The leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett, on votes, drugs, dogs and Himalayan happiness
Ten years on from the enactment of the Kyoto Protocol, the health of the planet is definitely going to pot. 2014 was the hottest year on record ever. According to NASA, global warming – which 97 per cent of climate scientists agree is due to human activities – is causing wildfires, insect outbreaks, increased flooding, heat waves, sinkholes, disappearing lakes and dying lizards.
British politics is a steaming wasteland too. A party – led by a former commodities trader who looks precisely how a weasel would if you bought it Burton vouchers for its birthday; that has spawned countless listicles along the lines of ‘Top 10 Most Deplorable UKIP Gaffes’; and whose last manifesto included a policy of compulsory uniforms for taxi drivers – has emerged from the underworld.
Said party now has two actual MPs and is reaping serious percentages in by–elections – on average 28 per cent in each of the last ten.
Everyone hates Cameron and Miliband is weird/eats bacon wrong, and their policies are basically identical soundbites written by two almost indistinguishable PR execs who went to Harrow together, so another hung parliament is looking likely in May. Never, since the emergence of the two–party system in the 1600s, has the country seen such a fragmented ideological landscape. In other words, the UK is rowing a governmental turd boat in uncharted waters.
Enter Natalie Bennett and the Greens, on a solar–powered speedboat.
The party is growing at an exponential rate: one bonanza week in January, its membership increased by 40 per cent from around 33,000 to over 46,000. Bennett et al. flicked ‘V’s at Farage from their (sustainable wood) deck as they sped past him with his mere 42,000 lackeys, their wake splashing his tweeds.
The Greens are beginning to be known as a party that stands for more than just what it says on the tin. No longer are they solely associated with trees, veganism and weed; they’re attracting support for being an all-purpose, anti-establishment outfit, speaking out against social injustice, nepotism, and the sorry state of the voting system.
Bennett, the party’s antipodean leader, pledges to raise the minimum wage to a tenner and fix day–to–day problems like the lack of affordable housing and the cost of train tickets – issues that, unlike the more nebulous question of greenhouse gases, people can grip onto.
In fact, according to the ongoing survey by social enterprise Vote for Policies, (which is essentially a blind taste test of the policies of the Tories, Labour, the Greens, UKIP, the Lib Dems and the BNP; respondents chose their preferred party having compared policies on a range of key issues without knowing who they belong to), the British public like the Greens the best. More than half a million people have completed it so far, and 28 per cent of people – a solid eight point lead on the runners up Labour – would vote Green if policy was their only consideration.
And maybe they actually will. They certainly can. In February the party successfully crowdfunded the (£500 a pop) deposits required to enter a candidate for the 150–ish seats in the country that a Green candidate wasn’t already standing in. This ensures that on May 7, every single voter in the UK will be able to put a cross next to a little emblem of an earth radiating petals if they so chose.
A vote that could mean something
It’ll be a strange election. It’s the first one in recent British history that the electorate actually expect to result in a hung parliament. How this fact will affect voting behaviour is anyone’s guess.
Bennett, blonde and head–bobby, settling into her seat in the faux-French station bar her assistant chose for us, has her suspicions. “I run into people up and down the country who just say, ‘I’ve been tactically voting for decades; I’m not going to do it anymore.’ People get that this has given us the kind of politics we’ve got now, when you’ve got a Labour and Tory party that you can hardly get a cigarette paper between.”
The current First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system (where for every seat, the party with most votes wins the seat outright and the votes of those who voted for any other party are totally disregarded, or “wasted”) is the enemy of the Green Party.
They propose a move to a proportional representation (PR) system, in which the number of MPs elected from each party would more closely match the number of votes the party receives in total. PR is better suited to multi-party politics than FPTP, and many regard it as fairer.
Bennett hopes the results in May will make electoral reform more of a salient issue for the public.
“What we may well see in this election is quite a lot of MPs being elected with not much more than 25 per cent of the vote. You can imagine a lot of the other 75 per cent of the people [who voted] in those seats going ‘but hang on a minute, how did that happen?’. What will need to happen is such a groundswell, such a level of frustration that it really pushes people to force change.”
It’s this kind of talk that aligns so neatly with the long held discontent of many – discontent which, in recent years, has been demonstrated by diminishing turnouts. She seems to get it. But she also thinks now is the time to cut the apathy and get down to the polls. “Business–as–usual politics has people thoroughly fed up and thoroughly feeling like they want change. People are increasingly grasping that it’s in their hands to deliver that change simply by voting for what they believe in.”
She’s all about empowerment, this Natalie. The recent ‘Invite The Greens’ Change.org petition probably contributed to the securing of the Greens’ inclusion in the televised leaders’ debates. But rather than the result itself, the best part for her was the fact that it could serve as “an important first step for lots of people to recognise that politics should be something that you do, not that’s done to you – 300,000 people can see a case where their clicking had an impact.”
A steep ascent
Bennett orders a latte and announces her intention to keep her coat on; it must be chilly up there at the top. Having taken over the leadership from the Greens’ only MP Caroline Lucas in 2012, she suddenly became a high profile figure at the beginning of this year, mostly attributable to the saga of the aforementioned leaders’ debates.
“We could imagine a potential of supporting a Labour minority government on a vote by vote basis. So that means, you know, we don’t get ministerial cars, but we get to keep our principles.”
But she doesn’t seem ruffled by the new levels of scrutiny this has brought. “There’s a certain pressure of knowing that at any point in time someone might take a photo of you and post it on Twitter or someone might comment on what you’re wearing, you look a bit tired, those kinds of things. There’s a kind of stress in that, but you learn to live with it.”
Being Green, as she points out, means she’s “probably” in the public eye on trains more than most other politicians. This is no understatement: last year she took a 48 hour (each way) train journey to attend a conference in Croatia because she doesn’t fly if she can help it.
It’s these hints at a kind of ‘I’m–not–budging’ ideological integrity that make the party seem, for now, relatively trustworthy. No matter the result of the election, Bennett says, they won’t go into a coalition. They’ll have nothing to do with the Conservatives, but, “we could imagine a potential of supporting a Labour minority government on a vote by vote basis. So that means, you know, we don’t get ministerial cars, but we get to keep our principles.”
Headaches and hiccups
These principles have resulted in a few headaches for the leader of late. She appeared on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, and certain factions of the press descended like vultures when she admitted that belonging to a terrorist organisation would not be a crime under a Green government. “In an extraordinary claim, Natalie Bennett said people should not be punished for what they think,” gasped the Mail.
They’ve also been called out for suggesting the Queen could live in a council house in a post-monarchy Green society, and that they would withdraw from NATO and all but dismantle the armed forces.
I want to know if they mind making awkward headlines – and perhaps putting off voters who would have otherwise supported them – by refusing to compromise their beliefs. It takes me four attempts to ask the full question though, because she keeps charging in with her Defensive Politician hat shoved on, slightly askew, to “clarify” things “for the record”.
Usually eating up questions like it’s breakfast time, her answers become choked and press–officerly at the mention of ISIS. She sounds like a fumbling version of David Cameron.
On the subject of Queen Liz, she says she was trying to make “a serious and important point that nobody, nobody at all, should fear being homeless in Britain.” Fair enough. The long and short of it is that “Well, the thing is the Green party has principles.” Yes, we know. But insufficiency of the answer aside, she’s not just saying that. Compared to the two big dogs, The Greens are ideologues.
Instead of playing in to the endless Labour vs Conservative battle for the support of Middle England, their policies seem to be truly guided by ten strikingly reasonable core values, the aim being, according to their website, a “radical transformation of society for the benefit of all, and for the planet as a whole.”But then there was that spluttering, ill-prepared interview with Nick Ferrari on LBC radio, the horrendousness of which cannot be overstated. For three whole painful minutes, Bennett failed to give a straight answer on the funding of a flagship policy – a pledge to build 500,000 new social homes by 2020. It happened weeks after this interview was conducted, so the question remains unasked: why don’t you just stick to what you know? The green stuff.
Apple core values
As important as the planet surely is to her, Bennett doesn’t intend to ram environmentalism down anybody’s throat. “The reason I’m in politics is to change the way society works, so that doing the environmentally friendly thing is the easiest, simplest, cheapest, most obvious thing to do… It’s a matter of changing the way society works rather than changing individual behaviour or thought.”
She isn’t the guilt–tripping type either. “I’m not going to criticise anyone for, after a really long tiring day at work, falling into the local chain supermarket store, picking up a heavily over–packaged ready meal and whacking it in the microwave. What we need to do is cut working hours so people have more time and opportunity to buy some nice food, cook it properly, have the leisure time and space in their lives to do that.”
Her realisation of the importance of overhauling the system stems from years back: an experience on the campaign trail “over there on the Regent’s Park Estate,” she recalls, motioning westwards.
Bennett tells of how she had knocked on the door of a “lovely” old lady. “She saw my green rosette and there were tears in her eyes. She said, ‘I feel so guilty because I can’t recycle my newspapers, because I walk with a stick and the bin is 500 metres that way.’ As I said then and as I say now, that’s not your fault, it’s our fault for putting a system that you can’t use in place.”
Green and brown
One system the Greens would change is the way we deal with narcotics in society. “The war on drugs has failed, and we should be treating drugs as a health issue not a criminal justice issue,” the green queen asserts.
If elected, they would legalise marijuana immediately with a view to establishing a fully legalised, controlled and regulated trade. They would establish a licensed service providing analysis of any drug regardless of source, which would be available for a small fee.
They would also begin reviewing the classifications of other prohibited drugs like heroin and acid, weighing up the costs and benefits of keeping them illegal. According to Natalie, “That’s a policy that’s based not just on principles but on very strong evidence from around the world about what keeps drug users, families, and communities safe.”
“The war on drugs has failed, and we should be treating drugs as a health issue not a criminal justice issue”
Rotten core values
And what about keeping the planet safe? Reckless consumption is one key area the Greens are passionate about tackling in order to do this. The European Environment Agency says it’s a major driver of environmental damage, and each year, we generate enough e-waste (discarded electronic products) alone to fill a freight train so long that it would go all the way around the world.
The Greens assert that “Our culture is in the grip of a value system and a way of understanding the world which is fundamentally flawed.” But how can Western culture have any hope of changing for the better when us young people have been conditioned to be voracious consumers ever since our feet were the size of iPhones?
“The fact is, very simply, we have no alternative.” That may be so, but the average person is subjected to (at the lowest estimate) hundreds of advertising messages every day. Buying superfluous junk can be difficult to resist.
Bennett insists that there’s something in it for us aside from just the hazy idea of protecting Mother Nature though. “We need to change, but what’s really important to get the message across is that we could actually all have a better life – a more fulfilling, healthier, less stressful life – in the new green economy. “I think lots of young people and older people really get this: chasing after the newest handbag, buying T-shirts that you wash twice and they’ve turned into a rag; all of that kind of stuff is not improving our quality of life.”
So what would improve our quality of life? “If you ask people ‘What makes you feel good, what do you enjoy?’, it’s time with family and friends. it’s the opportunity to relax and do things you enjoy, and that’s what we’re aiming to create, a society with much more of that. Much less stress, much less fear of not being able to put food on the table or keep a roof over your head.”
Gross national happiness
So what about just straight up prioritising happiness, like Bhutan does? The Himalayan nation has had a policy of pursuing ‘gross national happiness’ instead of gross domestic product (GDP) growth since 1972.
The psychological wellbeing of Bhutanese citizens and the health of the environment are what inform decision making – conservation of ‘community vitality’, traditional culture, resources and wildlife are high on the agenda. Their commitment to this holistic approach to economics is so strong that it’s enshrined in the country’s constitution. Could this strategy work for us?
“You get to the point where you really want to change the news, not just report it.”
“Happiness is a bit of a wooly word. What I would like to see replacing a focus on GDP is what’s called a traffic light system. You look at a range of indicators that assess the economic health of society, the social health of society – things like inequality, the state of the environment – and what you want to do is keep all of those above the red light level. So you make sure that none of those are going horribly wrong and you manage the economy in a way that’s sustainable,” says Bennett.
Green human being
All this change the 49 year-old wants to effect, what inspired it? She worked as an editor at The Guardian Weekly until 2012; was it an abrupt transition from headline writer to headline maker? Apparently not. “I think I always knew at some point that I’d leave journalism, because if you spend a couple of decades doing it, you see a lot of the same very depressing stories again and again. You know, African famines, political coups, democracy breaking down.” There’s something human and relatable about the way she finishes; “You get to the point where you really want to change the news, not just report it.
She still maintains a blog though, the esoterically titled Philobiblon, which takes its name from a medieval collection of essays about library management. So does she have any more obscure interests?
“I can’t eat gluten so I have to get creative with cakes. I make a mean lemon polenta cake. I don’t know whether that counts as obscure.” Imagine her sat at home, watching Bake Off and wincing at the proclaimed density of a macaroon, and she takes another step away from politician-bot territory.
Philobiblon also has a whole section dedicated to all the dogs she’s ever owned, complete with biographies and pictures. Which was her favourite? Kelly springs to mind first for being “super intelligent.”
“Mind you, Beanie the Staffie was rather nice too. She was utterly irrepressible, that’s what was nice about Beanie. She was always energetic, always up for things. It might be on the website, one of the photos is of Beanie carrying her ball, with her head up like this…” She proceeds to do her best ‘excitable canine’ impression, hands up by her face.
By anyone’s standards, Natalie Bennett is not your normal politician. But the Green Party is not your normal party. And like Beanie, she could turn out to be irrepressible. If she can avoid awkward questions, that is.
Illustrations by Jasmine Parker