Their leader takes a giant tumble, but the Greens keep marching on

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Tuesday, according to Green party leader Natalie Bennett, was an “absolutely excruciating” day for her.

Bennett, leader of the Greens since 2012, was launching the party’s election campaign and had scheduled a full day of media interviews.

But by 10am the wheels had spectacularly fallen off the Greens’ campaign.

In an interview with Nick Ferrari on LBC radio, Bennett put in the kind of performance from which one would fervently hope to wake in a panicking sweat. But this one was all too real.

Pressed by Ferrari to explain how the party would pay for its policy of building 500,000 new council houses, Bennett spluttered: “Right, well, that’s, erm ... you’ve got a total cost ... erm ... that we’re ... that will be spelled out in our manifesto.”

“So you don’t know,” said Ferrari. “No, well, er ...” One question prompted a four-second pause. Another was met by a mumbled answer that morphed into a fit of coughing.

Disaster turned to farce some hours later at the press conference launching the campaign, when Bennett was asked by a reporter if she had let party members down, a point with which she seemed ready to agree, before Green peer Lady Jones leapt to her feet to declare: “She’s not going to answer that! No! No! No!”

Bennett spent much of the remainder of the day apologising for her “terrible” and “very bad” interview, the result, she said, of a “brain fade”.

But that is not the full story of the Greens’ Tuesday. Membership of the party in England and Wales has almost tripled in 18 months to 54,500 and now surpasses that of the Liberal Democrats or Ukip.

And the biggest membership spike in recent weeks came on Tuesday – in the immediate wake of what some called one of the worst political interviews in history.

Bennett’s Green colleagues have spent the past few days in impassioned defence of their leader, who had explained her coughing to Ferrari by saying she had a “very bad cold” – in fact, according to Siân Berry, a Green councillor in Bennett’s home borough of Camden, she had been (and still is) suffering from a dose of flu.

“So no wonder her brain wasn’t working as fast as usual. It’s the nightmare we all have.”

Bennett, she said, is “quite fed up with herself with doing the interviews when she knew she wasn’t feeling in a good way”.

Berry added: “The thing about the Green party is the fact that we have a range of really good people who could have taken over from her in an emergency.

“It could have been a great way to show that we are a different kind of party and instead we had an ailing leader reinforcing the idea that it’s all about one person.”

Bennett, 49, was born to working class parents in Eastwood, a suburb of Sydney, and became a politicised early, when she was told, at age five “that I couldn’t have a bicycle because I was a girl, because riding one wasn’t ‘ladylike’. It was the feeling of growing up in a world where the only heroes were rugby league players – and they were of course all male, not like me”.

Sporty and competitive, she won a scholarship to a private school in the city, before moving to the University of Sydney to study agricultural science.

There, she earned a place on the university football team “by the simple expedient of standing on the field and refusing to move off, since there wasn’t a women’s competition”.

Her mother died in a car crash when she was young, and this helped forge Bennett’s life-long commitment to road safety.

She moved into journalism in Australia and then in Thailand, before relocating to the UK and a job at the Times in 2000. Despite her thick-as-Vegemite accent, Bennett appears to have no great lingering affection for her home country, saying recently: “I can’t imagine going there by choice.”

At the Times, where according to former colleagues she worked as a downtable subeditor, a middle-ranking production role, she was regarded as a loud, friendly and “incredibly earnest” figure whose strong accent occasionally grated and who threw herself into activities such as the paper’s annual staff cricket match, at which her “looping dolly drops” were particularly well remembered.

At the Guardian, where Bennett moved in 2007, she was regarded as extremely committed and never less than political.

Former colleagues particularly recall one occasion in which Bennett made an impassioned speech to the morning conference meeting arguing in the discussion of the paper’s options for the future that plenty of emphasis had been put on the internet, but very little on Guardian Weekly, the subscription-based digest of largely international news that Bennett edited at the time.

Abby Deveney, now the section’s editor and Bennett’s deputy at the time, describes her as “a force of nature”.

She was surprised to hear her friend stumble on the radio, she said, because “she’s very good working under pressure quickly. I have seen her do stuff off the cuff journalistically that would make some people haemorrhage from their ears. I don’t know how she pulled it off”.

She took voluntary redundancy from the Guardian in 2012, securing the party’s leadership months later.

Bennett’s own electoral history has never yielded a seat – she failed in two attempts to be elected as a Green councillor in Camden, was not elected to the London assembly in 2012 and took 2.7% of the vote in the 2010 general election in Holborn and St Pancras, where she will stand again in May.

But she was voted party leader, said Berry, on the strength of her pledges to build up the party by energising grassroots membership, to professionalise its central administration and, most notably, to raise its ambitions.

With Greens having stood in about 50% of all constituencies in the 2010 election, Bennett told members they should aim to contest 75% in 2015. In fact, the Greens will fight close to 90% of constituencies on 7 May.

“She wasn’t, in her pitch to the party, making a big thing about being the answer to all our media prayers,” said Berry.

“That’s not her selling point. Her selling point is party organisation, party support – giving us goals and strategic direction. That’s what she’s best at in leadership. There’s a lot more to leadership than interviews.”

There is, however, an acknowledgement within the party that having fought to be included in the forthcoming debates and given the same level of scrutiny as the other mainstream parties, the Greens need to give Bennett a bit more help with research and briefings.

“We need to put a much greater support team round our party leader and our deputies,” former leader Caroline Lucas says in an interview in Saturday’s Guardian. “We are working her to the bone.”

This extra support may be timely, because the uncomfortable truth is that her encounter with Nick Ferrari was not the first time Bennett has had to backpedal on or clarify an interview.

After agreeing with Andrew Neil on the Sunday Politics earlier this month that her party did not think it should be illegal to be a member of al-Qaida or Isis, she later said she “may not have made it as clear as [she] meant to”, and that “any sort of ­involvement or membership” in the groups should be illegal.

Last month, she told the Economist that being poor in India was not as bad as being on benefits in Britain “because at least everyone else there is poor too”; Bennett later said she had been misrepresented.

It has led, perhaps understandably, to a quiet sense of glee from Labour, the party with most to fear from the Green resurgence.

“Let’s just say we are not threatened by Natalie Bennett’s appearance in the debates,” said one senior Labour source. “Ed [Miliband] is often criticised, but at least he knows what he is talking about and he doesn’t get his facts wrong.”

Green party insiders, however, insist that they are advocating a radical reinvention about the way we do politics, making an obsession with the numbers on this or that – particularly when the party will never in reality have to lead a majority government after 7 May – a red herring.

“If people vote, what they will vote for is: what’s your vision of society, how are you going to make my life better?” said Molly Scott Cato, a former economics professor who is a Green MEP in southwest England and the party’s spokeswoman on economic affairs.

“Obviously we need to support that with costings, but I think the relentless focus on numbers by the media is one of the things that’s turning people off politics.

“Let’s leave some space to talk about what our vision of the future is and how our policies support that as well as talking about the costings.”

Rob Ford, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester, agrees that for a certain proportion of the electorate, voting is an “expressive act. It’s about sending a message”.

He added: “So all this gubbins about the Natalie Bennett brain fade, it won’t matter a bit to people who are motivated like that because they are thinking, I want to send a message, make an expression about what sort of person I am.

“The leadership qualities of the leader are the not the primary reason deciding their vote.”

In that context, backing an outspoken Australian – who, if nothing else, certainly sounds very different to her peers – may yet appeal to many.

Natalie Bennett

Born 10 February 1966, in Eastwood, a suburb of Sydney, Australia

Age 49

Career Reporter and subeditor in papers on Australia, Thailand and the UK, including the Cootamunda Herald, Bangkok Post, Times and Guardian

High point Elected leader of the Green party in September 2012, six years after she joined the party

Low point Disastrous interview on the day of her party’s general election campaign launch, in which she struggled to articulate how her party would fund its policies, described as “one of the worst political interviews ever”.

What she says “I joined the Greens on the first of January 2006. I became concerned about bigger issues: the soil, the loss of biodiversity, climate change. It was like a New Year resolution about wanting to influence more broadly. And the best way to effect change is to get into politics.”

What they say Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP and former economics professor: “She’s tremendously committed, I just have so much admiration for the way she’s thrown herself into this. We’ve seen this Green ‘surge’ [in membership] – there are lots of reasons for that, but one of them is Natalie Bennett’s massive energy touring the country, rallying the troops and inspiring the public.”

Powered by article was written by Esther Addley, for The Guardian on Friday 27th February 2015 19.31 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010