Until this summer she was leader of the Green Party, so why does Natalie Bennett now think decamping to Sheffield will help her make her mark on British politics? Sarah Freeman reports.
When Natalie Bennett arrives at a pop-up cafe just behind Sheffield’s main shopping street, she’s dragging a small suitcase. The once leader of the Green Party has just arrived from London and currently between houses she’s become used to being slightly nomadic of late.
“I’m selling my flat down there and buying a house up here. It was supposed to have gone through last week, best not to ask…”
Whatever personal headaches she might be experiencing, Bennett is rarely off message. Determined to become the Green Party’s second Member of Parliament by snatching Sheffield Central from Labour’s Paul Blomfield come the next General Election, she’s already drawn up a blueprint for how the whole business of conveyancing might improve its green credentials. Talking at 100mph within 30 minutes Bennett also covers everything from renewable energy, HS2, electoral reform, austerity and future housing need.
It was the latter that briefly made her go viral during the 2015 campaign trail when a radio interview with LBC’s Nick Ferrari turned into a car crash. Struggling to answer how the Greens would pay for their housing policy, which included building 500,000 affordable homes and short on crucial facts and figures, she later said her ‘brain fade’ was the result of a cold.
“Does it haunt me? No it doesn’t haunt me, but yes people do still mention it. We all have our bad days. That was mine. It just happened to be a very public bad day.”
When Bennett announced she was stepping down as leader in March she acknowledged she was not a “spin-trained, lifelong politician”. She is, however, determined to make a difference. Hence the move up the M1.
“In the Green Party it’s not a greasy pole where people are scrambling for the top and clinging on by their fingertips. We work as a team, I had been leader for four years, it was time for a change.
“But it wasn’t a sign that I’d become disenchanted with politics, far from it. During my time as leader I’d visited Sheffield a lot and I knew that it was somewhere I would like to live and not just because of its fabulous open spaces. There is a real energy about the place, a real appetite for change. Like a lot of people I was also tired of London, tired of the way it is dominated by big multinational companies. Here it feels like there is an opportunity for ideas to flourish.”
Some might view Bennett’s decision to swap her one-bed London flat for a three bed house in Steel City as a little premature. While the Greens came second in 2015, Labour’s 39 per cent majority will take some swing to overturn and with the next General Election not scheduled until 2020, Bennett may have to be in it for the long game.
“Whatever people say about a fixed term parliament I certainly don’t think a snap general election is unthinkable. Theresa May is as strong now as she is ever going to be and just look at the chasms which have already appeared in the Tory Party.”
In a 12 months which has seen Brexit enter the English language, Jeremy Corbyn rise from backbench obscurity to Labour leader and Hillary Clinton snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, stranger things have certainly happened and Bennett is not alone in believing that the rollercoaster hasn’t yet hit the buffers.
“I’m not going to claim that I saw the political shift coming. I didn’t. Like many people on the day of the EU referendum I thought it would be a 52:48 split. The figures were right, only I got the result was wrong. However, if you look back at interviews I did from four or five years ago, I often said that the future of politics wouldn’t look like the past.
“The issue right now is that people want to feel that their vote counts and unfortunately the first past the post system has led to the stagnation of British politics. Whichever way you lean, it can’t be right that Labour received 24 per cent votes in Scotland but only got one seat. People feel disenfranchised and that I think explains a lot about what has happened this year.
“And yet, you know what? My message is one of hope. The status quo has been shaken and it is time for change. I speak to a lot of school groups and universities and the one thing that age group in particular are looking for are conviction politicians, people who they believe are telling the truth.”
Bennett, who was born in the suburbs of Sydney to working class parents, says her own political awakening began before she even went to primary school.
“I remember it very clearly. It began when I was told ‘because you are a girl you are not allowed to have a bicycle’. It was my mum who said it, but it was my grandmother who was really speaking. I’ve always said that feminism was my first politics and it was.”
Bennett’s environmental awareness came when she studied for a degree in agricultural science, but for more than a decade after graduating she worked as a journalist. It was only after moving to the UK in 1999 and following spells on the likes of The Times and The Independent that she decided to pursue a political career.
“It was January 1, 2006. I’d just come off working nights and like a lot of people at New Year I decided I wanted to do something to change the world. That’s how I came to join the Green Party. For a while I had been thinking that I wanted to change the news agenda rather than just report it, but I’d always thought that would mean working for a charity or a non-government organisation.”
Now with Sheffield Central firmly on her radar, Bennett is fast becoming an expert in HS2 and where the South Yorkshire station should or shouldn’t be sited, is spearheading the launch of the Sheffield Food Network to provide sustainable, locally grown produce and has inevitably found herself at the centre of the recent tree felling debacle.
Campaigners claim that since the city council awarded a 25-year private finance initiative (PFI) deal to the private contractor Amey in 2012, 4,000 trees across the city have been chopped down because it’s cheaper for them to plant new ones than it is to maintain mature ones. When the company moved into to take chainsaws to another eight trees three of the demonstrators were arrested and the story made national news.
“That showed pretty neatly that when you introduce privatisation it tends to end up being for private profit rather than public good, but it also showed how much the people of Sheffield care. It’s that spirit that I want to channel.
“The truth is that the Green Party has come up with countless ideas that people have dismissed as being crazy but which have later been adopted by the mainstream. From 20mph zones to the living wage we have a history of policy making with ordinary people at its heart and now it just feels like it might be our time.”