Natalie Bennett on her proudest achievements, progressive alliances and the future of the Green Party
As the rest of the media clamoured to interview the two newly-elected co-leaders of the Green Party, at Bright Green we thought it’d be an excellent time to chat to the outgoing leader, Natalie Bennett, asking her to reflect on the past and contemplate the future: what does it look like for the Greens in a post-Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn- filled, potentially ‘progressive alliance’ Britain?
We met just after her ‘farewell’ speech to conference in a small room across the corridor from the grand meeting hall. Natalie had received a standing ovation at the start and the end of her speech, testament to the admiration party members hold for her. In light of this we started by talking about legacy: how had the party changed over the last four years that Natalie had been leader, and what were her proudest achievements during that time?
Natalie pointed to the “quadrupling of the party membership” and the formation of “new local parties where we haven’t had any before” as some of the highlights for her during her time as leader. She talked of how the party had grown in quality, as well as quantity too, highlighting how, in the wake of the tragic death of Jo Cox, Labour MP, a week before the EU referendum, parties of all hues refused to stand in the ensuing bye-election, and the response from the Greens on this decision had to be carefully handled given the large media interest. She spoke of how the local party was able to communicate very quickly with the national party and the leadership, and issue a statement to the press in a very quick-turn around time (deciding not to stand), evidencing the growing “sophistication and speed” of internal party processes, something that would have been unthinkable four years ago.
For her proudest achievement, however, Natalie, with a smile, referred to the live TV debates in the run up to the general election in 2015, where she was able to “look David Cameron in the eye and challenge him about the government’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis” a crisis recent figures have shown the government still has failed to respond adequately to. Natalie is proud that the Greens fought for their right to be in the debates and won, and that she was able to challenge David Cameron directly over a lacklustre response to the appalling conditions in Syria, something no Green leader had had the chance to do before. All of these are signs of how the party has grown in size, ability and public presence during Natalie’s time as leader.
Natalie was also keen to point out how one political first (her being the first female party leader to take over from another female party leader in British political history) has now been followed by another political first, with the Green’s now boasting the first co-leadership of a party in England and Wales: “The Green Party does politics differently… this symbol is powerful”.
Yet whilst perhaps a first, it is still unclear exactly how such a leadership will take shape. I asked Natalie, given her experience of the role and what it entails, how, practically, a shared leadership might work. Whilst keen to stress that it was a decision for Caroline and Jonathan to work out, Natalie suggested that there was a “natural division of labour, with Caroline being an MP”, and that it would make sense for her to focus on the Parliamentary side of things, whereas Jonathan could focus on the internal side of the party, much as Natalie has been praised for doing during her leadership. The loss of a deputy leader position might not be felt so keenly if the co-leaders divide their labour in this way, yet it remains to be seen how exactly the pair plan to divvy up the workload.
A corner-stone of the new co-leaders’ election bid and the elephant in the room this conference, I asked Natalie about her thoughts on progressive alliances. She responded that, whilst alliances need to definitely “stay on the table”, we needed to make sure we had the freedom to accept that “it may not work everywhere”, perhaps showing that she is more aware than the new leaders of the problems such an alliance may hold for local parties. If we were to assume an alliance of sorts was to go ahead, however, Natalie argued that the flawed electoral system we have underlies a lot of the political problems we have, and that any progressive alliance should have fixing this as its focus.
However, Natalie had a lot to say about what differentiates the Greens too. “We have always understood that the economic and the environment are indivisible. We need to find a way of getting across that this is an opportunity as well as a threat. The environment isn’t a luxury, it’s the core, but we’re still working towards the words to describe this: the great challenge is the 12-second soundbite.” Natalie joked that “I’ve managed to get it down to about 30 seconds” but admitted that she, and the party as a whole, needed to be better at condensing what is a nuanced and wide-reaching argument into a distributable form that voters can grasp quickly. In reference to this, Natalie highlighted how tackling environmental problems could help solve other, perhaps more salient issues in voters’ minds, such as fuel poverty and job creation.
We also talked of narratives, and how having a coherent and clear one is key to winning over voters, and something the Green Party needs to carefully nurture. Whilst some members will remember housing policy-gaffes and Natalie being somewhat outshone by Nicola Sturgeon in the GE debate, throughout our interview Natalie displayed a level of strategic vision and articulation that could go some way to explaining the rising prominence of the Greens in British politics. The new leadership team, and indeed all members, would be wise to consider how we communicate our message, and how we make it coherent and relevant to voters.
The outgoing leader also lauded the “stand out” education policy that the Greens have developed, arguing that it stems from a tradition that is quite unique, quite different from that of Labour. This is to be one of her core focuses upon leaving the leadership to Caroline and Jonathan: campaigning on educational issues, up and down the country. “Young people are angry and anguished about the damage the education system has done. They need someone to speak up for them.” The former leader argued that it’s key that the Green Party reaches out to other sections of society and fights with them. In particular student nurses, artists and small businesses were all mentioned, the latter of whom Natalie thinks the Green Party are “natural champions” for, given the positive environmental impacts locally based businesses can have.
In all, Natalie Bennett is likely to be remembered as a leader that laid the ground work for an increasingly competent and national party, overseeing large member influxes and increasing internal sophistication, albeit a leader that did not always perform well in the spotlight. It also sounds as if she’ll be keeping plenty busy, intending to campaign up and down the country on educational and agricultural issues. In a time of mammoth political challenges, the progressive movement in the UK just might need all the activists that have spent years at the helm and in the spotlight that they can get. Hopefully, Natalie will stay a prominent part of that movement.