The Future of Green Politics: Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle
St Benedict's students had the opportunity to interview and question former Leader of the Green Party Natalie Bennett when she gave a talk on 'The Future of the Green Party' in May. Here is a transcript of their questions and Baroness Bennett's responses.
Natalie Bennett Interview for St Benedict’s Politicast, Thursday 12th May 2022
Eden Kennedy, L6: Hello. Today I'm chatting with Natalie Bennett, Green Party member of the House of Lords. What was the highlight of being party leader?
Natalie Bennett: Well, I was party leader from 2012 to 2016 of the Green Party and have to say the highlight was when we got one million votes in the 2015 General Election, which was more votes than the Green Party had got in every previous General Election added together. I'm hoping that the future highlight is going to be that the Green surge and great results was just the start and that the next highlight makes that look like just a small blip on the way to the first Green government.
What we understand as Greens, what we know and why we have a positive message, is that there are enough resources on this planet for everyone to have a decent life if we just share those resources out fairly."Baroness Bennett
Billy Bradley, L6: To add on to this question, what were the low points?
Natalie Bennett: I would say that the low points are always those times when you think you haven't lived up to the challenges, the expectations. I had a couple of really difficult interviews during that campaign. What did I learn from that? I learned that everyone's strength is also their weakness. I'm very Shakespearean like that. My strength was always that I kept going no matter what - I just kept facing the next hurdle. But things started to go really wrong when I was actually too ill to have been doing it and I should have just stopped. So, you know, you need to be aware your strength is very often your weakness as well and you need to know when to switch that strength off.
Ben Harrison, L6: Thanks. Many people see your party as a single-issue party and involved around climate change. What would you say to change many people's minds?
Natalie Bennett: Well, I think it's interesting to look at The Guardian newspaper’s comments on the recent council elections this May, where the Green Party got absolutely record results for the third time. If you see the graph of the number of councillors we're electing, the graph literally shows exponential growth, particularly in the last three years. But The Guardian commenting on the results said, ‘Oh, the Lib Dems are doing quite well, they're focused on their social liberalism’ - when in fact, the Greens are offering a radical, economic alternative. What we're talking about is an entirely different system. The slogan on the streets is ‘system change, not climate change’. We have trashed our planet, created a thoroughly miserable, poverty stricken, unequal society, with epidemic levels of mental ill health, while trashing the planet. We understand that we need a system that ensures that everybody has the resources for a decent life. Things like Universal Basic Income, a four-day working week as standard; we need that to get to the stage where we're living within the physical limits of this one planet. My shortcut for this is Donut Economics, as described in the great book by Kate Raworth.
I say to younger and older people and everyone in between - politics should be what everybody does, not what they have done to them."Baroness Bennett
Ben Harrison, L6: Thank you very much. You say on your website that you've championed nuclear disarmament, and are committed to completely abolishing nuclear power. In a world where we've got leaders such as Putin, and his dangerous leadership and European dependence on Russian fossil fuels, along with threats from climate change, do you think it's time to compromise on your stance and allow nuclear weapons and nuclear energy?
Natalie Bennett: Absolutely not. I would say it's time to double down on nuclear weapons, because if you think of where we've been in the past few years, we are gravely concerned. I have spoken to a number of analysts who say there's significant risk of Putin using a tactical nuclear weapon. That's within the Russian military doctrine. The world is then in an astonishingly dangerous place. The world will not be secure until we have a global ban on nuclear weapons. Britain has 1% of the world's nuclear weapons, it's militarily insignificant and there's a big question about whether it's independent at all. If we joined the majority of the world's countries who have called for and backed a nuclear ban, there is now a UN treaty. Britain could have a massive positive impact getting to a world without nuclear weapons, because wherever we have them in the world, there's the risk that they will be used intentionally or, increasingly, accidentally. Quite recently - - t didn't get much media attention - Pakistan accidentally fired a nuclear capable weapon at India, and then went ‘Oh, sorry’. The world is a very dangerous place with nuclear weapons in it, we will not be secure until we rid the world of those nuclear weapons.
In terms of nuclear power, just very briefly, there are many arguments against it: we haven't worked out what to do with the waste and it's hugely expensive, but the killer argument against new nuclear is it's hideously slow. We are in a climate emergency, where we've just had a warning that we could hit 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels in the next five years which the Paris Agreement said we must not reach. New nuclear is 10, 15, 20 years away - it's far too slow. With renewables you can put solar panels on the roof next week or you can put a wind turbine up in six months’ time. New nuclear doesn't tackle the climate emergency.
Eden Kennedy, L6: What was it like to be involved in televised debates?
Natalie Bennett: In retrospect, I will say enormous fun. It was a wonderful challenge and a great opportunity. The Green Party had never been on the leader debates before 2015. I'll give you a little secret - before the debate that David Cameron was involved in, the first one I took part in, David Cameron was the most nervous person in the room, which is really interesting, because he was also, of course, the most experienced person there, but also, perhaps, the person with the most to lose. Leanne Wood, Nicola Sturgeon and I had the advantage that we were starting from an underdog position. Nicola Sturgeon did absolutely brilliantly in those, but one of the things that I most loved about that is that if you compare it to the debates five years previously, which had been all male, we actually had three women there on the platform. I've met so many young women who were inspired to think that maybe they could go into politics because of that, and I think that is enormously important.
Ben Harrison, L6: You've stated on your website you wish to end the so-called sport of shooting and the slaughter on our upland areas. Grouse shooting in England, Scotland and Wales contributes 2500 jobs and over £100 million pounds for our economy annually. How do you plan to replace those missing jobs and recover that £100 million pounds annually?
Natalie Bennett: We could challenge those figures, but let's park the numbers and point out that if you look at the Isle of Wight, if you look at parts of Scotland, where they've restored white-tailed eagles, there is a massive amount of very well documented ecotourism. People want to see these great, charismatic species. Raptors have been protected under our law for decades and yet we've just seen a white-tailed eagle, tragically associated with grouse shooting, being poisoned, utterly illegally in Devon. We see hen harriers persecuted left, right and centre. In the Peak District, I heard the Wildlife Trust's chief there saying, just imagine if there was a golden eagle here, how many people would come to see it. Instead, people get on a train, if we're very lucky, or more likely a plane and go and see the charismatic megafauna in Poland or in Africa, because we have one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth. If we restore nature, we have all of the benefits of ecotourism, plus we also have far cleaner water, far less costs in cleaning up our water. We store far more carbon, we have a healthier, natural environment that is healthier for everybody.
Eden Kennedy, L6: Thank you. Speaking for young people, would you recommend getting into politics and if so, how would you recommend doing so?
Natalie Bennett: I say to younger and older people and everyone in between - politics should be what everybody does, not have done to them. When you're thinking about getting into politics, you're probably thinking about standing for election, getting involved with a political party and voting. I'd encourage everyone to do all of those things, but for me, my definition of politics is people getting together and seeing what they don't like in the world and working to change it. Politics can start (and this is where I make myself unpopular with the teachers) in school! Get together with your friends, your classmates and say, what do we like about the school and what do we want to change? Start a campaign to change it. I have been to schools where I know I've inspired those kinds of changes. I went to a school up near Bradford where, because I was a VIP and they invited me to lunch, they gave me proper cutlery to eat my baked potato with and the students had plastic knives and forks. I said, here's a great campaign. You can actually get to eat and enjoy your lunch; you save some plastic in the world, you quite possibly save the school some money. And once you've done that one campaign, look around and ask, what can we change next? If you want to get into politics, of course you can study politics at school, university etc, but the best way to learn about politics is by doing politics, and that means working at whatever level to change the world. Saying ‘I'm going to fix climate change’ is a very large challenge to start with but saying ‘I'm going to get rid of the plastic knives and forks’ is very manageable, very achievable.
The Future of Green Politics
My first degree is in agricultural science, which I studied at the University of Sydney. One of the things that makes me quite unusual in politics is that there are very few people in politics with a scientific background, which when you think of the state of our world today is a real problem. Now, however, when you put together those Australian origins and that agricultural science degree, when I was elected as leader of the Green Party in 2012, one of the things the media probably devoted the most column inches to was the fact that I was probably the only British political leader who knew how to shear a sheep! Which probably tells you more about the media than it does about me. But I never expected to become the leader of a political party; I never expected to be, as I am now, a member of the House of Lords. People often say to me, how did you get into politics? My first answer is that my ambitious, working-class grandmother told me that, because I was a girl I was not allowed to have a bicycle. That's when I became a feminist, because at the age of five, I said ‘that's not right, that's not fair.' I actually went through all of my school years and most of my university years continually being told, because you're a girl not only are you not supposed to do these things, you are not supposed to want to do these things. That's why I will always say my first politics is feminism.
But my second politics is environmentalism, greenness if you like. And that came about through that agricultural science degree, because what it essentially taught me was Australian agriculture wasn't farming in soils, but mining them, destroying them at an enormous rate, which indeed is what we're doing all around the world, including in the UK. I can get really geeky about soil science; I won't do that to you this evening, unless anyone really wants me to! (Although, I am proud of the fact that the word tardigrades first appeared in Hansard in my maiden House of Lords speech, and it had never been used in either House before!)
I learnt through agricultural science that we're trashing this planet; we're trashing the world we live in. And I came to realise as I then went on to study humanities (I've got a degree in Asian studies and a degree in mass communication) it became obvious to me that we have a whole system that is built on trashing this planet.
Here’s a little thought experiment: imagine if we created this wonderful, amazing world, this near utopia where everyone who wanted one had a secure, well-paid job; everyone had a warm, comfortable, affordable, heated home that they didn't have to worry about paying the rent for. Imagine that we had amazing levels of public health, mental health, physical health. And then we discovered that we had climate emergency; the science suddenly became clear and we thought ‘we've got to change things’. Politically that would be really hard.
But look at where we are now: we have a system that is creating huge levels of poverty. Figures just out in the last couple of days show that one in seven people in the UK has skipped a meal, has eaten less food than they wanted, because they couldn't afford to buy food. This is one of the world's largest economies and we have that situation. Look at the fact of fuel poverty: there's nothing new about the cost-of-living crisis, which has been hitting people for decades. We have the second highest rate of fuel poverty in Europe, but not quite as bad as Lithuania - and that was before the current recent jump in energy prices. That's because we have an incredibly poor quality of housing stock.
So, we have a climate emergency, we have a nature crisis from a system that has also utterly failed to deliver for people. What we understand as Greens, what we know and why we have a positive message, is that there are enough resources on this planet for everyone to have a decent life if we just share those resources out fairly.
I’m sometimes asked, why don't you just do environmental stuff, why do you have to do politics and why are you concerned about poverty and inequality and redistribution? Well, I can tell you why: because what we use in the UK collectively is the resources of three planets, but we only have one planet. What we have to do is cut back our resource use by two thirds.
I was talking about the people who were already skipping meals because they can't afford to buy food. If you just say across society, everyone cut back by two thirds, you end up with a lot of people dead. This is why, if you look around the world to Australia, Germany, Canada and the Scandinavians, if you look at where Green parties fit on the political spectrum, we all get lined up more or less as what's loosely described as ‘left wing’, because it has to be the wealthy people who consume fewer resources. Everyone has to have enough.
I'm going to recommend a couple of books, starting with ‘Doughnut Economics’ by Kate Raworth. This shows how we can live within the physical limits of the planet whilst meeting everyone's needs. The other book is called ‘The Spirit Level’ by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. It's a few years old now, but it really shows, with a lot of maths and graphs, that basically, every group in society, every percentile, from the poorest to the richest, is better off when you actually have a more equal society. There's less stress, there's less worry. How do we get that less stress and less worry? Well, there are so many things in the Green Party on which we have a natural political position. About 10 years ago, people were saying ‘these crazy Greens with their radical ideas - 20 mile per hour speed limits where people live work and shop’. Radical ideas! Universal Basic Income - money going to meet everyone's basic needs, so no one is left penniless; the idea that our politics is broken, and we need a modern, functional democratic constitution. Radical? Ten years ago, we were the radical Greens saying these things. Now, those things are utterly mainstream. The chief economics commentator for the Financial Times thinks that UBI is probably something we should look at. The Economist says ‘oh, this privatisation is going really rather badly, all these private things like water and energy, what a mess we’ve got now’. We have understood for a long while that the current system is broken, and we need change.
Look at the recent Local Council election results (May 2022). I am of course celebrating the great Green Party election results where our number of councillors over the last three years is a massive upward trend, which is a graph that I very much like! The Lib Dems also did quite well, but I would say that the Lib Dem politics, which is a centrist kind of politics, has nowhere to go, because centrist politics means leaving things much as they are now.
There is a survey that's been done over many years, asking people, ‘do you think your kids and grand kids will have a better life than you've had?’ That survey is increasingly, massively negative. People understand in their gut that we cannot continue as we are now and that if we do, we're going to be in a right mess. Centrist politics is dead, and politics splits into two sides. I'll call it the Green side, but I don't care what you call it: people who say there are enough resources on this planet for everyone to have a decent life if we share them out fairly. Then there's the far right, in which I would include our current Government. They say ‘this is a difficult, dangerous world, we've got to shove those others away, whoever those others are, build walls to keep them out’. That's one side of politics and there’s our side of politics. People often ask me, you’ve presented what could be quite a negative picture, how could you know you're going to win? Well, I don't know that we're going to win, because history is not prewritten. History is made by people taking actions, making choices. There's nothing inevitable about where we are now. It's the result of political choices over the past few decades in particular.
If you look at measures of economic inequality, there's what economists call the Great Levelling, which is from the Second World War until the late 1970s. Gradually, inequality in countries like the UK and the US has been increasing. We were consuming more resources, but in a relatively modest rate, and there was re-building needed after the Second World War. What you see from the late 1970s, with Thatcher and Regan, is inequality leaps up and consumption leaps up, but what do we get from that consumption? We get an ocean, soils and our bodies choked with plastic; we get our trashed soils, we get our filthy air. That's not a win, not a gain. We are at a point of decision now. From the Second World War to Thatcher, that's about 35 or 40 years of what you might call social democratic consensus, of neoliberalism. We're now at the point where we are creating the politics for the next 30 or 40 years, if we look at that pattern. When I talk to young people, I often feel like I have to say, on behalf of my generation, and I'm 56, I'm sorry. We have made a mess of things, but now is the moment when we can all get together, all the generations, and build something different.
There's one message that I'd like you to take away from today, which I'll probably repeat sometime later on, because one of the rules in politics is people don't remember things until you have said it three times. Politics is not something that should be done to you, politics is what everybody should do. And by politics, I don't necessarily just mean voting (although I certainly want you to do that), standing for election, joining a political party. What politics is, at its foundational level, is people getting together to improve the environment they live in - the social environment, the physical environment, to improve their world. Politics can start in your school, should start in your school. What don't you like about how the school works? Get together, find out if others agree with you and start a campaign to change it. That's doing politics. Or maybe it's in your local neighbourhood, maybe it's really hard to get to the park and the younger kids find it really hard to get across the road to the park. Starting a campaign to get a pedestrian crossing or to do something to reduce the speed of cars on that road or maybe to close that road to cars altogether. That would be a political act, a political campaign. People often ask me, how do I get into politics and of course, you can study politics at school, at university, but the best way to get into politics, the best way to equip yourself for politics, is to do politics, which is what we're about to do as these young people ask me some questions. I'll stop there because I believe that dialogue is much better than monologue, but I'll leave you with that message. Second repeat, politics should be what you do not have done to you! Thanks very much.
QUESTIONS from sixth form students
Caitlin MacGregor, U6: Thank you for that amazing introduction. I found it very interesting, what you were saying about the wealthy needing to consume less as that relates to my question about corporate greenwashing. We as individuals and as a school can strive to live greener ways of life, but it makes little impact when it’s major corporations that create vast amounts of pollution. After all, it is speculated that BP are the ones who actually coined the phrase ‘carbon footprint’. How is the Government trying to manage green policy on a corporate scale? And how important is the balance between individual green policy and corporate green policy?
Natalie: Well, great question, thank you very much. It allows me to address something that I’m always very keen to address. When I used to do public meetings in 2012, when I was first elected as Green Party leader, I used to often get people saying to me, ‘Oh, you just want us to wear hair shirts and live in caves’! And that was usually after I'd just been talking for five minutes about home installation. What I would always say then is, I am not concerned about individual behaviour. It's great if you as an individual can do what you can to reduce your impact on this planet; to try and tackle, sweatshops, not buy things from sweatshops, for example. But there are lots of people for whom that simply isn't a choice. If you really desperately need a job and you've got a job interview on Monday and you go to Primark and buy that £5 t-shirt, because you want a crisp white t-shirt for your job interview, because you've only got five pounds in your pocket (and you probably know that the externalised costs, the impact of that t-shirt, social and environmental, is obviously more than five pounds) all I'm going to say to you is good luck in the job interview, because you're doing what you have to do within our current system.
That's why I focus on system change. Some people - and I've met quite a few people, who have spent enormous time and energy, reducing their plastic consumption – will proudly show you a jar and say, that's my entire plastic use in a year, and I cycled halfway across London to buy one thing that didn't have any plastic in it. I'd really rather you bought something plastic and spent all of that time and energy trying to change the system, doing the politics, because that will actually have far more impact and is a better use of your time. Often, we think about using human power, boycotts, consumer action, to get companies to change. Again, we come back to the £5 t-shirt. Lots of people can't afford anything but that £5 t-shirt, so what we have to do is create the rules that don't allow corporations to continue to trash our planet and that has to be Government, which is where we come back to politics.
To take a practical example, Zac Goldsmith is someone who has a hard time from me in the House of Lords. He's one of the DEFRA ministers, a Department of Environment minister. I actually tweeted him yesterday: ‘So Zac, where is that bottle deposit scheme we've been promised?’ I have talked to lots of people who say ‘there must already be a bottle deposit scheme. I can remember five years ago the Government announced one.’ They [the Government] announced they were going to have a consultation about having a consultation about introducing a bottle deposit scheme. We know that Coca Cola has been lobbying very hard against the bottle deposit scheme. Why is it do you think that, when you've got Coca Cola lobbying on one side, and a public that's enormously in favour of the bottle deposit scheme, we don’t have a bottle deposit scheme? We have a totally failed legal system that's delivering for Coca Cola and not for the rest of us.
Charlie Soden, L6 - How do we encourage the general public to take climate change more seriously?
Natalie - My answer to that is to challenge the question. I know the surveys show that the general public absolutely understand that climate change is a hugely pressing issue. That's not perhaps so surprising now when you look at the fires we're seeing in the UK already this year. There are fires up on the moors now in the UK, in spring. Massive floods in Australia, and significant death toll from floods in Germany last summer. It's not surprising that the public now entirely understands, as surveys show, that there is a climate emergency and we're in it now. I think people are really starting to grasp that this is only 1.1 degrees above preindustrial levels. 1.5 degrees is exponentially far, far worse. But what's really surprising if you go back 10 years even, surveys showed overwhelmingly in places like the UK and the US, but particularly the UK, the public really understood that there was a climate emergency. This is despite the fact that they had a whole range of very prominent, very well-funded, right-wing media, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and I am afraid, up until very recently, the BBC, either pushing climate denying views, or in the case of the BBC, trying to have balance. I've lost count of the number of times I’ve sat opposite a climate change denier (and it's really hard to challenge someone who's just lying through their teeth, because saying you're lying and this is just absolute nonsense is hard to do; it just looks like politicians having a row). Despite all of that, and that's what people were seeing and hearing, people have always understood that there is a climate emergency.
We're seeing the big dramatic impacts now; people also see what happens in their daily life. I can remember in 2006, the first election I contested, I was standing in Sommers Town in the post office, and I happened to be wearing my Green Party rosette as a candidate for the council elections. I started chatting to a very elderly lady, probably in her 90s and she was saying, ‘you know, I think you Greens are onto something. I can remember when I was a young, married woman in North London, we were shovelling snow away from the door, which was up to the height of the door. I don’t see that anymore.’ I think the problem is not the public understanding, the problem is the corporates who are still making massive money from the current system, the way things are now. Look at the news story that we've just had out, about the carbon bomb: a whole lot of fossil fuel companies that essentially want to bomb the planet with carbon, because they’ll make some money out of it.
Rosa O'Haire, L6 - Thank you. What do you think is the most pressing climate change tipping point that we're facing?
Natalie - What's the most pressing climate change tipping point? I would say the tipping point is economic. The fact that we have to change; we can’t keep going at the rate we are now with the kind of economic system we have now. And we come back to corporate dominance. The fact that people are so pushed to consume because life is so difficult, life is so much of a struggle. It's one of the reasons why I am often asked why Universal Basic Income is a Green environmental policy. It's obviously a social justice policy that nobody should be left with no money at all, everyone should have security in meeting their basic needs, but the thing is that insecurity drives so much consumption. People fear that we've got this really steep level of inequality and if you start sliding down the ladder there's no cushion at the bottom. We all see the people sleeping homeless on the streets and most of us can't guarantee that we’ll never be in that situation in our current society.
For example, you've just got your first graduate job, you want to be seen as a go-ahead kind of a person in our current economy; in many businesses, if you're not going ahead then you could be hit by the next cull and thrown out the door. You want to be wearing the latest clothing, the fashion that makes you look like a go-ahead sort of person. You want to be, now we are moving into a post-COVID age, leaning casually on the water cooler and going ‘well on my long weekend in Dubai, this is what I saw and did.’ There's such pressure to be seen as the kind of go-ahead person who's like that, because you fear sliding backwards. Where we have to make the tipping point is in social change for society where people can use their time and talents differently.
One of the other Green policies is a four-day working week as standard with no loss of pay. If you Google it, you'll see this is taking on like wildfire all around the world and in lots of British companies. If people work a four-day week, then they've got time, a three-day weekend, to get involved in the community, to set up and support a community garden, for example; to get involved and engaged to do things differently, to get a different kind of focus.
People often say, ‘oh where we are now is so difficult, so challenging, so hard to change’, but we can all remember a bit more than two years ago and the arrival of Covid. It was an emergency and we saw the way the whole world worked change overnight. The word Zoom became the second most common word in the English language. I'm exaggerating, but only a little. We can change things around fast. You might have noticed I have hardly talked about electric cars. I haven't talked about wind turbines and solar panels, which maybe is what you expected me to talk about. All of those things are necessary, but far from sufficient conditions to get to where we need to get to. Where we have to get to is the economic and social change, and that is where the tipping points have to be. Universal Basic Income - there's now a whole huge network: Wales and Northern Ireland are both about to start a trial of UBI. Four-day working week as standard - that's becoming something that everyone is talking about. So, we're tipping to system change and that is the tipping point that we need.
Caitlin MacGregor, L6: Thank you. You mentioned quite a lot about Universal Basic Income and I'd love to hear about how you think we can implement that to a degree, , in this post COVID climate, and where we are going to find the cost in our system for that?
Natalie: Okay, well I am going to start with the reason why Universal Basic Income is needed, and I've made some allusion to this. So many people now in our society are being left in a situation with no money at all and the cost-of-living crisis of making this much worse, either from the zero hours contracts or benefit sanctions, we are simply leaving people penniless. That is a most desperate human situation and an illustration of why we need it, but also, I talked a little bit about this already, we need to harness people's skills talents and abilities. Our current system is one in which the boss, whoever the boss is, decides how people use their time, talents and money. This is why I would say that Green political philosophy offers an entirely different way forward to what we've known before. In a Universal Basic Income society, every individual has the chance to choose how to spend their time, energy and talents. I'm often asked about what's the downside to be a Universal Basic Income society and I will admit that in a UBI society, you will get lots of bad poetry written. Lots of people will decide their vocation in life is to be a poet! One of the advantages of that is bad poetry has a really low carbon footprint. No one wants to read it so you don't even need to print it, but more seriously, you also get some wonderful poetry written and pictures painted and small businesses started and new solutions to the climate emergency found, because someone who's got an idea has the time to sit, think and work on that idea and find some like-minded people and think about how we might tackle it. We need a Universal Basic Income because we actually need the talents and the skills. A climate emergency, the nature crisis, the broken nature of our economic system is what's known in technical terminology as a wicked problem. It's really complex, difficult and multifaceted. Systems thinking means lots of people with different knowledge and skills getting together and thinking about how to fix things. Our current economic systems do not allow that to happen. I believe in human beings, I really believe in the amazing innovative capacity of the human brain, of human thinking, of human communities. UBI unleashes all of those talents.
In terms of how we pay for it; a technical answer is look at the 2019 Green Manifesto which sets out exactly how we're going to pay for it. In short, it is usually covered by about half of the benefits that we pay now, plus the cost of administering. (Think the cost of administering a Jobseeker's Allowance now, someone is checked up on all the time.) For example, for single parent benefit, people actually go round and check to see if there's a sign of a partner where someone's getting a single parent benefit. It’s an incredibly vicious and inefficient use of human resources. Going back to question of how you pay for it, about half comes from that and about half of it comes from, in some way or another, taxing rich individuals and multinational companies. This comes back to what I was saying about consumption. If you also look at the situation of wage share, the amount of money going off in profits. The City of London just down the road, is the centre of global corruption. We have a huge problem with corruption, that takes money out of our societies and puts it in tax havens. That money in tax havens is actually of very little use, even to the people to whom it figuratively belongs, because money sitting still is no use at all. Money is only effective, useful and generates things when it's going round and round in the economy. So, we take the money away from the multinational companies and the rich individuals and put it into society, give everyone the basic income that they need. That money then goes round and round, because those people spend that money and the person they spend the money with then spends the money again etc. That's the foundation of a healthy functioning economy, which is not what we've got now.
Universal Basic Income creates a society that unleashes human potential, that actually lets us tackle the problems that we face today and we can pay for it. A final, non-technical answer; with COVID arriving, we suddenly had the furlough scheme, we suddenly had payments to businesses. And we're told now that there’s all this debt; all that debt is owed to the Bank of England. We don't have to pay it back; it's just figures on a spreadsheet, owed to ourselves. This is possibly the most pernicious aspect of Capitalism; the idea that the national budget, where you have the ability to create currency, is anything like a household budget, is an absolute fallacy. And the strange thing is, it's really only the UK that believes it, the rest of the world understands this is a total fallacy, which is where we come back to our right-wing media and tycoons. That was a very long answer, so I’ll stop there!
Toby Moore, L6: Do you genuinely believe that the Green Party could form an effective government?
Natalie: Yes, and this is a delightful time to be asked this question, because I've just been in a Green Party meeting today in Lewes, which incidentally, is a lovely place to be having a political meeting because it is where political activist Thomas Paine did a lot of his legal work, writing the Rights of Man etc. And at the meeting we were talking about heading towards the first Green government; so we're not just talking about it, we're planning for it.
And again, we come back to the nature of political change. I was talking about how we had social democratic consensus after the Second World War, to the rise of Margaret Thatcher; even Conservatives believed in, not just the living wage, but a family wage. This is something that only the oldest members in this audience will remember, but it was once the case that you could be a postman in London, probably with a wife and a couple of children, and you would earn enough money as a postman to buy a house in London. Yes, this is really true, ask the older members of the audience! One wage and a steady job and that was treated as normal; the Tories thought that was what they had to deliver as much as the Labour Party. Then we had the rise of Thatcher, Regan and neoliberalism and very quickly, we're in the age of no wage regulation, unions being squashed down, wages falling and falling in real terms. Privatisation, no state ownership of coal mines, car factories or railways, which used to be the norm. That change happened very quickly. We're now at the point ready for a change again. Just because Labour and Tory have been the two largest parties for a century, doesn't mean that's going to continue. As I said before, history is not prewritten, it's made by the actions of people. Where we are now is profoundly unstable and that's obvious, environmentally, economically, educationally.
I would imagine most of the young people in this room are looking at facing large amounts of student debt. Maybe some of you are lucky enough that your parents might pay it off, but for most students, more than 70%, face under our current system, paying that debt off over 35 years. It's fiction, about 30% of people will never pay a penny off. So, we have this fictional, broken system that doesn't work. We are going to see change. That's the absolute certainty of the coming era and that's great news, because where we are is such a mess that we're going to see something truly different. So that's my philosophical answer, my practical answer is look around the world and see Greens in government. Greens are a major part of the German government and we've just become part of the Bulgarian government. That's quite exciting because we're getting to the stage now where Greens are becoming part of the government.
We are held back in the UK by an utterly undemocratic system; the UK is not a democracy. We have a very strange situation. I am a member of the unelected House of Lords, where 92 members are there as a result of the accident of birth of who their parents were, or in some cases because their great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather was good mates with William the Conqueror. I mean, in 2022, really?! But the House of Lords is actually more representative of the country than the House of Commons is, because Boris Johnson has got 100% of the power in the House of Commons, with 44% of the vote. That cannot be described as a democracy. Whereas oddly enough in the House of Lords, our crossbenchers include great people like John Bird, founder of the Big Issue, Lord Woolley, Operation Black Vote (OBV) founder, Deborah Bull a ballet dancer and now champion of the cultural sector, plus lots of former High Court and Lord Chief Justices. They hold the balance of power in the House of Lords. What we saw recently was an utterly unprecedented event. The government’s Police Bill was defeated 14 times in one evening by the House of Lords, because we threw it out, we protected the civil and human rights of the people in the UK. How utterly broken is that, the unelected House of Lords had to do that.
We have an unstable legal system, in which it's really hard for the Greens to get ahead because of the first pass the post system, but I'm not worried about that because either we get elected as the Green government and we change all of that. Or the system becomes so clearly broken, it gets changed, and then we have a normal democratic political system. So, either way, you get Greens in government quite soon!
Toby Moore, L6: Thank you for that. A follow up question to that is, do you believe the Greens, Lib Dems and Labour are doing progressives a disservice by not being active in a Progressive Alliance?
Natalie: Absolutely not, for a couple of reasons, one practical and one philosophical. First of all, voters want a choice and there's actually very good evidence that voters really don't like thinking, you know, I want to vote Green, I want to vote Lib Dem or I want to vote Labour and getting into the polling station and finding that that person is not on the ballot paper. They feel like they've been robbed, they've been cheated, I can't say what I want to say. What we're seeing increasingly is a rather more sophisticated thing that relies on the voters, rather than something arranged by the politicians. We've seen this in quite a number of recent by-elections. There's been enormous swings and there's been a full slate of candidates on the ballot paper, but the voters made that choice themselves, people have chosen to vote. So, we're seeing that happen, but also, voters need to be offered the choice.
I wrote a piece on a website called Leftfoot Forward this morning, reacting to the Queen's speech. I spoke to a Labour peer in the House of Lords and we discussed the Queen's speech and agreed how terrible it was. I said, I've written a piece about how utterly misguided the first three words of that speech are, which said this government will grow the economy, at which point he and I parted company. Because even the most progressive parts of the Labour Party believe in growth, that's the foundation of their political philosophy. Whereas, we as Greens know you can't have infinite growth on a finite planet and people need to hear that argument, to hear that different political philosophy. Universal Basic Income is not Labour Party policy, and it won't be Labour Party policy anytime soon. If we just form one amorphous mass covering a huge political spectrum, then people wouldn't have the chance to hear the arguments, discussions and to make a choice. It's crucial that we make that choice available, because the two-party system, what it’s essentially done, one of the reasons why our politics is so broken, one of the reasons why I understand in 2016 voters voted to take back control in terms of Brexit, is because they hadn't had a choice. The two-party system has meant most people have historically lived in safe seats, where their vote doesn’t count and people are fed up with that and they want to change. We have to give people that choice to make the arguments and have a functioning political system.
And because our politics is so focused on Westminster people don't see this, but the interesting thing is we're actually seeing this happen all around the country, organically. I don't know what the new figure is, because we just had the Council Elections this May, but there were 16 Councils around the country before these elections, where Greens were part of what is known as rainbow coalitions. Sometimes with Lib Dems, sometimes with Labour, sometimes with local independents. We have what looks remarkably like a European style, broad coalition running the local councils. Look at Lancaster, Lewes, Herefordshire – old, Tory Heartland capital. I was just with a Green who was the Cabinet member for the environment and the economy; there's something different, having a cabinet member who covers both the economy and environment and regards that is part of the same package. So, we're actually seeing that broad spread of politics, people working together as people do in European systems. Under those continental systems, you actually have a much better quality of governance. Government actually works much better and delivers much better, because you're taking in lots of different people's ideas, different parties’ ideas, you're not just sticking to one person making decisions. That's a terrible way to make decisions; just one person going, ‘I’m the cabinet minister, I’m the prime minister and I'm going to do this’. Again we come back to Universal Basic Income, lots of different talents, lots of different ideas, sit down together and agree how to do things better.
Sixth former in audience: You’ve talked about how our political system doesn't work for us anymore and touched on how you think that perhaps first past the post is perpetuating that. Do you think that electoral reform is possible in the coming years especially since it was voted against in 2011 (Alternative Vote ), which was relatively recently?
Natalie: First of all, what I would say about 2011 is actually illustrated by a very simple hash tag, which is #AVisnotPR. What we saw, and I will forever hold Nick Clegg responsible for this, was an offering of a system, that was a little bit better than first past the post, although only very marginally. I stood on a lot of doorsteps going ‘well, yes, AV is not very good, but it's a little bit better than PR and first past the post so you should vote for it’. And we lost and I’m extraordinarily, unsurprised that we lost. Don't let anyone tell you we've ever had a vote on proportional representation, because we have never had a vote on proportional representation. All the evidence is that people voted against the Alternative Vote; they didn't vote for our current system. There were only two choices on the ballot paper. If you look at an example of where that successful change was made, it's actually New Zealand, which went from a first past the post system like ours to a fully proportional, very carefully considered, very decent system, which gave them a very decent Prime Minister, I will add! They went through two stages; they had a referendum that said do you want the current system or do you want a proportional system? People voted overwhelmingly proportional and then they had a chance to choose which system.
Now, I don't think the answer at the moment is a referendum. If you say the word referendum to anyone at the moment, they just sort of go ‘mmmm’, but what we have to do is elect a parliament where the majority of people have electoral reform on their manifesto and there is no reason why Parliament can't then bring it in. What I would like is a People's Constitutional Convention. Now this is a narrower version of what's already known as People's Assembly, something that's happening more and more. So, you get a representative group of people from around the country, put them together in a room, give them the time to debate, to listen to experts and to decide what a new constitution should look like. This is what Ireland did on equal marriage and on abortion and what it showed was the public was actually far in advance to anywhere politicians were. I have no doubt that's what we would do. One of the other great problems in British politics isn't just the voting system, it's also the fact that power and resources are concentrated in Westminster and people want to make decisions in their own community locally. I believe that the People’s Constitutional Convention would also rip huge amounts of power out of Westminster. I say Westminster, but you know what we should actually do is turn that place into a museum; it's full of pictures of dead white males. Set up a modern, functional parliament in Birmingham and turn Westminster into a Museum, but I think the Peoples Constitutional Convention will decide that too. So that's the route I see as to how we get to that point.