What do the Greens believe? In the run-up to the 2015 General Election, A Rocha UK Conservation Director Andy Lester interviewed Green Party leader Natalie Bennett. He consulted a number of church leaders and activists, then asked her to address their concerns. Here is their conversation…
If you were in coalition, what would be your top three priorities?
First of all, just to put it on the record, I need to say we would not in any way prop up a Tory government. That’s where I always need to start with that question. Also, we wouldn’t be looking towards a coalition. But we would consider supporting a Labour-led coalition government on a vote-by-vote basis. In doing that, our top three priorities would be: opposition to austerity – and my personal focus is the way austerity has hit disabled people very hard, single parents very hard and public sector workers very hard – Trident nuclear weapons and a sensible energy policy which really means energy conservation, particularly in domestic homes and renewable energy. Those are the top three.
Some would suggest you are a party without clear priorities. How would you counter that observation?
That is absolutely untrue! I would put our top two priorities very simply as economic and environmental justice. That means everybody having the resources for a decent quality of life – where we collectively live within the limits of our one planet.
Many conservationists are pro-Royal Family. Many conservation organisations have members of the royal household as their patrons. How do you convince that audience that a green vote is not a vote for federalism?
That’s a curious combination of things! For the Green Party, we believe our current constitutional arrangements in Westminster are very much out of date. We haven’t seen significant reform in Westminster since women got the vote, and we’re coming up to the centenary of that. Our focus on constitutional reform is on the House of Lords, the failed first-past-the-post system in the Commons, and generally the need to restore power to the local levels. That’s our constitutional focus. But rather than our saying what we think the constitution should be, what we’re calling for is a people’s constitutional convention. That would start with a blank sheet of paper, and we’d ask a representative group of people from around the country to say what should our constitution look like for the 21st century. And that would be up to the people to decide. Significantly, on the Royal Family, there has been a lot of confusion, and I would urge people not to believe everything they read in right-wing newspapers. The sort of thing the Green Party think is something like where the Swedes went in 1975, maintaining the ceremonial monarchy, but ensuring the hereditary principle has no place in our actual constitutional arrangements.
Many wildlife enthusiasts are Christians, and a large number of those are concerned that the Green Party has no interest in engaging with the faith sector. What can you say to reassure them?
I’d like to reassure people that’s absolutely not true. We regard faith communities as a very key part of communities around the country and the national community. In the past, the Green Party has suffered from a real lack of resources, which means we simply haven’t always had the time and the people to reach out perhaps in the way we’d like to have. But since the Green surge – and now we’ve got 57,000 members – we have a few more resources and it’s something we’ll be doing through the election campaign and very much beyond.
What do you feel the faith community has to offer the Green Party that will help its cause?
At the core of many faith communities is not just a belief in social and environment justice and a concern for the state of the earth and all its peoples, but also a drive and a determination to act on that belief. So I think faith communities can be – and are – an essential force for good. I’m just thinking of one example I was at fairly recently, I think faith communities have been real leaders in the fossil fuel divestment movement. That’s just one example. There have been many social justice movements – obviously the Trussell Trust with foodbanks. Although I’ve said that we shouldn’t rest until the last foodbank closes because of lack of demand, that’s in no way a reflection on the efforts of everyone who supports foodbanks, but simply they shouldn’t be having to devote voluntary efforts to making sure people have the basics of life.
Do you see a country covered in wind turbines and solar panels as the ultimate energy solution?
What I would love to see is a great many community-owned renewable energy sources. Obviously the first place where we want to start is on domestic roofs, on industrial estates – I’m thinking about solar panels. We need to see more onshore wind turbines but also offshore wind turbines. Tidal power is a very exciting area. We’re not talking about any kind of significant surface area, even with solar farms. But what we do need is a low carbon, secure, permanent energy source and that’s what renewables provide. We can, with energy conservation, find enough power to run our communities, society and economy from renewables – and we certainly have to get away from fossil fuels and nuclear.
What plans do you have to reform the housebuilding sector, to ensure all new builds are imaginative, creative and make best use of sustainable technology and green space?
I have been deeply depressed by lots of the new housing developments I’ve seen. It’s probably quite well known that one of our big focuses is that we want to build 500,000 homes for genuinely affordable rent over the term of the next parliament. That would cost £27 billion, and would be funded primarily by removing mortgage rate relief from private landlords. Our focus is very much on restoring the stock of social housing that’s been lost to right-to-buy. We want to get away from the big estates and very much encourage people to be able to work with a small local builder, build their own home. People need to be able to make their own choices about energy efficiency.
First of all, we would get rid of, and not replace, Trident nuclear weapons. They do not make us any more secure, any safer. In terms of actual strictly defence spending, we would plan to keep the military at the same size as the Coalition plans for it to be in 2020, so basically follow the current plans. We can’t separate defence from security, and if we think about what makes us more secure in the world, then spending on diplomacy, spending on aid – we would boost aid to one per cent of GDP. All credit to the Government for keeping it at 0.7 per cent, but we’d like to boost that further. Money spent on diplomacy, promoting peace and democracy around the world, promoting fairer societies around the world – those are the kinds of things that will make us more secure – as well as, of course, making sure we get a good deal on climate change.