Interview with Natalie Bennett, leader of Green Party of England and Wales

Interview conducted on Friday 15th March 2013 by Marc Hudson. Transcription by Marc Hudson and Arwa Aburawa.

Question: So, what’s an Australian journalist doing sitting in Manchester talking to an Australian journalist?
Reply: Well, I’m a former Australian and a former journalist. I’m here as leader of the Green Party looking at the issues that are really affecting Manchester. It was very interesting hearing from the Manchester Poverty Commission in terms of the really local issues. One of the things I find as I go around the country is we have huge national issues in terms of being a low wage, low jobs economy that’s living as though we have three planets in terms of our resource consumption. But the particular state of that really works out very differently in different places. We were talking about the need to develop a strong local economy built around small businesses and cooperatives. But how that works out is different everywhere, so it’s really interesting to find out more.

We’ll come back to that – a little more local colour. When did you leave Oz?
I left Australia 18 years ago.

Were you politically active in Australia?
No, because I worked as a journalist in small country towns – there was no politics, basically.

Okay. You said a lot there that I want to unpick there. There’s 96 councillors in Manchester – I don’t know if you’ve had the arithmetic explained. At the current level there are 9 lib dems, who are toast next June.
So I’m told

Why should someone vote Green at Manchester City Council level June 2014?
Well, first of all if you look at this in terms of ‘politicians all need to be held to account’ level, the fact is it’s going to be Labour or Green in large parts of the city. If you have an only-Labour council, that’s really not a politically healthy situation. It would be good to have Greens in there just holding Labour to account. And much more broadly than that, in terms of policies, the Green Party … is standing up for the minimum wage – the living wage, standing up for renationalisation of the railways, standing up for a publicly owned and publicly run NHS, standing up for zero-tuition fees.

I’ll stop you there because only the first one of those is something that Manchester City Council can do anything about, and they actually have a Manchester wage which is above the – it’s only 50p above the minimum wage – but it is above the minimum wage. [I was wrong – it’s now £7.15, 96p above the minimum wage. Marc Hudson]
In that case it would be less than a living wage, in terms that national Living Wage is calculated at 7.45 an hour, that’s still significantly – 10% doing the maths in my head …
What I was trying to do is set out how the Green Party is different from the Labour Party. We have a very different political vision and I would say a much more progressive and radical political vision.

Visions are fine, but at best you’ll have one out of 96.
Maybe two or three

That’s what you have to say, for sure. Okay, I’ll give you two or three.
Right

How can three councillors scrutinise 96 [should have said 93! – Marc Hudson]. What else can be done, is what I am trying to find out from you.
I think the thing is if you have 96 councillors all from one party that’s patently extremely unhealthy. If we think about ecosystems, an ecosystem occupied by just one organism is not a very healthy or balanced ecosystem. Even two or three councillors – and of course they wouldn’t just be those councillors, they’d have the whole Manchester Green Party behind them, supporting them, helping them- would be in a position to move motions, to ask staff to calculate how would we be able to save this library – “if we need to find a hundred thousand pounds, where would this money come from.” They’d be able to ask the questions that otherwise simply wouldn’t get asked.

You say “otherwise wouldn’t get asked” but you can ask those questions.
Well, journalists can ask those questions if indeed the local journalism is sufficiently well-resourced to have the time and energy to find out what questions should be asked. But they can’t ask the council staff in the same way a councillor or a council group can ask … and demand a reaction.

You’ve not mentioned the Freedom of Information Act
You can use the Freedom of Information Act. I know lots of people who use it very often with variable results. A council group can say to council officers “we want to produce an alternative budget. We want you to cost this alternative budget. We think we have these ideas of [for example] saving these four libraries, saving this swimming pool, saving something else. We think we might be able to do that by doing this that and that. They might have an idea that they want to have a whole renewable energy programme, energy conservation programme. “We think we can fund it with prudential borrowing” – do the calculations for us.
And that’s something a group of councillors, or even a single councillor can do and demand of council staff that any outside agency, journalists, people who are trying to keep track of the council can’t.

Well, I’ll send you some links to stuff that groups of citizens who aren’t in the Green Party have been doing around what you’ve just described [Call to Real Action, Steady State Manchester)
Well, doing that’s great, but you don’t have access to council resources in the same way.

Well, there are fewer and fewer council resources. And in my experience council officers are unenthusiastic to do anything that the leadership of the council hasn’t already asked them to do. A dissident group of councillors would find life difficult, I think. What else can people do to make Manchester a greener place and a more politically diverse place, other than going out and voting in June 2014.
Well, I’d very much encourage people to do whatever they can in their immediate local vicinity, and that means speaking up if you need to defend your local library, defend your local swimming baths , speak up if you’ve got a particularly dangerous intersection that particularly old people and children are finding difficult to cross, and say “we need to make this road safer. We need to make this road 20mph, we need to do whatever needs to be done on that street. We’re seeing in Manchester lots of national government money is being pulled out. You have to fight to get resources for the tools.

So how can a Green Party – local, national, whatever – help people to take those actions?
What we can do is provide the resources, provide the framework for campaigning. Take for example the living wage councils. If you look at most of the living wage councils around the country , they either have or have had Green councillors on them. We lead on campaigns, we encourage local campaigns, we support local campaigns. All around the country Greens are leading in fights against incinerators. Greens often lead in fights against large supermarket developments where they’re going to decimate town centres and hit local businesses hard. Greens are out there on a whole range of campaigns.

Coming back to the vision thing. You mentioned small business, you mentioned co-operatives … Growth – what do you understand as the distinction between a green growth economy, or a low-carbon growth economy and a steady state economy, and does the Green Party have a particular preference for either.
What we’re looking for is increasing the prosperity and well-being of the British community. In terms of GDP growth we all know that GDP is a nonsense measure. To take some classic examples, if you go out and have a massive smash on the motorway, you’ve just contributed positively to GDP because you’ve got to repair all those cars or replace them, you’ve got to fix the road surface and all the rest of it. Or to use Caroline Lucas – our Green MP’s – favourite example, if a mother goes out and buys her child dinner at Dunkin Donuts that’s good for GDP, if she cooks a lovely home-cooked meal with some nice vegetables from the back garden that has no effect on GDP. So I think it’s absolutely futile to have debates around what’s happening to GDP. What we need to do is do lots of things we need to do – that’s insulate our homes, improve our public transport, provide public services like libraries. And we need to stop lots of things we shouldn’t be doing like building zombie roads like the Bexhill-Hastings link road, thinking about expanding airports, or building HS2 – lots of things that aren’t net-positives for the well-being and prosperity, in the general sense, of Britain.

So, airports. I’ve waved a magic wand and you’re the leader of Manchester City Council. And the City Council still owns 35% .. and you do what? You shut it down? You stop it expanding? You shrink it? What do you do?
I don’t know the fine details of Manchester and I think realistically we need to reduce the amount of flights overall. How that relates to the specifics of Manchester… Certainly we don’t believe there’s any need to expand airport capacity in the South East of England. So that means we’d like to close City Airport down, in London. This ties in with the whole regional development strategy, which is something we’re very strong on in terms of we need to change development from out of the south east across the region[s]. So that might mean that Manchester might remain stable – you’d have to do all the figures on this – while the amount of flights going into the south east decreased.

Okay. So, aviation has increased by a lot in the last 10 to 15 years. Are you saying the Green Party would keep it at the level it is now in 2013, or shrink it back to 2000, or shrink it back to 1990. And if you’re not expanding the number of flights, then tickets are going to get more expensive, and poor people, who already fly very little are going to be flying not at all.
Well fourth fifths of flights in the UK are taken by people who are wealthy. It kind of depends on the reasons people are taking the flights – if you are an eye surgeon flying to Africa to train people to do eye surgery then that’s a flight worth taking if you’re going for a stag weekend in Prague then that’s not really a flight that’s justifiable in terms of the impact on the planet versus the contribution to prosperity. So what you have to do is look at the balance between those two things.

If you found out that one of the members of the national exec had been taking flights to stag weekends in Prague, this is all hypothetical of course, are there are any rules about that or is it ‘tut tut, please don’t do that the Daily Mail may find out’ situation?
Well, I don’t think we’d be thrilled about it but the fact is that what we need to do is change everything structurally. We’re not really concerned with individuals behaviour what we’re concerned about the whole society which is why we are in politics rather than Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. We want to make doing the environmentally-friendly thing the cheapest, easiest and simplest things to do and so that means that we’re not out there preaching to individuals about what they should change. What we are saying is that we need to change the way that society works. We’re not going to castigate someone for driving their family off to a weekend holiday if taking the train costs an absolute fortune and is unreliable and so isn’t a viable option. What we need to do is make sure that the train is cheap and affordable and reliable and all those sorts of things.

So, many commentators have argued that with the 2008 crash, neo-liberalism has been revealed to be as the cliché goes, a naked emperor. How come therefore parties like the Green Party which talk about a fundamentally different way of doing things have gained so little political traction either in terms of voters or column inches. How comes the greens more generally, not just the Green Party, don’t seem to killed the zombie that is neo-liberalism?
Well, what I think happened was that in 2007-8 we had a crash and for the first couple of years after that people just thought ‘we’ve had a crash, we’ve had crashes before, things will go back to normal. this is part of the capitalist cycle, we’re all quite used to this’. So, it’s taken 3 or 4 years for people to recognise that this crash is of an entirely different scale and nature to the crashes that have happened before. So I think right this moment people are looking around for alternative ideas and are only starting to question how things played out over the last two or three decades. People have habits of thought that don’t change overnight, it takes time for people to think ‘hey Capitalism had hit the buffers both economically and also environmentally and we need a different model. I think we’re just at the point now of starting to recognise that fact but that was never going to happen overnight.

I’ve given you a time machine which takes you back to 2008 and you’re the leader of the Green Party. What are you going to do to get the Green Party to do things differently? What were the missed opportunities in other words?
I’m not sure there were because I think you have to wait to the point where people are ready to listen. Since 2008, we’ve seen one particularly huge gain which is we elected Caroline Lucas as out first green MP in Brighton and when you have to beat the first past the post system, elected your first MP can be a tremendous challenge and we did that by focusing all our resources in the Green Party on one seat. Now, we’ve overcome that hurdle and Caroline has been a hugely effective MP in parliament and won a slather of awards. So what we’re looking at now is the county elections coming up in May when we’re expecting to grow significantly our number of councillors. The European elections next year we’re expecting to go from 2 MEPs to 6 MEPs including gaining our first MEP here in the Northwest. So what we’re hoping to do is going into the 2015 general election with many more people having elected green councillors and MEPs so that we can say to a Manchester or Lancaster seat or a seat anywhere in the country, ‘if Brighton can do it, you can too’ and that’s the situation we’ve never been in before and that gives us tremendous opportunity up and down the country.

So success in a year from now is more elected Green politicians. I am going to give the time machine another whirl and it goes to the year 2030 and someone is looking at us talking about the future. What do you think that they would want us to do, over and above getting a few more green people elected in various wings of the British state?
I think they would really like us to have won some big arguments in terms of energy bills, decarbonisation by 2030 and what we want to do is insert that into the Energy Bill and what that will do is create the environment where there is significant investment in renewable energy in Britain. They’d like us to have won the argument to renationalise the railway. They’d like us to have won the argument to see that development or prosperity doesn’t mean a whole slather of new supermarket superstores on the outskirts of town which a whole host of people will drive their cars to on the weekend but instead to start to develop small business economy, small shops, to start to develop market gardens around towns and cities, to bring back small-scale environmentally-friendly manufactures back to the UK.

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