Natalie Bennett is the former leader of the Green Party. In this interview, she talks to Jericho about the policy successes of the party, the need for electoral reform, the prospects of a “Progressive Alliance”, as well as the need for a “Universal Basic Income'” and worldwide cooperation on climate issues.

People are increasingly aware of environmental issues and the Green Party polls quite well; why has that not been translated into electoral success?

Well the simple answer to that is that we have a deeply undemocratic electoral system in Britain. In fact we’re not really a democracy at all. In the last election 68% of votes didn’t count.

In the 2015 election, where I was leader of the party, we received 1.1million votes. If we had a proportional system like most the developed world that would have meant 25 MPs, but of course, with the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system, we only have the one MP: Caroline Lucas. We also have an unelected House of Lords which is quite laughable in the 21st century. So the reason the Green Party has no voice in parliament is that Britain isn’t a democracy.

So what sort of electoral system would you advocate? The referendum in 2010 offered people the chance to vote for an alternative system and that was quite roundly rejected…

You’re right to use the word “alternative”. What was offered was an alternative system, but it wasn’t a proportional system. Alternative Vote (AV) is the system used in the lower house in Australia and it quite often returns less proportional results. The Australian Green Party received 10% of votes and just one seat.

So the AV system offered in the referendum was a pretty hopeless system. I had to stand on doorsteps and say, “Vote for this AV system because it’s a little bit better than what we have now even though it isn’t very good”! So I’m not very surprised we lost that referendum.

But a proportional representation (PR) system isn’t without its disadvantages; it can result in stalemate, as in Germany, or with extremist parties entering the government, like in Austria…

Well if you don’t allow space for people’s views to be expressed, even if you don’t like those views, then people feel like they’re not listened to. The Brexit referendum result was one of the outcomes of FPTP – people hadn’t been listened to for decades, they knew their vote would never count so they took that chance to give the establishment a kicking and say “we want our vote to count”. I very much disagree with the result but I understand the motivations behind that.

Secondly, to answer the point about forming coalitions. What you actually have now in Britain are two unwieldy, unstable, very messy coalitions called the Tory Party and the Labour Party. If you look, for example, for views on Brexit, the economy, and social issues, there’s a total spread across both parties. You have people forced together for reasons of convenience. As a result the public doesn’t feel it knows what the parties stand for, they’re not trusted. It’s profoundly corrupting of our politics.

If we had a PR system, maybe we would have around six significant parties – the Dutch system has nine – everyone could vote for politics that reflects their views and see those views represented in parliament.

You also get far better governance from a PR system. We really have a dictatorship in Britain. The Prime Minister, or even cabinet ministers, can bulldoze through a policy without debate, discussion or an attempt to arrive at a consensus. Even if the decision is in the right direction but with the wrong details we end up with policy being implemented and then reversed completely by a new government.

What we’ve always said is that we have a clear, distinct philosophy in the Green Party. It’s built on the understanding that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. Ultimately its not about politics, its physics. And that’s where we start from.

Isn’t the role of parliament to check that tendency? Theresa May suffered a reverse in parliament just recently…

That’s still very rare. A two party system means that people are still subject to the whip – forcing MPs to vote against their inclinations. The Green Party doesn’t whip for that reason. It believes people should act on their conscience and beliefs. FPTP fundamentally results in a poor quality of governance. Anyone reading this should consult Stein Ringen’s Nation of Devils which really tears apart the current systems.

But that’s the system we currently have and if we look at those two ‘unwieldy coalitions’, the Labour and Conservative parties, some Green Party members have accused them of stealing your policies. Is that a cause for celebration or irritation?

I’ve never used the word stealing. I’m in politics to get political change and if we win a victory that’s great. Ten years ago the Green Party started saying that we need a real living wage – the unlikely figure of George Osbourne conceded the principle, even if he didn’t deliver the reality, by calling his new minimum wage ‘The Living Wage’.

The principle was conceded even though ten years ago people would see a policy like that and go “those crazy Greens and their radical ideas!” Another good example is 20mph speed limits. Another of our radical ideas that was dismissed ten years ago – now the City of London has a 20mph speed limit.

What the Green party has traditionally done is to introduce ideas that others have subsequently adopted. I’ve just been in Oxford at the Real Farming Conference where Michael Gove delivered a speech saying that we have to stop rich landowners receiving massive agricultural subsidies – we’ve been saying exactly that for decades!

So we’re glad when we win the arguments, but the reality is with the state of the world now – economically, socially, politically, environmentally – we’ve got to move much faster. So we want to be elected and run governments, then we can implement policies without that ten year gap!

So one of these supposedly radical policies that the Greens have had for quite a while is the idea of a universal basic income. That’s slowly begun to be introduced in some European countries in a controlled manner. Is that something we might see on a wider scale in 10/20 years time?

Very much so, I’ve recently been in Finland where they’re running a trial of a minimum income for people who have been on long term benefits. Scotland, Canada and the Netherlands are also doing it in some places. So despite the fact that this has been taken seriously in many countries, in the 2015 General Election it was dismissed as a radical, crazy idea. But actually the idea that nobody should be left penniless, nobody should be left without any money at all, most people accept the human right that no-one should starve, no-one should be left without a roof over their head. And yet we don’t deliver the means of doing that.

It’s also a huge opportunity for people to spend their lives genuinely productively. If you want to start a small business, with a universal basic income you have that foundation of secure beneath you. Or if you want to become an artist, to develop your craft, it gives you the chance to use your life well.

Has there been any evidence of further take up?

Well most of these trials have only started in the last year or so, we’re only in the intial stages. I have, however, seen a couple of interesting case studies – for example there was a trial done in Canada in the 1970s but then in a classic example of rightwing, neoliberal ideology, the trial was run and then all the papers and results were locked up. They were released a couple of years ago and showed that people were using their life well.

Another example from the global south is that if you give people just $2 a day, you can really turn around whole villages at a time. There was another study of an Indian group, whose revenues from a casino effectively act as a universal minimum income; there the children were better educated, and people were healthier.

What we all need to live a decent life is security, and that’s what universal income gives you.

The biggest opposition to your ideas is presented by right-wing ideology. The left has always been hamstrung by division –

The right is pretty divided too!

Well the right tends to get elected more despite that… – would the Greens ever come together as part of a broader left-wing coalition as was mooted in the last election?

What we’ve always said is that we have a clear, distinct philosophy in the Green Party. It’s built on the understanding that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. Ultimately its not about politics, its physics. And that’s where we start from.

There are others who share lots of views with us on issues like wages with whom we would certainly work together, but rather than looking at a coalition, which involves giving up a lot of your principles, we’d move towards a confidence and supply agreement – doing everything we possibly could to ensure that there isn’t a Tory government. We wouldn’t want to take the ministerial cars and then limit our ability to vote against Trindent nuclear weapons, the Hinkley C [power plant], HS2, a third runway at Heathrow etc. So what we need is a politics of principle and that’s what the Green Party stands for.

Universal Basic Income [represents] a huge opportunity for people to spend their lives genuinely productively. If you want to start a small business, with a universal basic income you have that foundation of secure beneath you. Or if you want to become an artist, to develop your craft, it gives you the chance to use your life well.

You mentioned our finite resources just there: the Secretary of State for Climate Change was crowing this week that 2017 was the first year in which Britain had produced more electricity from clean sources than from fossils fuels. Is that not the wrong way to frame the environmental debate? Is it less about changing our sources of energy than it is about lowering our consumption?

That’s the Cinderella of energy policy – the cleanest, greenest energy you can possibly find is that which you don’t need to use. And one of the great disasters since 2010 is that the UK now has no government money going into home energy efficiency. Insulating people’s home, insuring that they’re warm, comfortable and affordable to heat cuts people’s bills, cuts carbon emissions and improves health and wellbeing – it’s a no brainer of a policy.

But the focus on glitzy, shiny machines can also be a problem. While Britain might have cut its national emissions, we import a lot from abroad. China might be making our washing machines but if we’re the ones using the washing machine, then it should really be coming onto our tally.

Do you think we’re getting to the point now, with solar and wind energy becoming cheaper year on year, we’re approaching a cliff edge and the transition to clean energy will become both obvious and rapid?

I think we’re already seeing that and we’re largely in that place now. If you look at 2016, China called off the construction of 92 coal fired power plants, some of which were virtually ready to switch on. That was partly because of concerns over climate change and emissions, but it was also because the economics just didn’t add up.

Across most of the world, renewables is the cheapest form of energy now. Britain’s first non-subsidised solar farm has just opened, the first non-subsidised offshore wind farms have opened in the Netherlands and Germany. So we’ve very nearly got to that point.

What we now need is the right sort of policy. In 2016 Britain was meant to go onto the zero carbon home standard, which would have meant that practically every new home had solar panels on the roof. The Tories abolished that at very short notice, bringing uncertainty to the building industry, as well as the construction of houses that will need to be retrofitted with better insulation in a few years time.

You talk about China, and although there are evidently things that can be done on a national level, climate change is a global issue. How do the Green Party engage with similar minded groups internationally?

There are some brave NGOs in China but obviously there’s only one party in China and that’s the Chinese Communist Party. In India there is a Green Party but I think more broadly, a lot of places where they’re stepping up the infrastructure are making the straight leap to renewables.

In many parts of Africa, where they didn’t have telephones they went straight to mobile phones without any fixed landlines in between, and similarly, what we’re seeing with the growth of the developing world and a massive demand for electricity is the use of renewable energy simply because that’s the best way to do it.

So generally are you optimistic for the future of our planet … of our species?

Yes! I think we’ve been trashing the planet, and that has to stop; but that’s actually good news because in trashing the planet we’ve created a pretty miserable society. In Britain, the rate of depression among under-16s has doubled in the past decade. People don’t have any security, they’re fearful about the future, zero hour contracts, high rents, we’ve created a pretty miserable society by trashing the planet.

We could actually create a different kind of society built on strong communities and links between small businesses and cooperatives.

For example I’ve just been to the Oxford Real Farming Conference and there are so many jobs and possibilities there. If you have a ring of small farms and market gardens around towns and cities that won’t just create farming jobs, that needs accountants, marketers, renewable energy suppliers etc.

That’s what happens if you build a strong local economy, small businesses support each other, rather than what we have now which is very much centred around London, the South East and the risk taking involved in finance. This hasn’t created stability or security whereas we have the opportunity to do that and look after the planet at the same time.

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