Green Leader Natalie Bennett On Austerity, HS2 And Housing

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 45 months ago
Green Leader Natalie Bennett On Austerity, HS2 And Housing

Natalie Bennett (centre) campaigning in Highgate. Photo: Amy Romer.

It's not every day you get a national party leader standing in a general election on your home turf. Yet that's what's happening if you live in Holborn and St Pancras, where your local Green Party candidate is none other than Natalie Bennett.

She's a local, having lived in Holborn, the Regent's Park Estate and Somers Town since moving to the UK in 1999, from her native Australia (she's now a British citizen). She contested the constituency in 2010, coming a distant fourth with 2.7% of the vote, though the recent rise of the Greens saw the party come an overall second in the relevant wards during last year's council elections — but at 57,289 votes for Labour and 19,448 votes for the Greens, "it’s a fairly long second," admits Natalie.

"I describe it as having a mountain to climb. But Frank Dobson [who's not standing] has been MP here for more than 30 years and people say ‘I voted Frank for years’, not ‘I voted Labour for years’, so there is definitely an element of personal vote which is going."

Keir Starmer, former Director of Public Prosecutions and also 15-year resident of Kentish Town, is hoping to step into Dobson's shoes. He was perhaps the best-known of all those who stood to be Labour's candidate — depending on how well locals know their council leader — but with TV exposure, the Green leader could go into the election with best-known name.

Then there are the Liberal Democrats. They polled around 28% in 2010 — "after spending quite a bit of money," adds Natalie — but performance in the council elections was dire. Looking at the results, it appears the left-of-centre vote has mainly gone Green. "A lot of people voted Lib Dem [in Holborn and St Pancras in 2010] thinking they were voting for a more left wing alternative to Labour," says Natalie, theorising on the Greens' newfound popularity. "If you go into other parts of the country, lots of people voted Lib Dem to keep the Tories out and aren’t very happy with how that worked out. There’s a lot of people going, 'this tactical voting thing hasn’t worked for so long, I’m going to try something different and vote for what I believe in'."

And what about the 'Green surge'? The party claimed 13,000 new members in one week in January, off the back of Ofcom granting UKIP 'major party status' for broadcast coverage, but not the Greens; polls have shown rising support over the past year, hitting a high in January but now tailing off. (And let's all remember how Nick Clegg's sudden popularity boost failed to translate 800,000 extra votes nationally into seats.) Where are they all coming from? Isn't voting Green a bit of a 'middle class' thing to do these days? "I wouldn’t say so," is Natalie's response. "If you’re going to vote differently to your parents and you’ve thought about it, that just means you’ve thought about politics a bit. You can come from any background and have thought about politics. I think more and more people are thinking about it because they’re so fed up. And they come from all walks of life."

Photo by HartwellPhotography, from the Londonist Flickr pool

In Holborn and St Pancras — as in the rest of London — people are also fed up with the housing situation. "The underlying philosophical problem, particularly in London but also around the country, is that we’ve come to regard housing as financial assets rather than secure, affordable places for people to live," she says. "We want to end Right to Buy, which is just another privatisation of public assets. And, because a lot of people will be living in private rentals for a long time to come, we want to give private tenants five-year security of tenure and a cap on the rise of rents — not more than the rate of inflation — so people can have a secure home. Lots of other countries in the world manage this — your privately rented home is your home, it’s not somewhere you are for six months until the landlord finds an excuse and throws you out."

The Greens want to build 500,000 homes for social rent across the country by 2020, which they've costed at £27bn and would fund partly by removing mortgage rate relief for landlords ("usually you give relief from tax on the basis that you’re doing a social good, a benefit, and that’s just not the case any more") and partly by lifting the cap on council borrowing ("if you are borrowing money to build council housing then you’ve got a permanent asset that’s going to keep giving you a return"). However, the party's housing briefing (PDF) estimates each home would cost an average of £60,000 to build. When it costs Westminster Council £270,000 to build the average 'affordable' home in its borough, it's no wonder the figures have come in for heavy criticism.

125,000 of those houses are earmarked for London, which is far short of the 800,000 extra homes London Councils believes the city needs by 2021. "I think you’ve got to be careful with a lot of those figures," Natalie says. "There’s a temptation to say ‘that’s what the graph looks like and we’ll assume that keeps going indefinitely into the future’ and one of the things we’ve got to look at is regional development policy. Money, people and resources are all focused on London, partly because of the financial sector, that’s where a huge percentage of the jobs are being created. Building strong economies in other parts of Britain would help to balance things up."

Part of that policy of rebalancing is opposition to HS2 which, in its current form, would involve the loss of around 500 homes and huge disruption to people and businesses in Camden and around Euston for a decade. Though all candidates in Holborn and St Pancras are against the high-speed rail link, only the Greens and UKIP oppose it as a national policy. "HS2 will focus people, money and resources even more on London than now," Natalie explains, about what at first seems like a counter-intuitive policy for the Greens. "It shouldn’t happen to Camden, there would be horrendous impacts on people’s lives, homes and businesses. But it’s just a bad project for the whole of Britain and we’re the only people saying that."

Photo by Matt Buck from Flickr, under Creative Commons

Natalie also highlights another issue that's top of many Londoners' minds, particularly after the recent smog: air pollution. "I think it’ll be big in the London elections next year," she predicts. "People are very aware of the immediate impact on their local vicinity. There’s much more awareness now than there was three or four years ago.

"We also have to tackle congestion. That means starting at the unglamorous end — encouraging more walking and cycling, creating pleasant environments, making sure public transport actually meets people’s needs. And if you cut congestion that benefits the people who really have to be on the roads, the tradesperson carrying round four ladders. It’s a matter of looking at the whole thing holistically and turning London into a walking and cycling city. And that means public transport works for people who, for one reason or another, those journeys can’t be done any other way."

The other issue that sets the Greens apart from the other parties is its attitude to austerity. Namely, that it's not necessary. "Soon after the election, the Tories were running a narrative that said it was because of too much government spending that we’re in this financial mess," Natalie says, getting visibly irate. "Which was demonstrably nonsense. We were in the mess because we had a fraud-ridden, out-of-control, corrupt financial sector.

"Austerity simply doesn’t add up. If you look at the reality of what it means, we’ve got many, many workers in London who used to have moderately-paid jobs, providing essential public services. Those essential services have now gone, the community is trying to pick up the pieces, that worker is now on Jobseeker’s Allowance or very likely on a much worse-paid, casualised kind of job. They’re paying less or no tax and National Insurance. They haven’t got money to spend in the local shops. We’re all poorer. Our alternative to austerity is that big, multinational companies and rich individuals need to pay their taxes, which they’re not doing at the moment, and multinational companies need to pay their staff properly. Making the minimum wage a living wage leaves the Treasury about £2bn a year better off because you get more money in from tax and National Insurance and you’re paying less housing benefit and family tax credit."

The Greens want to set the minimum wage at £7.85 nationally and aim for £10 an hour by 2020, with a proportional increase for London. "Try live in London on £6.50 an hour?" says Natalie, giving a little puff of disgust. "It can’t be done. I’ve knocked on doors of people of all political persuasions and said: 'don’t you think if you work full time you should earn enough money to live on?' And I haven’t encountered a person who hasn’t said, 'yes, that’s reasonable'. Profits are at record levels, wages have utterly frozen and in fact gone backwards. There’s a real imbalance there. Big business has to pay its way in terms of treating its staff properly, both with decent wages and not zero hours contracts." That might be manageable by London's multinational conglomerates, but we can expect far more dissent from local small businesses.

Natalie Bennett outside The People's Supermarket in Somers Town, where she volunteers. Photo: Sven Klinge.

When people talk about voter apathy and being 'sick of career politicians', what they tend to mean is the 'ordinary bloke' persona of the pint-toting, fag-holding Nigel Farage — despite his having been an MEP for 16 years. She won't thank us for it, but it's a parallel that can be drawn with Natalie Bennett. Throughout the interview she comes across as very un-politiciany, and we don't mean in the "brainfreeze" sense of that car-crash LBC interview.

Her first degree was in agricultural science ("which means I’m probably the only British political leader who knows how to shear a sheep") though her career has been in journalism, working for The Times, Independent and finally as editor of the Guardian Weekly. She hasn't developed that shiny patina that so many politicians have, where the awkward questions slide off and gather in a messy puddle on the floor, to be stepped over and ignored. She's still human. We like that. (Hell, even über-Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg liked her.)

How, then, did this journalist with no experience in elected office become leader of the Green Party? "A large part of this is the fault of Sian Berry," Natalie laughs. "She’d been a member for six months or so and asked if I do this little national job that involved writing a few emails and newsletters, thinking that as a journalist it’d be very simple — and that’s how I found myself on the National Executive." She was about to leave the Guardian to spend a year writing a book ("you do so many depressing stories about African famines, political coups, natural disasters, that at some point you think 'that’s enough'") when a call came through from Caroline Lucas, saying she wasn't going to restand as leader. "I put the phone down and said something roughly resembling 'oh hell'," she says, and was elected leader in September 2012.

So is she now in with a shout of becoming an MP? No. The polls are showing an easy win for Labour. But in a way, that could help lead in to one of the Greens' other long-cherished policies: electoral reform. "It's something that will be a big issue after the election," says Natalie. "Around the country — perhaps not so much in London, though maybe bits — there will be seats where people win with not much more than 25% of the vote. And at that point, a lot of people for whom the words ‘electoral reform’ will never previously have crossed their lips, are going to go ‘hang on, how did that happen?’. Women getting the vote was the last significant change in Westminster. 2018 is the centenary of that. It’d be really nice not to get to that point without having made a significant change since."

Read more of Londonist's election coverage.

Last Updated 13 April 2015