Baroness Bennett: “This is a chance to create something very different”

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Baroness Natalie led the Green Party from 2012 to 2016, overseeing a surge in membership as the climate debate took centre stage for the first time in British politics. After growing up and working as a journalist in Australia, Thailand and the UK, she came to lead the Greens just six years after joining.

Student days

realised that something was wrong while at university in Sydney. “My first degree is in Agricultural Science, which actually makes me quite unusual in politics, in that very few people have a scientific background. And I would say that unintentionally that is what turned me into a Green … we were effectively being taught that Australian agriculture wasn’t so much farming the soils as mining them. And it was obvious to me then that that was just simply not sustainable”

“So one of the reasons I didn’t pursue a career in agricultural science after the degree was because it just didn’t add up. I had spent four years going out and actually working on Australian farms, and it was obvious that this was a profoundly unsustainable system, but it wasn’t obvious that there were any alternatives.”

In that sense, ’s political awakening did not come during university, during which her focus was elsewhere. “I wasn’t involved in organised politics as an undergraduate because my chief passion politically then was feminism, but feminism as was being practised then, certainly in Sydney University, was very much a lesbian separatist feminism, which didn’t fit with me …  so I never got involved with organised in politics and that level”

Finding a new home

Working as a journalist in New South Wales, and later Thailand, settled in the UK in 1999, and has absolutely no intention of heading back home. “I cannot imagine going back to Australia by choice. I believe philosophically in all people’s right to migrate if they choose. I’m one of those people who saw the society they grew up in and thought ‘that’s not the sort of society I want to live in’ … I found through travelling that were other societies that operated in different ways, and I would put that not so much on the environmental side, but on the social and cultural side.”

“I think all forms of politics these days are hideously middle class.”

“Australia has very little in the way of public spaces where people interact. The Australia I grew up in people walked into their driveways, got into their car and drove where they were going, and that was how people got around, the idea of walking anywhere was totally foreign. There was no idea of socially mixing, the kind of thing you get particularly in continental Europe in social spaces where everyone comes together. So it was the cultural life of Europe that attracted me, as well as the wonderful history of London and Britain.”

Diversity in the climate movement

has been in the climate movement ever since, but there have been serious challenges along the way. The perception of the movement as the exercise of white well-off students and activists is one. “I think that it’s an issue we always have to be aware of and be as inclusive and involving and open to people as possible.

There are clearly some structural barriers here. Even the perception that an action might be associated with people getting arrested potentially has much higher risks for people from BAME backgrounds and for people from poorer backgrounds, for whom an arrest or a criminal record might have far worse consequences.”

“I think all forms of politics these days are hideously middle class … If you’re a student and you have to have a 25-hour-a-week part-time job just to keep yourself together and pay the rent etc, and you’re studying, where do you get the time and space and availability? If you’re a young single parent, juggling three zero-hour contract jobs and childcare and everything else in your life, it’s really hard to create the space.

“The UK is not a democracy.”

So one of the things we need to make sure we do is to create lots of access points – lots of ways in which people can get involved and engaged if only in a very small kind of way. Because the issue can be so big and so all-consuming, people can want to say ‘drop everything and just do this’, but that’s just not a realistic prospect for lots of people, so we’ve got to make sure the movement is open to lots of peoples’ different engagements and time commitments … that’s also true of people with disabilities, or people who might have language difficulties. There’s a lot more that can be done to make the movement a lot more accessible.”

Working in a broken system

The Green Party are often characterised as a political pressure group that runs candidates. For Bennett, the structure of the political system is to blame. “The UK is not a democracy – Boris Johnson was backed by 44% of voters in 2019, yet he currently has 100% of the power … In the last democratic election in the UK was the European election – a proportional election where the number of seats more or less matched the number of votes – the Green Party got 10%. That pretty well reflects where we topped the polls in 2015.

So there’s a clear 10% support for the Green Party across the country, and that comes with almost no media coverage, that’s just there as innate. If you were to hold a Proportional Representation election in two months’ time, that is where you’d be starting from. If you also look at the council elections last year where we more than doubled our number of seats in one election, which hasn’t been done by a political party in modern British history.”

The end of centrism

With that as the political background, and huge successes for Greens in Europe, this may seem like a tipping point for a green movement to succeed here. “I think there’s huge potential. Centrist politics is dead. Centrist politics means leaving things much as they are; a society that is wracked by poverty and inequality with massive levels of mental ill health and environmental destruction. The people collectively get that centrism … is not an option. The future looks very different to the past.

“Just because … Labour and the Tories have been the two largest parties for a century, doesn’t mean that’s necessarily going to continue. Both of them are deeply unstable in different ways and don’t have any coherent intellectual foundation anymore; you can argue about whether the Tories ever did. We as Greens think that there are enough resources on this planet for everyone to have a decent life if we share them out fairly.

“Our greatest weakness is a really poor quality of governance.”

“The primary countervailing force to us is the far right, who are people who say it’s a difficult and dangerous world, and there aren’t many resources, so we’ve got to grab what we can for us and ours and shove the others away, whoever those others are. Build walls to keep them out.

“Those are the two primary political forces today. Essentially the Tory party has become the far right. The Labour Party would appear to be going back to a kind of Miliband centrism – literally in terms of their shadow Cabinet. That’s not a story of the future that makes any coherent sense for Britain.”

The virus and the climate

A question that has been causing some debate online is whether the coronavirus crisis will help or hinder the push for action on the climate crisis. sees a chance for change. “I’m feeling very positive and I think there are three reasons for that. The first one is that we were always told ‘oh you want really radical, large-scale, rapid change, the world is not like that’. It’s become obvious that rapid radical change has happened and can happen.

“The second thing is that it is obvious that our society in particular … [was] particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus because of our economic and social structures. A gig economy, people not having enough sick pay and having to go to work anyway, poor diets, extremely high levels of obesity; there’s so much about our economic structures that left us hugely vulnerable and weak in the face of coronavirus.

“The way to take back control is by doing politics for yourself.”

The third thing is that there’s obviously going to have to be a massive investment in restructuring and rebuilding as we live with coronavirus … and if you look at things like renewable energy, solar and on-shore wind are now the cheapest form of electricity available to us. So those three reasons show that this is a chance amidst all the tragedy and suffering to create something very different – the catchphrase is ‘build back better’ – and that’s what we desperately need to do.”

Britain’s response

As for Britain’s response to the coronavirus, “we clearly are having a disastrous outcome. Our greatest weakness is a really poor quality of governance. People don’t trust the government, and the government is not honest with the people. Whether it’s each individual glove being counted as a piece of PPE, instead of a pair, or the fact that we often don’t know the number of people tested for the coronavirus because private companies don’t quote their figures.”

“We have a huge problem of trust, of quality of decision-making, of preparedness to be honest and straightforward with the public with the understanding that the public will trust you when you talk to them and that you don’t have to boil everything down to three-word slogans.”

Becoming a Baroness

The most recent political appointment for was a seat in the institution she has promised to dismantle, the House of Lords. It wasn’t a tough decision. “If you look at the 2019 election, we got around 860 thousand votes. Those 860 thousand votes are now represented by three people in Parliament – that’s Jenny Jones, Caroline Lucas and myself.

That means that we each represent over 280 thousand voters. Each SNP MP on average represents just under 26 thousand voters. So each of the three of us represents more than ten times as many voters as each SNP MP does. We’re doing what we can within the current system to make sure our voters are represented.

“We also don’t believe in first past the post elections, but we take part in them … After my maiden speech, the next thing I did was I went up and presented the House of Lords Election Bill to the table office. We’re working to bust up the system. It is a lot of fun when I’m taking part in some debate about agriculture and food and farming or something, and I look at all the Tory landowners sitting in the chamber opposite us – people who own half of several counties – and say ‘and what we really need is land reform!’”

Activist advice

Baroness Natalie has been active in journalism and politics for a while, and her message to aspirational student activists is clear. “My top line is always ‘make politics what you do, not have done to you’ … the best way to get into politics is by doing politics – so look around you on your street, in your university, in your college, wherever, and say ‘what do we think most needs changing?’, and start a campaign to change it.”

“The power is in our hands as the people collectively – we are the many, they are the few, in the famous phrase. So many people have felt disempowered, not listened to, frustrated. The people who voted Brexit in 2016 because they wanted to ‘take back control’ – I entirely understand and sympathise with that impulse. But the way to take back control is by doing politics for yourself, setting out what kind of world you want it to be, and helping with others to make it happen.”

Images: steven.eason and Rama via Creative Commons

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