As the former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett swaps London for Sheffield in her bid to unseat Labour’s Paul Blomfield at the next election, she discusses her belief that change is on the cards.
Outside Sheffield Magistrates’ Court, when two men appeared there last month charged with obstructing tree-felling engineers in Nether Edge, a new political contender in the city was among the headline speakers keen to address the gathered campaigners.
Here it feels there is an opportunity for ideas to flourish
Natalie Bennett has put herself at the centre of the controversy over the fate of Sheffield’s street trees, as part of her efforts to become the Green Party’s second MP by taking the Sheffield Central seat from Labour’s Paul Blomfield.
Ms Bennett, the Greens’ former leader, is fast becoming an expert in HS2 and where the South Yorkshire station should or shouldn’t be sited and is spearheading the launch of the Sheffield Food Network to provide sustainable, locally-grown produce - as well as closely following the felling saga.
She says the arrests, and the effects of the 25-year private finance initiative deal awarded to the council’s contractor Amey - thousands of trees felled to save on maintenance, campaigners claim - proved two points.
“That showed pretty neatly that when you introduce privatisation it tends to end up being for private profit rather than public good, but it also showed how much the people of Sheffield care. It’s that spirit that I want to channel.
“The truth is that the Green Party has come up with countless ideas that people have dismissed as being crazy but which have later been adopted by the mainstream. From 20mph zones to the living wage we have a history of policy making with ordinary people at its heart and now it just feels like it might be our time.”
Ms Bennett is in the process of swapping her one-bedroom flat in London for a three-bed house in Sheffield. Her presence here represents an attempt at a political comeback - during the 2015 campaign trail, a radio interview with LBC’s Nick Ferrari became a source of embarrassment.
Struggling to answer how the Greens would pay for their housing policy, which included building 500,000 affordable homes but was short on crucial facts and figures, she later said her ‘brain fade’ was the result of a cold.
“Does it haunt me? No it doesn’t haunt me, but yes people do still mention it. We all have our bad days. That was mine. It just happened to be a very public bad day.”
When Ms Bennett announced she was stepping down as leader in March she acknowledged she was not a ‘spin-trained, lifelong politician’.
“In the Green Party it’s not a greasy pole where people are scrambling for the top and clinging on by their fingertips. We work as a team, I had been leader for four years, it was time for a change.
“But it wasn’t a sign that I’d become disenchanted with politics, far from it. During my time as leader I’d visited Sheffield a lot and I knew that it was somewhere I would like to live and not just because of its fabulous open spaces. There is a real energy about the place, a real appetite for change. Like a lot of people I was also tired of London, tired of the way it is dominated by big multinational companies. Here it feels like there is an opportunity for ideas to flourish.” Not that Ms Bennett’s ascent to Parliament is likely to happen soon. While the Greens came second in 2015, Labour has a 39 per cent majority in Sheffield Central, and while an early election has been repeatedly mooted, the next General Election is still not scheduled until 2020.
But she says: “Whatever people say about a fixed-term parliament I certainly don’t think a snap general election is unthinkable. Theresa May is as strong now as she is ever going to be and just look at the chasms which have already appeared in the Tory Party.”
There is still plenty of scope for more political upsets, she contends, given the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to Labour leader, the Brexit poll result and Hillary Clinton’s surprise defeat in the US Presidential race.
“I’m not going to claim that I saw the political shift coming. I didn’t. Like many people on the day of the EU referendum I thought it would be a 52:48 split. The figures were right, only I got the result wrong.
“However, if you look back at interviews I did from four or five years ago, I often said that the future of politics wouldn’t look like the past.
“The issue right now is that people want to feel that their vote counts and unfortunately the first past the post system has led to the stagnation of British politics. Whichever way you lean, it can’t be right that Labour received 24 per cent votes in Scotland but only got one seat. People feel disenfranchised and that I think explains a lot about what has happened this year.
“And yet, you know what? My message is one of hope. The status quo has been shaken and it is time for change. I speak to a lot of school groups and universities and the one thing that age group in particular are looking for are conviction politicians, people who they believe are telling the truth.”
Bennett, who was born in the suburbs of Sydney to working class parents, says her own political awakening began before she even went to primary school.
“I remember it very clearly. It began when I was told: ‘Because you are a girl you are not allowed to have a bicycle’. It was my mum who said it, but it was my grandmother who was really speaking. I’ve always said that feminism was my first politics and it was.”
‘I wanted to do something to change the world’
Natalie Bennett’s environmental awareness came when she studied for a degree in agricultural science, but for more than a decade after graduating she worked as a journalist.
It was only after moving to the UK in 1999 and following spells on the likes of The Times, The Independent and The Guardian newspapers that she decided to pursue a political career.
“It was January 1, 2006,” she said.
“I’d just come off working nights and like a lot of people at New Year I decided I wanted to do something to change the world. That’s how I came to join the Green Party.”
Part of her motivation was to make the news, rather then observing others.
“For a while I had been thinking that I wanted to change the news agenda rather than just report it, but I’d always thought that would mean working for a charity or a non-government organisation.”