The image as burden: Natalie Bennett has frequently been compared unfavourably to her predecessor, Caroline Lucas. (Photo: Getty)
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Today, Natalie Bennett must deliver the speech of her life

At Green Party conference, Natalie Bennett must give the speech that takes her party to the next level

Later today Natalie Bennett will get up in front of an ocean of Green Party members and a battery of flashing cameras and walk along the highest wire yet in her short political career. In her opening speech to her party's conference this weekend, she needs to inspire an explosion of excitement without raising unrealistic expectations. She has to encourage a flourishing of activity yet gather a focussing of energy. She must give journalists one hell of a headline while speaking to the manifold concerns which have attracted almost one in a thousand adults in the UK to become a signed up Green Party member in the past year. And she will have to do all of that only 240 short hours after her “day from hell”.

To say that the Green Party conference this weekend will be the biggest in its history is an understatement. With nearly 1,500 signed up to go, it is more than twice the size of the previous record holder. A forest of press passes has been issued as journalists flock to the new scrappy insurgency in town. If Natalie nails this speech, a spluttering morning on the airwaves will be buried by history. If she fluffs it, the stories will write themselves.

In a sense this is silly. Natalie Bennett has clearly been a phenomenally successful leader. She ran for the post promising to invest in growing the party, and this has paid dividends no one could have imagined. Without her strategic mind, her stubbornness in moving – sometimes dragging - the party forward and her willingness to stand up to the right wing press, it seems unlikely that the Greens would be anywhere near the position they're in today. It's not because she's been good at giving speeches or ploughing her way through tough interviews that the party has succeeded under her watch, but because she's led it in the right (by which I mean left) direction. It's for these reasons that the hushed conversations among senior Greens after her terrible LBC interview were not about when to ditch her, but how to better support her.

On a more public stage, though, she who does the work rarely gets the credit. The fact that a leader who has taken her party to a quadrupling of membership and a sextupling of support in the polls can be considered 'at threat' or 'beleaguered' because of one awful morning on the airwaves is a sign of the idiocy of politics in modern Britain. But that's the absurdity she faces on Friday.

When she does so, she has to speak to three audiences at once: the activists in the hall, voters at home and, between them, the press pack. To lead the party, it's not enough just to make members happy. Unless new activists are moved to campaign in strategically important places, huge amounts of effort will be butchered on the altar of first-past-the-post. If the party fails to target, it could find itself with no MPs. If it channels its energy well, it might just make a couple of gains, and set itself up for many more in 2020.

When Caroline Lucas was leader, her job in this context was more obvious. She was also the target MP candidate. To persuade the party to head to the seaside to campaign for her, she had to make them love her. She was both the medium and the message. Party hacks used to joke that she gave the same speech every year, but it always went down well.

When Natalie ran for the top job, she made a case that is still true: it's Bennett's role to put new ideas and other people centre stage. Having a leader who isn't the key candidate allows for a broadening of the party. This means that her speech doesn't need to be fireworks in the same way. The delivery must be solid, but it's the ideas that matter. No part of Natalie's strategy involves the party becoming a fan club for her. It's better that they leave the room talking about her plans and proposals than discussing her performance.

Most voters at home won't see the speech itself. For them, she needs to have a clear message – something which will travel through the distorting lens of the media to the minds of voters – and then lodge there for the full length of their journey to the polling booths. It's now widely understood in the party that many more people support its policies than plan to vote for it. This is a chance to win over the skeptical left leaning voters from council estates to coffee shops across the country. The sounds of success will be the shrieks of UKIP's Twitter army, the retching of Daily Mail columnists and the sighs of relief from progressives whose views have silenced for too long. In politics, particularly for small parties, the choice is controversy or anonymity.

Journalists might seem a strange audience, but they matter because they get to list the agenda items in our public debate. They need to be persuaded to write about content rather than process – what she says rather than how she says it. This means bold ideas and a clear direction, it means obvious headlines and quotable passages. It means she can't stumble or sound flat. Perhaps hardest for a party whose policy is set democratically, it means saying something new enough to count as news rather than just repeating the old fashioned Green clap-lines handed down from conference to conference.

Today, Natalie Bennett will step out on stage and make the most important speech in the history of the Green Party. In order to cross the tightrope, she doesn't need to set the crowd alight. There's no need for fireworks. But she does need to be bold, she needs to be radical, and she needs to lead. Next step, the debates.

Adam Ramsay is co-editor of the UK section of openDemocracy, a contributor to bright-green.org and a long standing Green Party member.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation