The Natalie Bennett Interview

(Max Nash/PA)

Earlier this month, Natalie kindly agreed to answer some questions from Liberal Base editor Tom Parkin. Natalie discusses women in political leadership, Brexit, how progressives meet patriotism and whether the ‘Green Wave’ is here to stay.

Q: In October 2019, you were elevated to the House of Lords as the second Green peer. What has most surprised you about parliament and your role in the Upper House?

There is of course a deep-rooted inconsistency at the heart of the House of Lords. It is there to hold the government to account, to scrutinise its actions, but it is not elected. Members are there – with rare exceptions – through the 18th-century instrument of patronage, or the medieval principle of inheritance.

Of course I knew that when I went in – and it is something that I immediately sought through the House of Lords (Elections and Reform) Bill to change.

But what surprised me was the passion with which people hold to the current structure, while also expressing regret that they’d love to stop the government doing this or that unwise thing, or force it to take urgent action. “But we can’t because we’re the unelected House”, despite the fact that the Commons is a House dominated by a minority – the Tories backed by 44% of voters in the 2019 election.

We saw this with the EU Withdrawal Bill. The House stood stronger in opposition to the Commons than many had predicted – led particularly by crossbench lawyers who were horrified by damage done to the legal system by it. But then it folded with scarcely a murmur when the Commons dismissed its five amendments, carefully thought through and massaged to be as acceptable as possible to the government, with casual contempt. “Because we’re the unelected House.”

Q: 2018-19 saw the ‘green wave’ disrupt global politics. Why is teenager Greta Thunberg able to cut through and capitalise on the crisis of climate change in a way the Green Party has historically struggled to match? And why now?

Political change always happens in what is apparently big, sudden, often little-predicted jumps. The last time British politics really changed was the rise of Margaret Thatcher. But that came on the basis of decades of work, writing, thinking, campaigning by the people who became neoliberals.

The Climate Strikers and Extinction Rebellion are building on similar decades of work – think of Reclaim the Power, UKUncut, Occupy, and the Green Party, or academics like Professors Kate Raworth, Tim Jackson and Guy Standing.

Change when it comes may look sudden and unexpected, but it has to have deep foundations if it is to last. The climate movement has those foundations.

Plus, the time needs to be right. There was a clear shift in public perception of the climate emergency after the IPCC report in October 2018 that effectively said “10 years

to save the planet”. And with Australian bushfires, global floods, the visible changes in the natural world all around us, the practical reality of climate change now became undeniable.

That came as it became blindingly obvious that our current economic model was broken, unstable and that change would come. Outlets as surprising as the Financial Times and the Economist have increasingly been making that observation and running with calls for universal basic income, changes in the method of money creation and increasing government controls on fossil fuel companies.

The public is looking for new answers. The coronavirus crisis has come as a desperate reminder of the fragility of our current system, the lack of resilience built into profit maximisation and financialisation.

The one certainty is that the system will not stay anything like it is now, and that is good news.

Q: Is the ‘green wave’ here to stay or is there a risk of it losing momentum?

History is not pre-written, but made by the actions of individuals working collectively. So there is clearly a great opportunity for us to set the philosophy of the next 40 years or so, as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan determined the direction of the past four decades, and social democracy for the decades before that, but no guarantees.

There’ve been many attempts to “revive centrism”, but centrism, which involves leaving things much as they are – with the current massive inequality, poverty, insecurity and discrimination – just making a few fiddling changes, has no answers, and no attraction.

The philosophy behind the “Green wave” is that there are enough resources in the world for everyone to have a decent life and the natural world to thrive, if we just share those resources out fairly.

The competing philosophy is that of the Far Right, who say that it is a dangerous, limited, inevitably massively unequal world, in which “we” have to grab as many resources as we can, to get those resources off “them”, and shove “them” away, to keep them out with walls and weapons.

In that climate, for Greens, as the American suffragette Susan B. Anthony said, “failure is impossible”. The world the Far Right would create would be a Hobbesian nightmare.

Q: In a December 2016 interview with The Yorkshire Post, you said you had long expected to bring change through work for a charity or NGO. What then led to your focus on party politics?

If you think back to 2005 or 2006, for those old enough, there was a strong focus among environmental and social justice campaigners on lobbying. They thought they’d have to work with whoever was in power – and it didn’t look very different if it were Labour or Tories – and so they focused on winning incremental change, issue by issue. But when I looked, on New Year’s Day 2006, about how to take action to change the world, I instinctively felt that was an ineffective model. I eventually boiled this down to: “We have to stop electing the wrong people and hoping they’ll do the right things.”

To get Green action on social and environmental justice, we have to elect Greens – soon a Green government and Green councils across the land. What we are talking about is a complete system change, ending our growth addiction and recognising that we have to operate within the physical limits of this one fragile planet while ensuring everyone has the resources for a decent life.

As I recognised a couple of years ago while preparing for a Women’s Environmental Network conference, there’s something very fundamental feminism and Green politics have in common. While it is good to work on individual issues like abortion rights or ending fossil fuel dependency, unless you also work towards systemic change, you’re going to have to keep fighting the same battles again and again. I owe this insight initially to the wonderful feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham, who I heard reflect that in the Seventies feminists had thought they’d just win one battle and then move on to the next. But they found that wasn’t the case – the Backlash wasn’t a single moment but a continual push against progress.

Q: Turning to Brexit, should liberal-minded progressives now advocate the UK rejoin the EU, or should they ‘move on’?

We have to start from where we are. Step one, in the current environment, has to be agreeing an extension to the Brexit transition period. The idea that we could negotiate all of the complexities of a new relationship with our neighbours, while also setting up – as this government has expressed a determination to do – new regulations for aviation, for chemicals, for agriculture etc etc, is clearly ludicrous, as I’ve written elsewhere.

But of course next year, with no doubt continuing fallout from SARS-CoV-2, we’re also going to have to be leading as chair of the COP26 climate talks. There’s a huge pressure on government bandwidth, plus with the deadlock at the heart of government over the past year, huge quantities of planned business, white papers, reports, un-updated regulations etc often years overdue.

So the transition extension is, practically speaking, going to have to be at least two years. If you think of the amount of political change over the past two, who knows what will be possible in that time?

Certainly we can fight to keep all of the best parts of European Union membership, particularly free movement of people – and the new focus on the importance of “key workers” to our economy, rather than just high earners, is going to be a big help for that. And food safety, environmental protection and workers’ rights have also jumped right up agendas – so we need to keep defending all of those standards. Then see where that gets us.

Q: Progressive parties in Britain have long shied away from the word ‘patriotism’. Why is this and does it have a place in a liberal/progressive agenda?

George Orwell with “Notes on Nationalism” made an important distinction between defensive patriotism and expansionist, competitive nationalism. I’ve no problem with a patriotism that seeks to defend the good things about how we as a nation have and do operate.

The concept of pride, in place, in institutions, in ideas, is to be celebrated. I’m proud of the wonderful radical political tradition of my home city of Sheffield, from Mary Hutton, to whom I referred in my maiden speech, to Edward Carpenter (a Green and gay rights campaigner before either term had been invented), to anti-slavery campaigner Mary Anne Rawson. I’m proud of the place of radical campaigning for what we now call human rights in British history, from Katherine Chidley to Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb. But while doing that I can also reject the history of racism and xenophobia of Enoch Powell or the eugenicism of Francis Crick.

I visited Finland on a study tour on universal basic income, and spoke to a number of civil servants and academics who were very tired of hearing visitors exclaim how wonderful the country’s institutions and systems were. “But there are so many things we need to fix, make better,” they responded. If you lose that desire for greater equality, greater humanity, greater care, then you are in a dangerous place.

An understanding that “utopia” means “no place” is crucial. A Trumpian “we are best and are going to beat everyone else down” is a deeply dangerous approach.

I shuddered when I heard the government proclaiming the UK was going to be “world-beating” on this or that aspect of tackling the coronavirus. Would that mean if we hit No 1 in this putative league table we stopped trying? We should be aiming to do the absolute best we can, and helping every other nation as much as we can to do their best too. That is in all of our interests on this interconnected planet.

Q: The Green Party of England and Wales have a strong record of electing women to positions of leadership. What is your party doing right?

We acknowledge that we have to keep battling against the discrimination and inequality that are pervasive in the society of which we are a part, so we’ve always for list-type elections had quotas, had gender balance rules for leadership and other internal posts, and a strong focus on ensuring equal representation in debates at conference etc.

And because of that, we’ve had different models of female leadership available to women at all levels of the party. If you take say Caroline Lucas, Molly Scott Cato and myself, we’ve got three very different styles of presentation and approaches. I often say to people I acknowledge that I’m naturally loud and competitive, and I sometimes use that when I feel I need to, although I try hard not to overuse it. Molly by contrast has a real skill in speaking more quietly and slowly and in that way getting her share of airtime. Seeing those different models is important to help other women see where they could fit in.

Which is not to say that we as a party don’t acknowledge we need to do much better on gender equity, and on greatly improving the involvement of people from different ethnic minority communities, those from different socio-economic backgrounds and with disabilities.

But I am proud of the fact that I’m the first leader of a British political party to take over from another woman leader (Caroline Lucas). That we had to wait until 2012 for that to happen is telling.

Q: Who are the most inspiring women of all parties and none in local government today?

I’d have to start with Marianne Overton, leader of the Independent Group on the Local Government Association, who is an independent independent from Lincolnshire.

And if I can be parochial, I’ll have to mention Cllrs Kaltum Rivers and Alison Teal in Sheffield, and Cllr Carla Denyer in Bristol, who led the first local government declaration of a climate emergency. And Caroline Russell, our London Assembly member and full opposition to Labour (no other parties represented) on Islington Council.

Dame Vera Baird, the Police and Crime Commissioner in Northumbria (Labour) from 2012-19 is a striking example of a powerful female politician (I wrote the short biography of her in Volume Two of The Honourable Ladies.

But there’s no doubt that local government remains a huge area of discrimination and massive under-representation. The whole “strong leader” model of elected mayors is a complete disaster, and not just for women’s representation. I’m part of the campaign for a Yorkshire Parliament, and that’s the model that we badly need to focus on – ensuring full representation and a range of voices contributing to decisionmaking. We’ve seen recently in the extreme case study of Boris Johnson the danger of relying on one person, just as we’ve seen the damage done to our schools by the same idea of “strong leadership” associated with the free school model.

Q: Who are the rising stars in any of the progressive parties we should watch out for?

Following on from my last answer, I’m going to decline to pick out names here. I think we’ve got to get away from the focus on the individual. This is something that Green political philosophy has, almost uniquely, to offer. Focusing on one person or a handful of people, and saying “they are the future”, “they’ll have the answers”, is bad for the individuals concerned, and much worse for societies.

I’ve got very frustrated with Labour people in recent months saying versions of “we can do something when we get a new leader”. If you have a coherent political philosophy and set of values, any group of people in a party should be able to get together, apply those principles and decide the way forward, not waiting for one person to provide direction.

Q: Under your leadership, the Greens achieved their strongest result at a general election and record membership. Are you considering a return to the leadership later this year?

An easy one to answer this, no. As a new member of the House of Lords I’ve got a huge number of opportunities to act through that role, and a lot to learn. Green leadership is always a team effort.

I’ve long been on the record of saying every member of the Green Party is a leader, and it isn’t people with the title of “leaders” who decide the party’s direction but members democratically at conference. It is good to use that title to spread the public visibility of and opportunities for action around a range of people in the party.

Q: Like me, you have chosen to make Sheffield your home in recent years. What hidden gem in and around the city would you recommend I visit?

Not exactly “hidden”, but I only went to the Abbeydale Works Museum when I had out-of-town visitors to show around, and decided then I should have gone much earlier. I was also amazed when I went for a walk along the Sheffield-Tinsley canal. It isn’t exactly scenic, but certainly informative, and the paucity of bird life and level of pollution (contrasting it to the Camden canal I used to walk along) is a demonstration of how far our city has to go to clean up from the past.

For after-the-lockdown for dining, I’d recommend Noodle Doodle in the city centre for great South East Asian and Chinese dining (just ignore the name!), for coffee the quite new South Sea Kitchen in the Park Hill flats, and for a drink Hagglers Corner. During the lockdown, the Rhubarb Shed is doing great fruit and veg boxes from Manor Lane. I’m also a Sheffield Hot Yoga fan and they’re running online classes now. (Yes, I do like to promote and use small independent businesses.)