Natalie Bennett delivers leader's speech to Spring Conference 2016

26 February 2016

Hello conference, hello Harrogate!

This is billed as the “happiest place to live in Britain” – a great place for us to promote and develop policies for a healthier, happier society that works for the common good.

It’s a place that likes to do things properly – particularly cream teas – although I think the people of Harrogate will forgive me for not putting on a “proper suit” and doing up my tie, even if David Cameron seems to think that’s a critical qualification for a party  leader.

But “happy Harrogate” is just right for a party growing fast – membership more than trebled last year and we won more votes in the general election than we have previously in every general election added together.

This is the party that, working together for a future that’s fair and sustainable, this May will turn the Green surge into Green seats.

That’s already happening – we’ve just won two County Council by-elections. We never used to win County Council by-elections!

Congratulations to the first Greens ever on their respective councils – congratulations Clare Sutton in Dorset and Duncan Kerr in Shropshire.

That Shropshire victory is of particular note because it now means that we’ve got elected representatives in every county in the West Midlands. Congratulations to all who’ve worked to develop a campaigning model so good that I found on a recent visit to Worcester, even the Tories are copying it! Just think of it – Tories out doing 60-second surveys!

But those county by-election victories are just a sign of the opportunities for the Green Party in May – the opportunities everywhere from Sunderland to Southampton, Kendal to Exeter.

The possibilities for a Green Party with 44 new local parties since the start of 2015. When I was elected in 2012 I promised to help make the Green Party a truly national party – we’re getting there!

For many communities, there’s the opportunity to elect their first Green councillors – the huge appeal of a new broom sweeping through dusty corridors, a challenger asking tough questions, scrutinising.

That’s particularly important in those communities that have been “one-party states” – complacent, unchallenged Cabinets without ideas, without hope, without initiative.

But also it’s critical in places where politics is trapped in the stale, sterile bish-bosh of two-party politics.

Greens are a breath of fresh air – a new hope for communities that need strong, principled, innovative local councillors to care, to find alternatives, amid the horrors of Westminster’s Tory austerity.

Voters always know where Greens stand. Our values and principles are clear and consistent – maintained by you, conference, our supreme decision making body, .

But of course there’s more in May – the chance to grow our numbers on councils where we’re already strong, in Bristol, Liverpool, Sheffield and many others, and exciting elections in Wales and in London, and for our sister parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

These are elections conducted, as all elections should be conducted,  under a fair, proportional system in which voters can simply, uncomplicatedly, vote for what they believe in and get it.

In Scotland it looks like there could be a breakthrough and for the first time a Green MSP representing every region of the country.

In Wales, we’ve got a great team of candidates, a hugely grown party.

Good luck Alice Hooker-Stroud, Amelia Womack and Lisa Rapido – three young women who could be the great first Green team in the Senedd. A better future for Welsh politics!

And then in London, we’re seeing a changing of the guard. After 16 years of sterling service, Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson are standing down from the London Assembly. Darren and Jenny, we all say thank you!

Building on the foundation you’ve made, we’re looking to grow our representation in London – and to see a great result for Sian Berry in the mayoral race. To build a better future for London. Remember, Sian’s odds are much shorter than Jeremy Corbyn’s were at the start of the Labour leadership race!

Of course we now know that we’ve got another important vote this year – a vote that could have an irrevocable impact on Britain’s future – the vote on our membership of the European Union.

Last year in Bournemouth, conference, you directed the Party  to run a strong, bold campaign calling for Britain to remain in the EU – and that’s just what we’ll be doing.

“GreenerIn” – yes that’s the hashtag, Greens for Europe – that’s the organisation.

Green MEPs, our own and from across the Continent, will be at the forefront, pointing out that we flourish best when we work together to jointly tackle the problems we face.

The referendum campaign is only days old, yet it’s already clear that it’s going to be dirty, it’s going to be, from many sides, short on facts and big on playing on fears of insecurity.

That’s not the kind of campaign we’ll be running. That’s not Green politics.

Instead we’ll be focusing on the positives of Europe – the way in which free movement of people enriches all of our lives, the defence of human rights and peace, the environmental standards, the workers’ rights, the limits on bankers’ bonuses (won with the leadership of Philippe Lamberts, who’s with us today). Thanks Philippe!

And maybe we can focus for a second on cake. We can all love, here in Harrogate, some jam, cream and scones, but we also occasionally like a Black Forest gateau, a tarte aux pommes or a Polish poppy seed cake.

we’ll be focusing particularly on encouraging young voters to engage in this debate,  – to make sure for a start that they’re registered to vote.

There's a new movie out this year, a remake of the Big Friendly Giant. The referendum of course already has it's own BFG – Boris, Farage & Gove. That one's definitely not suitable for kids!

I know that pictures of those three grinning amigos will make many want to turn away from the debate , but it’s important that voters don’t. It’s critical that everyone has their say. The referendum in Scotland saw an 85% turnout, this year we can do the same across the UK.

We’re family, we’re citizens on a continent in which we are all – really – in it together, breathing European air, living beside European waters.

Just one sample of the “quality” of the arguments coming from the “leave” side: “we’ll get back ‘our’ fish,” they say – as though fish carry passports and stop at borders!

Oh, another sample, who can resist? Ukip’s MEP for Scotland blames the EU for his limp toast – he thinks his toaster’s power is like that of a candle, when what he wants is a nuclear reactor. For his toast!

Of course – back to serious politics - we need many reforms in Brussels, but then we need many reforms in Westminster. That’s not an argument for giving up on democracy, despite the fact we’ve now got a government with the support of just 24% of eligible voters.

The arguments for remaining in Europe are powerful, they’re sensible, they’re the future.

Surveys show that young voters are overwhelmingly positive about EU membership.

This is a political battle we should only have to fight once! Demographics are on our side.

But the Leave campaign only need to win once – and by just one vote – to achieve a permanent isolation. They would win a Britain turning away from its geography, away from its proud history of offering refuge to those in need, away from cooperation and friendship.  This is a Britain not just damaging itself, but damaging the rest of Europe, and the world. We cannot let them!

We must not allow the “out” campaign to use general dissatisfaction, distrust for our undemocratic government, fear for the future – drive a vote to leave the EU.

The EU vote isn’t a vote of no-confidence in this government, much as that’s deserved. It's a vote on our long term future.

But it’s also critically important that over the next four months our politics is not dominated by the European referendum  to the exclusion of the pressing economic, social and environmental problems that Britain faces.

Last week, I happened to read the words of Daniel Finkelstein – or rather The Right Honourable The Lord Finkelstein, one more Conservative beneficiary of David Cameron’s House of Lords largesse - in The Times.

Baron Finkelstein claimed that this is the best time to live in Britain ever, and that our and similar societies are the best place to live, ever.

Now I know Harrogate’s a lovely place, but even here, there’s a foodbank – catering to the needs of those who are struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over their head.

On recent visits to Bradford and Rochdale, I saw communities struggling to survive.

We live in two Britains – two Britains that seems farther apart every day. The Britain of many in Bradford and Rochdale, and yes even in Harrogate, is not Baron Finkelstein’s Britain.

Of course this isn’t unique to Britain. In America, the surprisingly strong progress of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential selection has reflected the same concerns – and yes, we do have one Green Party member, former Oxford councillor Larry Sanders, who’s watching that race with particular attention, when he's not representing the Greens as our new spokesperson on health.

Here’ there’s the Britain of the 1% and the Britain of the rest of us, the Britain that puts us  near the bottom of a global measure of the wellbeing and happiness of eight-year-olds.

The Britain that’s seen death rates rising to the worst recorded since the end of the Second World War – a death rate attributed to David Cameron’s successive governments' cuts to social services.

The Britain that’s seeing our NHS privatised, fragmented, threatened by treatment of the precious, caring doctors, nurses and midwives that seems deliberately aimed at driving them away.

We cannot, we must not, let David Cameron and his friends in the still out-of-control financial sector, in the oil and gas industry , in the tax-dodging multinationals, continue on their current path under the cover of the EU referendum. We must not be distracted.

The referendum is not a “get out of jail free” card for David Cameron to escape attention for his threats to our human rights with the Trade Union Bill and his  proposal to abolish the Human Rights Act.

The referendum is not a “get out of jail free” card that allows Iain Duncan Smith to escape being questioned on his disgraceful, inhumane treatment of disabled people.

The referendum is not a “get out of jail free” card for Nicky Morgan for the state of our overworked, underpaid, Ofsted-tormented teachers and the shortage of school places where local authorities can’t plan for the future.

We mustn’t let this Tory party leadership contest masquerading as a referendum campaign defuse or deflect us   Whether it's challenging the destruction of social housing planned in the Housing Bill or the cuts to Employment Support Allowance.

We must lay the blame for the state of Britain very clearly where it belongs – not with the European Union but at the feet of David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.

The rate of poverty now is double what it was in 1983. The percentage of people unable to heat their home has trebled since the 1990s. The number of people skipping meals because they can’t afford the food has more than doubled since 1983.

We are where we are now because a neoliberal political philosophy that has assumed greed is good, inequality doesn’t matter and we can just keep trashing the planet.. It’s a philosophy that’s demonstrably failed. It’s a philosophy that has to go.

2020 is too far away: we have to get rid of this dangerous, inept, callous government – this disastrous political philosophy -- long before then.

Our communities, our society, our environment – cannot take any more of them. They are not – they cannot be – the future.

The floods over Christmas were a reminder – a reminder very close to home here in Harrogate – that we are now living in a world warmed one degree above pre-industrial levels.

We saw a huge, global, success in Paris last year at the climate talks – a reminder to feed into the EU referendum debate of the possibility of working constructively together for the future.

The success was the agreement to try to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

That’s a huge challenge – but with the renewable energy technology coming on in leaps and bounds and costs declining fast – an achievable one.

Instead of promoting energy conservation, promoting community-owned renewable energy, promoting public transport, the government is leaving people in cold, deadly, homes. It’s encouraging, subsidising!,  the frackers, the oil-drillers, the destructive open-cut coal miners. It’s promoting new roads and new airport runways.

This isn’t working for the future, it’s clinging to the failed, dangerous, past.

As right across the policy spectrum, this government is on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of economics, the wrong side of communities.

But I’m not going to finish there – I must finish with hope. So a final thought to happiness, to quality of life, to the plan for  a better future that’s at the centre of Green politics.

I’m, hoping to find time while in Harrogate to visit the Mercer Gallery to see the work of Dame Laura Knight, the first woman elected as a member of the Royal Academy of Arts. She was also the woman who recorded in paint the Nuremberg trials  – a reminder of the importance of defending human rights, human decency, human care.

Her story’s a reminder of the place that art and culture have played in British society, British life, British values, important to remember in the face of a government that seems determined to downplay and devalue their role.

We’ve now got a government that just doesn’t get that education should be for life, not for exams, that a community theatre, a local museum, a youth arts group, isn’t a luxury, but a key part of a good life.

We can, we must, build a future in which a good life, a rich life, a life free from desperation and fear of want, is in reach of everyone – a future with a universal basic income ensuring that no one need fear being penniless, a future with a new system of money creation that puts resources into the real economy rather than casino finance, a future where we all live well within the environmental limits of our one, fragile, planet.

A Green future. With the UK as part of a fairer, kinder, more sustainable Europe.


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