – one MP is soaking up a rare few minutes of silence.
I’ve got no excuses for being late, really, considering the seemingly endless workload of the woman I’m meeting. Co-leader of the Green Party and Brighton Pavilion’s MP, Caroline Lucas is also vice-president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), and has various roles in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. And she’d managed to turn up on time for our interview.
“Oh really don’t worry about it,” she says politely, putting away a pile of papers she’d been flicking through. “It’s actually been quite nice to have a few moments of quiet to myself.”
Since her election to Parliament back in May 2010, Lucas hasn’t had many quiet moments: whether breaking Parliamentary convention by wearing a “No More Page Three” T-shirt during a debate, or fighting for Britain to remain in the EU, as the only Green MP in the country, Lucas has been a tireless campaigner, desperate to get issues she and her party believe in on the agenda.
“It can be frustrating not to have greater leverage in this place,” says Lucas, as we settle down to talk. “There’s a website called Vote For Policies where you're invited to vote for a set of policies: education, health, environment, but it doesn't tell you which party espouses those policies until you've ticked all the boxes.”
According to Lucas, the Green Party comes out top in these polls time and time again, and yet she’s the only politician from the party ever to have been elected as an MP to Westminster. “I don’t feel that I’m here expressing deeply unpopular policies though, it’s not the case at all; people just need the courage to rock the political boat.”
Their lack of seats in Parliament is also not reflective of the Greens' level of actual support: in the 2015 general election they racked up over 1.1 million votes, but our archaic first-past-the-post voting system hits smaller parties like the Greens hard.
“If we’d had a system of proportional representation, a fair system of votes, 2015’s election could have led to somewhere between 20 and 24 Green MPs,” points out Lucas. “What I would like to see is the support for the party that already exists in this country translated into seats in Parliament, so people can see voting Green makes a difference.”
The Green Party is by no means a single issue party; from scrapping tuition fees to nationalising the railways, to imposing rent caps and a £10 minimum wage, they have a seriously progressive platform, but it’s the environment that sits at the heart of nearly everything they do.
“It does often feel like we are sleepwalking towards disaster,” says a frustrated Lucas, “and it’s incredibly difficult to know how to wake up some of the other MPs to the scale of the problem.”
I’d asked what it was like, despite knowing we’re facing the impending doom of climate change, to see the issue so often pushed to the bottom of the parliamentary pile.
“It’s not only that we’re not doing the right thing, we’re actively doing the wrong thing when it comes to issues like fracking,” she continues. “We’re trying to extract every last bit of unconventional fossil fuel out of the ground while scientists tell us we need to leave 80% of known fossil fuels in there to have any chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.”
As a bell goes off somewhere in the building, Lucas argues that MPs are unable to make connections when it comes to climate change; many happily stood up to make grand speeches in the run-up to the Paris climate talks, but the next week they’d be voting to build another runway at Heathrow Airport, or putting their support behind the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point.
“There is a surreal quality to being here,” she sighs, “and sometimes we’ve talked about what we could do to wake people up. I’m not averse to using a bit of direct action, we’ve not done anything yet, but if we could find the right moment it feels like the place needs shaking up, it really does.”
Lucas doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to protest; time and time again she has put her body on the line to stand up for causes she believes in. She was arrested in the 1980s as part of a nationwide plan to slash fences at military bases; charged again for an anti-nuclear weapons action in Scotland’s Faslane in 2007. But it was her arrest in the summer of 2013 that attracted the most attention, given that at the time she was a serving MP.
“You were asking a moment ago about the frustration of being in this place,” Lucas tells me, when I ask how she ended up getting nicked. “I think one of the areas of most supreme frustration is about fracking. The reason I joined others who were at Balcombe protesting by taking peaceful direct action is because it really did feel like every other tool that I had here had been exhausted, and it was getting us nowhere.”
In August 2013, after months of protests in the Sussex countryside on the frontline of the fight against fracking, she was arrested alongside others for public order offences and obstructing a highway.
“I do recognise that as an MP I am in a privileged position to ask questions in PMQs, sign Early Day Motions, or use Private Members Bills,” she says, thinking back. “But it felt important to put my body where my mouth was.”
She talks of the support and solidarity from those around her as she was quickly handcuffed; how much the “Brighton supports Caroline” posters meant to her as she sat through her trial (and acquittal) in court.
“But there must have been a moment,” I ask, “when you thought ‘Oh shit, what have I done?'”
“Well, the next day I was worried,” she replies. “There was a phone-in radio programme on BBC Radio Sussex, by no means a radical radio station, and they were doing a phone-in on what people thought about the fact I’d been arrested.”
“I took such hope from the fact that so many people phoning in were so supportive.”
For the next 20 minutes we speed through a whole array of topics, from Brexit (she wants a softer one, begrudgingly) to veganism (she’s vegetarian at the moment, an aspiring vegan but it’s hard when you’re on the go). “I do love cheese and chocolate too, though,” she adds, “but I genuinely think you have to work a lot harder to be vegan when you’re always on the move. It’s a failing though, and I’m aware of it.”
It’s almost 7pm by the time I clock our interview is overrunning; Lucas had noticed, but had let us carry on. Most of us can’t wait to sprint out the office at the end of the day, but this MP takes the opposite approach to her work.
“I don’t think I have a good work/ life balance,” she says bluntly. “I think it matters slightly less now my kids are grown up, which is sad in a way because I loved having them at home. I don’t know any party leader that would have a good balance, though.”
I point out that, during the EU referendum campaign, my boyfriend noticed her wearing the exact same outfit for two days running, and I ask whether she’d spent the night at the office rather than waste time travelling back to the south coast. She doesn’t deny it, but laughs and tells me she’s “very sorry” nonetheless. What little downtime Lucas does have she spends with her new rescue dog: "Taking him for walks across the Sussex countryside is the perfect respite."
Conscious that we could spend all night talking, and she may well let us, I start to pack up and say my goodbyes, but not before posing one more question. “I won’t ask you that cliched question about what it’s like being a woman in Parliament,” I say to her, as she looks appreciative, almost rolling her eyes. “But what would you say to young women today thinking of entering politics?”
“I would say take a deep breath, and please do your very best to come and join us,” she says firmly. “It won’t change until we have more women here. If you were talking to the likes of Harriet Harman she’d tell you how much better it is now than when she first started – progress is happening but it’s painfully slow.
“More and more parties are aware they have more to do to be representative. There’s an awareness we are impoverishing ourselves by being exclusive.”