The Green Party Conference, which opened yesterday at Nottingham’s East Midlands Conference Centre, would never expect to attract the same scrutinizing media glare that focuses on those of the three major parties. In major representative positions, the Green Party of England and Wales boasts just one MP, two MEPs, a minority council in Brighton & Hove and two London Assembly members. Party leader Natalie Bennett’s opening speech only created a sprinkling of online reportage (on the websites of the Guardian, BBC News, and Politics.co.uk), mostly relating to her call for Ed Miliband to apologise for the Iraq War.
In absence of Nick Robinson-esque analysis of a Cameron, Miliband or Clegg showpiece, I’ll tentatively step into the breach to provide a breakdown of the Green Party leader’s performance and a summary of the key messages of the speech. (The video of the first half is below and a transcript is available here).
The two key aspects of the speech were an argument that the Greens are a genuine opposition force on the left wing of British politics – in the place of an ineffective Labour party – and a rallying cry in anticipation of an electoral breakthrough. Bennett ramped up the anti-Labour rhetoric from last year’s speech, in which she first claimed that “We are the opposition”.
“But sadly, mysteriously, one group that isn’t saying “no more” is the Labour Party.
“Well, maybe it isn’t so mysterious…. They’re only offering more of the same that we had for 13 years under Blair and Brown.”
The headline-grabbing moment came when the Green leader singled out Ed Miliband for failing “to apologise for the decision to take Britain into an unjustifiable war.”
In terms of what the Greens would offer in Labour’s place, Bennett blended typical environmental concerns with the expected anti-austerity rhetoric and a potent social mission. The introduction of a living wage, restrictions on excessive executive pay and a staunch commitment to an extensive welfare system set out the bones of a policy framework.
When a party is so far from government, speeches like this are light on policy detail and heavy on utopian promise. The Green leader concluded with her vision:
“A country with a jobs-rich, low-carbon economy, with orchards and richly growing fields, vibrant manufacturing industries, and strong local economies built around small businesses and cooperatives. A country fit for the 21st century – and a country that can look forward to a stable, comfortable 22nd.”
Soundbite of the day
There’s a couple to choose from. “Jobs-rich, low carbon economy” isn’t a new line, especially after its regular use in Bennett’s recent Andrew Marr Show appearance. The “no more” motif was ubiquitous and attempted to draw a narrative thread through much of the speech.
The obligatory word cloud
As we’ve become accustomed to seeing, the Green leader spoke with considered and calm passion. Admittedly, there was the odd slip and the section describing the playlist for the subsequent nights’ festivities almost descended into best man territory. And, after a bright start, the “no more” motif became a little tiresome and started to echo Conservative rhetoric at the 2010 general election. However, when it came to rousing the troops for the forthcoming elections towards the end of the speech, Bennett chose to map out the progression carefully, using targets such as six English MEPs, rather than choosing inspirational rhetoric. This showed maturity beyond the party’s size and a conscious distancing from the stereotype of the Green Party as a group single-issue hippies. On the environmental issues, the use of natural examples, from hedgehogs to urban sparrows, helped illuminate a subject which, in the public mind, can often be reduced to vapid ‘go green’ messages.
After setting out the roadmap for electoral success, Bennett explained her simple, honest goal for Green politics over the next few years:
“That will mean many more people across Britain will have elected Green representatives all around them – will come to think of Green as one of the choices just normally available on the political smorgasbord.”
The aim is a realistic one and draws upon the dual-identity of the Greens as both a political party and pressure group. It was refreshing to hear a minority party leader speak with considered ambition.
“Another group saying “no more” to great effect is UK Uncut. I’m sure many people in this room took part in their action against Starbucks, the fast growing but mysteriously totally unprofitable coffee chain that infests our high streets like a particularly pernicious weed.”
The Green leader picked her target beautifully with the tax-evasive multinational. An open goal, but you’ve still got to score it. Cue rapturous chuckling.
“Thank you…. It’s great to be in Nottingham, just up the road from Leicester, where the remains of the last English king killed in battle, Richard III, were recently found underneath a council carpark. Not one of our favourite kings, and man who today sounds particularly unwise in crying “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”
This delicious opening salvo set the room titillating. The follow up about George Osborne saying “Plan A, Plan A, Always Plan A for Austerity”, not so much. Cue party aide prompting the crowd to initiate awkward laughter among the crowd.
Natalie Bennett didn’t deliver the immaculate showpiece we are used to seeing at a major party conference. Yet, she provided a feisty challenge to the Labour party, and a determined and realistic plan for successive in local, regional and national politics. My cynicism warns me that the Iraq War comments might have been intended solely to spark a media reaction. Of course, it wasn’t Miliband but Tony Blair who led Britain into war – Miliband wasn’t even an MP at the time – but as we approach the ten year anniversary of the commencement of hostilities on 20 March, it is an easy anti-Labour target for a Green bombardment.
As the Green Party celebrates its 40th birthday this weekend, its members received a speech they deserved. In fact, the absence of obvious spin and the down-to-earth delivery was quite endearing. A lesson for Messrs Cameron, Miliband and Clegg perhaps? Quite possibly.