Natalie Bennett's Green Party Autumn Conference Speech (FULL TEXT)

5 September 2014

Thank you conference.

And thank you West Midlands. It’s great to be here in the centre of the region where Green Party representation is growing fastest.

And a special welcome to our newest West Midland councillor, who as Chris said took away Tory control from Herefordshire County Council. Well done Cllr Jenny Bartlett!

That’s just one reflection of the growing strength of the Green Party. Since we last met, conference, there’s been another huge increase in representation to celebrate. From Cornwall to Wiltshire, Gloucestershire to Gibraltar, voters now have a Green member of the European parliament – congratulations Molly Scott Cato!

And in other news, I’m honoured conference, that you’ve just re-elected me leader for a second term unopposed. Thank you for your trust. 

Across the country, we’re polling at record levels…  the latest poll of polls by the Independent put us on 6.6%, far above where we’ve ever been before in general election polling.

We’ve now got 162 principal authority councillors on 57 councils and Green Party membership has grown 28% in just this year.

Membership of the Young Greens is up 70% this year, and the number of local groups has more than doubled since 2012. The young are the future, and the future is green!

These achievements are in part reflection of our growing numbers, growing strength and growing professionalism. But it’s also down to a lot of hard work – your hard work, the work of members here in the hall today and those at work all over the country. Thank you!

But mostly the growth in Green Party support and representation is because more and more people are seeking out, hunting for, what the Green Party has to offer, a route towards an economy, a society, that works for the common good within the environmental limits of our planet.

Because we believe that everyone should be able to afford to put fresh, healthy food on their table; we won’t rest until the last food bank closes due to lack of demand. We believe that everyone deserves warm, comfortable, low-energy homes; no one should shiver in winter because they fear the gas bill.

The Green Party believes that our railways should be run for the good of passengers, not shareholders. That they should be owned by the public, not private companies. And we know that the profit motive has no place in healthcare – our NHS must be kept in, or returned, to public ownership.

We believe our schools should be democratically run by their communities, for their communities. And that our children should be educated for healthy, productive, fulfilling lives, not as identikit units being pushed through an exam machine.

We believe that our houses should not be treated as simply financial assets, the subject of speculation and sell-off, but homes – stable, affordable centres of our lives that meet our needs.

We believe that money, resources, people, can’t be allowed, indeed forced, to be focused on London. We need strong regional development that builds sustainable economies from Carlisle to Cambourne, Newcastle to Neath.

We believe that our natural environment should be - must be - managed to preserve and enhance it, with decisions  based on scientific evidence and understanding that once an ecosystem is damaged or destroyed, it is lost for good. We believe that we should not be inhumanely – and pointlessly - slaughtering badgers. We must not destroy old-growth forests, thousands of years in the making, to build the instant white-elephant rich man’s railway that is High Speed 2. And we must not allow our seas to be plundered while the government ignores its promise to create marine reserves.

And we say to David Cameron, you MUST be in New York for climate talks called by the UN Secretary General.

On the 23rd of September, other world leaders will be there, pledging to work towards a global climate pact in 2015. The message “go” is coming loud and clear from campaigners and scientists. And from the UN climate chief, who just this week warned that time is running out fast. Mr Cameron, you’ll be abandoning future generations, you’ll be failing in your basic duty to provide for Britain’s future security, if you aren’t in New York on the 23rd of September.

A global deal on greenhouse gas emissions is essential for all of our futures, but there’s so much more that we need to change to create a society that works for the common good, not just for the few.

The Green Party has a vision of a new Britain, a Britain in which fear is replaced with real hope for the future, in which we can be confident our children and grandchildren will have a secure, decent life, have jobs they can build their lives on, have a social safety net in case they need it, and a natural world they can enjoy and rely on.

And that vision matches the hopes of the British people. They want to see the railways renationalised, they want to see every worker paid a living wage, they want to keep our NHS publicly owned, publicly run, and services free.

And to respond to that, and reflect our growing strength, our growing presence around the country,  I’m pleased to announce today that in next year’s general election we will field a record number of candidates.

One of the most common questions I get asked on Twitter is: “I want to vote Green: will I get the opportunity?”

Increasingly, I’m able to say “yes”, because the  Green Party will be standing in AT LEAST 75% of general election seats.

Far more voters than ever before – 50% more than in 2010 – will have the chance to vote Green in next year’s general election. It’s a tough challenge conference, but I know the Green Party is up for it.

For the 2015 general election will be unlike any before. We’re now a parliamentary party, after Brighton Pavilion elected Caroline Lucas in 2010. I’m confident it will re-elect her in 2015, and that Norwich South can send Lesley Graham to join her, while Bristol West can add to the West Country’s tally of Green parliamentarians with Darren Hall.

We can become strong challengers and make breakthroughs in Liverpool Riverside, in Oxford East, just up the road in Solihull, in St Ives, in Sheffield, in York and in my own home territory of Camden, in London.

The Green Party will have strong campaigns up and down the country - both because voters are getting excited by the Green Party values, and because there’ll be members and supporters out there getting the message out.

And in those constituencies and many more, many voters will vote Green because they’ve seen us in action in Westminster.

Jenny Jones is doing a great job representing us in the House of Lords, She’s asking tough questions, holding the government to account, presenting alternative views. She’s a woman to be feared for all the right reasons. Just ask Boris Johnson!

And of course we have our first member of the House of Commons, the MP who’s on average made a larger contribution to the House of Commons than any other, the wonderful, amazing, brilliant MP Caroline Lucas!

When we last gathered, conference, Caroline was facing trial on charges arising from a protest against fracking at Balcombe. She was standing up for her principles, putting her body on the line, saying that threatening our fields, our homes, our communities – our country  --  with a damaging, risky technology is simply not acceptable. She was saying that we need to work out how to leave fossil fuels in the ground to prevent catastrophic climate change, instead of fracking to add to the carbon bubble.

Well, as you all know, she was found, with many others, not guilty of breaking the law, and there’s increasing conviction amongst the public that this government is guilty of pursuing a dangerous fracking fantasy. That fracking fantasy is doing real damage in Britain: it’s leaving households trapped in fuel poverty in uninsulated homes with expensive-to-run heating systems, and it’s blocking the rich possibilities of renewable energy. On renewables, Britain’s being left behind while others –  China, the US, the rest of Europe - power ahead with the energy of the future.

We know that we need to work hard to catch up, to power up, and, along with Reclaim the Power and Frack Off, community protectors and local campaigns up and down the country, we say: No fracking!

On that issue, as on so many others, voters are desperate for alternatives to the three business-as-usual parties.

Voters increasingly understand our current model is broken,  that our economy and society are failing to meet our needs, and our way of life consumes the resources of three planets.

The political elite doesn’t represent them.   One and a half per cent of the UK population are millionaires, for the Cabinet the figure is 79 per cent.

Our Green Party values are the people’s values – fairness, inclusiveness, honesty, integrity, community.

Voters increasingly understand that the long, immensely damaging decades of Thatcherite ideas dominating our public debate is coming to an end.

Thatcherite policies were wrong in 1979 and they’re even more wrong in 2014, when the damage they’ve done to our lives, to our communities, to our economy, to our environment, is glaringly evident.

The “market” of Thatcherite policies isn’t some kind of impartial, appropriate arbitrator, it’s a human creation shaped and worked for the advantage of the 1%, by the 1% and their representatives.

Instead, we in the Green Party believe in democracy, in a strong civil society, in supporting campaigns and campaigners in their work.

Unlike our astonishing new civil society minister, Brooks Newmark, we know that telling charities to “stick to their knitting” won’t have the effect he hopes of muzzling their power.

I suggest you all send him pictures from the protest against nuclear weapons last month known as “Wool Against Weapons”. It was the first time I’d crocheted in 30 years – my scarf was the lumpy one.

We need every charity, every campaigner, every voter to help us make a real, radical change in direction not just for Britain, but for the world. For we need a world of peace not war, a world of life not unnecessary premature death, a world of sufficiency not hunger.

After the summer of 2014, it’s not easy to be optimistic. The people of Syria and Iraq are suffering, dying, in terror, agony and despair. In Gaza, more than 2,000 people were killed in little over a month. Ebola is raging over the fragile health and social structures of West Africa. Ukraine is suffering a military incursion from a powerful, territory-stealing neighbour.

We have a world where austerity is hitting the vulnerable, hard, but the arms trade is protected, untouchable. We keep making, buying, subsidising, hideous weapons that add to instability, that fuel wars, that kill innocent civilians and child soldiers alike.

But now is not the time to despair.

 In Britain we’ve already seen a change in foreign policy. Democracy ensured that we didn’t bomb Syria last summer, and that’s a critically important change from the disastrous military interventions that have left such a terrible legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We need more to change. We can set an example of disarmament that complies with international non-proliferation treaties. We need to get rid of our Trident nuclear weapons.

We need to stop selling arms and providing military support to hideous human-rights-abusing regimes. We need to stop arms sales, arms subsidies, to Saudi Arabia, as Caroline Lucas said in the Commons this week. More, if we want to make the world a less dangerous place, for others and ourselves, we can, simply, stop selling weapons!

And we need to stop dead in its tracks the proposed EU-US free trade deal known as TTIP. It threatens to throw away hard won standards in food safety, environmental protection, workers’ rights … and discards democratic control of all of our futures, for the benefit of corporate profit.

And here in our country we need to take action.

In austerity Britain, the poor and the disadvantaged, the young and the old are being made to pay for the fraud and errors of the bankers, and small businesses are trampled by bullying, parasitical giant firms that don’t pay their fair share in taxes, wages or for the goods they sell.

The Coalition has governed for those who think prestige and personal wealth are more important than fairness and a decent life for everyone. This government has allowed giant, tax-dodging, low-paying, exploitative multinational companies to act at the direct expense of individual workers and communities.

The story of this government, as of the last government, is one of failure.

This government has failed to live up to its promise to reshape our economy. It hasn’t revived our manufacturing sector. It  hasn’t “made work pay”.

Quite the reverse – it’s made work pay LESS.

It hasn’t created jobs that everyone, but particularly the young, can build their life on – quite the reverse, it’s forced a rise in part-time jobs and forced self-employment that’s abandoned millions to  underregulated payday loan sharks. And to top it all, this government has tried to blame the unemployed and the underemployed for their own suffering under the failed policy of austerity.

Let’s say it loudly and clearly: the unemployed don’t cause unemployment!

This government has failed to reform our fraud-riddden, reckless, financial sector. The finance sector doesn’t meet the needs of the real economy – particularly those of small businesses that should be at the foundation of strong local economies. What does instead is to suck up human resources,  speculate, and risk our financial security. This must not continue, and it cannot continue.

And this government has failed by clinging to the damaging, discredited model of privatisation. We know, voters know, that that model is built on slashing the pay and condition of workers, cutting the quality of services, and shovelling public money into the grasping hands of tax-dodgers. Yet this government still sticks to its failed ideology, handing over the successful publicly owned East Coast to the privatised rail system that’s delivered us some of the most expensive train services in Europe.

The government is handing over OUR NHS – the brilliant model that ensures health care is there for everyone, equally, fairly – to  corrupt, tax-evading, poverty-paying multinationals, in imitation of the American model that delivers far poorer results for double the cost. We say: the profit motive has not place in healthcare.

And the nation’s official opposition? Ah, the “opposition” …

Now I promise you I’m not going to make any of this speech about the impact of Ed Miliband’s image. He’s already given a whole speech of his own about that…

But we have got a Labour Party that is barely distinguishable from the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Occasionally the rhetoric might sound a bit different, but dig a little and the policies, the philosophy, the failed economics, remain the same.

Indeed, when it comes to the subject of immigration, we have a Labour Party that’s barely distinguishable from the dangerous, damaging, divisive rhetoric of Ukip. It’s only the Green Party that has resisted, spoken out about the race to the bottom in the immigration debate.

And on issues of rights and freedoms, it’s the same old authoritarian Labour Party, thinking that the way to protect freedom is to remove it. It’s the Labour Party that backed the new, human rights-abusing Data Retention Act.

For Britain still has a Blairite Labour Party – a neo-Thatcherite Party driven by focus group and opinion poll, terrified of the rightwing media tycoons. Not surprising really, when the Labour Party of Miliband still has most of the same people of the Labour party of Blair and Brown

Ed Balls (former Children’s Secretary) is promising to maintain Tory spending cuts  - he wants to continue austerity.

Ed Miliband (former Energy Secretary) wants to keep our failed, fragmented, privatised railway system, but create a public company to enter the competition – to simply add another player to a failed model.

Caroline Flint (former minister for planning) backs fracking.

Rachel Reeves (former Bank of England economist) is promising that Labour will be tougher on welfare than the Tories.

I know some of you in this room have made the switch from Labour – just as many of you have also joined us from the Lib Dems – and I know that more and more voters are moving the same way.

And I understand why you were where you were. You heard Labour and the Lib Dems promote attractive policies and ideas, you trusted their word, and you were let down. You found they didn’t have the courage of their convictions, wouldn’t stand up for fairness, equality, face the facts, but would bow to political expediency, would tremble before the pressure of populism and smear, and give way to the temptations of ministerial cars. They let you down.

So you choose the Green Party; you made what’s not always the easy choice, but the right choice. The Green Party has a 40-year history of democracy, honesty, of telling it like it is, whether it’s immediately popular or not.

We blaze the way where others eventually follow – whether it’s the living wage, where our London Assembly members ensured the creation of the London Living Wage unit, or 20mph speed limits – a topic of campaigning for parties up and down the country now so mainstream it’s been adopted by the City of London. Our prescient founders understood the pressing nature of environmental threats – the damage done to our planet’s air, water and soils – they set out the policies for ecological modernisation that are now standards around the world.

We’re the party of real change, the party with plans and policies for how to transform our economy so that it works for the common good within the environmental limits of this planet.

These are policies that will work for the majority, the 99%  - policies that ensure rich individuals and multinational companies pay their way, policies that ensure that workers are fairly rewarded for their labours, policies that protect the vulnerable, help the young and ensure everyone can live without fear.

I’m going to start with fairness. The Green Party has the policies to make those who can afford it pay their way.

Rich individuals are stacking up wealth as the rest of us grow poorer – their accumulation is making us all worse off, individually and collectively. That’s not economically sustainable, not humanly sustainable – that’s why the Green Party will be including in its election manifesto an annual charge of between 1 and 2% to be levied on wealth of over £3 million. A Wealth Tax.

That’s not a penalty, it’s a contribution, a recognition of the fact that the super-rich can pay their share towards helping make a fairer society with decent services that they, as well as the rest of us, will benefit from. And it will start to tackle that growing blight on our society – inequality.

Far too many multinational companies are parasites, taking advantage of our lax rules to grab our cash and deposit it in a handy tax haven. Well I promise the Green Party won’t just talk about tax evasion crackdowns. We offer concrete, clear action, such as the country by country reporting in Caroline Lucas’s Tax and Financial Transparency Bill. We say that if you do business here, get profits here, you should pay taxes here.

And we strongly back a levy on the big chain stores that have been cutting the heart out of so many cities, towns and villages, destroying small retail businesses and their suppliers, hollowing out former centres of community life, building only traffic jams. The Green Party strongly backed the call from local councils for them to use the Sustainable Communities Act to force supermarkets to pay back for just a little of the damage they’ve done – the damage to jobs and communities, the vast waste of resources, and the damage they’ve done by treating food like a commodity – just think horsemeat, which millions ate whether they wanted to or not. We want to rebalance our villages, towns and cities, back towards job-creating, community-enriching small business and cooperatives.

Then I turn to the world of work.

The Green Party has the policies to ensure that workers are fairly rewarded for their labours. We need jobs that individuals can build their life around: jobs that will pay the rent, pay the food bill, let people think about settling down, start a family, with a reasonable sense of security and hope.

We ‘relong-term proponents of the living wage  but we say we need to go further to deliver dignity, security and a fair reward for workers’ labour. That’s why we’re calling for a £10 per hour minimum wage for everyone by 2020.

We’re also backing a complete ban zero-hours contracts. No employer should be able to hold their staff captive in a life of uncertainty and fear, subject to the whims and favouritism of managers, with no way of planning how to pay their bills. The zero-hours contract is the return of the Great Depression’s street corner queues for work – and we say NO!

We say that public sector workers must not be made to pay for the errors and fraud of the bankers with continued austerity that’s hit our dinner ladies, our teachers, our nurses, our firefighters. Money collected from making rich individuals and big businesses can fund the decent, essential public services that we all need.

And the Green Party has policies to restore generational justice – we have policies for the young, the old, and everyone inbetween to help them live a life of decent security, a life without fear, in a society that works for the common good.

Now our young people are trapped. We want to set them free. As a society, a country, we have to ensure that the young will not go through decades of life worn down by the weight of student debt. Education is a public good. Whether it’s an NVQ or a PhD – makes our society a little stronger, adds to the common good. That’s why we demand the complete removal of university tuition fees.

And we’ll ensure that private landlords are NOT allowed to continue to charge extortionate rents for rabbit hutches. Our smart rent cap, combined with long-term rental contracts, will keep rent rises down. And we’re demanding a living rent commission, to work out how to bring rents back in line with incomes. By abolishing right to buy and freeing councils to borrow to build more council housing – which we so desperately need -- we can start to restore the balance to our housing that’s not now working for the common good but for a few rich landlords.  

And we’ll ensure that the disabled and the ill don’t have to live in fear of the withdrawal of essential support, support that should be their right, that should be given gladly to those in need in a civilised society. We’ll abolish the work capability assessment, acknowledging that the best person to decide on ability to work is that individual’s medical practitioner, and restore the level of the former disability living allowance to what’s needed, not what the government decides it wants to cut it to.

The Green Party will ensure that no one need fear going hungry, need dread destitution, need face the panic of having nothing. That’s the promise, the hope, the brilliance of the basic or citizens’ income – that long-term Green Party policy that’s now taking an increasing prominent place in the thinking of campaigners here in Britain and around the world.

And, most fundamentally of all, the Green Party’s are the policies that recognise that our economy is a subset of the natural environment. There are no jobs on a dead planet. There is no life as we know it on a 6-degree-warmed world.

The Green Alliance of environmental charities and campaigners – together they represent 7 million people - just this week rightly said that we need a plan to restore our natural environment. It’s being depleted by the hour – the greenbelt concreted over, the soil and water poisoned with noxious chemicals, our seas sterilised by disastrous fishing methods.

We need action. We need to rein in the agrochemical companies, the factory farmers and the developers. Greens have been leading in the struggle to ban chemicals being broadcast into our environment without understanding of the consequences, not just for bees, but for many other species. We’re leading in the struggle to protect the green belt. And we’re encouraging the small-scale, local agriculture that we need to provide food security – and jobs and business opportunities – in our future, not the disastrous, damaging industrial agriculture that’s producing green deserts across our land, killing off our farmland birds, our hedgehogs, and our soils.

And we need an energy policy, not the disastrous mishmash this government has delivered. We need to commit, now, to a zero-carbon electricity future – there are so many exciting possibilities for wind, solar, and tidal. We need to power up now. And for transport we need to invest for the future – not the back-of-an-envelope HS2 plan, but support for walking and cycling, for local buses, and local trains. Real change here doesn’t just deliver for the environment, it also delivers in people’s lives – cutting their costs, letting them sit back relax on their journeys …

The only downside may be that our social media gets even busier, but congestion in the virtual world beats congestion and pollution in the real one.

I want to make one final reflection on the work that lies ahead of us, before we get back to the important democratic deliberations of conference

Since 2010, the foundations of the Green Party have become a lot stronger, our support is growing fast. And the political landscape has changed.

We can make 2015 the year the Green Party cements itself as a core block, a central element, of British political life.

We’ve long been creating the policies that other eventually “steal” as their own. We’ve long been the trailblazers who encouraged the braver members of other parties to push their leadership towards action. We’ve long been the people who asked the tough questions, pointed out the social and environmental flaws in policies.

But increasingly we’re being – and we’re determined to be  -- elected, to be in the position to put our policies for real change into action.

The general election in 2015 is a big challenge, and a huge opportunity. I invite you all to join me in seizing it. Let’s do it!

To watch this speech please click here:


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