Natalie Bennett’s chosen venue for this interview is a community café near where she lives in London, which is very nice and supportive of the local area, but it does mean that the regulars popping in for their lunch are treated to hearing this interview first hand and shoot bemused looks at the fast-talking woman with the piercing Australian accent and big laugh. I wonder if they come to the same conclusion as I do: with her friendliness and willingness to engage in discussion, Bennett comes across as a genuinely nice person who just wants to change the world.
Bennett was elected as the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales in September. Though she has never before held elected office, she’s been involved in Green campaigning since 2005, and seems like a good bet for the party: experience in journalism should make her media-savvy, while a degree in agricultural science gives her credibility on environmental issues.
On her election, she declared her intention to make the Greens the ‘third party’ (the status that Nick Clegg rejects for the Lib Dems, the Greens would gladly take). Bearing in mind that the Greens achieved less than 1% of the vote at the last general election and only have one MP, this does seems overly optimistic, but you have to admire her ambition. Her confidence stems from her certainty that the Greens have “a very distinct political vision that’s unlike anyone else’s political vision,” as well as the electorate’s disillusionment with the main parties: “people are increasingly looking around for new answers and for new people to give those answers.” In her eyes, the “neo-liberal project of the 20th century” with “a grossly unequal economy with unequal wages” has failed, but all is not lost: “somewhere in there we took a wrong turn. But we can turn in a different direction now.”
Disaffected Lib Dem voters seem ripe for the picking, as the Greens oppose tuition fees, nuclear weapons and the war in Afghanistan – “All of the things Lib Dem activists thought they were working for! But the reality is there’s not that many Lib Dem voters even in their heyday, and there’s a lot of Labour voters who we’re after.” Bennett talks of showing them “that we’re a viable alternative,” and claims to be unfazed by our electoral system’s bias against smaller parties, which I find surprising until I remember that she’s hardly going to admit that any vote for the Greens could be ‘wasted’.
What shines through is Bennett’s strong sense of fairness: it’s just not fair that the rich should hog all the resources, or that we should screw over future generations by messing up the planet they will inhabit, or that women should still find themselves disadvantaged (in fact, she says, “my first politics was feminism,” and it’s something she is particularly keen to talk about). It’s all related: “The social and the environmental in my mind have always been very closely tied together because you can’t just go around saying, ‘let the rich continue to prosper, and somehow let’s bring us up to that level.’ Because that’s not physically possible. And so while you allow the wealthy to flourish with huge levels of consumption, then what you have is the poor continue to suffer, and will continue to suffer as the environment gets worse.”
As far as I can see, one of the core ‘green’ issues is how we get our energy. This battle will likely become bigger in the coming years because the infrastructure needs to be renewed; the UK’s old nuclear power stations are about to reach the end of their lives, at which point we will have to plug a yawning ‘energy gap’. The Government and Opposition would like to see that gap filled with a mixture of renewables and nuclear new build. The Greens, unsurprisingly, are not keen on the latter.
Bennett thinks that a lot of the energy gap could be filled if we just conserved more energy, even if this is considered dull: “Insulating houses and putting in double glazing and stuff like that doesn’t produce nice sexy photos that politicians like.” Alas, although this would be a convenient solution, it is blatantly not enough, and so Bennett would like to see a comprehensive network of renewables to fill the gap: “The thing is we know precisely what the fuel is going to cost, forever into the future: zero.”
She can easily reel off the reasons why she doesn’t like nuclear power (commercial lobbying, long development times, expense, finite resources of uranium, and so on). However, there’s an Energy Bill about to go through Parliament which may dramatically restructure the electricity market and supposedly incentivise nuclear new build, and she’s pretty shaky on the details of it. Perhaps this reflects how shockingly complicated it is with feed-in tariffs and Electricity Market Reform and carbon price floors (even industry insiders admit that they don’t fully understand it), but she isn’t overly sure about what the changes might mean, or for that matter what the international situation is; she claims that “pretty much every other country in the world – certainly every other developed country – is going less nuclear or dropping nuclear altogether.” Actually this isn’t entirely true, as various countries including France and Finland are currently building more nuclear power plants.
This all said, she knows there are gaps in her knowledge and she’s very honest about that. I can’t imagine the leader of any other political party confessing to a journalist, “I don’t actually know enough about that to actually know,” or “I shall have to get better on the energy bill I’m afraid.” She’s not a slick seasoned politician and it’s actually quite refreshing.
Some of the Greens would like to label their party ‘socialist’, but their new leader insists they have a “holistic philosophy” of their own: “I have many ideas that people would call socialist, but I wouldn’t say ‘I am a socialist’ because I am a Green.” In fact what she talks about does sound a lot like socialism with environmental policies thrown in, but I can see why she doesn’t want to pin the party down to a word like ‘socialism’ with so much baggage. The Greens need an identity and an ideology to call their own.
Sometimes the Greens are accused of being a one-issue party, but Bennett insists they have the full range of policies: “They’ve always been there, we’ve always talked about them, we haven’t always been heard about them.” Looking at a cross-section of issues – the EU, transport, economic policy, drugs, prostitution and healthcare – it is clear that Bennett is well-versed on them all, with strong opinions and a defined ‘party position’. She’s not a fan of austerity (“when you’re in a hole you don’t keep digging, and we’re very clearly in a hole,”) or of big business (“I think the problem is big business is innately un-green”). She stresses that the Greens aren’t anti-Europe “in a UKIP kind of way,” but is critical of the undemocratic and deregulatory aspects of the EU. Close as she is to socialism, her stance on these issues is not very surprising at all.
The Greens are essentially calling for a complete overhaul of the whole infrastructure of society, and their version of utopia certainly seems attractive; happy citizens cycle and walk to school and work, free of the burden of childcare or low wages, while old people live cosily in their warm insulated houses. Local communities rejoice in their wind turbines, using the profits from selling their spare energy to fund new roofs for village halls. China and other rising nations realise the errors of the Western path to development and find a greener way to expand.
While the cynic in me says that we’re too set in our ways to contemplate such a radical restructuring of society, it’s quite nice to meet a politician who really genuinely believes that the general public can be a force for good. She takes things right back to the beginning: “When there was a small group of homo sapiens on the plains of Africa, facing a whole lot of predators, it’s only by sticking together and protecting each other that we survived. I believe the human race is basically altruistic and community orientated because in the days of sabre toothed tigers and all the rest of it we’d never have survived if we weren’t.” Is she prescient or naive? It seems that time will tell if she’s right.