Natalie Bennett and the 'peaceful revolution'

Image credit: Chris Williamson
Image credit: Chris Williamson

Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and one of British Politics’ insurgent figures, is pretty chilled out. No interview has been formally scheduled as I saunter up to the Cambridge Union’s doors half an hour prior to her scheduled speech on a fairly bland Wednesday afternoon, but after a few minutes of message relaying between myself, the Union’s Press Office, and Bennett, it transpires she’s happy to chat, timetabled or nay. One can’t help but feel her counterparts in other parties might not do things in the same way.

She successfully combines an alert, quick-thinking disposition with actually being an incredibly nice person to chat to, and sitting across the Dining Room table with her feels like the sort of thing you ought to do more often, but with a cup of coffee and a biscuit. That being said, I’ve barely finished the first question on what she believes to be the UK’s most pressing issues before she responds quickly and clearly.

They’re all interrelated. We have a situation where Britain has four crises - the economic crisis, [that] we haven’t dealt with the problems of the banks, as the story that came out today in terms of the incredibly fraud-ridden, corrupt nature of the City [showed], the social pressure of inequality, the fact that so many people, more than 20% of people aren’t paid a living wage, environmentally we’re using the resources of three planets and we’ve only got one planet.

“Politically, people are thoroughly fed up with a system that’s failing. All of those things are linked together by the fact that we’ve basically been following the neoliberal model, and the Thatcherite model for the past 30+ years, and it’s failed.” It’s a narrative she reiterates during her speech, adding that we are at “a point of enormous possibility” to actually do something about these four concurrent crises.

“We have to solve all of these things together. If we start to think about solutions, what we have to do is drastically reign in the banks and end up with a much smaller financial sector that actually serves the needs of the real economy. Socially speaking, you know, the rich have got to stop taking such a big slice of the cake, and we have to make sure that everyone has enough of the cake and that means decent wages and the rich people and big multinational companies paying their taxes.” Throwing down the gauntlet, she describes Amazon as a “parasite” that is “freeloading on our society” to a room full of frequent, if now rather guilty, impoverished student-loan’s-just-come-in Amazon customers, and notes that tax intake from big companies is down 14% since 2010.

“Environmentally, of course, we have to really change the way we treat the environment. That means things like [the fact that] we have the leakiest homes in Western Europe. Insulate and put in energy efficient measures into every home that needs it, which also cuts fuel poverty. [That’s a] good demonstration of how things fit together, because that would also potentially create 200,000 jobs. It’s the classic Green problem that everything’s interrelated with everything else.”

Rebutting the attitudes of quasi-political activists such as Russell Brand, she calls for a “peaceful revolution” at the ballot box, arguing that if everyone actually turned up, and then actually voted for what they believed in, rather than voting tactically, we’d have huge change in this country. She’s not wrong: in the run-up to the 2010 General Election, a tech start-up called Vote for Policies, as you might guess, encouraged people to read through policies without knowing which party had devised them, and vote for their favourite. The results were both decisive and confusing.

Under that system, The Green Party took the biscuit by a reasonably clear margin, with over 26% supporting their policies, followed by Labour with 20%, and the Liberal Democrats with 16%. In Rochester & Strood, home of this week’s next episode in the UKIP saga, the Greens commanded 18% of policy support, but UKIP could only muster 16%.

Bennett describes the party’s electoral strategy as a focussed one: the priorities are to re-elect Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavillion, and to target a further 11 seats, with Norwich South and Bristol West receiving special attention. In the longer term, I ask her how she hopes to expand the party’s voter base beyond the stereotype of students, middle classes, vegans, and fervent environmentalists. “Starting off in Cambridge, I’m quite happy to take lots of votes from students, the middle classes, and from other people too. I mean Cambridge is one of our very strong areas, we got 20% in the European elections here, so Cambridge is a very important seat to us.”

I am however, pleasantly surprised to hear that Green gains are occuring elsewhere. “If you look around the country we’re also running very strong campaigns in Liverpool Riverside, which is quite demographically different to Cambridge. If you look at places like St. Ives, Solihull, Bristol, they’re all different kinds of places, so what’s really happening with the Green Party is we’re growing massively in terms of membership numbers, we’ve just passed 25,000 members of England & Wales, membership is up 80% - eight zero - since the first of January this year.”

With Bennett’s especially fervent campaign to take the constituency of Holborn & St Pancras set to produce interesting results with the departure of the seat’s well-loved veteran Labour grandee, Frank Dobson, I pry somewhat dubiously into her background. Born in Sydney in the ‘60s, she attended an independent girls’ school and studied at Universities in Sydney and Armidale before moving to Britain in 1999.

As to whether that’s particularly shaped her view of British politics, she doesn’t necessarily agree. “I’m not sure there’s a great deal of difference. Much like here we have a largely failing first-past-the-post electoral system in the Lower House, there is at least proportional representation in the Senate in Australia. I suppose this is perhaps partly my Australian cultural background and partly just who I am - I do get called blunt a lot. I tend to call a spade ‘a spade’. That’s possibly partly the culture I grew up in.”

That strong-mindedness comes across in her talk, too. She aspires for a “decent, humane society” in which we should be “providing benefits gladly”, and repeats the line she’s used elsewhere to great acclaim that “politics should be something that you do, not something that’s done to you”. She says “2015’s a whole new ball game”, and that Green Party policies uniquely work “for the common good, not just for the few” in contrast to the “three business-as-usual, identikit parties that are virtually indistinguishable”.

As for the recent phenomenon of the ‘Green surge’ she jokes that "snowballs can roll mighty fast" as they gather weight, though admitting that for her personally it means “I believe in a work/life balance I just don’t have one”. Having watched videos of many of her interviews and speeches, and reading many of her comment pieces in newspapers and blogs just about everywhere, I’m initially a little saddened by the fact that she seems to repeat lots of party ‘slogans’ and ‘messages’ just like any other old “identikit” party leader might. The ‘four crises’ line is certainly one I’ve heard a good few ties, as is the rather good one about politics.

As the interview and the speech progress, though, I have a change of heart. There are still parts of what she has to say, and what her party has to say, that are refreshingly different. She rails the “huge and continuing disaster” of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls for “general progressive taxation” to pay for education at all stages - playgroup to PhD - and reminds us that “our NHS couldn’t work without immigrants: not even for a day”, particularly refreshing in a political landscape that panders to UKIP’s pernicious spin on immigration more and more every day.

Ultimately, I reckon that what many have termed the ‘professionalisation’ of the Green Party, and as such of its leadership (bearing in mind that it has only elected leaders since 2008), is a good thing, if all the better for being punctuated by refreshing moments of clarity.

In a world where insurgencies on the right of the spectrum are gaining vast support, and in which Labour’s rhetoric and ideology seems increasingly dubious and wandering, it can only be a good thing for our politics to have a counterweight on the other side of the spectrum.

As Bennett says, “people are really looking around, actively hunting for alternatives” to the ‘old’ parties. If a sleeker Green Party operation means that people will find those alternatives, rather than shunning the political process entirely, that can only be a good thing.


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