When Caroline Lucas stood down as leader of the Green Party in May, things were looking a little confused. The party was sitting on a string of successes – an MP, two MEP, a city council – that had seemed, for a while, to be moving towards a genuine breakthrough. But now momentum had stalled and no one seemed exactly sure what would come next.
If the answer to the question was indeed the election of their new leader Natalie Bennett then it is an answer that must now have many Green party members sighing with relief. Because it is clear at a single glance what Bennett will not be; she will not want to return to old inhouse bickers about leadership or long arguments about recondite theoretical issues. If the choice is between idealism or pragmatism, the Green Party membership have definitely come down in favour of pragmatism. Photographs of her show someone who looks focussed and businesslike (you would struggle to guess from her Wikipedia entry pix which party she leads), and her CV is similarly tilted. You don’t edit Guardian Weekly for five years by preferring meetings and theories to action.
And in person Bennett seems, initially, as pragmatic as you could wish. The members already have a copy of a document by her campaign group laying out her first 100 days as leader which includes a fairly breathtaking range of plans to travel round the regions, meet the Scottish greens, hold phone conferences with Greens in other countries, hold monthly policy meetings on specific issues with guests from NGOs and unions, hold regular friends and supporters dinners… and that’s before she even gets onto refining Green party strategy. When I interviewed members six months ago, no one knew exactly what the strategy for the future was, and it was causing a few headaches. They do now though; it’s exciting to see.
I manage to catch her in the middle of the Green party conference in Bristol and ask a few more questions. What is her main focus? “Well, it’s important to emphasise that the Green Party leader has very limited powers, I have to take the whole party with me. But my basic plan is a pincer attack; we do really well in the European elections in 2014, getting six MEPs or maybe, if you include Scotland, seven? And then we take the West Midlands model, where three councillors on three councils were turned into thirteen on seven, and we apply that around the country - we don’t work harder, we work smarter.”
The West Midlands model has become a bit of a touchstone for the Green Party. Bennett’s deputy, Will Duckworth, also new to the leadership, was one of a group of Green party members in the Midlands who began a project a few years ago to broaden out Green party membership and representation in the area, with extremely positive results that he attributes, in his speech, to “communicating the Green Party message in a way that connected with residents, well organised support from the region and a team that was prepared to work hard”. Bennett has pledged to study how they did it, and then transport that model around the country in video or workshop form.
She admits that her experience of actually practising politics, rather than covering it. is limited. “My experience of politics has all been through the Green Party. I founded Green Party Women and I’m chair of Camden Green Party, I ran against Frank Dobson for Holborn and St Pancras in the general election and I was patted on the head by various other campaigners and told that I was doing really well [she grimaces – she is obviously not used to being patronised].” One green party activist who saw her in action echoes the campaigners. After hearing the leadership election results, Sarah Cope wrote a celebratory blog of Bennett’s ability to inspire, and said of those hustings: “Even veteran MP Frank Dobson looked somewhat amateur compared to Natalie’s passionate yet calm performance”.
Bennett accepts the urgent need to find money, of which the Green Party has a perennial shortness, but argues that “what really matters is getting the political message right so that donors and unions think that it’s worth backing us. To greatly multiply our funding we don’t need the super rich, we just need green businesses and rich individuals. I think the money’s out there, it’s just a matter of being sufficiently exciting. And don’t forget, it doesn’t always have to be money – we get a huge amount of volunteering, and in some ways that’s better, someone who does it for love is better than someone who is being paid.” (I murmur that this is a very silver lining way of looking at being broke and she laughs.)
In fact the more that Bennett talks, the more it becomes clear that, despite her down-to-earth Girl Guide appearance, in reality like most members of the Green party, she also has a broad idealist streak running down her back. I ask what the priorities are, and she jokes “Well, we need to completely reshape the economy,” before dissolving in laughter. There is no doubt she means it, though. Bennett had taken voluntary redundancy from the Guardian in March, and had planned “to write a book about our environmental and economic crisis and how we get out out of it. And then Caroline stood down.”
More thoughtfully, she talks about walking back to conference down a Bristol street full of small independent shops, and thinking that “we need to be reshaping manufacturing, shortening supply chains, bringing manufacturing home…
But the thing about a lot of these issues is that it’s not either or. Preparing for a low carbon world will create a lot of jobs for example. In so many ways it all ties together. Often people feel profoundly insecure – they want to know whose job will be next up, they’re worried about the childrens future. But we want to restore a sense of security and optimism.”
There are big decisions ahead for the Green party. Should it be just a kind of pressure group, or a space for radical thoughts, or should it be seeking serious political power? If they decide to go for the latter compromises will have to be made, the very thought of which will be resisted by a huge percentage of the party. Does Bennett have the steel for those sort of decisions? Without a doubt. Does the party have the steel too? Well. That’s an interesting one. They did not elect Bennett because she would be a pushover. So what, exactly, are they going to do?
Bibi van der Zee is The Ecologist's political correspondent