“Just because Labour and the Tories have been the two largest parties for a century doesn’t mean that is going to continue” An interview with Baroness Natalie Bennett, former Green Party leader

Natalie Bennett (Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle) is only the second ever Green Party member of the House of Lords.

She was the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales from 2012 to 2016.

She is the party’s Spokesperson on Rural Affairs, Wildlife and Habitats.

Natalie was born and raised in Australia and previously worked as a journalist.

Last week I conducted a socially distanced interview with her.

We talk COVID-19, building a new economy post the crisis, life as a green peer, the future of the Green Party, and more.

MH: Hi Natalie, Thanks, again, for agreeing to this interview for my blog. So, to begin with, I’d like to focus on the present crisis. Before turning to the politics of it, can I ask what impact it’s had on you personally and in regards to your role as a Member of the Lords? It’s forced the Upper Chamber to embrace more technology than usual, I believe?

NB: Personally, I’m very privileged by having a house and a garden (and an allotment that’s something less of a jungle now than it would normally be). I think of people in cramped flats and overcrowded houses, and know how lucky I am. And having been an only child, with no brothers or sisters, I’m very used to being on my own. The House of Lords, to give credit where credit due, although a lot of members – some in hope perhaps  rather than prediction – said virtual sitting couldn’t be done, has done a good job of switching to partial virtual operation. Last week we did questions, statements and debates virtually, with a recording posted later and the full record on Hansard, and from today it is going to be online through parliament TV. It is easy for people to mock the occasional hiccup and mistake, but many lords have embraced the technology, even those who hadn’t previously, and come a long way very quickly. Huge credit to the staff  who have done a mighty job of remote training. We’re still got to get online voting going, meaning debates on Bills could be done with virtual participation, but I believe the Commons has just about got that sorted, so hopefully we’ll just use that technology. There is going to be resistance to going fully virtual, but I can see no reason why we shouldn’t, and there’s a real problem of power imbalance if ministers and shadow ministers are in the House and questioners around the country.

MH: And do you think, post the pandemic, that things will just reverse to as before in regards to the way Parliament operates? Or, as I’d certainly hope, the forced changes will lead to the permanent modernisation of our democracy?

NB: I’ll divide that into two parts – the practical and the revolutionary. On the practical points, once we’ve had remote voting and participation, the arguments for that continuing are going to be immensely powerful. Once it has been shown to be possible, any kind of equalities assessment – for people with disabilities, those with caring responsibilities and just those who live at the ends of the country – would surely insist that it be allowed to continue. And it is going to raise real questions about the massively expensive plans for refurbishment of the Houses of Parliament and our return there. Why not turn it into a museum and put us in a new, modern, technology-equipped facility not in London? On the more structural side, the utter failure of our system to deal effectively with coronavirus, to plan for a known, highly damaging threat, the weakness of a government utterly dependent on one man and the impact of his illness, is surely going to massively build the demand for making the UK a functional democracy. That we have far too much power and resources centralised in Westminster, and insufficient in local communities, that the government is not representative of the people and has scant awareness of life in much of the country (e.g. the focus on drive-through testing when so many workers don’t have cars), is surely going to be a major part of the postmortem, and the opportunity to deliver the massive changes needed – proportional representation in the Commons and the Lords, massive decentralisation of power and hopefully a rethink of political culture.

MH: You’ve touched on it there, but can I ask you what you make of how the government has and is handling this crisis? I don’t envy Ministers at this time but, equally, I think there’ll need to be an independent inquiry looking into how they dealt with the pandemic once it is over. I mean, for one thing, why did it take so long for us to go into lockdown…when other countries did so weeks before?

NB: The whole coronavirus crisis is going to be a marathon not a sprint, and what individual decisions turn out to have been right or wrong will only be known with hindsight. But we can see the massive failures in preparations for resilience – not just the lack of PPE stores and the fact (internationally) that efforts to develop vaccines against MERS and SARS, which would have given us a head-start on a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, were abandoned, but also the problems with food distribution and the impact of under-funding on the NHS, social care and other support services. Zero-hours contracts, people on low insecure pay, having to go to work or starve, the rightful fear of dealing with Universal Credit and its inadequacy, all of these things created spaces for the coronavirus to spread. We need to look at not just narrow medical issues, but the social and economic factors.

MH: A number of commentators and others are suggesting that among the things that will never be the same after this crisis will be our economy, that how we look at our economy, what and who is prioritised will have to change and that we’ll finally see public services properly funded. Do you think that is more a hope than a likely reality, or do you think that a genuine shift-across our politics-has taken place? And if change is set to come, what would you like to see that change be?

NB: History is not pre-written, but made. It is clear coronavirus is going to have massive impacts and create enormous change, but what direction they will go in depends on all of us. The society we created, deeply unequal and poverty-ridden, dominated by multinational companies, built to deliver maximum profit rather than resilience and security, was not inevitable. That’s the product of choices in the past, but we can make different choices in the future. And there are clearly the seeds of a positive future taking root now. The understanding that it is the underpaid, insecurely employed, previously little-respected works who are the key workers in our society. The enjoyment of our cleaner air and quieter roads, even hearing bird song that was previously drowned out by traffic, is making people think about how to keep these changes. And there’s clearly going to be a shift towards more working from home and less travel, which also has the potential to help rebuild stronger local, decentralised economies – restoring village shops, helping keep local independent suburban coffee shops going and not leaving empty suburbs and towns occupied for most of the time by only the isolated older residents. People may be less forced into crowded, chain-dominated city centres and able to stop commuting long, uncomfortable distances. There was already a big debate about the food we eat and how we use our precious land. Covid-19 is going to push along the debate about growing more food locally, about growing varied foods, particularly fruit and vegetables, and ensuring all have access to it.

MH: You mention the cleaner air levels, especially in our big cities, during this crisis. And, obviously, there’s many fewer planes in the sky. What long-term impact do you think this period will have on the fight against potentially catastrophic Climate Change?And, speaking more generally, what do you make of this government’s alleged commitment to tackling Climate Change?

NB: There has been a sudden drop in carbon emissions. (There’s a good article here for anyone interested in more: https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment-and-conservation/2020/04/carbon-emissions-are-falling-sharply-due-coronavirus-not-long) But it is a drop in the ocean compared to our accummulated emissions that have now taken the global temperatures pretty well to 1.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels – this year already looks likely to globally be another very hot, maybe record, one. There are two chief causes for hope, however. One is that the pace at which human societies can change and adapt has been demonstrated in the pandemic – “we can only make that climate improvement over a couple of decades” is an argument that just isn’t going to wash any more. The other is that there is clearly going to have to be massive government investment after the epidemic is contained or beaten, and that means a chance to implement a Green New Deal. With renewables now the cheapest form of energy, storage and smart grid management coming along in leaps and bounds, and a real desire for movement towards agroecology and away from industrial methods, now is a great time for that to happen. I spent four hours last week chairing a Westminster Forum event on domestic energy efficiency (and yes four hours is too long to chair), but it was fascinating to hear how much knowledge, understanding and possibilities there is in this area, even though progress has been stalled by government failure, particularly in England. (Wales and Scotland are doing better although still not nearly well enough). And this is a total “no-brainer” area – giving everyone a warm, comfortable, affordable to heat home has great social and health advantages, as well as environmental.I wrote about the positives and practicalities of the COP26 postponement here: https://greenworld.org.uk/article/cop26-delayed-change-coming

MH: Can I please ask you about your role in the Lords? I was really pleased to hear about your appointment because I think more Green voices are needed in Parliament, but it must seem a bit strange to be a member of a House which the Green Party wants to see reformed/abolished. Do you hope to achieve reform from the inside?What have been your initial thoughts about how the Lords/Parliament works? And, can you please give us a sense of a regular day as a Peer (pre-COVID19, that is)?

MH: Thank you. The first thing that I did after my maiden speech was to visit the Bills Office with my private House of Lords (Elections and Reform) Bill (https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2019-21/houseoflordselectionsandreform.html) and I did modestly well in the ballot for the latest parliament, with hopes of a Second Reading of it. So of course I keep pushing on that every chance I get, and talk more broadly about the need to make the UK a democracy. A couple of weeks after I was introduced, a fellow peer lent over to me in the chamber and said they could see that as certain peers always talk about submarines, or trees, or learning disabled children, I was always going to be talking about democracy. And of course as I said in my maiden speech (https://www.nataliebennett.org/latest/maiden-speech-in-the-house-of-lords), I bring the politics of the anti-fracking protesters and the Sheffield tree protection groups into the Lords – so many of the things I say are a bit shocking to many members. But what I aim to do is comply with the small matters – say remembering as best I can to refer to bishops as “the right reverend prelate”, while being prepared to ask the government “what will you do to end our growth dependency?”, a question the Minister clearly found shocking (https://www.politicshome.com/thehouse/article/the-government-must-reduce-the-growth-dependency-of-our-economy). A typical day in the House might run: a couple of morning APPGs (all-party political groups on, for e.g. Limits to Growth and Immigration Detention; hearing from experts, absorbing reports and information and discussing what parliamentary steps might be taken), doing a supplementary question to an Oral Question in the House (the part where you have to bounce up and down shouting “my lords, my lords” to get in), meeting a minister to talk about an amendment to a bill that you are promoting, then taking part in a debate on a Bill that might start at 5pm and finish around 10pm. If you are making a speech you generally have to be at the start and the wrap-up, and “a substantial part” of the rest of the debate, so that’s a big time commitment. On Thursdays there are debates on subjects put forward by parties or individual peers,  which often are very good quality and well-informed – e.g. the one done last week virtually on prisons and COVID-19 (https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2020-04-23/debates/C4CE65CE-796D-4E65-BD4E-B0FA0FAFF863/Covid-19PrisonsAndOffenderRehabilitation)

MH: Well, I look forwarded to following your progress in the Lords in the coming years. Finally, can I ask you about the Green Party’s future. How does the party build from here? Do you think there’s an opportunity for it, given Keir Starmer’s election, to be a progressive force to the Left of Labour? And I’m a big supporter of a progressive alliance…do you think Labour will finally agree to such an arrangement with the Green Party and the Lib Dems at the next election?

NB: I have long been saying that the future of politics doesn’t look like the past, but even I didn’t envisage the dramatic nature of the past few years. Just because Labour and Tory have been the two largest parties for a century doesn’t mean that is going to continue. There is a lot of focus on the troubles of the Labour Party, but the Tory Party, which has seen a populist, far right takeover, and a rapidly ageing, shrinking membership means that anything now is possible. I think we will see electoral reform, and hence a very different political landscape, but even without that, maybe soon the Tories will implode and you’ll see Labour and Green as the two main forces. Even in the current circumstances, the European election demonstrated our base level of support at around 10%, when the vote isn’t suppressed by first-past-the-post. That’s a great foundation to quickly get to another level. Will Labour agree an electoral arrangement? I very much doubt it. What really matters is that they acknowledge the urgent need for electoral reform – if the next Commons is elected with a majority on that manifesto, then we really can bring the British Parliament out of the 19th century and into the 21st.

MH: Thank you, again, for your time Natalie.

NB: My pleasure, thank you.

My next interviewee is Andy Reed OBE, former Labour MP for Loughborough.

Published by mathewhulbert

I'm a former Broadcast Journalist and Borough Councillor (Lib Dem) and current Parish Councillor, Charity Trustee, School Governor and Policy Maker.

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