Amid the Turmoil, the Greens Are Upbeat

by Josiah Mortimer

2 July 2016

If there’s one word that describes British politics at the moment, it has to be ‘turmoil’. But with Labour in the throes of a parliamentary revolt against Jeremy Corbyn, and David Cameron defeated – leaving the Conservatives facing a messy leadership battle – it’s easy to forget there’s another leadership contest going on at the moment: the Green party.

Compared to the others, the Greens’ leadership battle appears to be an unarmed one. But given the predicament Labour currently finds itself in, you’d be wrong to ignore the Greens – which for a long time, before Corbyn at least, pitched itself as the only truly left-wing party.

With that in mind, I spoke to the person who’s been at the helm of the party for four years – and who is now handing over the reins to new leadership – Natalie Bennett.

She was in good spirits – understandably perhaps, given the Greens’ contrast with the current political maelstrom. Yet we’re speaking just days after the Britain voted to leave the European Union. Like most people in politics, she describes hearing the result as “a huge shock.”

Despite this, the Greens appear to be taking a balanced line on Brexit. The Liberal Democrats said re-joining the EU would be their priority at the next election. But Bennett calls for “a period of calm and reflection.” She tells me: “Everyone needs to take a deep breath.”

It’s not a line one would expect from a self-described ‘radical’ party. But it’s a welcome antidote to the shouting and confusion that’s all around us.

The Greens won’t be calling for leaders to ignore the vote: “This is democracy. You can’t say a few days later ‘ah we’ll just ignore that’.” But there are, she grants, “a broad range of possibilities” – including the possibility of Scotland and Northern Ireland staying in the EU.

It might be democracy, but what about the campaigns that were run? Bennett is scathing.

Britain Stronger in Europe “focused on a discredited economics” of GDP stats and wheeling out the big financial institutions. “People didn’t believe the figures. And Remain totally failed to take on the sovereignty argument: Europe is ‘us’, not ‘them’.” It’s not just the arguments though, it’s the messengers, with Bennett critiquing the “total male dominance” of the official Remain camp.

It isn’t of course just Remain who get it in the neck. “I think Leave ran a deeply cynical campaign … The Farage [‘Breaking Point’] poster was deeply disturbing and horrific.” Was it racist though? “There were elements that were racist,” she concedes. So near enough, then.

The alleged backtracking on some of Leave’s promises – from the NHS to immigration – has led 3m people to call for a second referendum. But while Bennett rules that out, what the Greens are calling for is an early general election.

“There is no mandate on where we go from here,” Bennett tells me. The implication is that in any forthcoming election, the parties will say out how they’ll respond to the EU vote – including their negotiating positions – and then need to take them to the people. When? “Early November gives time for decent debate,” she says. And the battle will be to “defend as many of the workers’ rights and environmental protections…that we gained from Europe.”

But the October/November timing is difficult for the Greens. Bennett will be gone by the autumn conference, which is being held in Birmingham from 2-4 September, and a new leader in place – with Caroline Lucas and Lambeth’s Jon Bartley currently seen as the front-runners (although other candidates haven’t yet announced).

Nonetheless, Bennett has a plan. I ask what the focus of the Greens’ campaign will be – and it’s very clear.

“The priority is constitutional reform – getting a proportional representation [PR] parliament … The focus has to be on governance – our politics has failed.” The current system is a “dead end,” she says.

It’s clear then, the Greens’ election campaign will centre on one thing: the need for a fair voting system.

These aren’t just empty words. Just a day after I spoke to Bennett, the party released a ground-breaking call for a ‘progressive electoral alliance’ at the next election – in just a few months if Bennett gets her way.

The top figures are calling for Labour, Greens, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems to all work together – standing down for each other where necessary – to secure a progressive majority in parliament at the next election: on the condition that they implement PR.

It seems like Labour has enough on its plate at the moment. But if and when things stabilise, it’s surely a tempting offer.

As a member, I’d be encouraging the Greens to stand down in every marginal where the Greens could swing it in Labour or the Lib Dems’ favour – if the commitment to PR was genuine.

For now, we wait for the dust to settle, and to see whether the Tories’ leadership contest does indeed precipitate the next general election on which so much could hang.

Despite some controversies, Greens have a lot to thank Bennett for. I ask her if she’s proud of her leadership. “I started with three goals: to get on the TV election debates, to grow the membership, and to build local parties.” That’s a yes, then.

As Bennett hands over the reigns, the Greens aren’t going away. In fact, they may be one of the only stable parts of British politics at the moment.

Photo: RonF/Weekly Bull/Flickr

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