In spite of her absence from the frontline of British politics since stepping down as leader of the Green Party last year, Natalie Bennett seemed as fired up as ever speaking in a debate at the Cambridge Union about, perhaps somewhat predictably, the environment. In fact, during her speech to an almost full Union chamber, Bennett reflected on her only previous appearance at the Union, which had also been to take part in a debate about environmental issues, back in 2014. Speaking after Thursday’s debate, however, Bennett was keen to stress that her environmentalism cannot be detached from her wider political approach. For her, the idea that there exists such a thing as ‘right-wing greens’ is ‘philosophically incoherent’. What shone through was that, to Bennett, being ‘green’ is about more than just building wind-farms, it’s about social justice, equality and bringing about fundamental changes to society. Taking on the terms of the motion at the Union, namely that ‘This House Would Rather Cool Down the Planet than Heat Up the Economy’, Bennett proposed that we change our idea of what a healthy economy meant. ‘Chasing GDP growth’ she claimed, ‘has not delivered us a stable society, has not delivered us communities where people don’t fear the future’. Instead of chasing elusive growth targets, Bennett believes there can be prosperity without growth. Indeed, she suggested that carbon emissions cannot be decoupled from GDP growth: Britain should instead be focusing on, for example, ‘ensuring everyone has a warm, comfortable, easy-to-heat home’.
Bennett is clearly a conviction politician who believes deeply in her cause and has a strong activist streak. When I brought up some of the issues championed by green activists in Cambridge, such as the Zero Carbon Society’s efforts to persuade the University to divest from fossil fuel companies, she was approving. However, she admits it to be a problem that the Green Party has thus far found itself excluded from many of the main decision-making bodies where it could make a tangible impact on policy, particularly Westminster. When I put it to her that, as someone who has now made three unsuccessful attempts to become an MP, she might believe that parliamentary politics is the best route to making a lasting impact on environment, she was unequivocal in stating that her party’s priority was getting ‘more Green MPs elected’ to promote their message alongside Caroline Lucas in the House of Commons. Bennett was scathing about Britain’s First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, declaring that it has ‘utterly failed’. Given that under Bennett’s leadership in the 2015 election the Green Party amassed over 1.1 million votes for their one seat (while the Conservative party secured just 34,000 votes for every seat they won) this frustration is understandable. However, the trend in this year’s general election, with the Conservatives and Labour amassing 84.2% of votes cast between them and the Greens’ vote total falling by over half to around 525,000, suggests that FPTP is here to stay in Britain, at least for the immediate future.
Turning to perhaps the most pressing political issue of the day, Bennett declared that last year’s Brexit vote came about in part because of the British public’s genuine and understandable desire to ‘take back control’ of their politics, stemming in part from the unfair electoral system and a fundamental feeling that politics is disconnected from people’s everyday lives. The Brexit vote was not the outcome Bennett and her party had fought for however, and there are many who worry that future British governments won't replicate some of the environmental protection legislation that forms part of EU law. If people’s desire for change is to be redirected towards what Bennett regards as a better future path for the country, the British public ‘have to stop electing the wrong people and hoping they’ll do the right things’. While this may seem a somewhat simplistic, even naïve analysis of Britain’s current politician situation, one couldn’t help but feel that Bennett has a point; after David Cameron’s 2010 coalition went from ‘the greenest government ever’ to ‘get rid of all the green crap’, it is perhaps time that Britain had people in positions of power who will take the environmental challenges of the 21st century seriously.