Green Party sows seeds for next phase of growth
Having swept to victory as the new leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett talks to Maxine Perella about her plans to embed greener thinking into mainstream politics
Natalie Bennett may only be a few weeks into her role as newly elected leader of the Green Party, but she has a rugged determination to take the organisation beyond its traditional reach of environmentalists and the liberal left and into the 'dark side' - that of Daily Mail and Sun readers.
It's all part of her grand plan to get a green councillor elected in every major UK town and city within the next decade. For this to happen, she argues, the party has to leave fringe politics behind and enter the mainstream to become a viable alternative for voters - not just for those that are disaffected.
"For the first time that anyone in the party can remember, we were interviewed by The Sun on Sunday last week - and got quite good positive coverage out of it," she says. "It's important for us to be featured in the Mirror, even the Mail, because for millions of people that is their news source. To become a truly national party, we need to influence the tabloids."
A former journalist and editor herself, Bennet knows only too well how fickle the media can be, but her understanding of what reporters want and need puts her in a better position than most to influence newspaper agendas. So how do you get green issues into the political mainstream? Well, the Green Party has always been about economic and social prosperity, Bennett argues, it's just making people realise that everything is interconnected.
"We need to highlight the fact that climate change is impacting on people's daily lives," she explains. "If you look at world food prices, these are screaming up to record levels. Extreme weather conditions are increasing around the world, the UK included, and we have steadily rising energy prices - all of these things relate back to climate change."
She cites the plight of pensioners as a good example. "Look at our country's dreadful rate of excess deaths in winter, the vulnerability of older people in cold homes. £1 in every £4 we spend in heating our homes escapes as lost heat. What we can do is make people's homes warmer and more comfortable and reduce their carbon emissions at the same time - and provide jobs."
One of the party's long-term aims is to develop localised economies and inspire more homegrown manufacturing - which in turn will spark wider benefits to society as a whole. Fervently anti-nuclear, Bennett believes that a clear and consistent strategy to invest in renewables from the outset will help drive forward this agenda.
"We would rule out nuclear because it distracts from investment in renewables. We need to decentralise our energy strategy and encourage a smarter grid and community-run schemes whereby local people and businesses profit from the energy outputs. If our production of utility services and consumer goods became more localised then that will strengthen communities," she argues.
Energy conservation is also key to this, she adds - educating households and businesses, especially SMEs, about the cost impacts of keeping equipment running or lights switched on unnecessarily. This might mean firmer measures like bringing back the fuel duty escalator and introducing carbon quotas to incentivise greater resource efficiency.
Interestingly, Bennett doesn't see much of a role for energy-from-waste within renewables except perhaps on a small-scale closed loop basis. "Lets call a spade a spade - waste from energy is incineration," she states. "Because so many of these plants have to built on long-term contracts to guarantee feedstock supply, this runs counters to waste minimisation strategies. And research suggest that a good reuse/recycle strategy provides 10 times as many jobs than incineration does."
Applying the waste hierarchy would almost certainly be prioritised under the Green Party, which claims it would double annual spend on local authority household waste services with a massive infrastructure programme to drive up reuse and recycling rates.
"Given that we're heavily reliant on landfill which can't continue we're going to have to build, so we might as well build the type of infrastructure that creates jobs and follows the hierarchy. But we also need to ensure there is an end market for these materials. One thing that horrifies me on a personal level is finding it hard to buy tissues and tissue paper made out of recycled paper. This is an area that cries out for that kind of usage," she says.
A strong supporter of circular economy thinking, Bennett believes that a range of fiscal measures such as 'resource taxes' might accelerate action. "We have to recognise there is not just an environmental cost, but an economic cost, everytime we use a single use item ... the cost rebounds across the whole of society."
She points to Scotland which is taking more of a regulatory approach to zero waste and says that proportional representation north of the border enabled the Greens to really influence that whole agenda. "It's an interesting illustration of once you get Greens in power and in systems where they can have some influence, it does have an impact," she observes.
Undoubtedly, Bennett's ambition is to see that level of green engagement replicated across Whitehall and the Welsh Assembly and the party is now working in smarter ways to identify how to make its elected councillors more effective as well as win more seats. The party's first MP, Caroline Lucas (Bennett's predecessor) has given its members a new degree of visibility in mainstream politics and the plan is to build on that.
At the end of our chat, I ask Bennett what has taken her most by surprise since being elected to lead the party. Momentarily lost for words, she laughs before saying: "We've had a real groundswell of people applying nice adjectives to me inside the Green Party and also from our supporters. I'm delighted and thrilled by it."
Pausing to smile, she adds: "But also slightly embarrassed."
Maxine Perella is waste market editor of edie