Natalie Bennett Conference Speech (Text in Full)

13 September 2013

HELLO conference: Thank you for your warm welcome.

It’s great to be in Brighton and Hove, home of our Green MP, Caroline Lucas. There is only one of her – though from her media appearances, her Hansard record and her presence around her constituency – not to mention the power of her presence at Balcombe - it often seems like we’ve dodged our policy on cloning and created a dozen of her.

But there is of course only one Caroline Lucas, so I think we should begin conference by giving her a round of applause for her great work.

We are also, of course, in the home of Britain’s first Green-run council. Having made Brighton and Hove a living wage council and cut the ratio between the lowest and highest paid staff to near to 10:1, in recent months they’ve taken further big steps forward. Our Green council has banned adverts for payday loans on all council-owned billboards and adopted a country-leading ethical investment policy. It’s helped attract grant money into the city for improving bus services, £650,00 from the EU to support creative industries, and government funds for ultra-fast broadband. And Brighton and Hove has seen its best-ever GCSE results this year, marks improving while they’ve gone done in the rest of the country.

Running things is never easy, and that task is enormously difficult when coupled with the  Government’s mindless austerity agenda. But we’re working hard to make sure that very soon, in many more towns and cities, we’ll be facing the same challenges and same opportunities as here in Brighton and Hove. And I know that members of the Association of Green Councillors are working tirelessly to turn more councils green.

When I addressed the last Green Party autumn conference I’d been leader of the party for four days – and, as Zoe Williams of the Guardian enjoys recounting, I wasn’t yet acquainted with what some people see as the really important issues of political leadership – like how the colour of your jacket stands out against the backdrop.

Hopefully now, however, you can see, I’ve mastered the art of contrast…

But one year on, I’ve accumulated what feels like a lifetime of experiences.

A moment of pure pleasure was pinning down Nigel Farage on Question Time on the subject of UKIP’s tax policy. Now it may seem unlikely, but at that moment, Farage showed it IS possible to make up an entire party’s taxation policy through the length of a very long ummmm… Possible but as we saw in his case, not at all advisable. Just waving a pint and a cigarette and grinning does not a serious political party make.

One special event from the past year that needs celebrating is the announcement of our newest parliamentary representative -  so new  that she has yet to even take up her seat. That happens in early November but today we can pay tribute to Jenny Jones – elected by you, all of the Green Party members, making her a unique House of Lords member.

What makes her even more special is that she’s taking her seat with the explicit aim of abolishing the chamber she’s sitting in. “Needs no introduction” is a much overused phrase, but very true in this case. So on behalf of conference, I’d simply like to congratulate Jenny on her new position.

Jenny ’s going to need all of our help to make the most of doubling our parliamentary representation. Being a Green peer brings special challenges. If anyone knows where to get hold of fake ermine, please see Jenny later…

In the last 12 months, three political issues particularly stand out.

I must begin with the tragic events in Syria. There’s one thing I agree with President Obama about; that the world must not tolerate the gassing of innocent civilians. We must not tolerate the gassing of anyone. And the world must not tolerate the massacres, the humanitarian crisis, or the whole hideous civil war. But where we differ with him is over the idea that unilaterally deciding to throw more high explosives into this already terrible situation will do anything to improve it.

Far better to first ensure the world provides every support for humanitarian efforts, both for Syrian refugees and vulnerable civilians within the country. And second, we must flex every diplomatic muscle, explore every avenue, calling on every potential mediator, to find a way for the UN to act decisively on the issue.

No, it’s not easy – it’s immensely difficult. Russia and China aren’t easy partners. But it’s the only way forward. We need to set international relations, the UN, on the right footing. And ensure that president Assad – and rebel leaders, too – are held to account by the international criminal court.

The parliamentary vote against a unilateral attack on Syria was a landmark. It draws a line under the dreadful, disastrous decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan. We know the right way forward – the legal way.

Back in Britain, a key political issue of the year has been energy. As we’ve heard yet more worrying news of leaks and spillages from Fukishima, the government has been frantically hunting to find a firm, any firm, anywhere, that might put cash into a new nuclear power station at Hinkley C.

We’ve seen Ministers dancing like overexcited cheerleaders in support of fracking – tax breaks, bribes for local communities, the erosion of local people’s right to have a say about their own fields, farms and forests.

And we’ve seen the huge failure of the Green Deal, which is clearly a scheme designed for the benefit of the financial industry, not to help hard-pressed householders tackle energy waste. This, while the government doesn’t spend a penny on insulating our leaky, expensive-to-heat homes.

This is not just awful, it’s disastrous at a time when levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have passed 400 parts per million and steam on upwards.

The organisation Carbon Tracker has worked out we must keep more than half of our known fossil fuel reserves in the ground and the challenge is working out how to do that. We should not be looking for more!

The third issue is the most immediately pressing, socially devastating affecting Britain – the government’s slashing away at the means of the poorest in our community. There’s the bedroom tax – this week rightly criticised by the UN. There’s the benefit cap, the cuts to council tax benefit, the end of disability living allowance, no more crisis loans, the plundering of family tax credits…

All this is in a society where there’s at least five workers chasing every job vacancy and far more in many areas. Where one in five workers earns less than a living wage, one in 10 are working fewer hours than they need, where 37% of people have no savings to turn to in an emergency, and where there are more than 13 million people living below the poverty line.

Conference, consider this: In the world’s sixth largest economy, one fifth of the population do not have enough money to live on. This, after a year when the richest 10% of people got 12% richer.

As the Green Party we say STOP to all of this. We will fight for an economy that provides jobs that workers can build a life on. An economy where nobody in Britain goes without.

Electorally, we have this year made more great strides towards becoming a truly national party – with our first councillors elected in Cornwall, in Surrey, in Essex, in Kent, in several councils in the West Midlands. Behind each of those successes is a hard working team – well done to all of you!

But in government we still have a tired, creaking, Tory Lib Dem coalition that through its disastrous handling of a range of issues has lost what little credibility it might once have had.

The Conservative Party got its current name back in 1834 with Sir Robert Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto, which promised the party wouldn’t institute unnecessary change, that it wouldn’t produce  "a perpetual vortex of agitation".

Sir Robert would surely be horrified by today’s Conservative Party, which is producing a “perpetual vortex” of destruction - of our institutions and our treasured and much needed public services.

It’s a Party that is spinning off a stream of profits for their friends, from A4E and Atos to G4S, an alphabet soup of discredited privatisers feeding at the public trough. A Party that is handing over our NHS to American multinational companies. That is going where even Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t go in auctioning off the “Queen’s Head”, putting Royal Mail into private hands. We say privatisation has failed – it is not for the common good, it works solely for the benefit of private profits. No more!

And then we have the Lib Dems … who have abandoned their tuition fees policy, abandoned their opposition to nuclear arms and nuclear power, abandoned any principled commitment to justice by supporting secret courts and legal aid cuts, and who now cravenly support a lobbying bill designed to gag anyone who dares remember their broken promises.

We’ve seen them silent on the fate of courageous whistleblower Edward Snowden and we’ve seen Nick Clegg’s spokesman explicitly endorsing the ridiculous, but disturbing, sight of security officers standing over Guardian journalists as they destroyed evidence at government behest.

We’ve seen, astonishingly, the Lib Dem energy secretary Ed Davey, sounding like a teenager getting carried away in the throes of passion on a Friday night – he “loves” shale gas.

The Lib Dems have failed to protect Britain from the Tories. They have been exposed. And their reward will be to become as much history as Sir Robert Peel!

But when history looks back on the Coalition, what will stand out is its failure to find a new economic model for Britain.

It is clear that the current economic model – globalisation, neoliberalism, privatisation - has failed economically and it has failed environmentally. And yet government has not provided any way forward to the new kind of economy that we clearly, desperately need – an economy that delivers for the common good.

It’s done nothing to rein in the power of multinationals and give small businesses and cooperatives, local firms, with local support, the chance to compete on something like a level playing field. Joe’s Takeaway can’t arrange to ship its profits through half a dozen subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands, but that giant chain down the road sure does.

The government’s “plan”, such as it is, is to reinflate the housing bubble, and to rely on a return to rising household debt to fund a consumer-led retail bubble. Today, even estate agents and surveyors are calling for the government to ‘stop the housing bubble’ – Estate agents and surveyors!

Has the Coalition learnt nothing from the past?

We need an economy that operates within the limits of our one planet and ensures that everyone has access to life’s essentials. We need a massive change of direction – a change of direction that only the Green Party offers.

You’d expect the Labour Party, at this point in the political cycle, to be soaring in the polls. Yet they aren’t.

And that’s not surprising. They are not a credible alternative to the coalition.

What does Labour stand for? It’s perhaps easier to say what they don’t stand for.

Well, they’re “not going to rule out” fracking.  

They’ve said they ‘can’t promise’ to abolish the bedroom tax.

They won’t say they’ll bring the railways back into public ownership.

They’re not going to speak up for the rights of immigrants, or asylum-seekers who should be given refuge as part of our long and proud tradition of helping the persecuted and the vulnerable.

20 months from a general election, what do the Labour Party plan to do if they win?

Well we know – we’ve been promised -- that they’ll follow Tory spending plans – a policy straight from the mind of Tony Blair!

Not only that, they’ll TIGHTEN the benefits cap. Liam Byrne, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said it’s a good idea in principle but that the Tories have messed it up. Why? Because he says it doesn’t cover enough families and does nothing to stop people living a life on welfare!

That’s right. In the world’s sixth richest state, where the government is cutting social security payments and forcing people into ever-greater poverty, even though there are too few jobs to go round.  Where 13 million – one in five – people are living below the poverty line and where 1.35 million children go to bed hungry, the Labour Party says the benefit cuts aren’t deep enough.

But there is one alternative to the three virtually indistinguishable neoliberal parties. That alternative is the Green Party.

We lead the way in speaking up for the poor and the vulnerable.

Green councillors and campaigners have called for councils to pledge not to evict anyone because of the bedroom tax. Our own Greens in Brighton and Hove were one of the first to take that pledge.

And in the Green Party we’re focusing particularly on tackling food poverty, because, shockingly, there are half a million people dependent on food banks.

Here in Brighton and Hove, in the last 12 months, the number of food banks has tripled to meet demand.

The donors to food banks – sometimes people not far from needing help themselves –are doing the right thing, the humane thing. THEY are doing what they can to help.

And the volunteers running the food banks do a great job.

But volunteers and donors are not the answer to decades of policies that have limited people’s access to fresh food. They cannot – and should not be asked to - solve the real problem, which is aching poverty.

Volunteering shouldn’t be about providing the essentials of life because the government is failing to.

We in the Green Party promise we won’t just fight to make the minimum wage a living wage, we won’t just fight to get ensure benefits ensure everyone can live a decent life. We won’t just fight for everyone to be able to buy and cook fresh food.

We will keep fighting and keep campaigning until the last food bank in Britain closes its doors - because it’s not needed any more.

Another essential of life is healthcare. The National Health Service – OUR National Health Service - leads the world. Dedicated, skilled, professional doctors, nurses, administrators and carers have worked selflessly and effectively to provide free healthcare according to need.

But the system is being torn to shreds and handed over to a handful of profits-at-any-cost handful of multinational health companies and dubious local consortiums led by “entrepreneurial” CEOs.

In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, there’s a contract up for grabs, worth up to £800m, to provide care for older people in the region – including “end of life” care.

The shortlist of bidders was announced this week and includes the usual suspects - Serco, United Health UK, Virgin Healthcare.

The Green Party – and most people in the UK - don’t want any of those organisations responsible for health care of any kind. And there is something particularly disturbing about the dominance of the profit motive in caring for our elderly.

We in the Green Party are fighting with every ounce of its strength against these kinds of contracts. The NHS is a national jewel that must be grabbed back from the jewel thieves, polished, and set back again in pride of place. The profit motive has no place in the health care system. And we will not rest until we’ve expelled every last corporate bloodsucker from our NHS.

Of course there are many more jewels for which we need to also fight. Caroline Lucas’s bill to bring the railways back into public hands – that’s winning wide support. Conversely, the government’s plans to privatise Royal Mail is - rightly – attracting widespread opprobrium. I promise you that if the government does overcome public resistance to privatising Royal Mail, we’ll immediate start campaigning to bring it back into public hands.

And underpinning all of this, underpinning all of our lives, all of our economic activity, everything in our existence, is our natural world.

Our beautiful, precious and diverse natural world, on which we are all dependent and which we all have both the right to enjoy and the responsibility to protect.

We needed action yesterday to cut our carbon emissions and tackle climate change. We needed action last year to cut our carbon emissions and tackle climate change. We didn’t get it.

So this is a message for David Cameron, for Ed Milliband, for Barack Obama, for every world leader, for every corporate CEO, for every person in the world today: We must do far more to ensure that we’ll preserve our world, for future generations, and for people alive today. Our common good – our common survival – demands it.

Before I finish speaking and hand over to you all, it’s worth repeating that Green Party conference is our supreme decision-making body. We’re a democratic party, with policy decided by our members.

That’s a critical part of our structure – an essential way of ensuring that we remain on course, as a force for the common good of both people and planet.

And we’ll be bringing the full force of that democratic power to bear on critically important date next year, May twenty-second – European and council Election Day.

Since 1999, Jean, Caroline and then Keith have done a magnificent job in Brussels, carrying our flag as part of the fourth-largest group in the European parliament.

But on May twenty-second next year, we have an opportunity to significantly add to that tally.

It would only take a swing of 1.6% to see us treble our number of MEPs. A poll just last month by YouGOv put us on 12% of the European vote. It’s a promising start.

But those seats won’t fall into our lap.

We’ve got the policies to deliver wellbeing for everyone in Britain. We have a distinct, honest, democratic approach to politics. We will build an economy that works for the common good, not for the wealthy few.

But we have to make sure voters across England and Wales know that.

We don’t take donations from City bankers, multinational corporations or massively wealthy tax-dodgers.

Above all we depend on volunteers.

The power of the Green Party comes from people – individuals like each of you.

And I say thank you for all that you do.

I say let’s send many more Green MEPs to Brussels, let’s elect many more hardworking local councillors up and down the country, and let’s ensure that we re-elect our Green MP  in 2015.

We fight for the nation, for its environment and its people.

We fight for the common good.

We can win, and we must win!

Let’s do it!

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