“I think people have just got fed up with ‘business as usual’ politics and are really looking round for alternatives, and we’re offering that kind of alternative hope, that we’re building something different.”
Green Party leader and Holborn and St Pancras parliamentary candidate Natalie Bennett had taken a break from campaigning in the constituency, and over coffee in Kentish Town she was telling me how membership of the party had more than quadrupled in the last year.
“The ‘green surge’ is my proudest achievement to date. I had been leader for 18 months when it started. It’s partly a product of the state of the nation, but also the result of the time I have spent travelling around the country meeting people. Because I was the leader who wasn’t in Westminster, it was possible for me to do that in a way that wasn’t possible for Caroline Lucas [the previous Green Party leader and current MP for Brighton Pavilion]. This election, we are trying to get a strong group of Green Party MPs into parliament and I hope very much to be part of that.”
But will this translate at the ballot box? Labour’s Frank Dobson, incumbent MP since 1979 and who is now retiring at the age of 75, enjoyed a majority of 9942, and standing against him in 2010 herself, Bennett won only 1480 votes. (Source: http://www.parliament.uk/biographies/commons/frank-dobson/180).
Bennett is optimistic:
“I think there’s a good chance I can win. A very typical voter is someone who will say, ‘well, I voted Lib Dem in 2010 to keep the Tories out, but I won’t be making that mistake again.’
“A lot of people, particularly here in Holborn St Pancras, are really not impressed by Labour. People on the doorstep say, ‘I voted for Frank,’ not ‘I voted for Labour.’”
Despite this, given that Holborn and St Pancras must surely be considered a safe Labour seat, and that Bennett as the leader of her party must have had first dibs on where to stand, why Holborn and St Pancras? Bennett’s enthusiasm for her chosen patch of London is clear:
“First of all it’s where I live and where I have been a campaigner for a long time. Also, I do believe there’s a real opportunity here in this constituency to be London’s first Green MP, so it was the natural place to stand. When I first came to Britain as a backpacker in 1990, my dream was to live in the Brunswick Centre. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to afford it, but I’m not far away, in Somers Town, on the other side of the Euston Road.”
With her long experience in the constituency, what are the most important local issues?
“Like across the country, people are concerned about low wages, that we’re not creating jobs that workers can build a life on, or that you could even live a life on in London. Obviously housing costs are a worry, and that we don’t have homes for genuinely affordable social rent. And privatisation of the NHS, locally and nationally, is a huge concern. One of the most popular things I say is that the profit motive has no place in the NHS.
“As for specifically really local issues, HS2 is obviously a huge one, and I think there’s a lot of awareness that we are the only serious party in Holborn St Pancras that nationally is opposed to it. It’s not just the locals taking a position. We’re not just opposed to it because of the impact on Camden, massive though it is. The whole project will focus money, resources and people in the wrong place.
“It’s in the interests of Camden to have more balanced regional development. Encouraging strong communities and economies in the North and Midlands is actually to London’s benefit. Balanced development across the country is what we need.
“Local communities, businesses, homes, are going to be so affected by HS2 for a long time. Somers Town, for example, where I live, has been subjected to a continuous cycle of massive building works, from the rebuilding of Euston Station in the 1960s, then the British Library, Kings Cross, St Pancras, now Euston Station again. It goes on and on.
On the campaign trail in the constituency, Bennett finds that the nitty-gritty of day to day life dominates the doorstep.
“In poorer areas, people are simply concerned about low pay and inadequate benefits, and the whole attitude towards benefits, that they are given grudgingly, like charity. If we’re a decent humane society, which we should aspire to be, we should be giving benefits gladly. For most of us, outside the 1% of the richest, we’re only one redundancy, one car crash, one medical incident away from needing help, and the help should be there.”
What was it that drew Bennett into green politics?
“My first politics really is feminism. I became a feminist aged five when I was told I couldn’t have a bike because I was a girl.
“Then on 1 January 2006 I became a ‘New Year’s Resolution Green,’ having taken a look at the state of the world and realised I should do something about it. I got that broad sense that we are really trashing the planet, so I joined the Green Party. As I tell all of our green surge new members, watch out, you never know where you’ll be in nine years time!”
Does Bennett have a role model that inspired her desire to seek change through politics? Her response is poignant:
“I have to say my mum. She was someone who was very self-effacing, not very confident in herself. She was killed in a car crash when I was 23, but lots of the people who came to her funeral were people we didn’t even know, but that she had just helped with stuff over the years. She was all about seeing something that needed doing, and then doing it. That’s what I get from Mum, I think.
“In a broader context, I really celebrate the women in British history, the Leveller women, the Suffragettes. I started a book on the women of London from Tudor times onwards and hopefully I’m going to get back to it one day.”
Are there different pressures for women in politics, such as dealing with the sometimes aggressive ‘Punch and Judy’ nature of debate?
“There’s no alternative for me but to engage with it, but I do think it’s really damaging and it switches so many people off politics. If women react back aggressively in the same way as men are often praised for doing, that doesn’t go down well, so you really are in a no-win situation. If you don’t respond aggressively, then you’re weak, and if you do then you’re going to get a whole lot of other nasty adjectives applied.”
I had to ask. That Nick Ferrari interview on LBC, considered a ‘car-crash’ and which left her ‘absolutely devastated’: what has been learned? Bennett looked on the positive side:
“I’ve had people stop me on the street or the tube to say ‘you’ve proven you’re human.’ I’m not a machine-spun politician, smooth and slick, but I hope that my passion and belief in the Green Party policies and principles really comes through.”
However, she went on to recognise ruefully that “that is going to follow me around for the rest of my political life and I’ve just got to live with that.”
Bennett comes alive when talking about green matters; an earnest character, she brings a refreshingly natural eagerness to do what she clearly feels is the right thing. Can her national profile help her to overcome the huge labour majority?
“Obviously I’ve got a huge mountain to climb in this seat, but it is in the voters’ hands. The key thing in Holborn St Pancras is that it is between Labour and the Greens. I’m very much focussing on it and going for that.”
© 2015 Joanna Reeves, iLovePrimroseHill, all rights reserved.