Escaping the environmental pigeonhole: Natalie Bennett and long term vision of the Green Party

As Natalie Bennett replaces Caroline Lucas as the leader of the Green Party in England and Wales, the party find themselves in a strong position to translate the widespread public respect for their values into explicit political support. 

Jonathan Kent
5 September 2012

When New Labour needed a Director of Communications it went to The Mirror and got Alastair Campbell. When Cameron’s Tories needed a Director of Communications they journeyed deep into Mordor to the News of the World and got Andy Coulson. When the Greens needed a Director of Communications they went to The Guardian, but finding they couldn’t afford someone of Natalie Bennett’s experience they voted to make her party leader instead.

Flippancy aside there are a lot of positives in Bennett’s election. It hasn’t been much remarked upon but this is - as far as I’m aware - the first time the leadership of a British political party has passed from one woman to another.

It also addresses the Greens’ major challenges over the coming years: to get organised and to get voters to realise that being Green isn’t just about manmade climate change and animal welfare. It’s also about real jobs, real wages, real democracy, real care for our sick and vulnerable and a real chance for every single person in Britain who wants to explore their talents and live life to the full. Few understand the importance of good organisation and good messaging as well as Bennett.

There is a growing strand in the Green Party that wants to unequivocally stamp it with the label ‘socialist’. Outgoing Leader Caroline Lucas and incoming Deputy Will Duckworth have both, on occasion, embraced the ‘watermelon’ label; Green on the outside, red on the inside.

The trouble with labels is that they mean different things to different people.  Most voters associate ‘socialism’ with autocratic government, joyless bureaucracy, shortages, hostility to business – small as much as multinational – the nationalisation of everything that moves and redistributing the fruits of the hard work of some to those who won’t lift a finger to care for themselves.

This hostile re-defining of socialism has taken the rich and powerful decades to bring about. The Greens could spend scant resources trying to rescue the term from the forces of darkness or they could fight on ground of their own choosing.

During the last election, when voters on Facebook were asked to rate the policies of political parties without knowing which party advocated them, Green policies consistently came out ahead. Whether it’s ensuring that the NHS continues to be a collective endeavour offering care for all, free at the point of use; or taking utilities back into public ownership when they fail to deliver essential services at fair prices; or renationalising the railways rather than paying out huge subsidies to public companies – people like the Greens’ approach.

That some people earn a derisory forty quid for a day’s work while others make quarter million pound annual bonuses come rain or shine offends the British sense of fair play - and if the other parties won’t kick up a proper fuss about it then the Greens will.

Ask people if they want decisions taken in remote Brussels or as locally as possible and again they favour the Green position – constructive Euroscepticism combined with a commitment to proper local democracy.

The Greens already have their own label, their brand, if you like. The challenge is too make people realise that the policies they say they already like are Green policies. 

Bennett’s professional experience should equip her to carry out a long overdue overhaul of its communications and, together with her plan to focus the party’s long term strategy on seats winnable a decade hence, she has her priorities.

She’ll need to work on her performance in front of the camera.  Her chirpy good nature and her enthusiasm rather ran riot in her first post-contest interviews, but once tempered with the more relaxed and authoritative style that comes with experience, she will surely be formidable.  And as a journalist (albeit a print one), I’m sure no one is more mindful of the need to master a new medium.

One disappointment of the leadership election is that the Greens could have had two credible leaders to sit alongside Caroline Lucas to emphasise the breadth of talent within the party.  Instead many expect to find that the two female deputy leadership contestants, disqualified following Natalie’s election by our gender balance rules (Caroline Allen and Alex Philips), were more popular than either the new deputy leader Will Duckworth or the other candidate Richard Mallender. The existing rules failed them all. It’s a shame.

There are some who want to change those rules to allow an all-female leadership team but not an all-male one. Yet across the world most Green parties are already led by women. In our own contest women dominated and Natalie Bennett is just the tip of an iceberg of female talent within the party. Greens need a compelling reason to vote for male candidates. Green women don’t need to be protected or patronised by a discriminatory set of rules. If anything there’s a lack of male talent at the highest levels of the party.  Getting bogged down in the issue would be a mistake. Dump gender balance rules altogether and Greens will continue consistently to elect women on merit alone.

We need to make sure that green values finally get the electoral recognition that they deserve. The 2014 Euro-elections should give the Greens a huge opportunity, including defeated leadership-hopeful Peter Cranie, who is one of four Green lead candidates who would get elected to Brussels on a swing of less than 1%.

If the Greens manage to raise their organisational game, escape the environmental pigeon hole by getting people to grasp their wider message and don’t focus too much on internal issues then 2014 could see six English and Welsh Greens go to Brussels.  That would be a real vindication of the party’s faith in its new leader.

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