The Gryphon speaks to Green Party leader Natalie Bennett about the ‘Green surge’, climate change, feminism, and the difficulties facing BME candidates in British politics.
In your recent New Year’s message you stressed that ‘It’s time to turn the Green surge into Green seats’. How is the Green Party planning to do this in 2016? Do you see the Green party asserting itself as anything other than an alternative party in the near future?
Well, of course we have the local elections coming up in May, and when you look in London and Wales, and at our sister party in Scotland, they are all very different elections to last year’s Westminster election. They are fair proportional elections in which people can be utterly confident they can vote for what they want and get it. So for us, starting with those elections, there is a huge opportunity to turn the ‘Green Surge’, that last year saw our membership more than treble, and saw our party receive 1.1 million votes in the general election, which is more than every previous election added together, turned into Green seats in the future. But also, of course, this year there are council elections up and down the country and we have now got much stronger, and many more, local Green Party branches in local areas than we have ever had before. I think many people in all parts of the country really feel like they want more Greens, or perhaps their first Greens on their local council to really be there, challenging, scrutinizing and really making a difference to what are very often very entrenched, very closed environments where people haven’t been often questioned or challenged.
Do you face a challenge to keep the Green Party relevant with the Labour Party’s swing to the left?
The Green Party has often been supported by young voters, a voting base which has recently swelled the Labour membership. I think the change in direction of the Labour Party really is a huge positive for us because it means that politics has opened up, and broadened outwards. We are really seeing the start of the end of neo-liberalism and neo-Thatcherism. Before we were very much out on our own, saying things like ‘bring the railways back into public hands’, even though even a majority of Tory voters also believe in that. But of course we do also have very much a unique Green message – the understanding that we have to live within our environmental limits of our one planet. That ultimately isn’t politics, it’s physics, and we can’t keep chasing after the failed policy of growth. We have to build a much fairer, more equal society, within our planetary limits. In many towns and cities up and down the country we are very much the opposition to the Labour Party, especially now with people questioning them. Whether it’s Liverpool City Council selling off the green spaces for luxury home developments, which is of course a hugely dominant Labour city council, or if you look at Manchester, who seem to be very focused on the airport as some kind of engine for growth, utterly unrealistic as that is, we are the alternative in these places for these coming elections, and as I said, in London, in Wales and in Scotland, there are proportional elections, meaning people can really vote for what they believe in.
In the Party’s 2015 General Election manifesto you pledged to ‘End austerity and restore the public sector, creating over one million jobs that pay at least the living wage’. What is the Green Party’s economic plan? And how will you portray yourself as a party not only to be listened to on environmental issues?
Well I think the election in 2015 was certainly the election we as a party clearly broke clear of that. People understand that Green political philosophy is a complete political philosophy. I think that on many issues, whether it was championing the cause of refugees, and saying that Britain should take its fair share of refugees, or whether it was really championing the cause of disabled people who really suffered under the previous coalition government, we really proved this. In terms of our economic plan, the way in which Britain is operating at the moment simply isn’t sustainable. We can’t keep having big multi-national companies, from Google to Amazon and Starbucks, not paying their fair share in taxes, being effectively parasites while the rest of us pay for the roads, for the hospitals, for the schools etc. We need big multi-national companies and rich individuals to pay their way, which they are not doing at the moment. We cannot continue on this path. Even organizations like the IMF and the World Bank are saying that economic inequality is actually a threat to economic stability.
The government has recently scrapped student maintenance grants without a parliamentary debate. Your party has proposed scrapping university tuition fees. What is your alternative?
We believe in no university tuition fees on a matter of principle. Education is a public good, it should be paid for by general progressive taxation. Far more progressive than it is now. If you look at the current situation it is clearly unsustainable. Even before the changes to grants, 73% of students are not going to pay their loan back, about 50p in the pound of those loans will never be paid back. This is a profoundly unsustainable, unworkable model and this means that young people are now facing thirty years of their life, usually from their mid-twenties to their mid-fifties, with that weight of debt weighing down on their shoulders. Any year at all you make any sort of money, 9% of that goes off to pay back part of your loan, which you will never actually pay off, and of course those are the years you are perhaps thinking about settling down, buying a house (if you are outside London), and having a family, all while you have that weight of debt, dragging you down the whole time. The Green Party is opposed to fracking, and obviously promotes a greater onus on the use of renewable energy.
How realistic is it to see the UK switch to primarily relying on renewable energy sources in the near future?
I think it is extremely realistic, indeed it is unrealistic to continue on the government’s, what you could call, ‘fracking fantasy’. There has been talk of fracking for years, and there has been huge and growing resistance wherever they have tried to frack. Communities have said that this is simply unsuitable for Britain, and as communities find out about the local impact of fracking they are increasingly aware that we simply cannot frack and stick within our limits in terms of carbon emissions. Also we are losing huge opportunities in terms of other forms of energy industry. Solar installers, insulation installers etc – jobs and opportunities have been lost. If you take for example the proposal for a tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay, the first in a proposal of five which could provide 9% of our electricity needs, the government, after a flush of enthusiasm, have put the brakes on that, and that’s a whole industry that we could be developing in Britain and exporting to the rest of the world. The current government’s energy policies are deeply economically destructive, as well as environmentally destructive.
How do you feel about the agreement on climate change made at the Paris Conference of last year? Does it do enough?
Are you optimistic that the world is starting to make positive steps towards tackling climate change? The Paris climate talks were a huge and actually quite surprising success. The fact that we came out with the 1.5 degree limit to global warming was a huge achievement, and really quite a surprise. We are now living in a 1 degree globally warmed world. We have seen the realities of that over Christmas and the New Year in terms of the British climate with the floods and extreme weather across the north of the country. I was just listening to BBC radio saying that the rhubarb industry in Yorkshire is having real troubles because it hasn’t had frost this year. Of course, there were a lot of things not in the Paris talks that should have been. For example the promises made by governments there came to actually about 3.4 degrees of warming, but what the key is now is to really push people around the world – campaigners and individuals who get that we really need this change, to really push governments, and particularly our government, to act. I was just talking about renewable energy, and energy conservation is a complete no-brainer. The best possible energy to have is the energy you don’t need to use – the cleanest, greenest, best all round. But this government has utterly failed to act on energy conservation, which would ensure everyone would have a warm, comfortable and affordable heated home. In the past you have expressed your dissatisfaction with the UK’s current ‘First past the post’ voting system, due to its disproportional nature.
What voting and electoral reform would you ideally make, and would you ever want to see the introduction of an Australian-style ‘compulsory’ voting system to improve voter turnout?
On the compulsory voting system first of all, I am not in favor of this, because this suggests that the problem is the voters and I do not think that this is the case. As we saw in Scotland with the referendum, where the turnout was nearly 95%, when the politics works and seems to be promoting relevant messages, people feel like they can make a difference and will turn out to vote. The problem isn’t the voters, the problem is the politics, the politicians, the political parties and the political system. There are so many people who live in ‘safe seats’, they know full well that their vote is highly unlikely to make an immediate difference to who represents them. Of course, every vote does make a difference, one of the things for the Green Party is that we are now getting more ‘short money’, the money given to parties to act as an opposition party in parliament, because of the 1.1 million votes we received at the last election. So every vote does count, but how much more it would count if we had a fair electoral system, a system like they have already in London and Wales, for the geeks among us either the additional member system or an AV system. Either way you still keep a local representative, a local MP, covering a larger area than they do now, but then you also have a top-up list to ensure the result is proportional. We have just witnessed the least proportional electoral result in UK history – The Green Party, if we had a proportional system, means that Caroline Lucas, our one MP, would also have had 24 compatriots in the House of Commons. This really cannot continue. The last real reform in Westminster was women getting the vote in 1918, and I think we should make a vow not to get past the 100th anniversary of that without having updated our system, and introduced a fair proportional system.
Last year’s elections debates managed to give a platform to yourself, Leanne Wood, and Nicola Sturgeon, in demonstrating the work of women as political leaders. Feminist issues seem to be getting more traction in both parliament and the media. Are there signs that things are changing for the better for women in politics? Is the Green Party a feminist party?
Absolutely the Green Party is a feminist party. I am very proud of its track record, and I am also proud that I am the first female political leader to take over from another female political leader in British political history. The fact that we had to wait until 2012 to get to that point really is quite astonishing. In most elections that we stand in, the Green Party has the highest percentage of female candidates. We still haven’t hit 50% in most elections, so like every other party we still have a way to go, however, we are making big strides in that direction. I also think it’s worth stating the reason for this is that I am not really an essentialist, I do not believe that women are essentially any different to men. However, women do have different life experiences and are positioned differently in the world, and it is important that those experiences and positions are represented in parliament. The fact that this country still only has 29% female MPs is an absolute disgrace.
The Green Party positions itself as progressive on social issues, often campaigning for the rights of oppressed groups such as women and the LGBT* community. Why is this so crucial to the Green Party’s policies?
I think these issues are clearly just very important in their own right. We have had centuries of discrimination, and often centuries of persecution and we want to counteract all of that by promoting policy which gives everyone a fair chance to live their life in the fulfilled productive way that they want to live it. I think also that being a champion of LGBTIQ issues also shows that we are very much focused on being more than just a party of the environment. If you go back historically, it was Greens on the London Assembly that pushed Ken Livingston to establish the Register of Civil Partnerships in London, which was the first precursor to gay marriage. In Brighton and Hove, the Green council was seen very much as a leader in trans issues. We have a really good track record on delivering on this, however, there are many issues that we need to work on regarding this. I hear so many horrible cases of LGBTIQ asylum seekers who are treated unfairly by our system, sometimes even sent back to even face persecution or even death, and this is something we need to continue to speak out against loudly and clearly, and make sure the government is not being discriminatory in terms of our asylum system.
At the last election the Green Party actually fielded fewer BME candidates than UKIP. Of 357 candidates contesting seats for the Green Party, only 15 came from BME backgrounds. That’s a problem surely? Is the Green Party struggling to shed a reputation as a white, middle class party?
I would absolutely accept that that is a problem. As an explanation, not an excuse, if you look back at the history, it was the September before the general election where I stood up at the Green Party Conference and issued a challenge to members, and said let’s stand in at least 75% of seats, which was seen to be very ambitious, and we ended up standing in 93% of seats. So we saw a very rapid growth and a very rapid development. However, one of the things we certainly failed to do during those months was to do anything like we should have done in terms of promoting BME candidates. I was referring earlier to the way in which we worked to ensure we were at the forefront of increasing the percentage of female candidates, and we are starting to use the same support mechanisms to make sure in the future we also support BME candidates. I am very proud to say that in our London Assembly selection, there is going to be more than 40% BME candidates, and that is something we want to replicate and continue up and down the country. I think that one of the things we are finding as we promote more BME candidates is that there are lots of barriers to people standing in council elections in terms of financing, and we really need to think about how we can change this and help support candidates, and I think this is something every party should be thinking about.
Finally, What’s been your proudest moment as leader of the Green Party?
I think that one of the things that I will remember and think about for a long time was during the leader debates, when I was able to challenge David Cameron face-to-face about his failure to join the UN program to take some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees from the camps in neighbouring countries. To be able to stand there and look the Prime Minister in the eye and ask him ‘why are you not doing this humane, decent thing to support people who are refugees?’, is something I am really proud of, and I am proud of the fact that David Cameron looked rather uncomfortable answering.
(Image: Christopher Thomond)