Kayley Gilbert, Online Features Editor, and Flora Carr, Copy Editor, talk to Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, about the need for political change.
It’s not every day that you get to interview a party leader. So as we arrive at The Real Food Store 40 minutes early for our scheduled meeting with Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, suffice to say we’re a bit nervous.
Calming our nerves with a warm cup of tea, we get a call. It’s from Joseph Levy, Publicity Secretary of the Exeter
University Green Party Society, who has orchestrated our meeting. “There’s been a slight problem,” he says, explaining that the 48-year-old has had to go straight to her interview with BBC Radio Devon. Would we be
alright to meet her there? A quick search on Google Maps shows it’s at the other end of town. Downing our drinks, we begin our ten minute dash. We arrive at the station panting – but excited. Bennett finally emerges, smiley and apologetic, and ushers us to take a seat. As Joseph later says, today is turning out to be “hectic for all the right reasons.”
Natalie’s journey to becoming leader of the Green Party was far from conventional, to say the least. In her talk
on Wednesday she jokes about how she only joined the party in 2006 as part of a New Year’s resolution, telling
students to “take care,” as you never know where a January resolution can lead. With degrees in Agricultural Science, Asian Studies and Mass Communication, her eclectic CV is as different from the stereotypical party leader’s – honours in PPE at Oxford before immediately jumping on the political ladder – as it is possible to get.
We ask her for any advice she could give to students here at Exeter who are still unsure of what career lies ahead of them. Bennett’s answer is simple and refreshing: “Do something you’re interested in and enjoy.” She believes firmly in following one’s interests, advising students not to listen to those who say “this is a good area for jobs, go into it.” “If something excites you,” she tells us, “if you really think it’s really worth doing, go for that and try and make it work.”
Before her ascent within the Green Party, Bennett had a career in journalism, writing for publications like The Times and becoming editor of The Guardian Weekly from 2007 until 2012. As budding journalists ourselves, we ask her for the scoop on how to break into such a notoriously closed industry. “Do as much journalism as you can in as many different ways as you can,” she says. “Make sure that you’re writing a blog, doing a vlog, doing whatever it is – nothing beats the experience of actually doing journalism.”
Bennett comes across as focused and personable, an obvious leader, whether that be of a newspaper or even a political party. But up until now the Greens have often been passed off as, well, a bit of a joke. Perhaps even worse, they’re regarded as a wasted vote. And following the disastrous outcome of the last general election for students in particular – the increase in tuition fees – politically engaged students are reluctant to throw away their vote. The fact that the Exeter University Green Party Society is still only in its first year suggests that perhaps students still see the Greens’ as a worthy but unpractical choice. We pushed the former journalist for her views of this perception.
“Young people [are] being burdened with huge weights of tuition debt,” she tells us. “They are going into a world
where there is low pay, zero hours contracts, great difficulty in getting a job that you can build a life on. The Green Party says that is not economically or generally sustainable – we are offering you zero tuition fees, a minimum wage that is a living wage, and a ban on zero hours contracts.” She goes into further detail on the Greens’ environmental policies, concluding that really they’re all for young peoples’ benefit: “It’s your world or future world that you are going to have to live in.”
We ask Bennett again for her thoughts on ‘wasted’ votes for Green. She explains that, for decades, people have been voting tactically, the first past the post electoral system training us to vote for the party we hate the least. “That has given us the kind of politics we have now, the failed kind of politics,” she says, “and it’s within voters’ hands.” If people keep voting in the same way, Bennett explains, they’ll just keep getting the same results and policies. Her gaze frank and direct, it’s hard to argue with her logic.
“Natalie is very focused and very sensible, but also has a brilliant sense of humour,” Joe tells us, following his behind-closed-doors access to the party leader as Publicity Secretary for the University Green Party. “Perhaps
this is why the talk went down so well. A lot of people were genuinely surprised by her, and I think … [that] last
night is the moment that I would say the University of Exeter’s Green Surge truly began.” Her talk on Wednesday was proclaimed by most as a resounding success; the associated hashtag #NatExe was trending third
on Twitter in the UK by the end of the talk. Perhaps Natalie’s excellent public speaking and persona can help
transform the Green’s image.
Thanks to XTV, here is a recording of Natalie’s talk at Exeter University on Wednesday:
However, it’s not just the ‘wasted’ element of a vote for Green which is an issue for the party. Many have serious
issues with some of the Green’s policies. Following the recent Paris terror attacks, notably at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the Green’s Minimum Military Preparation security policy – which states simply that “military preparation are a drain on our resources” – could now prove far less popular with voters who fear the occurrence of similar attacks in Britain. When asked for her views on the policy, Bennett skirts admirably around the question. “In terms of things like security measures involving the internet and electronic communications, we don’t want to try to
protect freedom by destroying it,” she says. “We respect freedom privacy and we need to get a balance.” Making sure that communities are protected is, she explains, far more important than “taking a security crackdown type response.”
A recent study has shown that women tend to lean towards parties that specify how policies will directly impact upon people. With this in mind, we ask whether the party leader feels she approaches voters in a different way to her male counterparts. In cleverly avoiding the question directly, it’s clear Bennett does not want to say anything too controversial. Instead, the self-declared feminist discusses the effect of current policies upon women, claiming that two thirds of cuts under the coalition government have “impacted upon women” and that it is single mothers who have “suffered hugely financially.” Due to the strain cuts have placed upon women in particular, Bennett believes there is a “huge failure” today to gain a parliament that reflects the “lives of a large number of people in Britain.”
Reflecting on David Cameron’s recent refusal to take part in the election debates unless the Green Party is included, Natalie is cool and collected as she jumps straight to the point: the Prime Minister is “obviously operating in his own political interests.” However, with a warm smile, she goes on to explain that “the only reason he can do that is because his argument is right.” She jokes that if Mr. Cameron claimed he wouldn’t take part unless the “Monster Raving Loony Party was there,” that would obviously be “ridiculous.”
As we discuss the impact of the Greens possibly being excluded from these debates, it is clear that the party value the important role of the student population. Indeed, survey results published last week indicate that 22 per cent of under 25s say they are going to vote Green, a tally equal to that of the Conservatives. With this in mind, Bennett believes that excluding the Green Party would have an unfair impact upon young people: “excluding young people’s views” and “not giving young people the chance to hear those views discussed.”
Bennett believes that excluding her party from the debates has a wider impact upon the landscape of British
politics: “If you have UKIP there and not the Greens, you’re really dragging British politics in a very right-wing …
direction.” Not only would this mark a substantial shift from past debates: Bennett also says that this is very “unreflective of the general population.”
And to some extent, it seems as though the Prime Ministers’ claim is already having an impact upon the position of the Green Party. Emerging from the depths of Radio Devon’s recording rooms and fitting in our brief meeting before again being whisked away for another interview, Bennett’s done more work with the media than she’s “ever done before.”
However, the Green Party leader believes that this has more to do with the changing reality of politics than David Cameron’s claim. In December 2014, the Green Party received their first ten per cent general election poll after their ‘Green Surge,’ when membership went up by 120 per cent over the year. Impressively, that means that over 1,000 people a week joined the Green Party in 2014. This success was further heightened on Thursday when, after a record-breaking surge, Green Party membership overtook that of UKIP and the Liberal Democrats. Maybe now it’s time to acknowledge the true place of the Green Party on the British political scene.
Aiming to break the monopoly of the televised debates, The Telegraph, The Guardian and YouTube launched a proposal for a party leaders’ debate to be staged on the internet. Enthusiastic about the prospect of an online election debate, the Australian-born politician sees this proposed move online as a reflection that 2015 will be very
different to the election campaigns in 2010. She acknowledges that “the three mainstream debates aren’t going to be as big a part of the whole campaign this time.” After encouraging her to decide whether this change will be a positive one, she concludes that it will be. Believing the current campaign structure to be “basically imported straight from America,” she claimed that a move away from this could only improve understanding of the system. She believes that the current style of election campaigning means that many get “swept up in a load of hype” which confuses and disorientates rather than clarifies the system.
Natalie is, herself, a challenge to the system. Her talk on Wednesday was full of controversial and pithy quotes: “low wages, housing and crowded schools are not caused by immigration; they’re caused by poor government policy.” As Joe tells us, from the social media buzz her talk caused, Bennett certainly seems to have increased student interest in her party. This online popularity of the talk was definitely aided by the coverage of the student television station. “XTV were instrumental in their advice on the aesthetics of the talk,” Joe tells us, “and how this related to the technical side, an aspect which clearly paid off based on the response.”
If the polls are anything to go by, the Green Party is certainly on the rise in the run up to the general election. Having caused such a stir, both online and on campus, it certainly seems that their success is due at least in part to a surge in student votes for the Greens. Bennett’s talk on Wednesday will no doubt only increase this further.
Kayley Gilbert, Online Features Editor, and Flora Carr, Copy Editor
For comment and coverage on Bennett’s talk search #NatExe on Twitter. Alternatively, you can watch her talk via the video found in above, thanks to XTVbookmark me