“I don’t promise to keep this schedule up!” Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green party, is on her second visit to Norwich in as many weeks, proof of the attention that the party is paying to its number-two target seat in next month’s general election. “Norwich South is one of our incredibly important seats. It’s an area where we’ve been strong for a very long time: we’re the opposition on the council – and obviously it’s a very strong student seat”.
The Greens pay a lot of attention to the student vote. Polling shows that the party has high levels of support among 18 to 24-year-olds, with some surveys putting it on a near-equal footing with Labour. Why does Bennett think that the party’s message resonates so strongly with younger generations? “Young people are really looking at imagining their life, looking forward and thinking: ‘I’ve done everything right. I’ve worked hard at school, I’ve got the degree, I’ve done the masters – and what does my life look like?’ And they really feel like: ‘This isn’t working for me, I need a different kind of society where my efforts are gonna be rewarded and where everybody’s really gonna have a fair chance of a decent life’. And young people saying: ‘This isn’t being delivered, we’ve got to look around and do something different’ ”.
Then again, one could be forgiven for thinking that it should be higher, not least because the Greens have pledged to abolish tuition fees, while Labour will only reduce them to £6,000. “It’s interesting if you look at the directions of travel. Ever since, really, the debates issue erupted we’ve got a little bit of air time, a little bit of space, so that people are actually having the chance to hear our message. And so, if you look at the trends, people are hearing us more and more, liking what they’re hearing and are coming in our direction”.
In Norwich South, what is it that sets Lesley Grahame, the Green candidate, apart from Labour’s Clive Lewis? “Well, I don’t know much about Clive, and I wouldn’t personalise it. What I’d focus on is the fact that the Green party is offering real change in politics. We’ve got three business-as-usual parties who are really just tinkering when it’s clear that we’ve got an economic, social and environmental crisis. And just continuing to do things pretty much as we are with a little bit of fiddling isn’t an option. We need jobs you can build a life on; we need housing you can afford to live in; and we need to live within our environmental limits. And that means big change”.
The Green party talks a great deal about the disintegration of the two-party system. Indeed, its 2015 manifesto includes a pledge to introduce proportional representation in the House of Lords and switch to the single-transferable vote system for elections to the Commons. How does Bennett think that her party can fit into the new multi-party world? “Well I think that the certain loser of this election is gonna be the first-past-the-post electoral system. It looks very stale, very failed now. We might see quite a significant number of people elected on not much more than 25% of the vote: it’s going to be clear that we need change. So we’re heading into an entirely different political landscape. The future of politics doesn’t look like the past.
“But I think there’s a real possibility in this election that we could see something like the [Scottish independence referendum], where we saw an 85% turnout, 97% of eligible people registered to vote, young people voting in almost the same proportion as the over-60s. And if that happens we could just have an utterly transformative election. It’s really in voters’ hands to deliver a peaceful political revolution”.
After the election, transformative or otherwise, what possibilities does Bennett envisage for enacting some of the Green party’s policies, especially given that we may very well end up with another hung parliament? “We’ve said we would not in any way support a Tory government: line one. Line two: if we were looking towards some sort of Labour coalition or minority government that we might support on a vote-by-vote basis, we’d be starting very much with an anti-austerity [objective]. Austerity is a failed policy that’s making the disadvantaged poor, the young pay for the error and the fraud of the bankers.
“But actually someone the other day asked me: ‘Where would you start?’. And one of the places that we really wanna start is: who’s been disadvantaged? Who’s suffered awfully under this government? And disabled people is an area [where] there’s huge suffering. So [we] would be campaigning to restore the Independent Living Fund and lift Personal Independence Payments back up to the level of need .=
“Benefits: lifting them up to, at an absolute minimum, the real level they were in 2010. And particularly the benefits that affect single parents, because it’s single-parent households that have really suffered enormously under this government. And we also very much want to restore public-sector pay. We’ve seen the real levels of public-sector pay plummet – these are people who are doing really important, good jobs we all need and they should get a decent wage for it”.
But the Green party will not be forming a government after the election, so what, if anything, would Bennett be willing to compromise on if, for example, Green MPs were to support Labour, either formally or informally? “The thing is, rather than becoming a coalition, you operate on a vote-by-vote basis”. She uses the issue of the Trident nuclear weapons upgrade as an example. “Sadly, at the moment both Labour and the Tories support a Trident nuclear replacement, so presumably that would be something they’d be able to get through anyway – and it’s not something we would dream of voting for. But we wouldn’t necessarily have the numbers to stop them”.
We ask about a more student-focused issue. Students are always complaining about the bus service in Norwich – “As long as you don’t ask me about bus route 47A, because I probably won’t know the answer!” – so what would the Green party do to improve public transport?
“We’ve said that we’ve got a transport hierarchy that starts with walking and cycling, and local buses are the next step up where we want to see a lot of investment. We’d put in money to reduce bus fares by about 10% across the board. But that reliability and regularity are two of the really key things. If people are actually going to be relying on buses – and this means a lot ,not just students but people who might have the option of using a car, but who would use the bus if it was reliable and ran when and where they needed it to.
How would the party pay for this kind of increase in expenditure? “The short answer to that is we need to make multi-national companies and rich individuals pay their way. We’ve got a real problem under this government: corporate tax take is down 14%. We have the website Amazon which last year paid 0.01% of its turnover in tax. And that means it’s a parasite: it’s taking profits out of Britain but not paying for the roads it needs for its lorries to run down on. And that can’t continue.
“And also, in terms of inequality in society, the richest 1% just keeps getting richer. And that’s why we’re calling for a wealth tax, which would take one or 2% from [people] worth more than £3m. And that’s not a punitive measure: that’s a reflection of the fact that your wealth came from society – Bill Gates on a desert island wouldn’t actually make any money at all. You need customers, you need workers, you need the whole infrastructure of society to make money. And also the fact that the rich are actually people too. If they get really ill they’ll probably end up in an NHS hospital. They need roads, they need policing, they need all that stuff. And they would have a better life as well as everyone else if they paid for decent public services”.
Part of the problem with tax avoidance, though, is that companies take profits off-shore. So isn’t Bennett trying to solve an international problem? “In terms of the multi-national companies, there is international action. How far or well it will go is the question.
“Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, had a private member’s bill in 2011 – the tax and financial transparency bill – and that’s got a whole host of detail. But just to focus on one bit of it: [she proposed] country-by-country reporting, which means if you do business in Britain – so this is a rule that Britain can make on its own – you have to report: every other country in the world you operate in; your profit there; your turnover there; and the number of staff you have. So if you’re a big company with a whole lot of business in Britain, but somehow 50% of your profits are made in a tax haven where you employ two men and an office dog, [the government] can really start to do something about that if you insist on the country-by-country reporting”.
Bennett talks quickly: from the beginning of the interview, she fires off long answers that cover a lot of ground. She sounds most assured when reciting the kind of stock phrases one hears a great deal from poiliticians, but she nevertheless comes across more naturally than, for example, in the debates. And she may not be going to end up in Westminster herself, but this is undoubtedly the election where people started to take her party seriously.