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Natalie Bennett: The Greens lead where Labour can only follow on Heathrow, rail and Brexit

Natalie Bennett is a former leader of the Green Party. She says the Greens have outflanked Labour.
Natalie Bennett is a former leader of the Green Party. She says the Greens have outflanked Labour.
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BACK in 2012, when I’d just been elected as leader of the Green Party, I said in my first conference speech that we 
were the country’s real opposition. Today that’s clearer than ever.

On Monday, Labour failed to stand together against the expansion of Heathrow Airport, a choice that blows a great hole in our legally-binding carbon emission targets, sentences residents of London under the flightpaths to even more misery and death, charges £17bn for even more London infrastructure to the public purse, and benefits the richest 
10 per cent, who take 60 per cent of the flights.

Planes take off at Heathrow Airport where a third runway has been approved this week.

Planes take off at Heathrow Airport where a third runway has been approved this week.

The Labour leadership acknowledges that fact – there can hardly have been an MP more strident in opposition to Heathrow expansion than Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, whose constituency happens to be right under all that noise and air pollution. But they declined to whip against the new runway and 119 Labour MPs joined the Tory party in voting for it. Only 94 voted against.

But it isn’t just on Heathrow that the Labour party is failing to be the opposition the UK so desperately needs.

What was Labour campaigning about on Monday? Well, I know that down at Sheffield train station, shadow Brexit Minister, my local MP Paul Blomfield, was campaigning on rail renationalisation, as were MPs around the country.

Great, if it had been the 2015 election, when the Green Party was leading in speaking up for bringing the railways back into public hands, while Labour was fudging the issue – as Ed Miliband fudged so many other issues in the hope that the prime ministership would fall into his lap if he did his best not to say anything at all.

But in 2018, with the British public overwhelmingly convinced of the failure of this – and all – privatisations – what is the point of a big push yesterday on rail renationalisation? Who were Labour trying to convince? This isn’t leading the country, but following it far behind.

The dominant issue of this Parliament, for our country’s future, is Brexit, and at the weekend 100,000 people marched in London demanding a People’s Say on the final deal, the only democratic way forward after the 2016 referendum failed to provide any idea of the destination on which we chose to embark.

Mr Blomfield wasn’t there then. Nor was his boss, Sir Keir Starmer, or Jeremy Corbyn. No Labour frontbench member was.

Mr Corbyn, it was allowed to be known, was visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan – although not, apparently, with any British media with him, media that might have inconveniently asked about the Brexit march. How very Boris Johnson.

Of course recognition of the state of Palestine and ending arms sales to Israel are important issues – ones the Green Party has long been campaigning on – but they are not issues that are going to get this inept Tory Government out of office. They don’t do anything to tackle our state of political chaos.

And it isn’t just on Brexit that Labour leadership is lacking.

The World At One last week gave over an entire programme to looking at austerity, 
with a long interview with the 
Shadow Chancellor, in which 
he followed the public (even 
Tory voters think austerity has gone too far) in stressing how bad he thought it had been for public services and communities. Very 2017.

What we need in Britain are not ends, but new beginnings. It is the job of an Opposition to provide those.

Many of our problems go back to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who failed to provide a new beginning in 1997 and instead gave us more Thatcherite privatisation, inequality and 
City centrism.

They chased after the swing voters in marginal seats and sought to “triangulate” policies to appeal to the middle ground.

Which is just what Jeremy Corbyn’s party has been doing on Brexit, and on the economy and the size of the state, and even at the weekend on defence, when seeking to outpromise the Tories on defence spending, while offering a fervent defence of Trident nuclear weapons.

Decades of this Labour approach has allowed British politics to be led further and further on to dangerous, unstable ground, economically and environmentally.

It continues to be only the Green Party that offers policies providing a route to real change and the security that means no one need fear not being able to put food on the table or keep a roof over their head.

We offer genuinely transformatory policies such as the universal basic income, land value tax, a four-day working week, a focus on strong local economies built around small businesses and restoration from the “ecological apocalypse” that Chris Packham has so eloquently identified. That makes us Britain’s real opposition.

Natalie Bennett is a former leader of the Green Party. She lives in Sheffield.