An Interview With Natalie Bennett

Green Party Leader, Natalie Bennett speaks to Wessex Scene, about the environment, tuition fees, socialism, feminism, scumbag landlords, votes at 16, the ‘sad sick joke’ of the coalition, legalising weed, and where the Green Party will stand after May 7th.

 Last year, Natalie Bennett was a small time politician; today she is a household name leading the third biggest nation-wide party, according to membership at least. Early on the first Monday morning of the Easter holidays, I sat in my bedroom, pyjama-clad and waited for a call from Bennett, after 5 minutes I started to get nervous that the arranged interview was all an elaborate prank and she won’t be calling at all. Yet at 9.36am, Bennett puts me out of my misery, my phone rings and I’m greeted by Natalie’s cheery, Australian tone. We make small talk and discuss the weather (it’s a beautiful sunny day in London). Concerned that she’ll make time to do something more important than be interviewed by a student paper, I quickly crack on with the interview.

 Natalie Bennett is not your typical politician, she’s openly anti-monarchy, female and wasn’t born or educated in the UK. Of the leaders of the 5 biggest nationwide parties, she’s the only woman, the only one that wasn’t educated at a British public school and/or Oxbridge, but as the Green’s initial exclusion from the TV debates has shown, she isn’t afraid of ‘the boys’ in politics.

As Trustee of the Fawcett Society, I wasn’t surprised when the Green Party leader told me she ‘very much’ was a feminist. But what does she think of people who openly aren’t feminists? “I think labels are what people make of them.” Bennett tells me, “I think it’s really important that we keep feminists issues at the forefront. Look at things like the continuing pay gap, that only 22% of MPs are female, the lack of women running big companies and the lack of women running government departments, and the level of violence against women and girls in society – these are things that need to change.”

The nature of the name Green leads a lot to think the Greens are a one-party policy, what can they offer beyond the environment? Economic policy for a start, “Our economy is built on debt, we need to build a society built around strong local economies, that’s why we want to introduce a minimum wage that’s above the living wage, that’s £7.85 around the country and £10 an hour by 2020. So people can have a sense of security if they’re working full-time they have enough money to survive, or pro-rata part time.”

So that’s the economy covered, which is the most important issue for most people. What are the Green’s thoughts on the NHS? “We’re also particularly focusing on public services, bringing railways back in public hands so they’re run for passengers not share holders. We’re very focused on protecting the NHS; we’re against any profit motif in the NHS. At the moment, Caroline Lucas with other MPs has a private member’s bill in parliament calling for the removal of the market mechanism in the NHS, which in 2010 was costing us £10 billion a year.”

So are there environmental issues to focus on? “Environmental issues are obviously a strong part of our manifesto,” Bennett continues, “this is clearly the year of the current talks, this clearly is the year of the Paris talks, given what we’ve just seen as only a climate illiterate budget and a government that spends 300 times of fossil fuels that it does on renewables, and it’s not spending a penny on affordable energy to heat homes for people who desperately need that – we clearly need more change. At that’s what the Green Party stands for, a real change in politics, a new era in politics.” As a minority party would it be better to lobbying the major parties into taking on better environmental policies? “We’re fighting for better environmental policies all the time. You may recall this government came into power calling itself the Greenest ever, which I think is a very sad, sick, joke. The way to get focused on better environmental policy is to focus on issues conserving nature is to vote for Green MPs.”

It’s not unusual to see right-wing rhetoric attempting to scare voters away from the Greens by describing them as socialist. How would the leader of the Party compare her party’s policies to socialism? My political philosophy is Green, a lot of those things are traditionally socialist.” Bennett reminds me  “The understanding of the Green politics is the trying together of economic and environmental justice, and those things are indivisible. We need the sources for the future that gives everyone the quality of life, but we need to do that within the limits of one planet, as it’s all we’ve got.”

Scrolling through the Green’s website, a lot of these policies sounds great for a student voter – if not a little idealist. Most of us think it would be great to have a £10 minimum wage, and abolition of tuition fees, but are they realistic? Is it easy for a minority party to post idealist policies knowing they will not be in power? “I would say that we are the realistic party, if you look at the situation for tuition fees, to take one example, under the current system, 75% will never pay them back, so their going through 30 years of their life with that weight of debt, paying off a significant amount of their income. 45p in the pounds of those debts will never be repaid; it’s not a realistic system. It’s simply not workable, we need something different, we’re living in a very low wage economy with zero hour contracts and people can’t live their lives. How can you live your life with a zero hours contact when you don’t know whether this week you’re going to earn £0 or £200, where we are now we can’t continue.”

So what is Bennett’s response to critics who think a £10 minimum wage will lead to lower employment? “There’s a very good study out on making the minimum wage a living wage immediately would create 30,000 jobs.” Bennett begins to explain the multiplier effect to me, “Think about your local café on the corner, if the people outside are a living wage, they can afford to have a drink. Think about the home care workers who are disgracefully paid less than minimum wage, if they’re properly paid they could afford to pop in and have a cup of tea and a slice of cake. So you’re looking at a boosting of in particular local economies, and small businesses”.

One of these policies that sound great is the abolition of tuition fees, but how are the Green party planning on funding this? Pretty simply, taxation, taxation, taxation: “We very much want to focus multinational companies and rich individuals pay their own way – on the HMRCs own figures tax evasion and avoidance cost £34billion a year. We also want to bring in a wealth tax, which by the end of parliament could bringing in £25billion a year, and a Robin Hood Tax, or financial transactions tax, which could bring in £20billion a year. We want to balance society so people who can afford to pay, pay.”

For students, one of the biggest issues is housing, three quarters of students have problems with their rented student homes, and are getting into debt to pay for it. Natalie offers me her sincerest sympathies over my housing situation, and adds “It’s not just students that this happens to  – there’s a real problem with relationship between landlords and tenants, and the way in which that housing is seen as a financial assets first and a secondarily as a home.” Bennett continues “we want to introduce rent caps, so you have security of tenure for up to five years, if you wanted it also wouldn’t see your rent rising above the rate of inflation. We also want to build 500,000 homes for social rent [council houses, or similar], over the term of the next parliament, to help to restore the balance. That should bring more balance into the housing market, we need to get rents and an affordable level and we need to build affordable housing to deal with that.”

An issue where the Green Party sticks out from other politicians significantly is the decriminalisation of cannabis to the ‘Dutch level’. Should the Green party be worried about drug tourism?  “What we’re trying to do is harm minimisation, it’s very clear that the war on drugs has failed and the issue with drugs is a huge problem related to criminality. We’re focused on trying to reduce the damage that is done by drugs. There’s a lot of expert advice and evidence from around the world that says decriminalising cannabis is the way forward, in this area and so many others we want to move towards an evidence based policy.”

A lot of the Green Party’s points are on so-called ‘evidence based policy’, so if the Green Party were to go into a coalition – which policy points would they insist on keeping? “Just to put on the record, we would never prop up a Tory government, in any way at all.” Bennett insists, “We also wouldn’t be looking towards a coalition; we’d rather support a Labour-lead minority government on a vote-by-vote basis. If you go into coalition you take ministerial cards but you’re then forced to vote against your principles, if we were in opposition we won’t lose our principles.” So what if Bennett herself doesn’t get elected as an MP? At the moment, pollsters are predicting her to come third in her consistency of Holborn and St. Pancras, will she step down as leader Farage-style? “I think I have a very large mountain to climb in Holborn and St Pancras, and if we’re going to see real change, that’s the way things will be. I’m working very hard on that and looking forward to a hustings. I was elected by the Green Party members as leader, and I’ve been given a job to do, and I’ll be doing that as long as I’m still elected.”

According to voteforpolicies.org, the Green Party is the second favorite party of the UK electorate, shortly behind Labour. I asked Natalie why she thought this wasn’t the case in reality “The British Electorate have been trained over decades to vote tactically. I’ve met a lot of people who have told me they voted Lib Dem in 2010 to keep the Tories out; but there’s been an increasing disillusion with that, as people are realising politics isn’t changing as a result of that, as a result of 2010. The two largest parties in particular tend to slant their policies towards swing voters in the swing seats, assuming their core vote will stay with them no matter what. If we’re going to get a different kind of politics in Britain, it really is in voters hands – as you pointed out with votes for policies, we need every British person to vote towards their own belief, looked at the candidates in their constituency, it’s in voters hands to actually deliver a ‘peaceful political revolution’ on May 7th.’

But it’s not tactical voting that’s the problem for most students, it’s voting at all. Voter apathy is at an all time high, especially in 18-24 year olds. How would the Green Party encourage the youth to vote? “What we have to say is this is our world; this is the future world, in Westminster, lots of important decisions are made. I know there’s lots of rhetoric out there, Russell Brand being among them that say “don’t vote, it only encourages them” but if you don’t vote, I’m happy enough with how things are that I haven’t bothered, which I don’t think is a true reflection of how things are at all.  What I’d say is make sure you register to vote, go along to the polling station and have your say. I’d obviously say vote Green, but above all else, vote for what you believe in – look up your local candidates, go along to local events where their speaking if you can and see who you agree with.  If you really don’t want to vote for any of them, write something on the ballot box that would indicate that.” Another of the Green Party’s policies is to lower the voting age to 16, which, according to Natalie is a “This is a long term Green Policy, support for which has grown as a result of the Scottish Referendum, which saw a very high level of engagement for 16 and 17 year olds.” The leader of the Green Party tells me “It’s the future; it’s your world for many decades to come. 16 and 17 year olds are as well informed as any other group about politics. If you have General Elections every 5 years, and your birthday is the day after the General Election, votes at 18 could actually be votes at 23. You’re leaving people along way down the track before they can have a say about society.”

Feature image by Jordan Stewart.

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