“Hi, I’m Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green party in England and Wales, can I talk to you for a minute? No?” It’s a tough gig, canvassing in the snow. But no time can be wasted by the Greens in the seat that gives them probably their best hope of gaining a second MP.
Flanked by a hopeful, energetic bunch of activists in their late teens and early 20s, Bennett is attempting to drum up support on a shopping street in Norwich South – Liberal Democrat turf where the Lib Dems are not very popular any more. It is one of two possibilities, along with Bristol West, for a Green gain in May – both seats are in cities where the vote can be heavily swayed by students.
Bennett talks excitedly of the “Green surge” that has seen a boost in support for the party in recent weeks, particularly among the young. But the question facing her now is whether the Greens have the mass appeal to win anywhere but Britain’s hippiest city, Brighton, where their only MP, Caroline Lucas, is facing a nail-biting fight to cling on to her seat against Labour.
Not even Bennett sounds entirely convinced that the boom in national backing for the Greens will actually deliver any more seats. “What I’m confident of is a massive increase in our vote share,” she says.
Neither does district nurse Lesley Grahame, the party’s parliamentary candidate for Norwich South, sound particularly confident of victory, rating her chances as “getting better”.
Grahame – a seasoned environmental and anti-nuclear activist – seems to be a core vote choice, who says the top of her political wishlist is defeating the EU-US trade deal called TTIP – the transatlantic trade and investment partnership. She would also like to extend the Freedom of Information Act to cover all companies with public contracts, and is passionate about climate change, arguing the party “can’t wait till after the revolution” to tackle it.
One of her definite backers is Joseph Grant, a 38-year-old IT consultant and a long-ago Labour supporter, who stops in the cold to chat, despite already being a convert. He is behind the Greens mostly on environmental grounds, over the “fracking debacle” and climate change. But even he is doubtful that the party will win in Norwich South: “I don’t think they’re going to. It will be Labour. People are voting for the leader.”
In Bennett’s favour, Green membership has doubled to more than 50,000 and the party is consistently outflanking the Lib Dems in the polls, following an outpouring of sympathy for the party at being excluded from the leaders’ television debates. Now that Bennett has won a coveted invitation from the broadcasters, this is her chance to sell Green policies to the nation.
However, with recent success has come greater scrutiny, causing a bumpy few days for the Green leader as reporters pored over the party’s online proposals to decriminalise prostitution, legalise cannabis, allow membership of al-Qaida and imposewhat has been branded a “Beyonce tax” on superstar performances.
Sheltering from the weather in a cafe, Bennett professes herself simply “delighted” with all the attention. In particular, she says, her spat with Labour’s Tristram Hunt over the Greens’ education policy shows the party is at last being taken as serious competition.
To those who read the articles picking holes in Green policies, she would “strongly urge everybody who comes across these to not believe everything you read”. Many of these ideas came from the “ongoing guide” made collectively by Green members and may not make it into the final manifesto, she says, which is a document written by a Keele university academic and policy expert that will deal with the most immediate problems facing Britain in 2015.
This kind of intense spotlight is endured by all smaller parties at one point or another as they try to resolve the tension between the obsessions of their die-hard supporters and attracting a wider audience. It happened to Nick Clegg in 2010, and Ukip leader Nigel Farage last year, who found himself having to dismiss as nonsense his party’s last manifesto that included making the circle line circle again and enforcing proper dress in the theatre.
But in light of this extra attention, the pressure is on Bennett to make an argument for her party as being both radical and realist – not allowing her critics to charge the Greens with being the left’s version of “fruitcakes and loonies”.
“We are a practical party,” she insists. “We’ve got the evidence-based policies on the science, not just on climate change but drugs policy and education. And one of the things people are coming to recognise is that we’ve had a lot of government by focus group.”
She still seems slightly on the defensive. Only days ago, Bennett was happy to talk about turning army bases into solar farms, and putting the Queen in a council house. Now she tries to steer away from controversial topics, like many a Westminster politician burned by one too many hostile interviewers. Asked about the Greens’ arguments about whether the UK needs economic growth, for example, she says: “What I would like to talk about is doing the things we need to do and the things we need to stop doing. What we should be doing is the energy bill revolution.”
She is also wary on the Greens’ central economic policy – the universal Citizen’s Income of £72 per week. It is another intriguing concept which has been championed by some on the firm left and others on the libertarian right, but one that has been challenged over the estimated £240bn cost, which could be offset by some combination of reductions in the benefit bill, replacing the personal allowance and higher taxes on the rich. Even more woundingly for the Greens, the policy’s original architects at the Citizens Income Trust have realised that in its current form it could hurt the bottom 35% of society, unless it was means tested.
Bennett says the Green version of the Citizen’s Income is different from the one put forward by the CIT. It will still be part of the manifesto and there is no way the Greens would ever advocate anything to make people poorer, she insists. However, she cannot say how it will be funded yet and now pitches it as an ambition rather than a concrete plan. “We are not talking about this anything like day one or anytime soon,” she says. “It would obviously take a significant amount of time to work out.”
Bennett warms up when moving away from policy detail towards talking about the Green party’s general values, which mean “from day one, the immediate direction has to be reversing austerity that is making the poor, disadvantaged and young pay for the errors and fraud of the bankers”.
“We have to ensure multinational companies and rich people pay their way,” she says. “For multinationals, that means paying taxes and paying workers decently.” She wouldn’t care, for example, if a “certain coffee chain that I consider serves lousy coffee” left Britain and never came back.
The priorities, she says, are ending austerity, eliminating private sector involvement in the NHS, bringing in a £10 minimum wage by 2020 and scrapping Trident. The Greens will not, however, be in a position to demand any of these things, as Bennett categorically rules out any kind of coalition, even if offered the prize job of energy secretary.
The extreme likelihood of a win for either David Cameron or Ed Miliband is something Bennett acknowledges. But unlike her minor party rival, Farage, she cannot quite bring herself to dismiss them both as being just as bad as each other. When push comes to shove, the Greens leader is rooting for the Labour leader to walk into Downing Street in May. “If you’re going to push me on that, yes, I would prefer Ed Miliband,” she says.
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