Natalie Bennett: “Anti-immigration rhetoric empowers people to abuse immigrants”

The Green Party leader on her party’s rise in popularity

I meet Natalie Bennett in a coffee shop in Holborn and St Pancras – the constituency where she’s standing for election. It’s lunchtime and she orders a hot chocolate – too much coffee makes her feel “blegh”, she says, and pulls a face to illustrate. To tell the truth, I was hoping for food, but she’s eating later with a food blogger – it seems she has a few press meetings planned that day.

“I believe in a work/life balance,” Bennett says. She laughs and adds: “I just don’t have one.”

We discuss the pressures of being a woman in politics and how she gets advice on what clothes to wear, because she’s not hugely interested in fashion. We also chat about her childhood in Australia and how one day she hopes to write a book about London women from history.

But mostly I want to talk about the party’s rapid rise popularity in recent years and how the Greens really feel about business:

Q. You’ve probably seen the Vote for Policies website-

(She laughs) I quote it all the time

-so why if your policies are so popular, is it not translating in the polls?

Until very recently we’ve struggled to get very much airtime or attention or the chance for people to hear what our policies are. We’re now significantly bigger than the Lib Dems or UKIP [by party numbers]. I think also people have been trained by the first-past-the-post electoral system over decades very often to vote tactically. But lots of people last time voted Lib Dem to keep the Tories out, and that didn’t work out very well in their minds. So people increasingly are saying “I’m not going to vote tactically anymore, I’m going to vote for what I believe in”.

Q. Do you think the “green”, environmental label is standing in the way of getting more support?

I think what’s happening is as we’re getting more airtime and more opportunities, people are recognising that Green political philosophy aligns social and environmental justice together. People are understanding what the Green Party and Green politics stands for, which is saying that we’re in opposition to austerity and we can’t keep making the poor, the disadvantaged, the young pay for the errors and fraud of the bankers. That’s something that people are increasingly identifying as what Green means.

Q. You’ve met the other party leaders. What did you think of them?

Errm… well I think I’ll leave it to voters to make personal judgements about people - what I’m concerned about is-

We want to hear your personal judgement!

(Laughs) Well I think politics should be about playing the ball not the man, to use a football analogy. I’ve got a lot to say about their policies but I’ll leave it to voters to judge about the people.

Q. Outside of the Green Party, putting you guys aside, what would be the worst case scenario for Britain at the general election?

(She thinks for a moment) Obviously anything that results in a Tory government would be a bad thing. Anything that gave UKIP influence would clearly be a bad thing.

Natalie Bennett

Q. Coming on to UKIP, the anti-immigration rhetoric must feel a bit personal, as an immigrant yourself?

No, I wouldn’t say that. I mean obviously, as an immigrant I am a relatively privileged one.

What I’m concerned about is the damage that the anti-immigration rhetoric is doing in three areas really. The policy reactions of the other parties, and things like the change that this government brought in for British people who want to bring their non-EU spouse or partner here. We have a deeply discriminatory unfair law, and it was a judge who said that, and I get lots of emails from people as the personal heartache it’s causing is immense. The fact we’re not treating refugees properly according to our international obligations and the way we should is an absolute disgrace and I’m concerned about the impact rhetoric has had on international students. So I’m concerned about the policy impacts.

But I’m also concerned about the way in which the rhetoric from UKIP and the other three parties to varying degrees has meant that the drunk man in the pub or the irate woman on the bus is likely to feel empowered to abuse someone who either is, or they perceive to be, an immigrant. And I’m concerned about how it’s made people feel unwelcome and insecure in their own communities.

Q. Moving on, no matter what your job is or how much you love it, everyone has bad days. What’s a bad day like for you?

No-one’s ever asked me that question before, it’s always interesting when you get an entirely new question.

Erm… it varies…

I suppose a bad day is when you feel like you’re not managing to get across clearly the policies and the ambition of the Green Party.

Q. And why might that be?

There can be all kinds of reasons for that. Maybe you might blame yourself or maybe you might blame the circumstances.

Q. You’ve been criticised for not coming across well in interviews. Do you think that’s unfair?

I think that’s for other people to judge.

Q. Are you too nice?

What I aim for to get across is Green Party policies. I’m speaking for Green Party members, so what I’m doing is presenting the democratically-agreed policies of those members. I’m well aware that politics is often made to be about personality but I think it needs to be about a lot more. That shouldn’t be the primary factor.

In the Green Party, we’re very much a team. It isn’t the greasy pole in the way perhaps other parties are.

Q. You’re standing against former director of public prosecutions Sir Keir Starmer in your constituency in May, how do you rate your chances?

I think the thing is that Holborn and St Pancras is a Labour/Green marginal. The margin may be very large, but there’s no risk of the Tories or Lib Dems getting elected - so the voters have a very clear idea choice. The Lib Dems got 29% of the vote last time, and I don’t think I’m saying anything at all controversial by saying they won’t get anything like that this time, so there’s a lot of votes up for grabs there. And of course we’ve had [retiring Labour MP]Frank Dobson as a very popular local MP for more than three decades. I meet a lot of people on the doorstep who voted for Frank for years - not voted Labour, for Frank - but they’re thinking about [voting Green] now. So there are a lot of possibilities in this seat. It’s up to the electors but I’m in it to win it.

Q. People think of the Greens as anti-business, what would you say to that?

I think more and more particularly small businesses are recognising the Green Party are very much their champions. We’re very concerned about the way small business is being stamped all over by big business in particular, and we’ve had big businesses that aren’t paying their taxes and that aren’t paying their staff properly. That’s made it very difficult for small businesses to compete against them.

What we’ve also seen, and that’s emerging with the Tesco scandal, and a number of other cases recently, is that big business has been unreasonably and unfairly using its market power against small businesses – particularly small suppliers – so we’re very focussed on those issues for small business of rebalancing so that small business has a chance to compete and grow and become a larger part of our economy. Because that really is our vision of much stronger local economies built around small businesses and co-operatives, money circulating in local economies, rather than going straight into the big multinational company, swishing out of town and all too often into the nearest tax haven.

Q. Do you think big businesses have too much power in this country?

I think we’ve seen big business getting away with profoundly anti-social behaviour. Corporate social responsibility doesn’t mean sending your staff to paint the local community centre, it means paying your fair share of taxes, it means paying your staff at least a living wage, not putting them on zero hours contracts, not employing a whole lot of casual and short-term labour in what should be full-time jobs, and it means treating suppliers properly.

When I was a teenager I worked for a small business who was very successful and he supplied supermarkets and he nearly went broke pretty well every month because he was on 90-day terms that usually turned into at least 120-day terms and every month he got larger orders and every month he had to go and beg the bank manager.

Q. Would you be stricter on mergers and acquisitions that create big businesses?

We’ve got to look at the development of monopoly and near-monopoly positions. At the moment we’re having a lot of focus on the big six energy companies and their behaviour. I focus a lot on the behaviour of the website Amazon, which has become hugely dominant in our economy. Its tax affairs are well-known and there’s a reason why all the national newspapers tend to send their journalists undercover every Christmas to go and see how bad it is to work at Amazon.

One of the other things we very much need to do is encourage manufacturing and food production to return to Britain. This government started off talking about rebalancing the economy. They’ve sort of stopped talking about that now, I think for obvious reasons, in that they haven’t succeeded in doing that. We still have an overly large, deeply risky, financial sector that’s also not meeting the needs of the real economy.

 

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Readers' comments (5)

  • Clearly a Politian out of touch with the vast majority of people in this country - As a population we are sick and tired of unbridled immigration. Yes we should welcome immigrants who have something we need scientist, doctors, engineers etc.

    But just about anyone can get in legally or otherwise. There should be zero tolerance of illegal immigrants, no appeals no claims of being tortured if sent back, family life etc., they broke the law they are not wanted here.

    Take a poll in the street you will find this view everywhere, and its not racial its called we are fed up being the idiots of the world. perhaps we need to be more like Australia - wonder why she left!

    For the record can't stand UKIP but that doesn't mean they don't have a point!

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  • What a deluded woman Natalie Bennett is, very much like her policies I suppose, and the less than successful, only Green-controlled Council in Britain!

    She bangs on against UKIP at every opportunity, accusing them during the recent tv debate in which she and the other two women had clearly decided to work together (begging the question, what's the point in voting for any of them?), of "demonising immigrants". Neither Farage or the rest of UKIP's leadership team have ever "demonised immigrants", yet it is a deliberately misleading accusation this shrill antipodean shouts at every opportunity. Perhaps she knows that if she was honest for once, the electorate would recognise her and her party for the fakes they are?

    What a pity your interview didn't include questions about some of her blogger boyfriend's strange activities

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Clearly a Politian out of touch with the vast majority of people in this country - As a population we are sick and tired of unbridled immigration. Yes we should welcome immigrants who have something we need scientist, doctors, engineers etc.

    But just about anyone can get in legally or otherwise. There should be zero tolerance of illegal immigrants, no appeals no claims of being tortured if sent back, family life etc., they broke the law they are not wanted here.

    Take a poll in the street you will find this view everywhere, and its not racial its called we are fed up being the idiots of the world. perhaps we need to be more like Australia - wonder why she left!

    For the record can't stand UKIP but that doesn't mean they don't have a point!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Anonymous

    How does such an obviously deluded person get so much media air time and why do you waste your column inches and time on her?
    She represents the views of maybe 1% of the population and most of those probably forgot to take their medication.

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  • Brian M spouts this racist drivel as if everyone in the country agrees with him.

    Well, they don't.

    "Anonymous" reckons her support is 1%. Well, here are the facts.

    A YouGov poll for the Times’ Red Box has revealed that 26% would vote Green if they “had a chance of winning” in their constituency in the May 2015.

    So the fact is that Natalie Bennett represents the views of millions of people in this country.

    She is a politician who is very much in touch with what millions of ordinary people in this country think.

    It is therefore entirely appropriate that she is given plenty of space to air her views.

    Well done to Robyn Vinter for another excellent article.


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