Given the tectonic shifts in the political landscape that have rocked our country since the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, it is easy to forget about other political changes in 2016 that have been planned for some time. One such change is the resignation of Natalie Bennett, with the new Green Party of England and Wales leaders announced at the Party’s Autumn Conference, held at the University of Birmingham from 2 to 4 September.
Bennett was born in Sydney, Australia in 1966, the daughter of a part-time secretary and an apprentice carpenter. She did not take an immediate route into politics, and at first worked for a number of regional newspapers in New South Wales. She settled in the UK in 1999.
Joining the Green Party in 2006, Bennett took on the role of internal communications coordinator for the party’s national executive from 2007 to 2011. In 2012, following Caroline Lucas’ resignation as leader of the party, Bennett entered the running to be the new leader. She was successful, and announced as the winner of the Green leadership election on 3 September 2012.
Bennett has a number of strengths. She has certainly enlarged the party’s membership: at the end of 2014, it had 30,900 members, but by the end of 2015 it had 63,219 (though in August of this year that membership was down to 53,000). She views herself as a feminist, and founded the Green Party’s women’s group. She has also raised the profile of the party, taking part in The ITV Leaders Debate, televised on 2 April 2015, in the run-up to that year’s general election, against leaders of the other main UK political parties at the time, such as David Cameron for the Conservative Party and Ed Miliband for the Labour Party.
Some are quick to sing her praises. I interviewed Exeter Green Party member, activist and former Parliamentary Candidate Diana Moore after her appearance at a University of Exeter talk entitled ‘What the EU means for Women’. One of my questions was, in light of Bennett’s resignation, how she saw the Green Party moving forward and continuing to enlarge its profile across the UK. Moore was quick to commend the outgoing leader.
“Natalie has done a fantastic job as leader,” she told me. “When she came to speak here during the election last year we had queues of students out the door all wanting to hear what she said and the reason people want to hear her is because when you meet her and you hear her you know what an authentic leader she is. She is an honest politician – she was honest enough to say about her brain fades – and she was honest enough when she met people to actually help with the building of the party. The Exeter Green Party got the third highest vote share in the council elections. We are a serious opposition, a voice of reason, a voice standing up for social and environmental issues and that is Natalie’s legacy. She has built the party and made it a very strong party. She has taken particular interest in Exeter, promoting and supporting our young students who have been involved in the party and particularly supporting women. She is an amazing person. So the next leader has large shoes to fill and I have no idea who it’s gonna be.”
“We are a serious opposition, a voice standing up for social and environmental issues and that is Natalie’s legacy.”
However, Bennett has faced challenges during her time as leader. Her public speaking has been mixed – while her talks at the University of Exeter have been incredibly popular, she has given a number of awkward interviews, including a now-infamous one with Nick Ferrari on LBC in February 2015, where she couldn’t explain the cost breakdown of a Green policy to buy 500,000 new council homes.
It’s also important to note that the Green Party’s reach is still pretty small – there is only one Green MP (the new co-leader Lucas), one Green Lord, three Green MEPs (though this category will not be applicable soon, for obvious reasons) and two members of the London Assembly. However, maybe the Party are trying to build up from the grassroots – there are 165 Green party representatives in local government. However, this still only makes up 0.87 per cent of local government members. A new leader needs to further increase the Green Party’s reach across England and Wales, to allow it to become a party that is a key player in politics, one that can compete for increased influence alongside the British political parties seen as having a viable chance at leading the country. Now might be an ideal time to energise these goals given the fragmented nature of British politics at the moment.
Regardless of this, Natalie Bennett’s time as leader has clearly raised the reach and profile of the party. She is evidently a highly successful person – as well as having led a political party during her lifetime, she formerly edited The Guardian Weekly. Whatever she goes on to do, it doesn’t look like we will have seen the last of her.