Barney Thompson of the Financial Times interviews Natalie Bennett

17 October 2014

Greens make pitch for disaffected left

 

Ever since Britain’s broadcasters said their plans for televised election debates included Ukip’s Nigel Farage but not the Green party leader Natalie Bennett, the Greens’ supporters have been busy doing their maths.

The figures they brandish go like this: Ukip may have got its first MP just over a week ago but the Greens have had an MP for more than four years. The Greens thumped the Lib Dems in the European elections, winning 150,000 more votes, and have been pushing them in the national polls. Party membership is up by 45 per cent this year and stands at roughly 22,000. And an online petition to have Ms Bennett included in the TV debates has attracted 170,000 signatures and counting.

 “We have delivered an official letter to all the broadcasters saying we don’t think it is acceptable to leave us out, we expect them to go away and have a good think about it,” Ms Bennett said in an interview with the Financial Times. “And there has been what you could fairly describe as a Twitterstorm saying that I should be in the debates.” Threats of legal action have been made, although she is guarded about what the party might do if the broadcasters continue to give her the cold shoulder.

But, she adds, the maths is not the whole story. “There is also the fact that we represent a very broad spectrum of British views that wouldn’t be heard otherwise.”

For starters, the Green party would renationalise the railways – a policy she claims is supported by 70 per cent of the public – “yet we are the only party representing that view”. Similarly, she adds, “whether it is keeping the NHS in public hands or making the minimum wage the same as the living wage, a large chunk of the British public is going to feel profoundly unrepresented if we’re not there.”

Add to all that a cap on bankers’ bonuses, building more affordable housing and introducing a wealth tax on the top 1 per cent and you have a political party seeking to outflank Labour from the left. Which raises the question: where are all the green policies?

“The Green party has always seen environmental issues and social justice as inextricably mixed,” she says, “though we haven’t always done a great job of explaining that. But now we have four interlinked crisis: an economic crisis, a social crisis of inequality, an environmental crisis and a political crisis. All of those things are happening together and it is really important that we help people to understand how they are interlinked.”

Some in Labour fear that a rise in support for the Greens will damage its chances of winning a majority next year, just as Ukip is eating into the Tory vote from the right. Labour has deployed shadow justice secretary and shadow London minister Sadiq Khan to woo left-wing voters fed up with New Labour and stop them falling into the arms of the Greens. “I’m taking this as a considerable compliment,” said Ms Bennett. “We’re seeing Labour voters coming to us in significant numbers and it’s a reflection of the fact that Labour might sound a little bit different from the Tories but when you look at their policies they are indistinguishable.”

Ed Miliband’s railways policy is a case in point, she says. She has worries about “the idea that they will have a public company bidding against private companies to maintain a failed, fragmented and incredibly expensive system. What happens when the publicly funded company spends tens of millions on a bid and loses? It’s a classic halfway house, sticking with the Thatcherite model of privatisation and putting a little bit of gloss on it. It is still New Labour. Nothing has fundamentally changed and people are really fed up with that.”

The maths cuts both ways, however. While the Greens poll somewhere between 3 and 8 per cent, Ukip are closer to 20 per cent. Are the issues of immigration and a referendum on EU membership drowning out the progressive left?

Ms Bennett says not. “We are the only party that is standing up to Ukip on immigration and the race to the bottom on immigration rhetoric has got to stop.” A stand on immigration is not just about the economics, she says, “it’s about the kind of open, humane, decent society that we want to be.”

The Greens are in favour of an EU referendum as a necessary exercise in democracy – Ms Bennett points out that you have to be about 57 years old to have taken part in the last vote on membership. The party will campaign to stay in, though they want to “vastly reform” the union and would oppose an EU-US trade pact as “profoundly undemocratic” and something that would give corporations “extreme power over government”.

With seven months to go until the general election, it remains to be seen if Ms Bennett’s party will rise above the status of protest-vote magnet. But to judge by their website – and their response to the debate setback – there are signs the Greens are adapting to the habits and short attention spans of 21st-century voters.

“We’re now more professional than we’ve ever been, with more staff than we have ever had,” says Ms Bennett. “We are doing a much better job of boiling down our message, explaining it and getting it out there in the media. More members on the ground means more people delivering leaflets and knocking on doors, doing the groundwork of politics. We are going to reach a lot more people than ever before.”