On the 6th December, Natalie Bennett, the former leader of the Green Party, came to the University of Southampton to talk about her experience at the forefront of national and Green Party politics. Natalie’s talk was unlike any other political talk I had been to before and mainly focused on an issue close to her heart and political beliefs: the environment.
- What inspired you to get into politics?
“My first politics is feminism and I was inspired at aged 5 by being told ‘because you’re a girl, you’re not allowed to have a bicycle’. Even though I didn’t know the word feminism, that inspired me to spend a lot of my younger days fighting for girls to be allowed to do things they should be allowed to do, so that was my first politics. Getting involved in the Green Party, I guess I can go back to being a young journalist while working in Australia. I went to a bio-dynamic farm, I don’t subscribe to all the tenants of bio-dynamic farming, but it was amazing. It was summer and I was in this wheat field and the farmer just casually leant on the shovel and turned the soil over and there was earth worms and organic matter in this beautiful rich soil, which is not what the Australian summer is like, normally you’d need a pickaxe and a very strong person to break into the ground. After this, it struck me that we needed to treat our land and soil differently. Those are the foundations of my Green politics.”
2. What was your biggest achievement as leader of the Green Party?
“The growth of the Green party. Obviously it wasn’t just me, there were a great deal of people who contributed to it and obviously the politics of the time contributed to it. But we more than quadrupled the size of the Green Party over my four years as leader. We got 1.1 million votes in the general election, which was more votes than we got in every previous general election added together. When I was elected as leader of the Green Party, I set out to make us to be one of the main political parties in Britain and I think we’re well on the way to achieving that.”
3. What do you think the biggest issue facing Britain is right now?
“That’s a tough one. If you take the immediate pressing things, you’d have to say the issue of Brexit and what’s going to happen around that in day to day politics. Theresa May needs to understand that a mantra is not a plan. We’ve been through “Brexit means Brexit”, we came up with ‘We’re going to have a red, white and blue Brexit”; none of these are plans for whats actually going to happen. It’s blatantly obvious that she has no plan and we cannot invoke Article 50 and the Lisbon Treaty until she has a plan. Obviously, if we look on a broader scale, (is it) the state of the environment and our natural world. We have to live within the environmental limits of our plant – thats not politics, its physics. It’s not just climate change, its things like plastics in the oceans, the state of our soils, the loss of bio-diversity, the loss of eco-systems which are essential for us to live in. We have to stop trashing our planet or otherwise we won’t have a habitable planet.”
4. What is the biggest issue facing universities right now?
“For students the issue is tuition fees, and the fact that people not only face 30 years of their life with the weight of debt but also the way it skews the whole university experience. People are being encouraged to treat themselves as customers not scholars within an academic community, who are working collectively to improve themselves and the world at the same time. I think people in universities are missing out, compared to the time when you could follow your interests and not be thinking will this help me get a job in 3 years time so I can start paying back my student loan. On the converse of that, I also think universities are being pushed towards the idea of a commercial model of universities competing against each other, seeking to get the most students and the shiniest buildings. This is extremely damaging to universities as a whole. If you base education on a competitive model, it means that some institutions will fail. If a university fails the students who’ve been through those years of failure that has affected the whole of their life. It’s damaged their life chances. We should ensure that every university is thriving and successful and they’re not competing against each other in a dog eat dog world.”
5. What can the Green Party do in a politics dominated by Brexit?
“Well what we can do first of all is to ensure the protection of the status of citizens from the EU living in the UK and we are pushing very hard to say that they’ve made their lives here and be able to stay here. In the broader context, we want to maintain the free movement of people in the EU because it enriches our quality of life and we want to keep the protections of the single market. Things like environmental standards, human rights standards, workers rights things that come under the protection of the single market need to be protected. Before we joined the EU, Britain used to be known as the dirty man of Europe, we don’t want to go back to being that. The way forward is very unclear, if we want to invoke Article 50 we need to keep open the option of a second referendum. There was no democratic nature of Brexit, the vote did not say what sort of Brexit people were voting for.”
6. What are your views on the victory of Donald Trump and do you think politics has become more polarised?
“I think politics is definitely becoming more polarised and what’s happening is pretty much every country in the world is that the centre of politics is not holding. People don’t believe the status quo will change things anymore, which is why Hillary Clinton lost the American election and Donald Trump won the election. A new world is emerging where we are seeing the battle between hope and fear, Bernie Sanders was the symbol of hope and would have beaten Donald Trump. Now that it’s happened, I was going around before the general election saying I cannot imagine a world with Donald Trump as President and in control of nuclear weapons; we now do have Donald Trump in control of nuclear weapons. I suppose I would take some line of hope in that we don’t know who Donald Trump is; he said what he needed to say to be elected. It’s going to be a difficult four years.”
7. Finally, do you have any advice for young people wanting to pursue a career in politics?
“Many people study politics, but you don’t necessarily have to. My first degree was a science degree and I think we need more people with scientific backgrounds in politics. But I think the key thing for getting into politics is by having experience doing politics. By that I don’t necessarily mean party politics, although thats fine too, running campaigns, seeking to work with others to change the world around you, whether that’s at university or your community or your street, that’s the way you’ll learn a whole range of skills from learning how to write letters, petitions and organising public meetings. All those skills you’ll learn by doing politics.”
Follow Natalie Bennett on twitter: @natalieben