Natalie Bennett interview: ‘Young people have a good reason to feel betrayed by their elders’

The former Green leader contesting Sheffield Central talks tuition fees and antisemitism

Natalie Bennett was the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales from 2012 to 2016. Since stepping down as leader, she’s now standing in Sheffield Central for the upcoming general election. The Tab caught up with her to chat about what the election means for students, Brexit and BDS.

Can you explain what the Green Party is, and stands for, in a single tweet-length sentence?

Society working for the common good – no one fearing hunger or homelessness, that operates within environmental limits of one fragile planet

What’s your advice to students voting in the election?

Make sure you’re registered to vote and choose where you’re going to vote. You can register at your home and term address (although only vote at one). I’d urge students to think where their vote could have the most impact. Here in Sheffield Central they could help elect me as the North’s first Green MP.

If it is more convenient, apply for a postal vote (which should arrive at least two weeks before June 8) – or if you need to, arrange a proxy vote with a friend or relative. Encourage your friends to do the same.

And make sure you get your vote in. The over-70s vote in huge numbers. Under 25s have to match that to ensure their views are heard and (some) politicians pay attention. Make sure you’re registered to vote and choose where you’re going to vote.

The Green Party now has a membership of around 50,000 people. Do you think this shows people are turning their backs on the mainstream parties?

People rightly understand that centrist politics, which assumes that our economy and society will stay much as they are, is on its last legs. The neoliberal model that’s dominated our politics for decades, which assumes greed is good, inequality doesn’t matter, privatisation works and we can keep trashing the planet, has clearly failed – and that’s why people are looking for something different. The Green Party is offering that – with universal basic income, genuinely affordable homes, a publicly run NHS in which health professionals are treated with respect and properly paid, a real living wage and decent benefits for all who need them.

We understand we have to stop trashing the planet – and know that we can create a far better society while we do that.

Do you think the Green Party has a good chance at getting another seat in Parliament in the upcoming election?

We have an excellent chance here in Sheffield Central. We were second last time and there’s no chance of the Tories or Lib Dems getting in here.

With many voters looking for real change in politics, and seeking Greens’ consistent, reliable championing of free movement within Europe and the protections of the single market, plus students desperate to be freed from the 30-year burden of tuition fee debt, the possibility here, and also in particular in Bristol West, are great. And you might want to keep an eye on the Isle of Wight. I was there recently and the island has its own very distinct politics.

What are the most important issues affecting students at the moment? And do you have any policies regarding students and student life?

Young people, whatever they’re doing, have good reason to feel betrayed by their elders. I often begin talks by apologising to young people for the state of the world we older people (I’m 51) have bequeathed them. There’s the schools turned into exam factories, the huge weight of tuition fee debt, the challenges in securing a job you can build a life on and the difficulty of finding affordable, decent housing.

And there’s the great worries about the state of the natural world on which we all rely – not just climate change, but the destruction of biodiversity (the number of wild animals having halved in the last 40 years), the turning of our oceans into a plastic soup, the trashing of our soils.

Students particularly are suffering from the commercialisation of universities and colleges, the impact of zero-hours contracts on academics and the quality of education they provide, and the narrowing of subjects on offer. Beyond tuition fees, the loss of grants and bursaries is forcing out many, and leaving others having to spend so long in jobs that its tremendously difficult for them to focus on their studies.

Where does the Green Party stand on Brexit and what do they want the outcome of Brexit negotiations to be?

I’m proud that we ran a strong, positive campaign during the referendum, which focused on the benefits of free movement within the EU and the protections of the single market. We’re continuing to defend those – they should remain – and also for the rights of citizens from other parts of the EU who’ve already made their lives here. They’re not “bargaining chips” but people with lives, families, jobs, who deserve security and certainty. During the referendum there was no clear or certain picture presented of where we were headed, so when the talks are concluded, there should be a ratification referendum, that give people the option to decide whether they will accept what’s decided, or reject it.

What do you think Brexit will mean for students? As an Australian, are you worried about the prospects for immigrants and international students post-Brexit?

I’m an immigrant. I chose to become British, and that’s an option that should continue to be available to a wide range of people. All students will suffer as fewer citizens from the other parts of the EU come here, as fellow students or academics. That Theresa May’s government should even float the idea of deliberately reducing the number of international students is an indictor of just how the Home Secretary who sent out the “Go Home” vans and created a “hostile environment” for migrants thinks.

We know that many cities like Sheffield are heavily economically dependent on international students, as are many universities, and that they enrich the courses in which they participate and the places they live. The rise in racist hate crime in recent years is not, I believe, because people have on average become more racist. Instead, what’s happened is that people already racist have felt empowered by the actions and words of those in authority to act on their beliefs. That needs to be resisted, stood against, and sadly from both of our largest political parties we’ve seen very little of that. It is both morally reprehensible and politically stupid not to stand against racism, xenophobia and prejudice.

Tuition fees are set to continue rising, with some universities now being able to charge £9,250 a year. How do you think this should be combatted?

I’ve got a saying that politics should be something you do, not have done to you. I’d urge every student to act – to boycott the National Student Survey, as the NUS is calling for, to talk to their friends and fellow students not just about the increase but about how fees are simply wrong: that education is a public good that should be paid for from general taxation.

You are said to support the economic and cultural boycott of Israel. This is a controversial issue in universities, with many Jewish students feeling universities are no longer safe spaces for them. Do you support the boycott in light of this? And how is best to deal with this spike in anti-Semitism?

Green Party policies toward other countries are built on the need to promote and support human rights – and take action where they are not being respected. I’m proud that, for example, in the second leader debate in 2015 I was able to raise the issue of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Supporting human rights is morally the right thing to do, but also the best way to ensure the world’s future security.

That’s the context in which the Green Party supports the boycott of companies and institutions that are acting to support the state that is utterly failing to respect the human rights and right to self-determination of the Palestinians.

I’m horrified that we’ve seen a rise in anti-Semitic attacks and abuse. Students and staff need to be supported and encouraged to report all incidents and universities need robust policies to take action as soon as cases are reported.

What’s your advice to students who want to enter a career in politics?

It’s not necessary to study politics, but you do need to ‘do’ politics. If you run a campaign – whether for student office, for safer local roads or cheap transport, for better services or against discrimination – you’ll learn an enormous amount, from how to organise a public meeting or a petition, to getting a team together and dealing with the rough times. The first time you’ll make mistakes, and you’ll learn from them, the next time will be better.