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Radicals at the table – Natalie Bennett interview

Natalie Bennett, the new Green Party leader, speaks to Andrew Bowman and Michael Calderbank

December 22, 2012
14 min read

Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank

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Michael How are you finding the job, now you’re a few weeks into it?

Natalie Oh, it’s very exciting, very busy. One of the things I’ll enjoy is going round the country. Pretty much everywhere I go there’s this real feeling of a democratic deficit, people saying, ‘They’ve come up with this enormously grand scheme to redevelop the area, but no one spoke to us until they just dumped it in our lap, then thought “we have to consult” and asked, “would you like a tree over there or over here instead, or this yellow or that green?”‘

Andrew With two days to respond . . .

Natalie That’s right, exactly. There’s so many things that are bringing democracy into disrepute at the moment, but that’s one thing that really struck me. The word consultation is just becoming a joke.

Michael We’re now seeing the experience of Britain’s first Green-led council in Brighton and Hove, albeit without a majority, so to what extent can the Greens make different choices in power compared to the main parties? Can the Greens offer an anti-cuts alternative at local level?

Natalie Brighton actually is a really good example, because what they did was to come up with a plan that would have ameliorated lots of the cuts with a 3.5 per cent council tax rise. We said, ‘No, we can’t have these cuts, we’ll need to claim more in council tax’, but because we’re in a minority on the council, we couldn’t put that through ourselves as we didn’t have the power to do that, and sadly Labour voted with the Tories. So actually it was Labour and the Tories who made the cuts happen that we were trying to stop as a minority administration. Had we been able to make that council tax rise we would have been able to save lots of things.

Michael Well, your critics on that, including some members of the Green Party, would say there is an alternative. You could have refused point-blank to implement the cuts and set a needs budget, ultimately even pulled out of leading the council to campaign on a very clear anti-cuts basis.

Natalie What you would have done there is to hand over to a Tory council. You have to make a decision in terms of: are you able to ameliorate things? I was only reading this morning about the things the Green council is trying to do in terms of creatively finding ways to raise money – renewable energy projects and the like. We are not just doing things how others would do them. We might not be able to do all the things we’d like, but until we get a Green government in Westminster we have to work within the framework we have. And what I hear on the ground, not just from Green Party people, is that people in Brighton are finding we are making a positive difference.

Michael People will give their verdict on the council in 2015, and given that cuts to central government grants are going to mean things are only going to get more difficult, are you worried that Caroline Lucas, the first Green MP in Britain, is up for re-election at the same time?

Natalie It’s a big challenge, but I think Brighton Greens are making a good fist of it. From what I can see, because we are being very open and very honest and very democratic and saying to people ‘These are what the choices are, help us make the best choices’, people will acknowledge that and respect that.

Michael How closely is the national leadership of the party involved in the local issues of places like Brighton?

Natalie We’re here as a support mechanism any time they want it, but we believe in localism and local parties are sovereign. We don’t tell them what to do, they make their own decisions.

Andrew In terms of coming after Caroline Lucas as leader, who is a very high profile figure, do you think you’ll be able to generate the same kind of awareness, and to what extent do you plan any change of direction?

Natalie It’s not a change of direction. What I will have is the practical possibility of doing more travelling round the country, a lot more than Caroline has chance to do given the role of an MP is so tied to Westminster a lot of the time. And it’s really not a replacement or an exchange, it’s an addition – there’s two faces now instead of one, almost as though we’ve just doubled our number of MPs.

Andrew How far would you say the coalition has lived up to its claim to be the ‘greenest government ever’?

Natalie [Coughs and splutters] You can put that down as ‘Natalie has a little laugh!’ It’s demonstrated that it totally doesn’t get that we are in the middle of a huge environmental crisis, and we desperately need to act fast. They’re both failing to take the whole problem seriously, and also utterly failing at a level of basic competence.

The feed-in tariff is the obvious example of this, where they just made a total balls-up of it. They’re not providing any certainty for the industry to go forward and invest in things, do all of the things we could have in terms of green jobs in onshore or offshore wind, or where you had the insulation industry saying the number of jobs was going to plunge. And that’s a tragedy, because that’s both good jobs lost, and people left in cold homes, elderly people in ill-health who might die this winter, which are problems that Scandinavian countries with worse weather than us don’t have. Government isn’t doing anything right – it doesn’t take the environment seriously and it’s not competent.

Michael Playing devil’s advocate now, how would you respond to the argument that in times of economic hardship and austerity, concern for the environment has to take a backseat to restoring competitiveness?

Natalie The fact is that we have to act. The effect of food price rises is one example where we’re seeing an economic impact of climate change. It’s not an either/or situation. If we invest in renewable energy, insulation, public transport, what we’re doing is creating jobs, reducing people’s fuel bills, reducing fuel poverty. So doing things to deal with their environment can help us tackle our overall economic problems. The whole cuts agenda ignores that we need to invest in our houses, our infrastructure, all of which are economically positive.

Andrew On the climate, to put it starkly, after Copenhagen and Durban, it looks like the momentum on a binding international limit on emissions has gone; opinion polls show that people seem less concerned on climate change than they were previously; and then with the growth of India, China, and now even Germany building coal-fired power stations – how does climate change get put back on the agenda? Or, perhaps alternatively, should the Green Party not put climate so high on the agenda and focus instead more on economic issues along with the apparent mood of the voters?

Natalie As I said these aren’t either/or. Often we will talk about the Arctic sea-ice and say that greater action is needed. Or we can say that to reduce air pollution we need fewer vehicles on the roads. Now, that is fitting with the climate change agenda but it needn’t necessarily always be front and centre. There are many ways of coming at these things and they are all interrelated. That’s what can be difficult about promoting a Green message – all these things are tied up together.

You can go [instead] for the fact we have the longest working hours in Europe. [People] are exhausted, they fall into Tesco Metro on the way home and buy a ready meal, with loads of packaging attached to it; they get home exhausted and don’t take their children out for a walk to get some exercise. So the long-hours culture fits with people feeling they have to use supermarkets, which then push out the local shops, so people find themselves driving more, which means that children get less exercise because the roads are too full of traffic to walk safely . . .

All of these things fit together, and to cure them we need a new kind of society. And the kind of society we need to build to avoid climate change is also a better society to live in, offering a better quality of life.

Andrew I think the kind of economic system you’re talking about there is one with steady or low rates of growth, because you can have a less carbon-intensive lifestyle but if the economy is growing at 3 per cent per year it’s going to be incredibly difficult to bring down the overall emissions level barring some kind of miracle.

Natalie Yes, I’m not a believer in some miracle solution.

Andrew Okay, but making a transition to a zero-growth economy is a hard argument to make, at a time when all the other parties are competing to put forward policies that will drive forward growth, and the media wants to know where growth is going to come from.

Natalie Well, I think most of the other parties are adjusting to the fact we’re heading into a low-growth world, no matter what its environmental and economic framework. We’ve hit economic and environmental limits all around the world. But we’ve argued that GDP is a very poor measure on all kinds of levels, so then basing all your arguments around the very question of growth in GDP makes no intellectual sense.

What I’d rather do is ask what is it that we need in our society and how do need to change the distribution of income and wealth in order to achieve those things? We have to keep reminding ourselves of these things as people have very short historical memories: historically, we now have enormously high levels of inequality in our societies. It’s a question of reshaping the debate, since GDP is a nonsense measure. It’s better to focus on what you’re doing and what you’re achieving, like ‘are you shortening people’s working hours?’, ‘are you improving the distribution of wealth across society?’ These are the things that matter, not focusing on one figure.

Andrew I’d be interested to know if you have an industrial policy, if you have specific policies that would lead to more localisation and more socially useful manufacturing?

Natalie Very much so. In terms of the big picture, what we have to do environmentally is to shorten our supply chains, and stop having huge freighters shipping thousands of tonnes of stuff from China that we could make here. So I’d like to see the boots on my feet made here, the t-shirt made down the road, the jacket made in a little tailor’s shop on the corner, all that kind of thing. We need to relocalise and bring manufacturing back to Britain, and we also need to address the issue of skills, as we’ve almost lost the skills needed for that.

In terms of the framework you need to create, the price of goods that is charged in the shops doesn’t include a huge number of externalised costs, like the environmental damage of getting them here, the fact they are made by some poor woman in a Sri Lankan factory working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. So what the Green Party wants to do is get to a system where all of those costs are re-included in the price of those goods, so you then re-balance.

Some of this is going to happen anyway. I was reading this report about production going back to the US from China, because Chinese wages are going to be going up all the time, as there is pressure for standards to rise, plus the costs of air freight and sea freight is rising all the time. So we’re at the turning point of the whole globalisation super-tanker and it’s starting to turn around anyway. We have to make it turn around much faster to reduce carbon emissions, create jobs here and reshape our economy. 

The other important thing is food production. It’s not that long ago that all our major towns and cities were surrounded by a ring of market gardens and orchards, and there were local dairies too. So we need to get back to that in order to secure our local food supply. Only 23 per cent of our fruit and veg comes from the UK, although we have good land, good weather conditions, it’s all perfectly doable. I can’t see we’ll be wanting to ship over beans from Kenya and peas from Peru for much longer anyway. But we’ll need to set up the infrastructure to help that to happen.

Michael How far do you think the green vision, the big picture you’re talking about, is compatible with the vision of a more responsible capitalism, perhaps even compatible with the ‘one nation’ politics Ed Milliband is talking about?

Natalie I think it’s very different, because we’re rejecting neoliberalism and globalisation; we’re rejecting an economic system dominated by multinational companies. Whereas the banking sector has been a large part of Britain’s economy, we’re advocating a localised economy built around cooperatives and small local businesses, not giant multinationals, banking that is based around credit unions and small local banks, and making an economy where, as with the Bristol pound, you see money circulating within local economies. I don’t think that is what Ed Milliband is imagining.

Michael If you got one or more MPs at the next election, could you imagine supporting, formally or informally, a Lib-Lab coalition?

Natalie We have learnt from the experience of previous Greens in this situation, and we’d be extremely unlikely to join a formal coalition. But certainly a confidence and supply type agreement is the kind of thing which gives us the ability to ensure we keep the Tories out but allows us to vote on individual issues according to our beliefs.

Michael Well, people will look at the experiences of the Greens in Ireland, Germany, the Czech Republic, people might look at you and think when you get in power you’ll conform to a very narrow, mainstream pro-austerity model. You’re in oppositional mode now, but how do we know the Green Party won’t let people down in a similar way to the Lib Dems?

Natalie Those are very different circumstances. We occupy a very different political space to many other Green parties. There are lots of things we have in common with them, but we are very much the radicals at the table at any meeting of European Greens. We have a very democratic structure. Conferences decide national Green Party policies, and our members would never have voted for the kind of deal the Irish Greens took.

Michael Which of your policies do you particularly want to prioritise in getting across to the voters?

Natalie It’s seems obvious but things like the minimum wage being a living wage. If you work 40 hours a week you should have enough to live on. And it is obscene that people have to work two or three jobs and find roundabout ways to get to work because they can’t afford the tube, living in incredibly overcrowded housing.

We are never going to compete on low wages. That is not what we’re competing on. In terms of manufacturing we want to produce things for local markets and for broader markets where we have some kind of specialist skill or competitive advantage.

In terms of the broader issue, if the street cleaner out on the road is on the national minimum wage, they can’t afford to go into the café and buy a cup of tea. If they are paid decently, more money circulates in the economy.

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Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank

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