23 Jun 2014
Interview: Green Party leader Natalie Bennett
Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales. Her first degree was in Agricultural Science, which, combined with her Australian heritage, means, as she put it, that she’s “the only British political leader who knows how to shear a sheep”. We caught up with her on Skype, and started by asking her what she would see as the key defining characteristics of Green Party politics…
“To summarise in one sentence, the kind of world we’re trying to achieve is that we need a society in which everybody as access to a decent quality of resources, but we have to do that within the limits of our one planet. I’m sure that no-one who’s listening to this needs to be told that currently in Britain we’re all collectively using the resources of three planets. So that means we really have to fundamentally transform our society, our politics, our economics, have real change to the point where we get that adequate resources for everybody within the limits of the planet.
How would you summarise the current state of British politics? What does the rise of UKIP tell us about that?
We have a failed political model. You can point to the technical aspects if you like, that we have an unelected House of Lords in the 21st century. You can point to the fact that we have an extremely low turnout in elections and widespread public dissatisfaction. But I suppose the positive side of this is that this is clearly, as indeed with our economics and the state of our society, an unstable situation and it can’t continue.
UKIP is one example of this situation. The rise of UKIP is a symbol of dissatisfaction particularly on the Right, and things are going to change. One of the interesting possibilities coming up is that the Scots could vote for independence in September. Someone in a public meeting once asked me “but this would mean constitutional chaos, there are so many questions that haven’t been answered”, and I said “great … some creative chaos is exactly what we need!”
If, for example, the Scots did vote for independence then we’d almost have to create a written constitution for England and Wales and the remainder of the United Kingdom and that would create all sorts of possibilities to really reshape the whole form of our political system. More broadly we should change the content very greatly.
The Greens are the only party that takes a stance against fracking. Why do you think that nobody else will?
It’s really quite surprising that the Lib Dems in particular haven’t taken that stance. In the Coalition the Lib Dems have gone along with a lot of things, but he has come out twice and said “I love shale gas” in case anyone missed it the first time. It’s really quite astonishing.
As to why, I think it’s partly a function of the fact that the oil and gas companies have a great deal of lobbying influence both in Westminster and indeed in Brussels. I think it’s partly a function of the fact that there’s a lot of people in government who really can’t imagine the world changing. They just think the future looks much like the past.
It really is quite astonishing because there really is a total fantasy around fracking. David Cameron came out and said “we’re going to be fracking by the end of the year”, and all the fracking companies went “what? No we’re not!” Lord Brown of Quadrilla says that in five years’ time we’ll know if there’s frackable gas in Britain. Yet everyone’s running around as if this is an established industry that’s already pumping gas out. It does show a really quite disturbing detachment from reality in the whole way that fracking is talked about.
There was a piece in The New Statesman recently about the debates that will accompany the next election and arguing that the Tories are very keen to see the Greens as part of that because they hope that it would split the Labour vote. I wondered what your thoughts were on that.
That’s the reason given. I think it might have something more to do with me being a barrier to Mr Farrage for Mr Cameron actually. But I said to the BBC debates – any time, anywhere, any place. I mean that almost literally. We have a very strong case to present, very strong policies. We would like to be given the chance to present it to the wider public.
And we actually know that in places where we have strong local parties, we’re able to put boots on the ground and people really get to understand what the Green party stands for, we win strong support. So I would be delighted to take part in a debate, and as I keep telling the broadcasters, it’s the only way they’re going to get any gender balance!
Does the Green Party really believe that economic growth and tackling climate change on the scale it requires are compatible? And might the Greens be the first political party to explicitly question economic growth?
I think we already have, although I think it’s very easy to get bogged down into growth/degrowth arguments. I’m not going to say we should stop metering GDP but we should stop thinking about it. What we should be thinking about is doing all the kinds of things that we need to do, which is improving public transport, improving walking and cycling facilities, insulating homes, building renewable energy, all that sort of thing, and stop doing lots of the things that we know we can’t continue environmentally to do and which actually make no economic sense at all like expanding and building new airports and all those sorts of things.
I’m very taken with the idea that’s been suggested of the traffic lights system, where you have maybe five or six meters that meter social wellbeing, that meter environmental wellbeing, and you say we’re going to keep those meters above the minimum level and we’ll make sure each one of those doesn’t get below that minimum level. One of those is the foundation of environmental standards and you often hear Caroline and me say we have to remember that the economy is a complete subset of the environment. They’re not two separate things.
Is an industrial society possible without growth?
What we’re heading towards, what we have to head towards, is a very different shape of society. Globalisation has very clearly hit the buffers and if we think of a very extreme example, that giant ship that arrives bringing loads of plastic tat from China, most of which will be in landfill three months later, what we need to do is relocalise our economy, bring manufacturing and food production back to Britain, to rebuild small-scale manufacturing, building things that last.
One of the things at the moment which at the point we are now looks hard to imagine, I go back to the fact that my grandparents, when they got married, they bought a suite of furniture, very good furniture and probably very expensive by the standards of the time and they’ve celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with the same furniture and fully expected to pass it on to their son as the really good furniture, and that’s the kind of direction we need to go in, rather than the kind of stuff you buy from a certain Swedish store that I won’t mention that falls apart after a year or two and you go and buy another set.
From a Green perspective, is the challenge of staying below 2° best served by being in or out of Europe?
In Europe very much. One of the vital things that Europe does is make a foundation of environmental standards. That’s obviously important to Europe in terms of the fact that all states in Europe are inter-dependent of each other. If someone dumps a whole load of pollutants into one river it’s going to affect other states as well.
But in terms of the broader climate change aspect, Europe has been an insufficient but somewhat effective force in starting to get people to think about these issues, and it’s really important if we set the foundations of standards in Europe and Europe is then a force in international negotiations. That’s much greater than we would be if we were on our own.
At the local scale, in some communities such as Frome, groups of Transition-minded people have successfully run for the town council and made big changes but as independents rather than as Greens. What’s your sense of the appropriateness or not of party politics at the local scale? Can it be self-defeating?
I think it’s very useful, because having a Green Party ‘label’ explains to people where you’re coming from. If you just look at a label that says Independent, that means a wide range of things ranging from people who think that UKIP are a bit soft and wussy to people who are basically indistinguishable from Greens. I’ve got no problem with people doing that, and there are many parts of the country where Green would be seen as too radical and people stand as independents who are very Green-minded and get elected on that basis.
What having people standing for the Green Party does is that we have a whole suite of policies democratically chosen by members of the party. There’s a whole background and framework of support there. Obviously someone who’s an Independent can form views very much on local issues and have their own views on national issues, but they are just their own views. If you have a whole party where we have democratically-formed policy with lots of people and experts putting into it, that really is an important and useful support structure.
What’s your sense of what a Green government could do at a national level that could best support the work that Transition groups are doing at a local scale?
We’re going to transform our economy. I was at the Bristol People’s Assembly last weekend and had a really interesting discussion there about how do we make transformation happen. One of the things is at the moment big multinational companies just ride utterly rough shod over the rights of their workers, they ride rough shod over the environment. They ride rough shod over local communities.
In Camden where I live in central London, we had a Green Party pop-up shop that was opposite one of the main chains’ mini stores. It was doing things like coning off the road for an HGV-sized space 24 hours a day and 4 or 5 times a day the HGV would draw up and park illegally, and they weren’t entitled to cut off the road either.
They were basically seizing public space. What we really have to do is force big companies to behave like decent corporate citizens, not allow them to trample all over the law and their workers’ rights. By doing that what we then do is allow co-operatives, small local businesses, local economies a chance to compete against them. At the moment it’s just a hopelessly un-level playing field.
Green politics and I suppose the environmental movement and Transition as well to some extent have generally failed to engage beyond what people call the ‘post-materialist’ or I suppose middle class constituencies. What’s your sense of how best to widen the appeal further?
We’ve really got to talk about the transformation and how it works for people, not just how it works for the physical environment. One of the Green Party policies which is getting real traction and starting to excite lots of people is the idea of citizens’ income or basic income, which is the idea that basically there’s a safety net. Everyone gets a payment every week which means you have your subsistence guaranteed and you don’t have to worry. Trying to take away people’s worry and fear at the moment is really critically important because with all the holes that are being rent in the welfare net, people are really living in fear.
Again, at the Bristol Assembly, one of the speakers was talking about someone affected by the bedroom tax who now feels they don’t have the right to have a home any more. We have to restore people’s sense of security and give them a sense that a Green society is one where they will feel secure and safe. We’re not taking things away from them, we’re guaranteeing them the basics.
If in 20 years’ time we’ve done everything that’s necessary and we’ve successfully managed to stay below 2°, what would that world look like?
First of all we’ll have homes that are warm and comfortable. We’re not going to get them all to Passivhaus standard, but heading in that direction as fast as possible. We’ll have vastly more locally grown food, so each town or city will have a ring of market gardens around it and a large amount of the food on your plate has come less than 10 miles. Not everything, I’m not talking about everything. I personally like my coffee and spices, but the bulk of the food on your plate comes from there.
You’re wearing clothes that you will expect to last for a long period of time. If you go back historically, people once a year, summer and winter, went shopping and bought one or two new items of clothing. That’s the kind of situation we’re in, but it’s a situation where hopefully we have to offer people a better life so there’s less stuff in it. People have more time and more sense of security. So we’re looking at dropping working hours down. In some of that working hours’ time you might be growing some of your own food rather than buying it. You’re not worrying where your next meal’s coming from and we have no more food banks.
The above is lightly edited from a longer interview which you can hear below. In the interest of balance, we did also ask representatives of Labour, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and UKIP for interviews, but we are still waiting to hear from them.