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.