Interview with Green Party leader Natalie Bennett
by Ian Sinclair
25 February 2015
It’s been an extraordinary rise. From 25,000 members at the start of December, in three months the Green Party of England and Wales has more than doubled its membership to around 53,500 today.
Speaking to me in a smart north London pub, the Australian-born leader Natalie Bennett argues the surge in support is down to people looking at the three main parties and thinking “Well, there’s really no answers there, we need something different, we need real change.” She notes that ex-Labour and Liberal Democrat voters have been joining, along with many young people and some former Tories concerned about fracking.
YouGov polling is now regularly placing the Greens above the Liberal Democrats. One recent Ipsos Mori poll even put them ahead of UKIP, making them the third most popular political party with nine percent of the vote.
“The debate about the debates gave us a little bit of oxygen, a little bit of air, a little bit of publicity”, Bennett, 49, says about the discussions revolving around the televised general election leader debates. Currently, she is set to represent the Greens in two of the three debates, with the final event a head to head between Labour’s Ed Miliband and Prime Minister David Cameron. She expects to take part in mock debates to prepare. “At the moment I’ve got a large number of people lining up to play their favourite hate figure”, she quips. Does the Green Party employ a stylist? “There are various people advising me on my wardrobe, inevitably”, she says, chuckling. “Presentation, sadly, is an important part of politics, so we’ve got to live with that.”
So what Green Party policies will she be highlighting in the debates and during the election campaign?
“There is a very obvious focus on making the minimum wage a living wage. We should have a £10 an hour minimum wage by 2020.” She also refers to “jobs you can build a life on – that means not zero-hour contracts, full time if you want full time.” The Green Party also has a broad “anti-privatisation agenda”, including opposing and seeking to reverse the privatisation of the NHS, and bringing the railways back into public ownership. She talks about promoting walking and cycling, local bus services and giving people viable alternatives to the car. “We’ve announced we’d like to take a significant proportion of the funds this government would like to spend on road building and put it in to cutting train and bus fares by 10 percent, helping encourage people on to more sustainable forms of transport.” This, she explains assuredly, “would also tackle air pollution issues, which would also tackle health issues.”
Bennett has good reason to be confident. The Vote For Policies website, which polls people on the policies of political parties without those being polled knowing the party connected to the policy, puts the Green Party ahead of everyone else. She also notes a YouGov survey in November revealed that 26 percent of people would vote Green if they had a chance of winning in their constituency in the May General Election, placing them in third place behind the Tories and Labour.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing though. Their policy of a Citizen’s Income of £72 per week, paid to every adult regardless of income, has received quite a bit of criticism. Citing the Citizen’s Income Trust, a recent Guardian report noted that in its current form the policy would hit the poorest hardest. “It will be in the manifesto”, Bennett confirms. And it will be fully costed, though it is a long-term aspiration which would take longer than one parliament to implement. We don’t have time to explore the detail of the criticisms, though she argues “People really need a sense of security, and that’s one of the things Citizen’s Income can offer”.
The Greens have also come under fire from some feminist campaigners keen to outlaw the buying of sex – the Swedish model – for its position on prostitution. “The Green Party supports what is generally known at the New Zealand model – decriminalisation”, she replies. Though she acknowledges this is an issue that many well intentioned people have strong feelings about, she argues decriminalisation is “supported by sex workers and unions representing sex workers” and is the model which “can keep vulnerable women and men most safe.” Interestingly, Caroline Lucas, the only Green MP in parliament, supports the Swedish model. “The Green Party doesn’t whip”, Bennett explains. “We believe in grown up politics. We can cope with that.”
Aswell as holding Lucas’s Brighton Pavilion constituency, the Green Party has a number of other target seats in the upcoming General Election including Norwich South and Bristol West. Bennett herself is standing in Holborn and St Pancras in London. However, due to the UK’s creaking First Past The Post electoral system, there is a strong possibility the Green surge will not translate into any additional MPs. Unsurprisingly, this clearly frustrates Bennett. “One of the key things that I think is certain to come out of this election is the First Past The Post electoral system is going to be a certain loser”, she says. “I think there will be a strong push for electoral reform” because “quite a lot of people for who electoral reform has never crossed their lips are going to find their local MP has been elected with not much more than 25% of the vote.”
But while the Green Party may not gain anymore MPs, the Guardian recently crunched the polling data and predicted an increase in the Green vote could make a Tory win more likely. Bennett pushes for a wider analysis: “I think we have through generations in Britain been trained by the First Past The Post electoral system to vote for something that wasn’t what we really wanted, sometimes the thing we disliked the second most, to stop the thing we really hated getting in.
“That’s actually what has given us the kind of politics we have now. It means you have a Labour Party that is pretty hard to distinguish from the Tory Party – certainly in terms of policy if not necessarily always in rhetoric. If voters keen doing the same thing they are going to keep getting the same kind of politics.”
Her simple solution is to encourage voters to ditch tactical voting: “It’s possible to have a peaceful political revolution if voters decide to vote for what they believe in”.
I end by asking a few personal questions. What recent non-fiction books would she recommend to voters? James Meek’s critique of privatisation Private Island, Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth: Economics For A Finite Planet and the ground-breaking Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, are her answers. And the most ungreen thing she does? “I probably like a long shower, which is probably less than ideal.” A seasoned interviewee, she uses my frivolous question to make a serious point about Green Party politics: “What we want to see is structural change that makes the environmentally friendly thing to do the easiest and cheapest and simplest thing to do. So it’s not a case of telling individuals they should change their behaviour.”
“We need to change the whole way society works.”