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 and a long standing Green Party member.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide