Is there tension, or is the press just looking for a cat fight? Photos: Getty
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The Granola Pact: is there a rift between Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas?

There is some truth in the rumour that the Green MP clashes with her party leader, but so far it’s not personal.

Caroline Lucas versus Natalie Bennett.

The former is the party’s first and only MP, was leader for four years, and remains the figurehead most associated with Britain’s Green political movement. The latter is a party outsider and ex-journalist who took over the leadership in 2012.

The former has held various senior party positions, and has served as a Green MEP, since she joined the party in 1986. The latter only became a member in 2006.

The former’s recent most memorable media moment was when she was arrested among a crowd of adoring activists for protesting against fracking. The latter’s was being torn apart by Nick Ferrari on an LBC interview where she substituted saying how she would pay for her headline housing policy with apologetic coughing.

It’s unsurprising then that rumours are rumbling around Westminster that Lucas and Bennett have been clashing, and that some in the party want their old leader back. Indeed, ever since Lucas handed over the leadership three years ago, comparisons have been drawn between the two women.

The main argument is that Lucas is a more impressive media performer, and if she were leading the party now, during the so-called Green Surge, it would be far more popular than it’s already become. Some suppose she wishes she were back in charge. “I’m sure Caroline will be happy today,” grins one former senior Green politician I speak to following Bennett’s now infamous stumble through a radio interview.

But is there really a rift forming between the two, or is it simply journalists looking for a fight?

Nothing personal

One obvious temptation for the media to establish this rivalry is that they are both women. None of the other Westminster parties’ two most senior figures are women, and so the novelty of having them in charge clearly plays a part in speculation about their relationship.

“I’m concerned that because we’ve got two female leaders – two high-profile women – that the media are trying to turn it into some kind of cat fight,” a senior party figure says. “I don’t know. If it was two men, how would they operate differently?”

In reality, though insiders admit the party is strained by differences in ability and profile of the two women, there is not a straightforward clash of personalities.

When Lucas stepped down from the leadership in 2012, there were rumours that it was because she had fallen out of step with her party, that it wanted a figurehead to move it from eco-cosiness to a new socialist vanguard.

I asked Lucas about this at the time, who told me: “I thought it would be really good for someone else from the Green party to get a big national profile, to get known. It basically means our overall media impact has increased; that’s a good thing because as a small party we struggle to get what we think is our due media coverage . . . That’s why I stood down, it wasn’t through any political differences or anything like that.”

Yet I hear that even when Bennett started out as leader, and the Greens were not being grilled on a weekly basis, tensions began to form. By some well-placed accounts, the power-sharing was not a particularly forthcoming process.

“First of all, when Natalie was made leader, we all thought, ‘how the fuck is this going to work?’” a party aide admits. “How would Caroline not obsess over every single thing that was happening in the party – what Natalie was commenting on, how she was representing us?”

Indeed, I hear from a source close to Lucas’s Westminster office that following the leadership handover, the change was, “not as big as I was anticipating, I have to say, it doesn’t feel that different”.

Also, I hear from both sides that the two teams don’t speak to each other that often – rather surprising considering the election campaign is well underway. One former Lucas staffer reveals, “there was never a mention of Natalie. The only things discussed in that office are parliamentary; there isn’t much party politics at all.

“It’s all about Caroline, and what she’s doing. There’s not much communication at all between her office and Natalie’s people.”

Who polices the policy?

Although this lack of communication suggests a corresponding lack of unity behind the scenes, this has not yet morphed into a personality problem. It’s more about policy and the party’s direction.

A green lobbyist who works closely with both women says: “I really doubt there is a personal spat.”

And one party aide insists: “In terms of personality, they don’t clash – that’s been completely fabricated, I haven’t seen any of that at all between them.

“But there are policy differences,” they admit. “And if you sat them in a room and interviewed each of them about policy for long enough, you would certainly find some differences.”

A prominent policy tension is citizen’s income. This idea has long been a Green policy, but as the party has been formulating its 2015 manifesto, it has been plagued with internal wrangling.

In the first of Bennett’s handful of excruciating interviews, she struggled to tell Andrew Neil on the BBC’s Sunday Politics how her party would ensure a minimum weekly income of £72 for everyone.

Soon after, Lucas gave a calm and collected interview on the BBC’s Today programme announcing that citizen’s income would not be part of the party’s 2015 programme for government: “This is not a policy for the next general election.”

“The citizen’s income is not going to be in the 2015 general election manifesto as something to be introduced on May 8,” she said. “It is a longer-term aspiration; we are still working on it.”

After a flurry of confusion from the party’s press office, Bennett and her allies insisted a few days later that the policy would be included on the manifesto after all.

Policy back-and-forth is in no way unusual for a political party, but the citizen’s income struggle represents a wider split in how the Greens view their party’s influence and direction. Lucas’s main argument in her Today interview was that the Greens were not going to be the governing party, and therefore their function – outside of their distinctive environmental agenda – is to act as a tug to the left for the mainstream leftwing parties, ie. to put pressure on Labour.

Bennett, on the other hand, has been at the forefront of creating a full programme of proposals. The party will soon have a “fully costed” manifesto, as it attempted for the last election – though one previous Green politician laughs when I mentions this and calls it “a fantastic utopian suicide ticket”.

Current Green policies cover housing, the NHS and education policy. And when Bennett announced her priorities at the Green election campaign launch last month, climate change came second to last on the list.

Many have championed Bennett’s new direction, feeling pigeonholed as a single-issue environmental movement.

“I feel vindicated because the Green party has positioned itself on the left,” a former senior Green official tells me. “It’s not necessarily a left-wing party, but I encouraged it to be on the left because the right was so crowded and the Greens’ best chance is forming alliances with left-wing parties.

“And to be fair to Natalie Bennett, they really are now taking that space in terms of the positioning of the party.”

Breaking from the received Westminster wisdom that Lucas is the more impressive of the two, this source tells me: “I actually think there are tensions because Natalie is extremely good. Until now at least, she’s a competent, credible voice, and an alternative voice to Caroline Lucas, who I have always thought was a bit whiny. Bennett sounds less sanctimonious.”

But they add: “On the whole, the Greens have been short of talent; the [London] Assembly Members, for example, really haven’t stepped up to the plate.”

Another insider also laments the party’s lack of leadership potential, asking hopefully: “If the membership is retained, does that mean a bigger talent pool of personalities in 2020?”

Yet the traditional wing of the party is apprehensive about the Greens’ new direction. These are the committed environmental activists, thrilled by their party’s climate change agenda, and championing Lucas when she was arrested at a fracking protest in the summer of 2013. The party hasn’t been nearly as vocal about climate change recently.

A leading figure in the green lobby tells me, “I don’t see very much from them on the environment – their reasoning is that they don’t need to, that the party’s branding and name already says it all.

“Caroline has obviously done so much hard work as an MP on climate in the chamber, pushing on select committees and amendments,” they say, admiringly. “They do need more personalities like her.”

There are also those who feel let down by Bennett and her stumbling media appearances, and look back at Lucas’s leadership with green-tinted glasses.

“Caroline will be pissed off at picking up the pieces the whole bloody time,” says the high-profile green lobbyist. “Friends of mine who work for the party are very frustrated about what’s been happening; there’s a huge lack of sympathy for her misperforming.

“I mean, I’m always having to explain obscure environmental policies to people like you [journalists], with the macroeconomics to back it up, and I manage it.”

Debategate

The saga of the TV debates has done the most to trigger people pitting Bennett and Lucas against one another. But this is just as much the party's fault as a result of Bennett being a less accomplished media performer.

We recently revealed the Greens’ request for Bennett and Lucas to take one television debate each, interpreted as a bid to limit the high-profile media appearances of the former. We also broke the story that Lucas wished to take part in the debates; she said she “would be happy to do it”.

Yet at odds with the apparent wishes of both the party and Lucas, Bennett insisted on the Sunday Politics about a month ago that she alone would be doing the debates: “They’re ‘leader debates’, and I’d be doing those.”

The broadcaster rejected the Greens’ request for Lucas to take part.

“Behind the scenes, Bennett is very assertive, and she meant it when she shouted down the query about whether she would do some of the debates, and Caroline would do some,” a former senior party figure tells me. “Even though Caroline wanted to have a go – and knowing her, I assume she wants to be back in charge.”

When I ask him how the “Green surge” has affected the party, Jason Kitcat, the leader of Brighton’s Green-led council, says: “The Greens are an established part of the political spectrum; we’ve had national-level scrutiny really all along. The thing actually that has changed it has been the debate about the TV debates. That has been absolutely what has changed it.”

He says there was not “a huge debate” internally about whether Lucas or Bennett should represent the party, though admits, “there have been some noises off stage saying some unhelpful things there”.

His argument, backed up by the Green press office, is that the Greens have never been “one single national party” with one leader on whom all the focus lies. In fact, there was a period when the Greens didn’t have a leader at all. “So it’s a rational conversation to say who should speak on behalf of those parties [the Scottish Green Party, Green Party in Northern Ireland, and Green Party of England and Wales] at these debates.”

Unfamiliar territory

Another sore point is the energy being expended on Bennett’s campaign in Holborn and St Pancras. It is her home constituency, and she also contested it at the last election. Although her fortunes are slightly greater this time round, it is highly unlikely she has a chance in the safe Labour seat.

I hear from a party source that this has caused some irritation among Brighton Greens, who see little point in funnelling the party’s scarce resources into an unwinnable seat, simply because the leader chooses to stand there. The Greens now have 12 target seats, and Bennett hopes they win around half of them. Holborn and St Pancras is on that list.

The party line is that returning Lucas to Westminster is its number one priority. Yet one Green politician refers to the limited resources, saying, “I don’t think that Caroline’s campaign can have any more funding, as it stands.”

***

The splits for now are only shallow, and the Greens’ startling last-minute success in terms of polling and membership figures remains the bigger story. Bennett is likely to hold on to the leadership, and Lucas is just as likely to remain professional and supportive, as well as a popular MP.

However, signs of infighting are not necessarily a bad thing. Blair and Brown’s civil war raged throughout Labour’s most successful period in modern times, after all. Just as press scrutiny of Green policies means they’re finally being taken seriously, internal spats means they’re finally growing up as a party. As one party official quipped on the day of Bennett’s LBC interview: “So we’re getting a pasting. Welcome to the club.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Alison McGovern
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Forget universal basic income - this is how we can include voters in economic growth

The links between economic growth of the country and that of the people, families and towns have broken. The state can fix them again. 

Economic policy is always boring, until it’s too late.

Pensions. How they are funded, who they cover, what happens if they fail. Boring. Until it was too late.

Mortgages. Who has them, who needs one, who should have one. Boring. Until it was too late.

Finance. Capital markets, their products, their structure, their risk profile. Boring. Until it was too late.

You see the point I’m making. It’s easy to look away from numbers. The data doesn’t necessarily tell us an obvious story. And then one day, a catalyst sparks an unforeseen, if, with hindsight, predictable event, and we all wonder why we didn’t see it coming.

Something similar happened with the Brexit vote. Of course, it was a perfect political storm: an overconfident Prime Minister calls a referendum that he only needs to have to pay off his right flank, safe in the knowledge that the mainstream voters and the leadership of the Labour party will carry him through. Except he forgets that there is someone more despised than even his right flank - him. 

But beneath all of that, the Brexit vote revealed a divided country. Between those who felt that Britain as it was before the referendum offered them a decent enough – if imperfect - future, and those who felt it offered them nothing of the sort. 

Could we have seen it coming? Perhaps we could. Take two graphs.

Real wages are still, today, on average below what they were in 2008, nearly a decade ago. At the point of the referendum, average wages were yet to return to the level they hit eight years earlier. The difference between real and nominal wages is inflation. People have watched prices steadily drift up while their wages have remained stubbornly flat. Not an overnight shock, but a long drawn out crisis all the same.

Vast numbers of pensioners (over 60 per cent of them) voted to leave the European Union, and pensioners incomes have not seen the same fall as incomes for the working age population (in fact they rose by 19 per cent in real terms in the last 10 years). But it is important not to overinterpret the data with hindsight. After all, there are nearly 32m British people of working age. That surely should have been enough to carry the vote, had far too many people had so little reason to back the status quo.

In the years running up to the crucial Brexit vote, the economy was, by and large, moving ahead. But in the case of the most crucial, most noticeable, economic transfer - a person’s wages - the economy was not moving ahead at all. In fact between the crash and the 2015 general election, wages largely only fell, and since then, pay has struggled to make up ground, against a picture of an otherwise ‘growing’ economy.

Worst of all - nearly 4m households in measurable (and therefore known) poverty include someone at work. Of the 17m Brexit voters, some were wealthy retired voters who always hated Brussels. But how many more simply had too little to lose, and couldn’t stand David Cameron?

The problem with all this though, and the reason we didn’t see it coming, is that no one’s life is a graph. I mean, we are all data points. But no one feels like a data point. And people are notoriously bad at providing logical, graph-like, mathematical reasons for their political judgements. "My individual wages have failed to keep pace with growth in the economy at large," said no person on no doorstep, ever. Unhappiness with what is on offer manifests itself in lots of different ways but it isn’t likely to be an analysis of the macro-economy.

We all know of course that people are much more likely to connect with politics (and politicians) emotionally. That is how we make our choices. But our emotions are informed by the facts of our life and are responses to the facts we see. So, whilst the graphs above cannot tell us all we need to know about why Remain lost, they do tell us about some facts likely to impact on the choices we make.

The challenge is to work out how we can change the trends shown on the graph, and how this in turn will affect those who lost out over the past decade. What can be done to repair the link between economic growth and economic growth for all?

This challenge is to create "inclusive growth". Or as I think of it, making sure there is a hard chain which links growth in the economy overall to the growth of wages and incomes of the many. When the country rises, so must all within it.

The hard links in the chain are what should have kept our country together. They are the rules that should have meant that the British economy doing better meant individuals, families, towns, cities all doing better too. You can see from the graphs above that the rules worked between 1997 and about 2005. Our country grew, and we all grew in capacity with it. But then the model stopped working. And 11 years later people were asked to vote for the status quo, even though the status quo was clearly failing the many.

We will never be able to see the trends until it is too late. We need rules that shape our markets, including the labour market, to achieve an outcome that people can see and feel in their pockets. Analysis of the past is only any good if it can help shape the future. 

It’s not enough to say that somehow our economy is rigged against people, as if this was one great fiddle. Rather, we should remember that policy choices have consequences. 

Now some people suggest that the correct response to falling wages, and precarious work, is some sort of universal benefit, or citizens’ income. But recent Fabian Society research demonstrated that the vast majority of people – about 80 per cent - feel positive about their work even despite the story told here about wages. So even if it were practical for government to raise taxes in order to transfer something in the region of the state pension to every person in our country, it hardly seems like it would be popular. 

If people, in general terms, actually like their work, the problem is then making sure they get paid enough and get promotions. It means recognising what the past decade has taught us: that the growth of the economy must mean economic growth for all within the economy, or else there will be consequences.

So, the question remains: what are the hard links in the chain between the economic growth of the country as a whole, and economic growth of the people, families and towns within it?

Unfortunately, this is where the boring stuff still matters. You can get paid more if you have better prospects. That means a buoyant labour market, and the skills to participate in it.

Now the government say that they are addressing the challenges in our economy by investing in infrastructure, through an industrial strategy. And along with buzzy new ideas like universal basic income (where citizens are guaranteed a certain income), everyone in politics loves announcing campaigns for new railway lines (me included). Trains are big, fast, expensive and showy. But travelling to work by train tends to be the preserve of those who already have a high-skilled job and are commuting some distance. We should worry a little more about those who get the bus to work.

Then take those who work in low-pay sectors like care, retail, hospitality, or construction. Each sector has its own challenges, but one thing that unites of all these sectors is the likelihood of people working in them to be working below their potential skill level. Hopefully our new metro mayors will be able to provide better education opportunities for those at or near the minimum wage. But what about in those areas without mayors? Do they fall even further behind? Skills transfers matter much more for future growth than a massive financial transfer like universal basic income.

And in case anyone should think that I have forgotten, with less than 15 per cent of people in the private sector represented by a trade union, it is little wonder that workers have insufficient power to command better wages. Our labour market leaves too many people on their own, without the strength of collective bargaining to get them a good deal.

Universal basic income fails for another crucial reason. It would fail for the same reason that tax credits were economically effective but open to political challenge. For most people, the part of government, of the state, that they wish to defend are the things they can see, they can touch, emotionally engage with. The hospital their child was born in, that cared for a sick parent, the school they went to, the park they played in with their grandchild. They prefer to earn their wages, and do a job they enjoy. Transfer payments from the state are always harder to defend, as the history books attest. 

So for me, truly inclusive growth means making the most of the institutions we already have – colleges of further education for example – and building new ones like universal quality childcare. Many members of our workforce are prevented from returning to work after the birth of a child, simply because of the cost of childcare. Universal free childcare would allow many more women to go back to work or have the time to gain more skills, should they want to. Moreover, good quality childcare would benefit all of our children by narrowing the attainment gap. These hard links in the chain - the links that ensure that growth in Britain involves economic growth of all of those people and places within it - are, in fact, the institutions of the state. 

These are the platforms Labour governments have built for ordinary people to stand on. But these are the very institutions under attack from current government policy. If we’re going to rebuild the chain, then the government must change tack. We need to develop new ideas and solutions and the all-party parliamentary group on inclusive growth can be a place to bring people together across the party divide. Theresa May has spoken about an economy that works for all. Now’s the time to protect the institutions that can deliver that economy and inclusive growth, before it is too late.

The APPG on Inclusive Growth's 'State of the Debate' event with the OECD, World Economic Forum, RSA and IPPR is on Tuesday 21st February at 6.30pm at Parliament. See www.inclusivegrowth.co.uk for full details.

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.