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17 May 2016updated 04 Oct 2023 10:42am

Under Natalie Bennett, the Greens became the new pragmatists of the left

The future of the Green party lies in cross-party coalitions, both in and out of Parliament.

By India Bourke

“Let’s bring together the broadest coalition possible”, Natalie Bennett told me at the Green Party conference earlier this year, with regard to opposing Trident. Building relationships, even with “people who you may entirely disagree with on a broad range of issues”, has been an ambitiously pragmatic strategy for the Greens; one that represents some of the best of Bennett’s legacy as leader and one that could prove the party’s strongest asset yet against Jeremy Corbyn’s domination of the far-Left.

Bennett’s announcement that she will not be standing for a third term as Green leader presents an opportunity for the party to pause and take stock; a process likely to reveal a wide haul of gains qualified by concerning losses.

Under Bennett the party’s membership soared from around 13,000 to over 60,000, its general election vote share quadrupled, and the number of saved deposits climbed from just six seats in 2010 to 123 five years later. Last month, London mayoral candidate, Sian Berry, swept them to their best ever result in the capital and in Scotland four new MSPs have been added to the existing two, including Ross Greer – the parliament’s youngest ever member.

Support for their core message on climate change – from Brad Pitt to Bernie Sanders – is louder than ever, while their recent election broadcast, “Secret Life”, went viral on YouTube.

Yet the news has not been all good. May’s local elections proved what party insiders have suspected ever since Corbyn took over Labour last Autumn: that the loyalty of “watermelon greens” (green on the outside, red in the middle) is just too, well, watery.

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Such members helped swell the “Green surge” when Ed Miliband’s Labour was the only left-wing alternative, but Corbyn’s adoption of the Greens’ anti-austerity platform has sucked away their support. When the Greens in England lost votes at this year’s local elections, it was largely Labour who profited from their loss.

The question now is can a new leader make good on these set-backs? And if so, who? Bennett has always stressed the party’s emphasis on collective leadership and supporting new talent. In her post-resignation article for the Huffington Post, she echoed her predecessor Caroline Lucas’ emphasis on the need to “give other people the opportunity to get well known”.

The party certainly has a promising raft of talent in the wings. Sian Berry, the London Mayoral candidate and the brightest of such stars, has sadly announced she will not be putting herself forward. But deputy leaders Amelia Womack and Shahrar Ali, and Bristol West candidate Darren Hall could all bring welcome new voices to the national debate.

However, to be the “mean, green, winning machines” that we used to sing about at my primary school sports day (in Totnes, a bastion of “Transition-Town” enthusiasm), there’s one supportive relationship that stands out above all others: that between Lucas and Bennett themselves.

Despite a reported lack of frequent communication and rumours of rivalry, their decision to share power has benefitted the party in both parliament and country alike.

Four years ago, the Green Party was still relatively inexperienced and internally divided, and its growth was being outstripped by the success of its leader’s personal brand. Creating some temporary distance between the party in the country and in Westminster – first by handing over the leadership to Bennett, and then by stressing her independence from the ever-more beleaguered Green-led council in Brighton –  may thus have helped Caroline Lucas consolidate her own credibility.

This arrangement also presented an opportunity for Bennett to tug the party up by its *cough* sandals. Through her relentless touring, relaxed manner, and impressive dedication to thrashing out policies, she cemented the party’s grassroots support in a raft of new constituencies.

The process wasn’t always pretty – Bennett famously struggled to shake-off the embarrassment of a “brain fade” in an interview on LBC radio – but it has been effective. Perhaps most of all in finding a working balance between the party’s radical idealism and a wider political pragmatism.

In a Sunday Politics interview during the lead up to the 2015 election, Bennett stumbled through an explanation of the party’s plans to introduce a citizens income. After some deft interventions from Lucas, she then re-appeared on the Today programme to stress the balance between manifesto commitments and the party’s “long term vision for Britain”. “[The citizen’s income] is not something that we’d be prepared to introduce over night or even in the term of the next parliament”, she explained, “it would be a big change that would take time”.

Thanks to such experiences the party is arguably now better equipped to handle the tensions between its long term ambitions and the practicalities of responsible government. It is also now ready to be handed back to someone with a penchant for leadership, something Bennett never wholly embraced: “The worst thing about being a politician is the focus on you as an individual”, she admitted in an interview with Stylist.

If this new leader does not turn out to be Caroline Lucas herself, then hopefully it will be someone who, like Bennett, will continue Lucas’s mission of forging cross-party coalitions – both in and out of Westminster. “The more I could work with others, the greater the difference I could make on the issues and causes that mattered for Brighton and for the country”, Lucas wrote in her 2015 parliamentary memoir Honourable Friends?: Parliament and the Fight for Change.

For if Paul Mason is right in predicting that, for the foreseeable future, “progressive politics in Britain will be about alliances”, then it is the Greens, perhaps more than Corbyn’s Labour, who may be best placed to plant their seeds. 

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