In the first of our interviews with the party leaders, Stylist’s Lucy Foster sits down with Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party
Last year, if you’d mentioned the name Natalie Bennett in polite conversation you would have been met with faces struggling to place her in Pride And Prejudice. Even this January, the name would have rung few bells; a public figure maybe, a politician perhaps, but a leader of a party? Unlikely. Then came the interview that put the Green Party leader on the map: Tuesday 24 February, 9am with Nick Ferrari on LBC radio. Three, excruciatingly long broadcasting minutes defined by deafening pauses, coughing fits and mumbled attempts at answers where she failed to give any solid details on her party’s housing policy. For better or worse, everyone knows who Natalie Bennett is now.
Stylist’s first interview with Bennett was booked for the day after the LBC interview, that has been placed on a scale from “car crash” to “the worst interview ever given by a politician”. So it wasn’t an enormous surprise when the email from the Green Party press office arrived: Ms Bennett was too unwell to meet, the interview would be rearranged, huge apologies. Two weeks later I’m sat in a cafe in St Pancras station waiting for Bennett to arrive for our postponed date. She’s 10 minutes late and I’ve already scoured the other tables twice to make sure I haven’t missed her sitting in the corner with her people. Because I am expecting an entourage. I’ve never had an interview with a politician that hasn’t involved at least one member of their press office and a rival dictaphone, recording me back. So it’s with some surprise that as I glance through the cafe’s glass doors, there is Natalie Bennett striding towards me, purposeful, but very much alone.
It’s quite telling of the Green Party’s sudden (and unexpected) hike up the political food chain that their leader is here, meeting a journalist solo in a railway cafe (following Ofcom’s announcement in January that the Green Party would not be invited to join the TV debates, they received a huge spike in membership numbers, overtaking UKIP and the Lib Dems). Not that she’s a novice when it comes to press. Bennett, now 49, is a journalist herself. While born and educated in New South Wales, achieving a degree in agricultural sciences from the University of Sydney, she worked on regional press and the Bangkok Post before settling in the UK in 1999.
She became editor of the Guardian Weekly, the paper’s international digest, from 2007 to 2012, after which she was elected as leader of the Green Party in England and Wales when Caroline Lucas, the party’s only MP, stepped down.
So a party leader, yes, but not one that will cause a tourist ruckus at an international terminal. Even when the strong Australian accent starts throwing around policy figures, the couple next to us don’t look up. But one thing is very clear, as she leans forward, both elbows on the table, hands clasped, only occasionally reaching for her latte: the Natalie Bennett who suffered a “brain fade” on LBC is not going to let another interview derail her.
Can we first just tackle the subject of the interview. YouGov shows that popularity for the Green Party has slipped from 8% to 5% following your appearance on LBC. Can you bounce back from that?
Yes, I’m very confident that I can. I think I’ve demonstrated to people that I’m human. And you know, that was one of many hundreds of interviews I’ve done as Green Party leader and I’ve had a huge outpouring of support and encouragement both from Green Party members and random people on the Tube [laughs]. And it’s just time to move on.
Fair enough. So, what’s the Green Party doing in order to get women’s votes?
First of all, I think we’ve got a real problem with what politics looks like and sounds like and I think the Green Party, with me as leader and Caroline Lucas as MP and two out of our three MEPs being female, is doing what it can to change it. I’m very proud of the fact that in most elections we have the highest percentage of female candidates. We set a target for this election of at least 50% female candidates. We’re not going to make that, I’m afraid, but I think it’ll be about 38% which is likely to be the highest [of all the parties]. I think it’s really important that people can see that those who are standing to be their local MP are people who look like them.
You mean that women want to see more women in politics?
Exactly. We’re all horrified by the percentage of female MPs in Parliament, but when you walk around Westminster, one of the things you notice is that it’s not even just the MPs. It’s the people in the bars, the corridors, the cafes – obviously this is impressionistic but it looks worse than 22% female MPs. It feels like a very male-dominated place and the nature of politics, the conflictual side, the making-chicken-noises-at- each-other? I mean, really…
OK then, can you suggest another way of discussing issues rather than PMQs?
Well, the Scottish and Welsh parliaments have a very different feel about them as does the European parliament and those are proportional representational parliaments that have a much higher percentage of female MPs. First-Past-The-Post is going to be one of the certain losers from this election. Because there could be quite a few MPs elected with less than 25% of the vote and the other 75% of voters are going to say, “Hang on a minute, how did that happen?” So whatever happens in terms of seats, there’s a real opportunity after the election to get a more inclusive system. And if you have proportional representation, you’re much less likely to try and ‘Punch and Judy’ the other person if you might have to work with them in a couple of years’ time. It’s going to be very hard to change what we’ve got now without changing the entire system. The last significant reform in Westminster was women getting the vote and we’re coming up to the centenary of that. It’s a little too late to tinker.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for the party that comes into power?
Basically, our current economic system is not working. We still have an incredibly fragile financial sector, fraud-ridden banks that are too big to fail. We have a social system not delivering jobs that people can build a life on, or ensuring that people don’t have to rely on food banks and, of course, we are collectively, each year, using three times the resources of the planet. The status quo simply isn’t stable; it can’t continue. We need to change to a Britain where we meet people’s needs, we care for the people who need help and we live within the environmental limits.
And how do we do that?
Well, there’s a very long list, but I’ll give you a few pointers. We make the minimum wage a living wage – if you work full-time you should earn enough money to live on. And ban zero-hour contracts (when an employer isn’t obliged to offer minimum working hours). We need to restore the level of benefits so people aren’t living in want. We need to invest in our infrastructure. We have the worst levels of fuel poverty in Western Europe because we have some of the worst housing. So when we think about energy policy, let’s start with ensuring everyone has a warm, comfortable, affordableto- heat home.
Bennett then moves into housing policy, obviously keen to show she’s remembered her numbers this time around. She talks of the party’s pledge to build 500,000 social rental homes over the next parliamentary term, which will cost £27bn and will be funded by removing landlord mortgage rate relief (“Tax relief is meant to be offered for people who are offering a public service, so that society’s getting something in return. We’re simply not getting that from private landlords”). She wants to end Right-to-Buy, meaning that these 500,000 homes will stay as they were intended and free up homes for those who can afford to buy. The party is also demanding a register of private landlords to keep costs under control, and security of tenure over five years, keeping rent level with inflation.
For young voters (30% of the Green Party is under 30), these policies will appeal as they struggle with badly paid jobs and sky-high rents. And they are policies that may have to be taken seriously, as a hung parliament looks increasingly likely. “We’ve made it very clear that we’d never support a Tory government,” she explains. “If we were looking towards a Labour or a Labour-led minority government, we would potentially support that on a vote-by-vote basis.
What the Green Party have been more forthcoming on is a possible alliance with the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Or at least a step towards more cross-party compromise: “An alliance isn’t exactly the word I’d use. It was an interesting idea on starting to do politics differently – [Plaid Cymru leader] Leanne Wood, [SNP leader] Nicola Sturgeon and I had a joint press conference where we identified austerity and Trident as two of the things on which we’d agree and would, in any sort of balance of power situation, work together [to abandon austerity and Trident]. And that was a small step towards more grown-up politics. There are lots of things we disagree on, but let’s identify some of the things we do agree on and work together on those.”
OK, so on Trident. With the situations in Russia and the Middle East, some would say taking money out of the defence budget isn’t wise. Should we not be defending ourselves?
Well, I think what we need to do is think about what security means, and that means we need a safe, peaceful, healthily fed, fair world and nuclear weapons are no contributor to that. I’d like to ask Cameron and Miliband under what circumstances can you imagine a sane British Prime Minister pressing the nuclear button and I hope their answer to that would be never. In which case, why do we have these hideous weapons of mass destruction? There is actually a growing push for a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons, so if [Britain] were to get rid of Trident, we put a huge impetus on that drive for a global ban. If we put some of the money into aid, into diplomatic efforts, we can get a new place for Britain in the world as a champion of human rights and democracy. This year we’re celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta; lots of human rights principles and ideas developed initially in Britain. It’s not at all drawing into our borders and being isolationist, it’s reaching out to the world and saying, “We’re going to use what soft power we have to encourage peace and security.” It’s an active stance, but it doesn’t involve throwing high explosives around.
OK, moving onto some of Stylist’s heartland areas: how do we get women into top jobs?
We support the Norwegian 40%-women-on-boards quotas, we support making class-action suits much easier so it’s possible for women to group together if they’re being disadvantaged. I also think that one of the things that’s not immediately gendered but is enormously damaging is the privatisation of public services. As all of the services that have been privatised have shifted towards minimum wage, zero-hour contracts and inferior employment conditions, a huge percentage of those affected by that are women.
How can we make the work/life balance more manageable?
Well, Britain has some of the longest working hours in Europe. People actually work more than their theoretical full-time contracts, so we want to enforce the Working Time Directive [the EU legislation that prevents employees working more than 48 hours a week – Britain allows companies to opt out].
And so to the gender pay gap, some say it’s at an all-time low and has disappeared for people under 35. What do you think?
I think the last figures show it’s actually started to get worse again. The problem is people cite so many different figures but I’m a former trustee of The Fawcett Society so this is an area of personal interest. It’s started to go in the wrong direction and that’s unsurprising given the impact of austerity and the privatisation of public services. What we need is gender pay audits in companies with over 250 employees. And with regard to the lack of women in the FTSE 100, we need to create a viable career ladder. If these companies know 40% of board members have to be women, they’re going to have to build a ladder to get women to that point.
And with that our time is up. She’s now 15 minutes late, rather than the 10 when we started and she’s on to another appointment. Stamina, it would seem, is of vital importance. “I’ve often done the equivalent of two full-time jobs at the same time,” says Bennett as I ask her how she’s coping on the final stretch. “When I was in Bangkok, I was full-time on the Bangkok Post and writing quite a lot of UN reports on women’s and children’s issues.” Ah, so you’ve got form then? “Yeah. I believe in a work/life balance, I just don’t have one.”
The quick questions
Natalie tackles the quickfire round (totally unflustered)
If people vote for impressions, what impression does the Green Party want to get across?
We want to get across an impression that we want real change towards a caring, inclusive society that works for the common good, not just for the 1%. It’s a society where we’re not relying on individual charity, but social justice. So give people a sense of security, give them a better quality of life while also living within the environmental limits that we have to. That’s not politics, that’s science.
What’s the worst thing about being a journalist and what’s the worst thing about being a politician?
[Laughs] Ooh, well, the reason that I left journalism is that you do cover a great many depressing stories in a week and the worst thing about being a politician is the focus on you as an individual when I’d much rather focus on the party, the policies, what you want to do for Britain.
What’s the worst thing anyone’s said about you?
Various things said by people I’ve blocked on Twitter that I’m not going to repeat.
OK, the final question. If you had to be stuck in a lift with either Obama, Merkel or Putin, who would you choose and why?
I can’t imagine that anyone would choose Putin [laughs]. But the other choice is an interesting one really. [Thinks for a moment] Oh, I’m going to say Merkel. It would be really interesting to talk to her about the kind of transformations she’s seen in Germany and what it’s like being a woman leader in that position [pauses]. I bet everyone else chooses Obama!
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Photos: Rex Features and Getty Images