Natalie Bennett: The Greens are looking for power

The leader of the Green Party on why she believes they offer the best alternative to the three main parties

September 12, 2014
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At the Green Party conference, delegates are making the most of the late summer sun, lounging about the garden of Birmingham's Aston University Conference Centre dressed in beige jackets and nice cardies, a few reading battered copies of the Guardian's Saturday Review section. Inside the foyer, there's none of the corporations or think tanks you'll find descending on mega-sized venues around the country later this month to see and be seen with at the Conservative, Labour and the Liberal Democrat conferences. The only people here are representatives from a few charities and a steady stream of cheerful looking green activists. There is a stall for the West Midlands Vegan Fest 2014, too. You'd struggle to get hold of a “vegan Mars bar” at your average Policy Exchange reception.

But maybe that's all set to change. The serenity of their conference aside, the Greens are gearing up for war. The big story of May's European Elections may have been the rise of Ukip, but the Greens came out rather well too, gaining one MEP (to add to their previous two) at a time when the Green group across the European Parliament lost seven, and taking a higher share of the vote than the Liberal Democrats. Their national poll standings aren't nearly as impressive as Ukip's, but are better than they've had for some time; they are sitting at 5 per cent of the vote in YouGov's voting intention polls, compared to the 2 per cent they were at a year ago. Leading the charge for the Greens is 47-year-old Natalie Bennett, party leader since 2012, whose conference speech attracted coverage that focused not on environmental policies so much as a wider election platform pitched at the disenfranchised and those disillusioned with Westminster politics.

I meet Bennett at the conference to discuss her plans. Despite having a lower public profile than Caroline Lucas, the former leader who has served as the party's only MP since the last election, Bennett has overseen an almost 50 per cent growth in party membership in two years, from 12,500 when she took over to 18,547 now. She's a somewhat overwhelming presence, speaking at a rattling pace as she offers me a tea or coffee from the machines in the press centre. She's not someone you'd necessarily warm to in a television debate, but as our conversation gets going she becomes engaging in her intensity. In the course of one sentence, her face will often express more emotion than David Cameron's has in his entire career, her sharp-featured, piercing stare regularly giving way to a broad smile or a dismissive grimace. She gets swept up in the discussion, gleefully returning fire on my more combative questions.

Her speech, delivered to the conference a day before we meet, got attention in the mainstream press mostly for headline policy announcements on wealth and labour inequality; a minimum wage hike, the introduction of a wealth tax on assets of more than £3m, and the banning of zero hours contracts. Is she joining David Cameron in ditching “the green crap?”

“Absolutely not,” she says, pointing out that her speech calls on David Cameron to attend UN Climate talks in New York on the 23rd September before it gets into the money stuff. But, she says, the party's philosophy is based on the interlinking of the social, the economic and the environmental. HS2, the proposed high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham which the Greens oppose, is a good example. “It's immensely environmentally and economically destructive in that it focuses even more attention on London,” she says. She'd rather scrap it and invest instead in “[encouraging] walking, cycling, local buses, local trains crisscrossing the country.... those things are good for building local businesses, strengthening local economies and... have all sorts of positive social impacts. So it all fits together.” On the Green Party's policy site, a statement about its philosophy suggests that a healthier environment would be just one effect of the socially just society it hopes to build.

Still, Bennett concedes, they have to put some effort into making sure the media doesn't see them as a single-issue party: “there is a lot of quite lazy media around that is always keen to put me on the telly with a picture of a polar bear or a wind farm behind me, or—on really good days—the rubbish tip.” The party hasn't had the best relationship with the media; in the run-up to the European Elections they might not have been subjected to the mauling Ukip had, but instead they barely figured at all. Surely the BBC, at least, as a public broadcaster should have given more time to a party that ended up beating one of the two parties of government? Bennett reckons the voters spoke with their actions at the ballot box—she hasn't run the numbers, but says she suspects you'd find the Greens got more votes per minute of BBC coverage than any other major party. She is cautious about criticising the BBC—as a former Guardian and Times journalist she says she has “sympathy” with them because she knows “how much pressure they are under from the right wing media... any time they run anything that vaguely represents often the views of the majority of the British public they'll get slammed.” But she says that “it's [still the BBC's] responsibility to be stronger in representing the diversity of views of the British public and British politics.” In the past, Bennett has backed a petition, which attracted more than 45,000 signatures, calling for the BBC to end its “media blackout” on the party, according to Blue and Green Tomorrow. I'm told she's in talks with youth voting organisation Bite the Ballot about doing events involving direct communication with young voters—natural green voters.

So if the Greens are speaking out on issues which resonate with the British public, what of the party's electoral chances? As Bennett herself points out, policies such as a raised minimum wage and the renationalisation of the railways may get labelled “radical” in the mainstream press, but they are supported by huge swathes of Britons (66 per cent and 60 per cent respectively, according to YouGov). In her conference speech, Caroline Lucas paints the Greens as the only alternative to three identikit main parties. I point out that, with David Cameron racing to the right, Miliband seemingly willing to bash business and the Lib Dems proposing to decriminalise the possession of drugs, the three main parties aren't looking so similar. Bennett disagrees. Cameron may have been dragged right in his rhetoric, she says, but his heart isn't in it.

Miliband, for his part, should have opposed Cameron's introduction of new terror powers (“you don't protect freedom by removing freedom”) and should be speaking out against the potential march to war in Iraq, she says. Interestingly, though, Bennett says her party would potentially enter into a “confidence and supply agreement” after the 2015 election if Labour asked them to (according to Electoral Calculus, there is a 14 per cent chance of Labour seeking coalition with the Lib Dems, and a 12 per cent chance of there being no overall control). This is a deal between parties which falls short of actual coalition—as Bennett sums it up: “you sacrifice the ministerial cars and keep your conscience”—but does involve the junior party agreeing to vote through a budget, so it would require some serious negotiation. Bennett says there would have to be “red lines” agreed between the two parties but won't speculate as to what they might be at this stage.

But if the Greens are looking to offer an alternative platform, won't some voters be shocked by some more obscure aspects of what they are proposing? Bennett is right to say that wage inequality and rail nationalisation are areas in which the public mood is radical. But what about policies like publicly-funded animal rights officers for every local authority, or stopping the prioritisation of skilled applicants for immigration visas? What would a potential convert think of those?

On immigration, polling shows the public as being less liberal than the Greens are. But Bennett says the party is keen to try and change minds on the issue. The immigration debate in its current state is, she says, “dangerous, damaging, and divisive:” damaging because it may have contributed to the 1.5 per cent drop in the number of overseas students coming to English universities this year (the first in 29 years), divisive because a charity she has spoken to has told her of increasing incidences of verbal abuse and worse among Eastern European jobseekers. The main political parties are, in part, to blame she says: they have “both failed morally and also been politically stupid... what they've basically said to people is 'yes Ukip's right.'” In pandering to Farage in their rhetoric on immigration (though not in what they say openly about Ukip), Bennett thinks they have handed him voters.  She agrees when I ask if both Cameron and Miliband have some personal moral responsibility for this swing rightwards in the immigration debate, rather than it being down to rouge elements in their parties.

So on immigration, perhaps, a concerted effort over time could turn the debate around. But if most people read the whole set of policies, would they agree with all of them? “What do people vote on?” she asks, in her only real evasion in our interview. “They vote on economy, education, hospitals.” Besides, she says, an independent survey by the “vote for policies” website, which asks voters to choose a party based on official policies and nothing else, has the Greens at 25 per cent. It's worth bearing in mind that this survey isn't weighted so as an online, free-to-take quiz it's likely to be quite skewed toward the young—natural green voters.

During our interview, Bennett says she won't make predictions for the 2015 election, but during her speech she comes pretty close, saying she is “confident” that Brighton Pavilion will re-elect Caroline Lucas and “Norwich South can send Lesley Graham to join her, while Bristol West can add to the West Country’s tally of Green parliamentarians with Darren Hall.” It's certainly possible they'll do well in these places: all three seats are relatively affluent, and each contains some mix of Green-friendly students, young people and educated people. So are the Green Party looking to get serious power? “We're not a pressure group. We are a political party that's aiming to win power,” she says, “I think British politics is absolutely going to break right open. The future looks nothing like the past... and [because of] that breaking open of British politics, a year or so back I used to say it won't be the 2015 election... But I'm less certain that it's not going to be the 2015 election.”

The Greens are an unashamedly radical party. They aren't just cuddly environmentalists interested in saving the odd tree; on their policy site they call for dramatically more powerful laws to discourage large corporations, the redistribution of wealth and spending powers to small, democratic local bodies and state the principle that “no person and no body should have absolute control of land.” It will take a lot to sell this potentially overwhelming message to the electorate. But, says Bennett, the electorate is after a genuine alternative which isn't as damaging as Ukip—it just doesn't know what it is yet:

“If you look at surveys where people are asked 'do you think your children and grandchildren will have a better life than you will?' those figures are getting radically more negative. I think where voters are at at the moment is a sort of sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach that this all isn't working. This is all broken. And it may not be much more clearly formed than that but they have a sense that things aren't going to continue as they are.”

Could they be looking for the Greens?