There’s no denying the surge in Green Party support in the lead-up to the 2015 election.
At the centre of the surge, party leader Natalie Bennett fought a valiant campaign, driven by true conviction, and a need to communicate issues that are becoming increasingly important to all of us.
Now the smoke from the election has cleared somewhat, After Nyne sent Daniel David Gothard to meet Natalie, who, he professed afterwards, was engaged, engaging, positive and passionate. What follows is an After Nyne exclusive interview.
The upcoming Labour leadership election – do you have a preference of candidate yet? How would you like to see the party shift?
I think it would be very strange if as Green Party leader I were to tell Labour Party members how I think they should vote. But it is no secret that I often share platforms with Jeremy Corbyn on issues such as immigration, opposition to austerity and nuclear disarmament.
The Labour Party’s recent stance on the benefits cap (when a High Court judge concluded that the old, higher, cap put Britain in breach of its obligations under the UN Children Rights’ Convention) and benefits for third and subsequent children is I think very damaging to public trust in politics and I hope that it will be reversed. It went into the last election as “Tory-lite” – that’s not good for British politics.
Do you see political alliances – with perhaps Plaid Cymru and The SNP – as the way forward for a more progressive form of politics and as a method of challenging the iniquities of the first past the post system?
1 million Green votes, under proportional representation would have given the Green Party 25 MPs. The answer to first-past-the-post is electoral reform to change to a proportional system. There’s strong public support for this, after the least proportional general election result in history. And after the SNP landslide in Scotland, there’s likely to be a renewed appetite within Labour for it. We’re now in the age of multiparty politics, and the first-past-the-post system is clearly past its use-by date. Of course with a Tory government in place, it’s not terribly likely that they are suddenly going to concede the power of the argument – just look what happened to Lords’ reform in the last parliament. (And having an unelected second chamber has to be considered a major embarrassment to our democracy.)
But it is important that we keep up the pressure, keep talking about and campaigning for reform, because the Tories only have a tiny majority, which is already looking fragile, and we’re clearly headed into a period of major political change. As for working together with other parties, that’s something the Green Party has always done – we’re in politics to see our policies implemented, and we’re happy to work with representatives of other parties to see that happen.
I think the links between us, Plaid Cymru and the SNP during the election were a model for the future, for new grown-up politics in an age of proportional representation: we were competing against each other in elections, setting out our separate visions, but also acknowledging that in places they overlapped. It was a real change from our traditional Punch and Judy politics.
The Green surge – in membership levels, national votes and in local elections – has been incredible. Even though a huge number of people may agree with Green policies they may still have doubts about voting Green – which seems odd. Why do think this might be happening and do you have a plan to challenge entrenched and old-fashioned opinions of the Green Party?
I agree that the Green surge was incredible! When I look back at when I was elected two and a half years ago, the Green Party had about 12,000 members, yet it now has 67,000. Our first-past-the-post electoral system leaves many genuine supporters hesitant about voting Green – although more and more are coming to the view that to get real change you have to vote for what you believe in.
As for challenging traditional stereotypes, I think more and more voters are aware of policies such as making the minimum wage a real living wage (not George Osborne’s imitation version), renationalising the railways and opposing the privatisation of the NHS and other public services, although there’s still more work to do. And we’re also battling a traditional tribalism, particularly among older voters, who may direct their vote more through tradition than belief in policy, but again the surveys show this is changing fast. And we have very strong support among young voters – and they keep coming through year after year!
What methods did you employ to cope with the scrutiny, fatigue and personal aspects of the General Election campaign?
Doing the next thing next, not looking back too much, and occasionally getting time to bake a cake. (I bake a mean lemon polenta cake.)
How did you feel about some media figures berating you for not talking at greater length about environmental issues during the recent election? Was it frustrating they seemed to lack an awareness the Green Party needed to campaign on all the major policy issues?
I think there’s sometimes a very narrow view of what “environmental” issues are. Talking about properly funding public transport and bringing railways back into public ownership so they are run for the benefit of passengers, not shareholders, somehow wasn’t seen as talking about the environment in some quarters. That’s even though giving people the far more pleasant and convenient option of reliable public transport that runs at an affordable price when and where people need it, allowing them to leave their cars at home, or even get rid of them, clearly is one key element of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as cutting air pollution and making our streets more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly.
And talking about mass home energy efficiency schemes, giving people warm, comfortable, affordable to heat homes, which would cut carbon emissions, create tens of thousands of jobs, and tackle fuel poverty, also was somehow seen as “not talking about the environment”. But it is also important to make it clear to voters that the Green Party has a complete suite of policies, and many that will be hugely attractive to many voters. I know many chose to vote Green because of our education policies: not just no undergraduate tuition fees, but also our opposition to free schools and academies, our determination to reverse the push to make our schools exam factories, our focus on education for life (including sex and relationship education, nutrition, personal finance etc).
And others chose to vote Green because of our stance on nuclear weapons, on protecting human rights, and particularly on having a decent, humane immigration system, which recognises the rights of refugees and the rights of British people to live with their family in their own country. Also, to get a debate going requires the participation of other people. I was sad, and surprised, that in the three and a half hours of leader debates, not one other leader found space for the two words “climate change”. And that biodiversity loss was only mentioned by me, squeezing it into a space that I had to force open. 2014 was the hottest year on record and NASA has recently reported the ongoing collapse of the Antarctic ice shelf.
World leaders talk ‘a good game’ relating to reducing carbon emissions, etc. Do you see any glimmer of real hope in the fight against climate change?
Yes, particularly internationally, I see real signs of progress, and attitude change. From the perspective of Britain, it is easy to feel depressed, but much of the rest of the world is powering ahead with renewable energy. That makes it a tragedy in economic as well as environmental terms that Britain is being left behind. Last year in China 48% of new electricity generating capacity was from renewables, and coal consumption has fallen rapidly. New records are set regularly in many European countries for renewables – Denmark at 140% of electricity demand from wind alone is just one recent example.
Of course we’d like to be further advanced in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and dealing with many other pressing environmental issues from soil degradation to ocean pollution to biodiversity loss, but awareness of the urgency is growing fast. And renewables are starting to find a place even on purely financial grounds, fossil fuel divestment campaigns are gaining ground rapidly, the real cost of fossil fuels and the massive subsidies they enjoy are starting to become better known, a young generation is becoming more sceptical about consumption … there’s a lot to celebrate.
We need to go into the Paris talks pushing for the best possible result, while acknowledging that it won’t be good enough. But that’s not a cause for despair, rather an incentive to keep campaigning, keep pushing as hard as we possibly can. For it is clear that our current economic model isn’t working even in its own terms, and we need to fix that and our environmental and social problems through change heading in one direction, towards a society, a world, that works for the common good, within the environmental limits of our one fragile planet.
You have created a large and very high profile position for the Green Party. What do you have planned next to increase a Green presence on the local, national and international political stages?
Our focus starts, as always, with the local. We’re aiming to build the strength and capacity of local Green parties, to ensure they can work with the enthusiasm and energy of all of our new members. We also want to ensure we can support, encourage and represent the growing surge of political activism since the election that I’ve seen as I go around the country, and that was very evident in the enormous anti-austerity march in London last month, at which the Green Party had a major presence.
And there are exciting electoral prospects next year, with the proportional Wales Assembly elections, at which we have a great chance to win our first Assembly members in Cardiff and local elections (also proportional) in London, and big polls in Bristol, Liverpool and Sheffield, all areas where we finished second in general election seats and will be seeking to build on that. And our sister party in Scotland is also very much looking forward to the proportional Holyrood elections, where we’ve got a great chance to very significantly grow our number of MPs. Internationally, we’ll be seeking to work with other Green parties and campaigners, particularly on the Paris climate talks, but also far more broadly.
We’re seeing a general growth in the Green politics movement around the globe – ranging from very brave challenges by the Rwandan Green Party to challenges to that fragile state’s constitution, to the founding of Jamaica’s Green Party, to the success of the HDP, of which Greens are a part, in Turkey. Caroline Lucas has managed to carve out a position of great support and respect in the Commons.
How best can the Green Party use that credibility to influence governmental policy details?
Caroline really is amazing – the slew of “MP of the year” awards she won in the last parliament, with the strong support she won from the voters of Brighton Pavilion, is clear evidence of that. To pick out just two examples, Caroline’s been winning broad support from her bill to introduce statutory PHSE (Personal Health Social and Economic) education in state-funded schools, and also for her cross-party NHS Reinstatement Bill.
It’s interesting that there were in George Osborne’s “jackdaw” budget a number of Green policy proposals from the election. His offer is not a real living wage, but a Tory Chancellor conceding the principle that the minimum wage should be a living wage, however imperfectly he’s implementing it and however much it is outweighed by horrific benefit cuts, is an important step forward for campaigners. The Green Party has been calling for the minimum wage to be a living wage for many years.
And his cut to tax relief for mortgage interest for private landlords is a step towards reining in the excesses of this sector and the excessive benefits landlords have got from the government. Greens propose ideas – we first get mocked, then get copied. We’re used to that.
Join Natalie on Twitter @natalieben