Putting Down Roots In Sheffield: The Green Party's Natalie Bennett

24/01/2017 11:57 GMT | Updated 25/01/2018 10:12 GMT

Natalie Bennett aims to become the North's first Green Party MP by taking Sheffield Central from Labour in the next General Election. And it's easy to see why she feels Sheffield would be a good fit.

The city has been labelled the "greenest on the planet" and last year, thousands rallied to stop the council felling trees in the city. Local communities battled to preserve the greenery through petitions and protests which gained international media coverage.

The former Green Party leader, who has moved here to pursue her parliamentary vision, said of the Save Sheffield Trees campaign: "The trees situation is about human well-being and health, history, and the very fabric of Sheffield that is really being gratuitously destroyed. This is privatisation in action, valuing private profit over public good. What we need is a contractor, or ideally a service brought back in house that's listening to the people. Democracy has been utterly thwarted here."

She continued: "When I was leader I visited Sheffield a great deal because this is one of our real strongholds. I love the culture of pop-up enterprises and obviously the greenness. There's a great possibility here to elect the North's first Green MP and I want to be that MP. If you vote Green you know exactly what you're voting for. Our principles and values are solid and unchanging, based on the evidence that we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. And while we're trashing the planet we're also delivering a deeply unequal, unbalanced society. The Greens identify this and offer the real change that we need."

Paul Blomfield has been the MP for Sheffield Central for almost seven years and Natalie commented: "I think Paul has been very active here holding meetings but how much has Sheffield been represented to the rest of the country? It's really important that the rest of the country hears about the needs of Sheffield and the good things happening here. A couple of years ago Paul was pro-fracking, now he's anti-fracking... I think we need a strong, consistent voice."

But there's more to the Green Party than environmental issues. Natalie pledged: "My first priority if I win the Sheffield Central seat will be to focus on wages - both at the bottom and the top. We need to make the Living Wage a genuine living wage. I'm glad that Jeremy Corbyn has come out with the long term Green Party policy of a wage cap for bosses, although he arrived at a 20:1 ratio while ours is 10:1. If you take a living wage and multiply it by 10 that gets you to about the salary of the Prime Minister and I think that would be a reasonable top level of salary."

With the election of Donald Trump in the US and a majority Conservative government in the UK, some people question the power of left-wing party politics today. But Natalie said: "In both cases it isn't the fault of the Left for losing elections. We have a Tory government because of the Tory-lite former Labour Party under Ed Miliband and in America there's reasonable evidence that Bernie Sanders would have won if he'd been selected to run against Trump. So the problem is that the centre is not holding anymore. You can't run a centrist position that says, 'We won't change anything much.' People just don't believe that now. We're not producing a society that gives people hope for the future, so people are beginning to understand the need for real change. What we need to do is provide an inspirational, hopeful message that we can do much better than this."

The Green Party is often criticised as "unelectable". But Natalie responded: "Caroline Lucas MP is proof that this is not true. And so indeed are our four councillors in Sheffield. The first-past-the-post system is a huge barrier to having a democracy in Britain - we don't have a democracy and we obviously want to change that - but in the meantime we can beat the system. We've shown that we can and that's what we're aiming to do in Sheffield."

She explained her decision to contest Paul Blomfield's seat, rather than Nick Clegg's or a Tory seat, saying: "Nationally, Sheffield Central was the third highest vote for the Green Party last time. We came second to Labour here. The reality of Sheffield Central is that there's no risk of the Tories or Lib Dems getting in, so people can have a straight choice. What we're really doing is beating the first-past-the-post system by standing here in a way that we can't in other places. The people of Sheffield Central will either get Paul Blomfield or me. So people can make a judgement about who they think is more prepared to be strong and radical and create change."

On the relationship between Green and Labour politics, Natalie said: "People are always asking if I'm a socialist and my answer is 'No'. I'm a Green. And that's a complete coherent political philosophy that includes large elements of what people will call 'socialism', but I regard it as Green. The fundamental difference between us and Labour, even Corbynite Labour, is that we understand the physics of our environmental crisis and understand that we have to start from there, whereas I'm afraid that for Labour the environment is still very much an add-on at the end.

"It underlies our understanding of where we are now and where we have to be in 10, 20, 30 years' time. It's only very recently that the Labour Party has decided to oppose fracking. And there are still Labour councils around the country very much promoting fracking. But I have great respect for Jeremy Corbyn holding out on a position that was very hostile to what was seen as the mainstream of the Labour Party for a long time. Do I think he could be the next Prime Minister? Yes, I do."

The Green Party is also often criticised for being inaccessible to the most marginalised communities. Natalie argued: "I am very proud of the way the Green Party has been standing up and working with refugees and asylum seekers, advocating for the closure of Yarl's Wood detention centre and advocating for decent, humane immigration and family visa systems. I'm also very proud of what we've done in speaking up for disabled people against the work capability assessment. All this isn't to say we can't do better. We need to make sure that we're always speaking in a language that's accessible and available to everybody."

The homelessness crisis in Sheffield has been gaining attention recently due to projects such as Sheffield Tent City. She said: "The underlying problem is that for decades we've relied on the market to provide housing and it has utterly, comprehensibly failed. What we need to do is build genuinely affordable council homes. We also need to get more creative, like the REACH Homes Project which aims to build really affordable, energy efficient homes out of old shipping containers.

"The cost of private rental, which more and more people are forced to live in, is absolutely extortionate. One of the key drivers of inequality is having a tax system set up entirely for the benefit of private landlords. We've talked about using the living wage principle to set up a living rent where you shouldn't be spending more than 33% of your take-home pay on rent."

Natalie was leader of the Green Party for four years and said: "I was proud of representing the Green Party at the 2015 leadership debates, putting us at the centre of British political life as part of the main politics of Britain. I'm very proud of the way I was able to tackle David Cameron on the issue of Syrian refugees. At that time, Britain had accepted only around 200 refugees and I looked at him square in the eye and asked why he hadn't done more. And I'm also proud of the famous hug with [Scottish National Party leader] Nicola Sturgeon and [Plaid Cymru leader] Leanne Wood. I hope that women can look at that and be inspired to get involved in politics too."

The Green Party still doesn't get as much media coverage as some of the other parties. But Natalie insisted: "I think we challenge the status quo effectively, but we are not always heard. What we're saying is effective, but it comes down to media ownership. We back the Media Reform Coalition which says an individual shouldn't own more than 15% of the media market. And we need to get better at using social media and alternative outlets because, happily, newspapers and the mainstream television are becoming less significant. We don't have to change what we're saying. We need to get louder."

And perhaps at the next General Election Sheffield will become the greenest city in more ways than one. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @natalieben