Darren Johnson: 'There are two myths about us: we're a single-issue party and a wasted vote'

The The Monday Interview: Green Party spokesman
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The Independent Online

Darren Johnson was in a dead-end job serving chips in Hull when he decided to join the Green Party. He visited an environmental fair on a day off and, by chance, picked up the party's manifesto. Eighteen years on, he is the Greens' most recognisable public figure, but Mr Johnson is still concerned with chip fat. As one of two Green members of the London Assembly, he is behind a plan to turn greasy chip-oil from London's takeaways into biodiesel to power eco-friendly mopeds and cars.

"Chip fat being poured down the drain by certain unscrupulous fast-food outlets can be a huge problem," he says. "It causes pollution and if it goes into rivers it can kill swans because they can't cope with that level of oil. I have never poured chip fat down the drain in my catering career, definitely not."

Mr Johnson readily admits his early career as a catering assistant was not illustrious. "I can't cook and I have very little interest in food," he says.

Perhaps it was all those burgers and chip butties he served, but he is now a keen proponent of healthy grub. As the only Green member of Lewisham Council he convinced it to go fair trade and he is pushing for national targets for converting farms to organic. Like an eco-charged Jamie Oliver, the former Green candidate for London mayor wants to scrap junk-food school menus and serve healthy organic food.

"It should all be organic it should be locally produced as far as possible," he says. "It should be fresh and there should be vegetarian and vegan options for everyone who wants it."

At his home in south London, where Mr Johnson lives with his partner Dean, a VAT inspector, and his ginger cat Mallaig (named after the Scottish fishing port), the menu is strictly organic. "If you looked round our house you wouldn't think it was some eco-warrior fanatic's den," he says. "We just blend it in to everyday lives. I would like to get green energy in there though."

They may want to convert chip fat and human sewage into fuel for cars, but the Greens at this election are keen to dispel the myth that they are not grown up enough for Westminster and are solely obsessed with the environment. There are scores of councillors, two MEPs, two members (including Darren) of the London Assembly and an amiable elderly Green peer. This time, the party is fielding more parliamentary candidates than ever in London and they hope Brighton Pavilion will become their first Westminster seat.

Mr Johnson, who is standing in one of the party's top target seats of Lewisham Deptford, says people see the party's candidates, including Keith Taylor who is after the Brighton seat as "together people" more than capable of proving influential at Westminster. "One of the stereotypes is that Greens can never get elected so it's a wasted vote, so you completely demolish that myth by getting elected," he says. "The other myth is that we are a single issue party, but people round here have seen the Greens being very highly organised and effective and practical."

Mr Johnson is to keen on dispelling stereotypes of his own, one being that Green candidates are latter-day hippies who want to force everyone in Britain to eat tofu. He may have once dressed up as Ivan the Terrible and driven into an arms fair in a limousine with blacked-out windows in a protest, but Mr Johnson does not conform to the typical green stereotype.

For a start, he is not a vegetarian and instead of sandals and hand-woven hemp socks, he wears sensible city shoes. He also wears a suit (a green one) and a tie (a green one.)

But it is not only his clean-cut countenance that is slightly out of keeping with the image of the party. The London Assembly member is uncomfortable with the party's Euroscepticism and says he will not campaign alongside UKIP and right-wing Tories for a no-vote in on the EU constitution. "There is a danger that we have come across at times as a load of rabid Europhobes," he says. "And I certainly will not be sharing any campaigns with UKIP or Robert Kilroy-Silk.

"I am a passionate about Europe. One of the first motions I proposed as a Green Party member was to reverse our position about withdrawal from the EU which was our policy in the 1980s. It was my motion that changed the party's position in favour of reforming the EU from within."

Mr Johnson seems slightly uncomfortable with the tag of being the "respectable face of the Green Party. And, with embarrassment, he admits he may be the only member of the Greens never to have smoked a joint. "I am probably among the few Greens that haven't," he says. "I have just never been tempted. I am not some total health freak but an avowed non-smoker. I just don't like tobacco, and cannabis is smoked with tobacco."

His abstemious attitude, is not strictly in keeping with the Green party ethos of course. The Greens think cannabis use should be legalised and heroin and cocaine to be struck off as criminal offences. The party's spokesman on drugs was jailed after his private collection of marijuana plants, grown as a statement of principle, was discovered by the police in Brixton.

Yet a glance through the Green Party's manifesto reveals no mention of the policy of decriminalising heroin and cocaine use. There are pages on renationalising the railways and scrapping nuclear power and raising taxes for everyone earning over £50,000. There is one paltry line which says drug-taking should be "a health rather than a crime issue".

Could it be that the Greens, are so keen to look electable they are trying to shove their more inflammatory polices under a hand-loomed natural fibre rug?

Mr Johnson denies this. "We are certainly not hiding our drugs policy but it is important to have a very focused message for this campaign," he says. "It is still absolutely the policy."

At the Assembly, Mr Johnson was for a time Ken Livingstone's environmental adviser, a post he quit after the Mayor did not live up to his commitments. Mr Johnson says he feared he was being used as a "Green fig-leaf" by the Mayor.

As he is speaking, the interview is interrupted by noisy Greens on bicycles. One fellow sits on the floor cross-legged, in what looks suspiciously like a lotus position. A bearded former Labour councillor ambles over for a long conversation with the candidate mid-interview. He is one of the many former Labour supporters who are backing the Greens instead of Tony Blair. The Green policy blueprint is pitched much at appealing to disaffected Labour voters like him.

In fact it looks surprisingly like Labour's 1983 Labour manifesto, famously dubbed "the longest suicide note in history". Mr Johnson says: "There are a lot of similarities with Labour's 1983 manifesto. But Labour's 1983 manifesto was absolutely hopeless when it came to sustainability.

"I find that people who have left the Labour Party and have come to the Greens don't just want rail nationalisation, they embrace the environmental agenda as well."

The manifesto includes radical ideas such as a carbon tax and closing nuclear power stations. But Mr Johnson, who is one of the more "together" Greens, seems rather flummoxed when it comes to costing his programme, including the flagship policy of taking the railways back into public ownership.

"I don't off the top of my head have the full details of renationalising the railways but it is something that has go to be done," he says. "Many of the key spending commitments in the manifesto are in terms of a long-term overhaul. You can't cost that. But the specific initiatives that we are proposing in the early stages have been costed."

He says proposed cuts in defence spending, and scrapping nuclear weapons, ID cards and road-building will bring in "significant savings", adding: "We have this commitment to increase corporation tax for the large companies, increase income tax for the higher earners."

It may not be a costed programme but the Green manifesto contains "the essential themes if we are going to move towards a greener future", he says. "We are not presenting a line by line budget in this election. We are not going to be forming the next government. We are not even standing in enough seats."

The CV

* Born: 1966, Southport, Lancashire

* Educated: Goldsmiths College, University of London

* Career: Worked in fast-food industry then in 1987 became member of the Green Party after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

1988: Accounts clerk, British Transport Advertising, London

2000: Became London

Assembly member

2001: Green Party candidate in Lewisham, Deptford in the general election

2002: Became a Lewisham councillor

2004: The Green Party's candidate for Mayor Of London

2005: Standing as Green Party candidate for Lewisham

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