Posted Under: Environment,Green Party,GreenFeed,Labour,Liberal Democrats,Tories
Natalie Bennett was elected leader of the Green Party of England and Wales earlier this month. The Third Estate talks to her about her priorities, the future of the party and how she hopes to make it a more radical and national force than ever before.
Under the leadership of Caroline Lucas, the party’s first ever MP, the Greens became a serious choice for many voters dissatisfied with Labour and disgusted by the Tories. In continuing to build on the Greens’ successes, however, Bennett does not think it is good enough to borrow protest votes from other parties as they have in the past.
“A Labour or a Lib Dem voter who comes over to us for one election because they are understandably unhappy about their party can easily drift back at the next election when their leader changes or circumstances have shifted,” says Bennett. “If however we have persuaded them of where we’re coming from we’re on the way to creating a far more formidable electoral base.”
That means saying things the other parties will not.
“It’s time we stopped treating the planet like a mine and a dumping ground, while discarding the poorest like rubbish,” she says. “Politically I want to see the Green Party talk about its distinct, radical politics – presenting a positive vision and developing committed Green voters and supporters.”
Under Bennett’s leadership, the Greens will defend people with disabilities against benefit cuts, oppose the scapegoating of immigrants, call for the renationalisation of the railways and support the October 20 strikes. She wants to reshape the economy to re-localise British industry and rein in the “out of control” financial and banking sectors.
“We have to tackle the false economies of austerity – cuts that hurt the poorest and most vulnerable whilst undermining the economy – while also making it clear that we can’t and shouldn’t want to go back to the spending priorities of 2006 – we need to build an entirely new framework built around local communities.”
Sweet Caroline, good times… could be even better
Bennett praises the fantastic job Lucas is doing as MP for Brighton Pavillion, but says the Greens need to send more MPs to join her in the House of Commons to create a truly national party rather than one confined to a handful of strongholds.
“The first step is winning six or more MEPs in 2014, seven when you count Scotland, spreading our representation across the country,” she says. “The second step is ensuring we develop at least ten Westminster seats where we are seen are a credible opposition.”
Bennett herself has stood for election a number of times – in the 2006 and 2010 Camden Council elections, in the last General Election, in the 2012 London Assembly elections – and although she has yet to win a seat, it has not dented her determination.
“Over the next two years, the length of my term, I’m going to concentrate on getting other people elected although it is likely that I’ll be running for the London Assemby and Parliament again in the not-so-distant future,” she says.
As the Greens’ only MP and its first leader, Lucas arguably has a higher profile than anyone else in the party. In stepping down, she hoped to allow others to build their public profiles in the limelight and Bennett is keen to take that opportunity.
“Caroline still has a massive job on her hands as our sole representative in Parliament and in ensuring we hold Brighton Paviliion in 2015,” says Bennett. “By stepping down as leader she created the opportunity for others to help develop the party and be seen in the media – there aren’t many party leaders who step down when they don’t have to or are keen to ensure other voices are heard just as loudly as hers. Her action is both a credit to her and a demonstration of how Greens do politics differently.”
Bennett believes the division of labour between the two of them should work well with her own role to focus on the party and getting more greens elected at every level and Lucas’ role to keep that key seat and keep holding the government – and the Labour opposition – to account for their actions in the House.
“What’s happened is a strengthening of the party by the drawing in of more voices,” says Bennett.
While Bennett wants to see the Greens’ holding Labour and the Conservatives to account, she says her party keeps an open mind when it comes to working with others to achieve common aims. She points out that Green councillors up and down the country work on a case by case basis with members of all the other main parties on specific issues and she wants that to continue.
“I really admire Salma Yaqoob and Leanne Wood of Plaid, for example, and I hope we can find ways of working with each other in the future,” she says.
On policy matters, Bennett is in favour of outlawing or heavily regulating ecologically dangerous practices like fracking – the controversial method of extracting shale gas.
“Governments have a powerful role in kick starting important projects and protecting our natural environment – as well as tackling carbon emissions,” she says. “I would like to see us beef up our carbon tax regime but don’t see it as the central mechanism to cut our emissions by 90% by 2030 – we’re going to have to provide positive alternatives rather than simply heavily taxing emissions. We need carrots as well as sticks.”
Given its name and origins, the Greens have had to fight hard to shake off their reputation as a single-issue party. Bennett believes the key to doing this is fighting on every front and she passionately believes that they must make their voice heard far more clearly on a range of issues. She says the party has always had these policies and it has talked about them, but it hasn’t always been heard. But that does not mean talking any less loudly about the environment.
“But we need to also keep talking about the environment, not just climate change but also soil degradation, loss and pollution of fresh water supplies, the destruction of biodiversity,” says Bennett. “Because if we neglect these issues no one else is going to stick up for the planet.”
“Whether its transport, manufacturing, banking, abortion rights or libraries we need to be there putting forward our distinct politics and providing an alternative to the mainstream politics that has served the public so badly in the past decade,” she adds.
The Greens are unambiguously a party of the left and a radical one. And in an era of polarising austerity, tax breaks for the rich and public service cuts for the poor, there are a great many people willing to hear what Bennett and her party are saying. Success will depend on how loud they can shout.