The Green Party’s Natalie Bennett on UKIP, political disengagement, and the European and local elections

In part two of her recent two-part interview with Democratic Audit’s Sean Kippin, Natalie Bennett, the Leader of the Green Party, talks about her experiences of party leadership from outside of Parliament or local government, May’s Local and European elections, youth political engagement, and the rise of UKIP. 

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Natalie Bennett, with Ken Livingstone and others (Credit: Alquie, CC BY SA 2.0)

What has your experience been of leading a national political party from outside of Westminster, the European Parliament, or Local Government?

I think it’s been a real opportunity. When we set out on this, it was all terra incognita and we didn’t know how it was going to work out. But one of the great things about it is that I’m not tied to a particular place. I spent probably on average around three days a week out of London all around the country. I’m about to embark on a massive tour of the country in advance of the European elections. On a Tuesday it might be the Isle of Wight, and on a Wednesday it might be Cornwall, and on a Thursday it could be Cumbria. So it means that I’m actually doing politics on the ground everywhere.

And I think that does give you a better perspective, and I think it highlights just how huge the disparities, particularly economic disparities are. For example, what the streets look like in some of our poor and struggling Northern and Midlands towns and cities. Spending one day in Brighton and the next day in Wigan really does open your eyes in a way that sitting in Westminster and reading a report doesn’t. So I think it has worked, and its allowed us to take politics everywhere.

It’s also really worked for the Green Party, which has traditionally been focussed in a few small areas like Brighton and Norwich and Oxford and Lancaster, but we are becoming much more of a national party. In the County Council elections we got our first councillors in Cornwall, Essex, Surrey, Kent and several places in the West Midlands. And if you imagine that on a map, it’s a real geographic spread. So having somebody who can be mobile in a way that an MP or MEP simply can’t, I think has worked out. I would like to claim that was a grand political plan but that would be a lie!

You mentioned the European Elections, what are your ambitions for them?

Well, in terms of the Europeans, you’re setting yourself on a path to madness if you say under the d’Hondt system, ‘we’re setting ourselves this for a target’ because you can make all sorts of advances but the results are so dependent on everybody else. What I always point to is that a swing of 1.7% would treble our number of MEPs based on the last result. I’m feeling very confident that there are places like the South West, North West where we only missed out by a hair to Nick Griffin sadly, Yorkshire and Humber and East where we’re running very strong campaigns. So I’m feeling as confident as one can be.

And how about the local elections, which take place on the same day?

One of the exciting things that could happen from our point is view is that there is a strong possibility that we could become the official opposition on Solihull Council and that is a chance of stepping out again. We had a very difficult 2010 in London because of the impact of the General Election which was being held at the same time hit us very hard, probably harder than we anticipated. We can really recover in London.

One of the things we can expect to see is that somebody will ring me up on the night and tell me we’ve won our first councillor in somewhere or other and I’ll say “where’s that?!” – we’re seeing a lot of Green Parties starting up in places where there haven’t been Green Parties before, and what we’re increasingly finding is that there’s a profile of the places that we’ve traditionally done well in. These tend to be university towns and cities, often down the end of the train line. If you take somewhere like Solihull, or Mid Suffolk District Council where we’re the official opposition to the Tories, we can win seats anywhere. So I think there’ll be at least one place where we unexpectedly win.

Do you feel confident about first of all defending Caroline Lucas’s Brighton Pavilion seat, and secondly potentially adding to it?

Obviously, it isn’t going to be easy. It’s quite well known that Labour have made Brighton Pavilion one of their target seats, and I know quite a lot of Labour people who are particularly upset about that. It’s going to be a mighty struggle, but I think the people of Brighton appreciate what a brilliant MP Caroline has been and that has been recognised by people like the Spectator and others outside of our natural political framework. I think they also quite like being a bit special and different and is a place with its own particular culture and they like having a unique MP.

In terms of other areas, it’s not easy. But we’re trying to put together a spread of around 10 what we call ‘advanced seats’ across the country, so that every Green Party member will have a good strong election team fighting a seat near them. So if we see massive political change, then we’re going to be in a position to take advantage of that, whatever kind of different circumstance that is. I would expect that to stretch right down from the South West right into the North.

When there was a hung Parliament after the last General Election the Green Party was quite open to a potential “Rainbow” Coalition of the various progressive parties. Have you put together any advanced plans if the same kind of thing were to happen again, given the likelihood of another hung Parliament?

Our first reflex – and it so depends on the circumstances of the moment – would be to think about a “confidence and supply” arrangement. The Scots did this very successfully a few years ago. That would mean ensuring that the Government would have a Budget and that you aren’t going to bring the Government down except under certain, very specific circumstances, means you can still continue to vote on each issue accordingly. Whether it’s for example tuition fees or road building or whatever it is that don’t square with your principles, you can still vote on most things according to your principles and your judgements on that particular vote. That leaves you without Ministerial cars, but also allows you to keep your ethics intact. At the end of the day, you’d have to see what was happening.

To swing back to the political reform question, it’s unusual for us to have a political leader with very real experience of a different political system. In your case, Australia. Do you think there’s anything that we can learn from the Australian political system? Or do we do better?

I’ve never been asked that before! Well, I don’t recommend compulsory voting. I don’t think it’s a good idea. We need to vastly increase turnout, but making it compulsory absolutely isn’t the answer. Obviously, Australia has proportional representation as well as a fully elected Senate. So the replacement of the House of Lords with a fully elected Senate along Australian lines is the obvious improvement.

I think [the Australian system] has its plusses and its minuses. It’s funny, I’m always being told that I’m “really blunt” and maybe I am, but perhaps sometimes just answering the question simply and directly is actually a good idea. Possibly that happens more in Australia. However, I wouldn’t suggest straying into being blatently rude, which I think sometimes does happen!

You mentioned the problem of political disengagement. What do you feel are the main drivers of that, particularly with young people?

Well the first thing is First Past the Post. People just get that if they live in a safe seat whether its Tory, Labour or Lib Dem, they know what the result will be no matter how they vote. So, Proportional Representation would be a very big step forward. We also need politicians who look and sound something like the general population, which we at the moment don’t. You end up with this ridiciulous thing where you’ll see that the “Prime Minister is going informal! He’s not wearing a tie and he’s rolled his sleeves up!” – all of that very fake PR spinning kind of stuff. There’s a profound artificiality which people can see instinctively. I go on TV quite often with politicians from the main parties, and they’ll have their three talking points which they refuse to deviate from. There’s way too much of that kind of spin-driven, narrowly focused, formulaic approach to politics.

What are your thoughts on the rise of UKIP? Does that speak to a fundamental rejection of mainstream politics? What do you think is driving them?

If you look at UKIP’s voters, they’re disillusioned Tories and right-wing Labour voters, by and large, they’re overwhelmingly male, and not particularly young. They are a group of people who feel like the Tories aren’t representing them anymore. There are a few iconic things like gay marriage where the Tories really aren’t representing them anymore. The existence of the Coalition also has an impact, too.  The fact that David Cameron plans to, instead of hugging a huskie, go around taking an axe to wind turbines is definitely a nod to UKIP. There are people who fundamentally don’t like the direction of change and instead of seeing the absolute desperate need for more change want to actually go backwards. That’s a product of a certain age and attitude. The promising thing for us is that it shows even more so the failure of two party politics and therefore First Past the Post.

Is there a reason that the press aren’t treating the Green Party, who actually have an MP and are also seeing an increase in their support increase?

It’s partly because we don’t go around saying outrageous things. I’m a former journalist and know how this works, but I have debated going around and saying something stupid, but we’re serious about running Councils and the country, and about generally doing serious politics. Also, I think that UKIP has a very simple message: “Stop all of your problems by stopping immigration and leaving the EU”. I can’t give you a simple Green message. What we have to do is completely reshape our society so that everybody has sufficient resources for a decent quality of life, and that we’re living within our limits. It’s not only a lot more words, but it also has behind it a hinterland of complicated things that you have to explain. So while we can and must do a better job of explaining our message and boiling it down to something that you can fit into a sentence, but we’re not going to say “do these two things and that will solve all of our problems” because our politics aren’t that simplistic, and the kind of people who vote for us wouldn’t like that simplistic approach.

Note: this post represents the views of the interviewee and not those of Democratic Audit. Please read our comments policy before posting. The shortened URL for this post is: http://buff.ly/QIdSxY

SeanSean Kippin is Managing Editor of Democratic Audit.

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