Natalie Bennett’s speech: a snapshot of a party heading the right way
So, new conference, new leader. Natalie’s speech yesterday [copied in full below] perhaps said more about the shift over the last five years than it did about Natalie: whilst for us Greens, the change has been glacial, for the outside world, the emergence of the party as a serious force of the left is a new phenomenon. That we now talk as much about economy as environment is for us an old story. But for most, the spotlight provided by a new leader means that they suddenly notice.
When I first joined, the ‘wacky polices’ we’d be asked to defend at manifesto launches were things like banning the sale of goldfish at fairs, or our drugs policies – things which we are right about, but few of us were motivated to join the party by. When Natalie was first elected, she was accused of supporting policies huge numbers of Britain’s support – policies like a maximum wage ratio of 10:1 which put us on the left, and on the side of the vast majority of people in the greatest recession for more than a century.
And Natalie’s speech today underlined that – attacking free schools, Academies, and privatisation of the NHS; “we must ask what we can do for the unions” etc. To most Greens – or, at least, the younger Greens I tend to hang out with – this is all what we have come to expect from our party – it is our politics. But for the outside world, this seems new, this is a sudden change from the Greens they thought they knew.
Of course I have my gripes – that is to be expected. By slagging off Labour so much, Natalie ensured the headlines spelt out that she doesn’t like Miliband: journalists love conflict. But people don’t and it does little to bring voters to us. Whilst the reasons given to oppose Labour are all good and true, it’s better to be the ‘real opposition’ by critisising policies and inspiring support for new ones than by declaring ourselves to be.
But, fundamentally, the speech was about the main issues affecting people’s lives: public ownership, wages, the economy. And the fact that this is still what we talk about after our first leadership change, the fact that three of the four leadership candidates would have spoken about similar things, shows that those within the party who have long argued that this is where we must be have, essentially, won.
This is good. It is where we must be. Economic control is what underlies our political problems, our environmental problems, our social problems.
But the Greens they thought they knew are still here – or, at least, some of them. Yesterday, shamefully, after the speech, a group of old men with beards booed a new and younger member for suggesting that membership forms aren’t that important in the days of the internet. The Green Party Regional Council chairs didn’t bother to file their report for the conference, or to turn up to explain why they hadn’t. Whilst most of the debate within the party is about serious question of the future of the country, some is still between those who are serious, and those who aren’t.
But today, the debate will shift to the economy – should we support a Bank of England with no democratic control? (no) Should we address the power of corporations (yes). And so on. But more of that later. The point is this. For party members, the changes have happened slowly. But for the outside world, a new leader provides a snapshot. And it is of a party going in the right direction.
Speech in full:
Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, Natalie Bennett
Autumn Conference 2012 Speech
Thank you Caroline. I say that both for this moment, and much more, for everything you have given to our party over the last four years. For representing our party with such credibility, and passion, and good humour. For winning in Brighton, against all the odds. And for showing once again that, when we are given the chance, we Greens deliver.
Caroline is not just the first Green MP. Not just a great constituency MP, fighting for the people of Brighton. Of all the new MPs elected in 2010, she was the one chosen by journalists for the Spectator’s Newcomer of the Year.
Not a surprise to us, perhaps. We know just how good she is but a surprise to the wider world, who have not always taken us seriously.
And surprise to the Tories, the Lib Dems and to Labour who don’t want the competition.
So thank you, Caroline, for what you have done. And for what you will do next; representing Brighton Pavilion, campaigning for justice and for representing Brighton for many years to come.
I also must specially thank Adrian Ramsay who has served four years as deputy leader. Calm, unflappable and a man of steely determination; he’s been the key driving force in taking Norwich Greens to being the major opposition party in the city … and as deputy leader he’s taken that model of success and spread it around the country.
And in thanking Caroline and Adrian, I am in a way thanking all of you. They represent the Green Party; represent you and all that you have achieved over those years; the great work by Jean Lambert and Keith Taylor, Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson, and many scores of councillors up and down the country.
Now we come to the present. First I would like to say thank you to those of you who voted for me, thank you to those who didn’t. However you voted you participated in an historic step for the Green Party, another stage in our coming of age as a political party.
I’d also like to thank my fellow candidates for the leadership. We had a truly ‘Green’ leadership race, conducted in a spirit of understanding that to debate our future direction, to discuss our approach to the next two years, was a positive step for the party.
One of the moments over the next two years I look forward to most will come in 18 months’ time when I congratulate Peter Cranie on becoming the MEP for the North West region.
I also look forward to working with Romayne Phoenix to strengthen our campaigning and the mobilisation of resistance to the cuts.
And with Pippa Bartolotti as leader of the Green Party of Wales.
It is right that this historic conference is happening in Bristol, a city where the Green Party is making great strides.
When I arrived in Bristol yesterday one of the first things I saw was the Sustrans office. And I though yes, this is our kind of city.
I further warmed to Bristol when two table tennis players on the green in front of this hall agreed to stop playing for a couple of minutes for the Channel Four sound man yesterday. I was even more impressed when they said “we wouldn’t have stopped for the Tories.”
You’ve already heard from the very impressive Daniella Radice, Bristol’s mayoral candidate, and I am sure you will have formed the same view as I have, that the Bristol Party is a great example of a strong local green party.
As I said during the election campaign, we’re already got a tremendous number of activists up and down the country working flat out for their local communities, local parties working effectively with limited resources.
We can’t work any harder than we have in the past, but here in Bristol, in the West Midlands, and in many other places around the country, we are working much smarter.
So there’s lots to be proud of but, let’s be honest, we’ve still got a long, long way to go.
During the leadership campaign, I spoke about making us a truly national party. In London in May, we became the third largest party. I want to see us become the third party in the East Midlands, in Yorkshire and Humber, in Cornwall and then to move further forward from that!
We want councillors in every major town and city around the country, in every county and district and an MEP in every region of England and Wales.
That’s important for Britain and voters are coming to realise that.
They increasingly understand that decades of neoliberalism, privatisation and support for the welfare of multinational companies over the welfare of people, as championed by first Labour and now the Coalition, have failed to deliver even the basics of a decent life to millions in what is still, after all, the world’s sixth-richest economy.
Voters are seeking, hunting even, for new solutions, new ideas, new representatives.
The current politics has failed to house us. One in 10 in London households is on a council housing waiting list and private rents are soaring.
The current politics have failed to feed us. Food banks are one of our few fast growing industries. Global food prices are rising rapidly and industrial agriculture is clearly failing.
The current politics has failed to deliver stable, decently paid jobs for millions. Just look at the youth unemployment figures. Just look at the scandals of zero-hours contracts.
The current politics has failed to provide support to those whose lives are hit by illness or accident – events that could happen to any one of us at any moment.
It has failed to provide serene, financially secure old age – old age which is going to happen, we hope, to all of us.
That could be a litany of woe – and on one level it is.
But on another level – the Green level- it is an opportunity.
We know that even if socially all was rosy we couldn’t continue as we are. We are treating the planet as though it were simply a mine and a dumping ground, as if we had a couple of spare, unused planets sitting nearby ready to hop on to when we’ve trashed this one.
This isn’t an entirely new story for the human race – it is worth remembering that.
Once the Sahara was fertile. Once, the Yangtze River basin was as rich in plant and animal life as the Amazon.
Those are scars on the planet that will never heal.
But in past decades, and even still today, that level of destruction is accelerating. Our soils are being eroded, our waters contaminated, the wealth of nature on which all human life depends is under attack.
Those who blithely claim that we can live as we like today because technology will cure the future are living on a fantasy planet. They cannot restore the millions of square miles of fertile land lost to the deserts. They cannot draw the salt from the groundwater or replace the species made extinct.
Science offers us much. But there’s still much we don’t understand, complexities in ecosystems that we’ve scarcely begun to grasp.
We know, we all know that we cannot carry on as we are.
And the story’s much the same in what we might call human ecology. The rich are getting richer, scooping their ill gotten gains into tax havens, pressuring governments into beggar-thy-neighbour tax cuts.
And the poor? Well nearly one billion people, one seventh of the human race, regularly go hungry. And even in wealthy countries like Britain, we know many parents are skipping meals so their children can eat.
It is clear we need a fundamental change in direction. And we need it now.
And it’s the Green Party that has the radical vision of that change, the ideas, the plans to make it happen.
Normally, under a Westminster system of government, you’d expect the drive for that change to be coming from the largest opposition party, the Labour Party. Given their history, their birth out of the trade union movement, their links with the co-operative movement, that would make sense.
But Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is still championing nuclear power. Still pushing for unsustainable growth. Hasn’t moved to support cooperatives and small business against multinational companies. Doesn’t support renationalisation of the railways. Isn’t speaking out in favour of the minimum wage being a living wage.
The Labour Party has not changed. Has not renounced its recent past. Has not changed direction.
They are failing to offer a real alternative.
And there’s a good reason for that. They can’t. For the Coalition government is just continuing on from where Labour left off.
The privatisation of the NHS, the Labour Party started that. Academy schools, which have morphed into “free” schools, Labour championed them.
The deregulation of the financial industries, the belief that the market would always know best, that bankers were infallible geniuses who should be left to run free and wild – the Labour Party embraced that.
Being extremely relaxed about people getting “filthy rich” while paying their workers poverty wages whose real value decreased year after year after year – that was Labour. Such a handy preparation for our current cabinet of millionaires.
Outsourcing decisions on benefits for people with disabilities to the dreadful Atos, and promoting the demonization of benefit recipients. Labour is responsible.
And tragically, the Iraq and Afghan wars, foreign adventures that have claimed the lives of millions, Labour started them.
It was Labour, who against all of its traditions, came out as tough on people with disabilities, tough on immigrants and asylum seekers, tough on people unfortunate enough to live in traditional manufacturing areas who couldn’t find a job.
But there were plenty of soft spots for Labour. They were soft on tax havens, on tax evasion, on tax avoidance. They were soft on multinational corporations, soft on Tescos and Sainsburys, content to let them gobble up many thousands of small retail businesses, empty out our high streets and grind down family farms.
That was Labour then, and that is Labour now. Ed Milliband has even embraced Tony Blair as an adviser.
So the fact is, as the Green Party, we have a huge job to do. A huge task, a big ask, but I believe we can do it, and do it well. In fact we already are doing it.
We have to be the opposition to this disastrous Coalition government. We are the opposition.
We can do it because we have the vision of a better, more equal, healthier Britain, and we know how to get there.
We know that this new Britain needs to invest in the future, invest in homes, in public transport, in energy conservation and renewable energy to meet our society’s urgent needs and provide quality, stable jobs for our workers.
We know that we need to rein in our out-of-control bankers, reshape our financial system to meet the needs of the real economy, to base it on mutuals, co-operatives and small local banks and a national ‘post office ‘ bank.
We know that we need to relocalise our economy – bring back our manufacturing industries, and support our farmers. We need to establish short supply chains that minimise energy use. We need to put it simply, to prepare for a low carbon world.
We know that we need to strengthen and support our trade unions – to restore the balance between workers and employers, to tackle the casualization and low pay that has scarred the lives of millions. As Greens we need to ask the unions “what can we do for you?”
And the good news is, all that restructuring our economy, preparing and beginning massive cuts in carbon emissions, can have a huge positive impact on the lives of everyone in the United Kingdom.
Decades of hypercharged capitalism has left us with what? The unhappiest children in the developed world. Huge levels of mental ill health and stress. A gap between rich and poor that matches the 19th-century. Top hats may yet have made a comeback, but poverty pay and huge riches certainly have.
Investing in the future, reshaping our economy for a low carbon world, is not only essential to cut our emissions and face the fact that peak oil is already here.
By investing in this low carbon, more equal economy, we will deliver a better quality of life for everyone. We make these investments, we create jobs, we return local economies to local people. Even if some inventor found a magic wand to deliver unlimited, free energy devoid of any environmental impact at all, we’d still have made enormous advances in the wellbeing of the people of Britain.
So we have the vision, now we just need to elect more representatives to deliver it.
The Green Party we all know has a huge barrier in front of us, the first-past-the-post electoral system. Sometimes, in council elections, and in parliamentary elections, it can appear like a giant, impenetrable wall.
We know that broadly across the country we’ve got support, but in first-past-the-post elections, 10% means nothing, even 20-25% support isn’t going to give you a single seat.
We know that despair at this system is a major factor in continually falling turnouts in elections, and we know that campaigning for a proper proportional election system is an important part of our work.
But we also know that we don’t have to wait for that campaign to bear fruit. We know that we can, and we have won first-past-the-post elections. Not just in Brighton Pavilion and on Brighton Council, but in Norwich, in Lancaster, in Solihull, in leafy Redhill.
And we’re getting better at it. During the leadership campaign, I spent a lot of time talking about “the West Midlands model” and about how that’s delivered in just two years a big advance in a region that’s a traditional Labour stronghold: we’ve gone from three councillors on three councils to 13 on seven. And this May we won every priority seat identified by the region. That’s a spectacularly good outcome.
No wonder Labour and the Lib Dems are worried.
You’ll see in the conference programme that there are fringe sessions about the West Midlands where you can learn more. And you may see a few activists from the other parties trying to sneak in.
Well, don’t worry too much. Yes, there’s lots we can learn from each other. But what Labour and the others don’t get is that this isn’t some kind of electoral trick. It’s planning, teamwork and commitment. But it’s also about being honest with the voters, about serving local communities, about sticking to our values. That’s what has worked in the West Midlands. And what has worked wherever the Green Party is making progress.
And making progress is something that as leader I’d like to try to ensure we do across the whole party. We need to make sure that every part of the party, ideally everything we do, has an impact in either getting more Greens elected, in helping to make our elected representatives more effective, or in promoting our policies.
To present my vision for how we can start achieving that, I wrote a “Plan for Leadership: My First 100 Days” and you can find it on my campaign site and soon on my new leader’s website.
And you’ll also find the pages stuck on my fridge, there to remind me every day about what I’ve promised to achieve.
I’d ask you to read it not because of the exciting prose, or the pictures of elected Greens, but because I’d ask you to hold me to it. In 100 days time take a look and make a tally, see how I’ve done. And hold me to account on it.
All of that’s organisational. It can sound a little dull. But it is terribly important. So let’s think for a second about the “promoting our policies” part of the goal … particularly those policies that we know no other party will be prepared to promote. … genuine action to reduce carbon emissions, protection of our green belt and Britain’s national environment, the minimum wage a living wage, benefits set at levels that allow a decent life…
And I’m going to add a final policy, one with a personal angle. One that probably helps explains why I’m speaking to you here today.
Twenty-three years ago I was in a car crash in which my mother was killed. Now for me that a pain that sits in the pit of my stomach. I’m sure for the rest of my life, will never go away.
One sadness today is that I wish she could be watching this speech.
But that’s not just a personal story. That’s a sadness whose cause is shared by millions of other Britons. In just the past decade, more than 27,000 people have been killed on Britain’s roads. That’s as if every man, woman and child in a town the size of Dover had been killed.
For every one of those deaths there are today, people who are having a moment, an hour, or a whole day, when that loss is hanging heavy on them. Grief never really goes away.
And we know that in Britain, that toll hits harder, proportionally, on pedestrians and cyclists than in other countries, and on poor people. This is a safety issue, and it’s an equality issue.
That’s why Green councillors and Green campaigners up and down the country are working hard on road safety issues, notably on promoting, with increasing success 20mph speed limits everywhere that people live work and shop.
In the years to come, there will be a lot of hard work for us all. A lot of trudging round in the rain to speak to local residents. A lot of campaigning, meetings rallies.
And what will keep us going?
I think we all have something within us that brought us into politics, into the Green Party.
Perhaps someone who inspired us. Perhaps someone we have lost.
And that will give us the determination to carry on, to win.
Not for ourselves but for those around us. For those who are no longer with us. And for those still to come, whose futures are in our hands.
I look forward to working with you all, everyone here today, everyone who can’t be here today, and everyone who should be but just doesn’t know it yet… together we can make the difference.