Green Party leader Natalie Bennett: Voters are ready to back a radical alternative to inequality

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett set out what makes her party different, when she spoke to Journal Political Editor Jonathan Walker

Max Nash/PA Wire Natalie Bennett leader of the Green Party
Natalie Bennett leader of the Green Party

Voters have had enough of low-paying and insecure jobs, massive inequalities in wealth and the continual privatisation of public services - and are ready to back a party with a radically different approach to the traditional parties, according to Green Party leader Natalie Bennett.

Ms Bennett spoke to The Journal as she prepared for her party’s annual conference in early September.

And she was upbeat about the party’s prospects, following a strong showing in the European and local elections.

Anti-EU party Ukip benefited from extensive publicity in the run-up to May’s elections and ended up coming first in the European poll, narrowly beating Labour in terms of share of the vote, with Conservatives not far behind in third place.

But fourth place went to the Greens, who managed to beat the Liberal Democrats despite being largely ignored by the media.

And new members are flocking to the party, with membership growing by 28% so far this year.

Greens hope their conference will provide an opportunity to reach out to voters who are sick of the traditional parties but aren’t attracted to Ukip’s focus on immigration and Europe.

Ms Bennett highlighted the party’s plans to re-nationalise the railways - which she contrasted with Labour’s reluctance to promise it will return the East Coast Main Line to public ownership.

The Transport Links Breakfast takes place on Thursday September 25 at Ramside Hall Hotel, Co Durham
The Transport Links Breakfast takes place on Thursday September 25 at Ramside Hall Hotel, Co Durham
 

East Coast services are currently run by government-owned Directly Operated Railways, but ministers are to hand the franchise to a private firm before the next election.

Labour opposes the privatisation and says a Labour government would allow a state-owned business to bid for rail franchises in future.

But Greens would simply re-nationalise the railways by bringing each franchise back into public control when it expired, rather than putting it out to tender.

Ms Bennett said: “Labour’s approach is very tentative.

“Their idea of having a nationally-owned company that can bid for train operating contracts - my question is what happens when it bids and loses, and you’ve just spent a lot of public money participating in a failed commercial system?”

East Coast Main Line services should stay in public management, she said.

“We have been campaigning and backing the unions and other campaigns to keep it in public hands.

“Right now, it is the most successful rail line. And they are changing a successful model purely to match up to their ideological goals and probably to generate some money for the private sector in the process, out of public money.”

She added: “Privatisation on the rail network is costing us all more than £1bn a year.

“The way we are running the railways now makes no sense.”

This was the type of issue that saw people turning to the Greens, she said.

Gareth Fuller/PA Wire Green Party MP Caroline Lucas
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas
 

Others include the party’s commitment to raising the minimum wage, currently £6.31 an hour, to the living wage, which is £7.65 an hour.

Greens also want to introduce a wealth tax of one or two per cent on people worth £3m or more, so that they would pay £30,000 to £60,000 each year.

And they want to allow local councils to impose extra business rates on out-of-town supermarkets, allowing them to use the money to support smaller local businesses.

“You can really feel that the time is coming when there are going to be big changes in terms of our politics, our economics, the way our society runs.

“And yet the three largest parties haven’t really got that.

“What that means is we need to have jobs that you can build a life on.

“We have been making our employment lower paid and more insecure - the horror of zero-hour contracts.

“And if we are going to build a sustainable society and economy, we actually need jobs that pay you enough to live on. Where you have a reasonable amount of job security, you are able to think about signing a six-month rental agreement, thinking about having a mortgage, having children.”

Like other parties, Greens talk about the need to “rebalance” the economy, ending the dominance of London.

But while Conservative, Lib Dems and Labour front benchers all argue that the planned new high-speed rail line called HS2 will boost regional economies, by improving links between London, the Midlands and the North, Greens want the scheme scrapped.

How a train on HS2 could look as it speeds between London and Birmingham
How a train on HS2 could look as it speeds between London and Birmingham
 

“We are totally opposed to HS2. It is simply going to concentrate resources, money and people even more on London, which is actually the opposite of what we need to do.

“Most of the journeys on it will be journeys into London.

“It is not going to benefit the North and the Midlands.”

Instead, Greens want greater focus on connecting the regions outside London to each other, as well as better local transport.

“One thing that illustrates the problems in our economy well is that we have a huge problem with housing costs, a housing shortage in the South East and South - and yet there are a million empty homes in Britain. A lot of those are in the North and Midlands.

“People don’t have opportunities there, and so they are forced to move down to London.

“And if you actually had a proper investment in railways that run east-west across the country, railways that aren’t focused on London, and improve transport links between and across regions instead, then that’s one of the important aspects of a sensible regional development policy.”

George Osborne, the Conservative Chancellor, has set out his own proposals for a new high-speed trans-Pennine line connecting east and west England, known as HS3. So would the Greens back this?

Ms Bennett said: “If you translate what George Osborne’s saying, it’s basically ‘oh help we need some votes in the North’.

George Osborne MP
George Osborne MP
 

“HS2 was dreamed up on the back of an envelope. I think HS3 was dreamed up on the back of a matchbox. It’s not a plan.”

The Green Party also has a different vision of what a successful economy would look like, calling for “strong local economies built around small businesses and co-operatives”.

There’s just one Green MP at the moment – Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion, but the party is targeting other seats such as Bristol West and Norwich South.

Realistically, it’s hard for a smaller party to win Parliamentary seats in our political system. and Ms Bennett won’t make predictions about the 2015 general election.

But she said she was encouraged by the European election results and the number of people who hadn’t voted for years who were now backing the Greens.

She said: “I had a guy who hadn’t voted for 30 years, didn’t really believe in the political system, but said that he was going to vote for us.

“A lot of people have realised that if we’re going to change the way things work then we have to change who we send to Westminster.”

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