Rewind twelve months and it is likely that only the most politically astute or indeed supporters of the Green Party would be able to identify Natalie Bennett. However on the cusp of the General Election, Bennett leads the party with a record number of Parliamentary candidates, more members than the Liberal Democrats and historic polling figures.
In conversation with Palatinate, Bennett added: “About nine months ago we did a three to five year plan, I think we are probably in about year four now.”
Bennett identified two factors behind this purported ‘Green Surge’: “I think it is that people have started to hear our message and also people have started to really focus on the General Election and the fact that it is close.
“A lot of people have said they’ve looked around at the three business as usual parties and gone that’s no answer.
“There’s a real sense that change is possible, that change is in the air.”
Bennett has worked tirelessly as leader over the past three years to emphasis the party’s position on a range of social issues as well as its core environmentalist principles: “If you go out and polled one hundred people and said ‘what do you think the Green Party think about the badger cull?’ I think most would answer without looking it up. A lot of people know where we stand on issues such as climate change, renewable energy and fracking.
“But we also need to make sure people also know what we believe in about education, and not just zero tuition but also bringing free schools and academies back under local control, abolishing SATs tests and OFSTED. It’s really important we take whatever chance we get to explain those ideas.”
One such chance was Bennett’s involvement in both the BBC and ITV Leaders Debates which provided the Greens with their largest platform yet.
Prior to the debate, Bennett told Palatinate: “It’s great to be there and it really does give us the chance to get our message to reach lots of people who otherwise it would be difficult to reach.”
The inclusion of the Greens in the debates was largely due to a Change.org petition which generated over 280,000 signatures supporting the inclusion of the party in the live debates.
Bennett appeared optimistic that a similar momentum could be generated in contributing to the debate regarding electoral reform post-election: “I think there’s already going to be one clear loser from this election: the First Past the Post election system.
“The claim used to be that First Past the Post delivers clear majorities but it clearly doesn’t in the multiparty democracy that Britain is now.
“That’s going to be a real important outcome. You don’t stand on doorsteps now and say electoral reform but I think there’s going to be a point where people go ‘hang on, we haven’t reformed Westminster for over one hundred years’ – it’s time for that.
The nature of the UK electoral system may result in many left-wing voters gifting votes to the Conservative Party in voting for the Green Party in marginal seats.
Yet Bennett has a clear message for those with such concerns: “What I urge people to do is look at the state of the world and vote for what they believe in.
“The fact is we have got the kind of politics we have now because of tactical voting, particularly the two largest parties have been able to just angle for the swing voters in the swing seats.
“To paraphrase Einstein: ‘you don’t get a different result if you just keep on doing the same thing again and again’.
“People are thinking ‘We’ve been voting for years and getting that result, I’m going to do something different’.”
While the threat of the Greens to Labour appears to have declined with a slowing of the ‘Green Surge’, the potential still remains for potential cooperation with a future Labour government: “We’ve said very clearly if we end up in any type of balance of power situation, we would not prop up a Tory government in any situation.
“Clearly the SNP are going to do very well – they’re an auti-austerity, anti-Trident party; Plaid [Cymru] will do also very well.
“We’re running against each of them but we have things we agree on and we’ve demonstrated we can work together.
“We’re all talking on vote by vote action rather than coalition, so that means we will have a different sort of politics where people will have to work out what they agree on rather than spending time waving fingers on what they disagree on.”
The rise of the Greens has led to an unprecedented level of scrutiny resulting in a series of infamous high profile media gaffes by Bennett. Often uncertainty has arisen regarding certain Green Party policies, such as the £72-a-week ‘citizen’s income’.
However, Bennett sought to clarify the confusion regarding one of the Greens’ flagship policies.
“What we’re saying is you can’t just come in and say right we’re going to change everything, that’s the kind of thing [Michael] Gove did with a lot of school things.
“It is something that we are still planning to do but the realistic timeframe doesn’t put it within the next Parliament.
“I think it is an idea that’s really starting to get some traction and getting people debating. It’s been our policy for decades but it’s really great to see we’re now having a real impact on debate.”
Bennett displays a similar level of reflection upon the Greens having fewer ethnic minority candidates than any other major party: “This is something that, like all political parties we’ve got to do much better on and there’s a very strong awareness of that.
“We should be doing much better around the country, and I think the ‘Green Surge’ will really help with this.
“Green Party women have had a strong grip in the Party for a long time, but we also need a really strong BME grip in the party. Often it is a matter of encouraging people to stand through actively reaching out.”
With policies including free tuition fees, the reintroduction of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and raising the minimum wage to £10 a week by 2020, it is no surprise that the Greens have become the second most popular party amongst young people.
Bennett consequently recognises the importance of the youth democratic to the success of the party: “Students are very important and I think that’s partially because students aren’t set in their ways; they are looking around for ideas thinking what the world should be like, so they are open to different ideas.
“It is interesting that under twenty-fives are our strongest demographic and then up to thirty-fives are our next strongest demographic. Thirty-fives to forty-fives are our next strongest demographic, and then after that we’ve got some work to do.”
Although a student haven, Bennett admits victory in the Durham constituency is unlikely: “Durham is not on our initial list of twelve target seats but our initial list of twelve was written up considerably over six months ago.
“The world has changed a lot, politically speaking, since then. I think there’s some sort of chance that somewhere in the bleary hours of the day after the election, someone will come up to me and say ‘It looks like we might win somewhere’.
“I think one of the things about this election is that it is going to be very seat by seat: some Lib Dems will hold on against the national swing because they are good MPs.”
Meanwhile, Bennett is hoping for her individual success as she runs for election in the Holburn and St Pancreas constituency. In the 2010 General Election Bennett won just 2.7% of the constituency’s vote. However, she seeks to benefit from the retirement of Labour’s Frank Dobson, who has held the seat since 1983, and a decline in the Liberal Democrats’ share of the vote:
“The Lib Dems had 29% of the vote last time and I think even they would accept they are unlikely to get anything like that this time so that really opens up the possibilities.”
Yet with a colossal travelling schedule and a vast array of media commitments, Bennett acknowledges her differences to other party leaders: “Most of the other party leaders are in safe seats so they stroll in occasionally, wave a bit and then leave again.
“I’m standing in Hoburn and St Pancreas because that’s where I live but it is also the case that there’s pretty much nowhere in the constituency that is more than an hour from the main television studios. It fits as well as it possibly can.
“I really enjoy knocking on doors, it provides a great chance to gain an insight into feedback from people of all ways of life and different perspectives.”
The impact of the party may not have reached the levels hinted at in January, when the Greens gained 13,000 members in the space of a week.
However, there is still a possibility that they may be able to add some more seats to their current MP Caroline Lucas, provided she is relected in Brighton Pavilion.
Bennett appears energised, concluding our conversation on the prospect of the influence a progressive alliance of the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru could yield within the Commons: “It’s clear that the whole anti-austerity agenda is catching on and spreading”.