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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Leader: Europe and the long shadow of war

Amid the rancour, it is easy to forget what drove European integration in the first place: the two great wars in the first half of the 20th century.

Amid all the claims and counterclaims about David Cameron’s so-called renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the European Union, it is often forgotten, or conveniently ignored, just how successful the European project has been in helping to create and maintain the post-Second World War peace order.

We support continued British membership of the EU but are sceptical of the imperial ambitions of the European elites. We opposed British membership of the single currency, a decision that the eurozone crisis has vindicated. It is obvious that the Schengen Agreement is unravelling and in all likelihood is unsustainable, as embattled nation states reimpose emergency border controls and the continent grapples with its worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War. Like the British government, we are opposed to further political and economic integration and to the creation of a federal or quasi-federal superstate.

However, at a time of profound instability in the world, we accept that it would be foolish for the United Kingdom to retreat from our various multilateral peace alliances – whether that be membership of the EU or, indeed, Nato (as some on the left would wish) – all of which involve some kind of surrender of sovereignty.

Amid the rancour, it is easy to forget what drove European integration in the first place. The two great wars in the first half of the 20th century racked the continent, with neighbouring armies slaughtering each other on a scale that still defies comprehension. As Alistair Horne writes on page 22, “the most atrocious battle in history” began a century ago next week in Verdun, France, on the Western Front. The German army hoped to lure the enemy into a trap and then “bleed the French army white” using its superior firepower. Yet the rivers of blood flowed both ways: in ten months, over 25 square miles, pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas, 300,000 French and German soldiers died.

The lessons of the battle were not quickly learned – the carnage of the Second World War was still to come – yet ultimately they were. In 1963, France’s Charles de Gaulle, who was wounded at Verdun, signed a treaty with the then German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, binding two countries that had engaged for centuries in tit-for-tat wars in an enduring nexus of co-operation. The aim, as David Reynolds notes in his article on page 28, was “to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism”.

Two decades later, President François Mitterrand, who fought near Verdun in 1940, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose father served there in 1916, attended a commemoration ceremony at one of the battle sites. In what became an iconic image of reconciliation at the heart of Europe, Mitterrand impulsively gripped Kohl’s hand during their national anthems. The two men were later the architects of the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union under its current name.

These are troubling times for Europe. Confidence and optimism are low. The wars in the Middle East and the rise of Islamic State, Russian revanchism and financial and economic turbulence have dented the morale of even the most committed liberal Europhiles. In addition, the EU seems unable or unwilling to control or police its borders, just as it has been unable to bring an end to the crisis in the eurozone. Nor is it any closer to forging a common foreign policy, let alone forming a common European army that might be necessary in future years to patrol the outer edges of the continent.

“Unless the EU can find solutions to the problems Europe is facing that are acceptable to its members . . . the Union will be on a glide path to collapse,” wrote the historians Brendan Simms and Timothy Less in a recent issue of the New Statesman. And yet, for all its flaws and present difficulties, the EU remains a force for stability in the world. It embodies the liberal, rules-based order without which barbarism and war are never far away, as the centenary of the Battle of Verdun so poignantly reminds us. 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle