Question Time with Natalie Bennett of the Green Party, in Cambridge


The Green Party Leader for England and Wales comes under detailed and critical scrutiny from a large audience of students and locals – and gave a reasonably strong performance.

I’ll declare an interest in having put up quite a few posters up around town for this event. The reason being that I’m making it my business to ensure that wider audiences know about, and can choose to turn up to these events and cross-examine senior politicians that come to visit Cambridge. Next on the list (who I have also put posters up for) is John Denham MP – former Communities and Local Government Secretary, who is in Cambridge at the end of February (see here). My plea to prospective audience members is to bring critical minds and challenging questions. Local Lib Dems & Conservatives, if you have similar events coming up, please let Puffles know.

Press reports and social media links to her talk

Chris Havergal of the Cambridge News interviewed Natalie – his article is here. A few of us were also tweeting throughout on the hashtag #CamGreens. Make of Natalie’s quoted comments what you will. Any issues please take up with Natalie at @NatalieBen. Further things are on the Cambridge Young Greens Facebook page here. Again, make of them what you will.

“Hang on, weren’t the Greens dying in Cambridge?”

Less than 18 months ago, they were – I blogged about it here. Around this time they lost their three Cambridge-based elected councillors as the blogpost describes. Then about a year ago, Natalie came to visit Cambridge on a freezing cold Friday night. About fifty people came along to that – see my blogpost here. What was noticeable comparing last year’s event to this year’s event was the diversity of the audience. In 2013 it was predominantly the stalwarts of the wider sustainability communities in Cambridge – mainly White and middle-aged campaigners, with a handful of young people. Still, fifty people talking politics without the lure of anything other than local elections later on is still a reasonable number. Hence my point about the ‘Green’ vote being dormant rather than non-existent. As it turned out, across the city the Greens totted up over 2,000 votes despite minimal active campaigning. At the time I heard it was a challenge just to get public profiles of their candidates onto their website. (See here).

Yet a year later, Natalie’s visit had over double the number of people there and a significant number of students and young people there too – certainly a small majority. The other thing that was noticeable was the presence of a committee of young activists – about five overall.

“How did they turn things around in such a short space of time?”

In a nutshell, a post-graduate volunteer turned up from seemingly nowhere and turned things around. Ellisif Wasmuth arrived, found there was no Young Greens society in Cambridge, so formed it herself. She booked a stall at the autumn Freshers’ Fair in 2013, managed to recruit a committee and started putting on events. She set up the Facebook page, started posting content & started reaching out to other environmental-related societies across the universities and beyond. Any young person wanting to start a campaign from scratch – especially something you are knowledgeable and passionate about, have a look at Ellisif’s example.

On the face of it, the Greens had a stroke of fortune with Ellisif arriving in Cambridge. Basically she’s given what is otherwise quite a fragmented but sizeable environmental movement in Cambridge something of a party political structure. As Natalie said in her speech, the Green Party isn’t a standalone party, but rather the political wing of a wider environmental movement. Perhaps it’s similar to the way the Labour Party is the political wing of the wider trade union movement. The memberships of both political parties will inevitably be lower than that of the wider movements, but when it comes to elections, you can get a feel for where both sides draw much of their core vote from.

Can the Greens make 2014 count in Cambridge?

This is something that I have challenged both Natalie and also Dr Rupert Read, the East of England lead candidate for the Greens in the European Parliament elections in May 2014. Both Natalie and Rupert have been following Puffles for quite some time, and have noted the points I’ve made about Cambridge’s Green vote/campaign base being dormant rather than non-existent. The reason why this matters for Rupert is that he narrowly missed out on securing a seat in the European Parliament in 2009 – the Greens scoring 9% of the overall vote in East Anglia.  According to the Greens, 10% would probably have secured him that seat. (See here).

But 2014 is a very different place to 2009. Not least in the rise of UKIP and the implosion of the Liberal Democrat vote – the latter who are fighting even in South Cambridge to secure votes in order to hold onto Andrew Duff‘s seat. There’s also the much more evolved online and social media picture too, along with 5 years of austerity and a Coalition Government. Finally, there will also be the context of the current widespread floods, and the fallout from that. Will that put climate change further up the agenda come May? How resilient will the UKIP vote be if the mainstream media starts switching focus towards climate change? Natalie mentioned in her speech that since the beginning of February she’s noticed a significant change in the tone and attitude towards her from journalists and broadcast media interviewers.

“Did Natalie say anything controversial/headline grabbing in Cambridge?”  

For a seasoned political watcher like myself, there was nothing that struck me as being out-of-the-ordinary. I was more interested in the huge variety of detailed, informed and challenging questions from the audience – and how Natalie dealt with them. Animal rights, citizens income, renationalisation, working with Labour, energy policy, human rights, Britain’s role abroad – she had responses (if not full answers) to them all.

There were a few occasions where she struggled – inevitably given the range and specifics of some of the questions. Europe was particularly tricky – surprising given that the Greens are the party where the European branding of the European Greens matches with the UK national green parties in England & Wales, and Scotland. I would have liked to have seen her set out a more coherent and co-ordinated vision that demonstrates closer working with other European countries on a number of cross-border issues, not just the environment or immigration.

Natalie didn’t avoid the difficult questions in the context of Cambridge – the big ones being GM crops and testing on animals. Both of these areas are traditionally ones that alienates the science community in Cambridge. On both, she separated the scientific research from the industrial uses of. For me on both issues – as with pharmaceuticals – is with the power of multinationals. Environmental safeguards, the transparency of the research regime – including the free and transparent publication of research data, minimising the unnecessary suffering of animals/research into alternative testing methods were all things that came up. My instinct is that, as with the Tories & Europe, or Labour and renationalisation, GM crops, animal testing and some of the health-related areas of science (especially around alternative therapies) will remain divisive policy areas for the Greens.

“Any mention of local government – in particular the bad press they are getting in Brighton?”

Though not mentioned in her talk, I’ve been following this from a distance given that I used to live in Brighton. Basically the Greens following the 2010 general election also returned the largest number of councillors on Brighton and Hove Council – but without an absolute majority. Hence they have been running a minority administration, taking hits from Labour and Conservative oppositions. It’s not been plain sailing by any means. With no experience of running a council, they have inevitably made a number of very basic errors – not least the bin strike of 2013. Former civil servant Neil Schofield has been blogging and tweeting about their woes over the past few years.

I don’t know enough about what the 2015 impact will be – whether on Caroline Lucas’s Brighton Pavilion seat or on the post-2015 control of the council. Brighton’s a politically volatile place at the best of times – perhaps one of the reasons why I quite liked being away from campus during my time on the south coast. (I had a rubbish time at university there & spent much of my time hanging around with environmentalists of various persuasions – the energy and vibrancy of that scene being something that I feel Cambridge is missing). But either way, any Green Party member looking to stand for election & campaign actively needs to go down to Brighton and learn from what’s gone wrong there. (Not least because on the campaign trail, there might be a few people who ask you about it!)

“What will the Greens be doing in 2014 in Cambridge then?”

It’s difficult to say from my perspective because in terms of active campaigning, it feels like they are starting from scratch again. In a way it’s similar to the Conservatives in Cambridge – there are lots of them but they seem to be spread out across the city rather than concentrated in a few small strongholds. Local Conservatives must be wondering how they can convert what was a reasonably strong showing at the 2010 election (nearly 13,000 votes, pushing Labour into 3rd), into council seats on Cambridge City Council – where they hold a single seat.

Both Natalie and Rupert have said that the Greens are going to be stepping up their campaigns in Cambridge. Interestingly Natalie said she saw the Lib Dems as being more vulnerable to Greens campaigning in Cambridge than Labour. At a ward-by-ward level, I’d like to see all local parties going beyond simply campaigning in their safe or swing wards. Not least because if residents see that the wards are being much more actively contested, it might help raise turnout as well as their own parties’ activist bases. Sam Smith recently took on the issue about the lack of diversity of councillors in 2 wards in South Cambridge – see here. But in both those wards other parties have not been actively campaigning, hence there’s little incentive for incumbents to innovate. And why should they? If getting re-elected on minimal effort (while you have a full-time job) has the same result as getting re-elected while campaigning in every other waking hour, it’s completely understandable as to why you’d carry on as before.

My hunch is that North & Central Cambridge will be the main battle grounds for Labour and the Liberal Democrats as the former try to seize control (as they are likely to do) of Cambridge City Council. If I were a Green Party member/activist starting from scratch, I would target the areas where there is limited political campaigning. For example Coleridge and Cherry Hinton – along with those areas that have experienced a significant increase in new house building – Trumpington. Interestingly the former two wards have historically had Conservative councillors representing them over the past decade or so. Trumpington may also be somewhere where an active Labour campaign could make gains, especially in the new social housing.

“And…the social media aspect?”

This for me continues to be a major frustration for me. In a nutshell I can’t see social media use having much of an impact in Cambridge simply because the political parties collectively do not have the ‘digital infrastructure’ to exploit it. Twitter is a bit of an echo-chamber where a handful of councillors engage with us ‘Guildhall Groupies’ (I’m going to get that slogan made up as a badge of honour for Puffles) with few beyond it taking an active part in online exchanges.

There are not nearly enough local political bloggers – party-political, local public policy or otherwise. For those of us that are there, noble as our efforts might be, we also don’t have the diversity of views, experiences or backgrounds to cover what people living in the city are experiencing. I’d love to see more women blogging about local issues regularly. I’d love to see local bloggers covering things like education and health with an expert eye that I for one simply do not have.

For those of you in Cambridgeshire who are interested in blogging but don’t want to set your own one up, try our Shape Your Place’s blog/have your say feature – see here for Cambridge as an example. Think of a local issue you are interested in, write something about it – ideally with a question or a challenge for someone at the end, and see what response you get.

Puffles with Natalie Bennett after her talk to around 50 people at Emmanuel URC
Puffles with Natalie Bennett after her talk to around 50 people at Emmanuel URC in 2013

2 thoughts on “Question Time with Natalie Bennett of the Green Party, in Cambridge

  1. A great blog as usual, as a Brighton resident I think one of the challenges to the Greens is the extent to which they are able to mobilise along the lines of a “standalone party rather than the political wing of a wider environmental movement.” when that is what is needed (or has implicitly been promised). Labour have clearly managed to form up around Party structures, but it is disturbing when a leading group of Councillors are unable to maintain some form of collective responsibility for decisions that they have taken together on behalf of the city as a whole. As we know from national politics, even the coalition maintains a large degree of collective responsibility for the decisions that they do take together. I might be unhappy with the outcome of an election in which I have participated, but its no good calling it as a failed election, just because my candidate or policy didn’t win.

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