The Green Party leader on what her party would do for business
Who on earth is Natalie Bennett?
At the risk of sounding egocentric, she isn’t my aunt or anything like that. However, like me, she did forge a career in journalism, working at the Bangkok Post before becoming editor of the Guardian Weekly.
Bennett’s credentials to be Green Party leader are almost stereotypically excellent, and she took the reigns last September after Caroline Lucas left to focus on her job as a Brighton MP. Having graduated university with a degree in agricultural science, Bennett is a member of the People’s Supermarket co-operative and has founded the “Carnival of feminists”.
Although Lucas is much better known as the UK’s Green spokesperson, Bennett hasn’t been shy of speaking her mind, with her comments last week to LondonlovesBusiness.com linking the recent Woolwich tragedy to the UK acting as the “world policeman” causing controversy. So much so that the Sydney-born Green chief had to fend off criticism for her “disgraceful” remarks on Friday night on LBC radio.
Despite having an MP in Caroline Lucas, the Greens have been drowned out in the media by the rise of UKIP as a fourth party. The polls show Nigel Farage’s lot are leaps and bounds ahead of the Greens, with YouGov recently putting it at 16% to 2% in popularity. UKIP also have 10,000 members more than the Greens, which have 16,000 supporters.
However, the Greens have two London Assembly members, which UKIP do not. They also have 142 councillors compared to UKIP’s total of 161. “They may be down to 160 but give it a little while…!” Bennett says. However, in a stinging sign of the ill will between the minor parties, a UKIP spokesperson scoffs at Bennett’s estimate, saying that the party actually has over 190 councillors. “Her mathematics, like her moral compass, must be askew,” he adds icily.
But Bennett is far from being deflated by such prospects. From her predictions on the fall of multinationals to her salary, the bullish Aussie rattles through a host of subjects when talking to LondonlovesBusiness.com.
Despite the Greens’ efforts to get that title, the media has focused on UKIP as the rising alternative party, surely their rise must be pretty galling?
It is frustrating in terms of the level of media attention they get, which reflects the fact that what they’re saying has very high headline value, but it’s when you start to dig down that you realise there’s virtually nothing there.
Why have they been able to grow so far then?
They’re riding on Farage’s personality and the Tories’ unpopularity with their natural supporters. UKIP is by and large the Tories problem and to a degree Labour’s.
Farage is quite happy to be a stuntman for UKIP. It has been suggested that maybe I should juggle turnips naked on television or something but I don’t really want to do that…!
What I’m confident about is that as more attention gets paid to the detail, they’ll be like a hot air balloon which rises on the horizon and makes a big blot on the landscape but you know one way or another it’ll disappear quite soon.
But how has UKIP been able to thrive…?
It’s because of the failure of our three largest political parties to in any way represent the voters of Britain. Let’s be blunt about this, the people who are most outraged and most likely to vote are the right-wing elements.
What about on the left with Respect, with their MP in George Galloway?
Respect as a party has virtually ceased to exist. There is just George Galloway, there isn’t really a Respect Party.
The Greens got their first MP in Caroline Lucas over in Bright Pavillion. Where’s next on the hitlist?
The obvious line for second is Norwich South, where we got something like 15% last time and we’ve been on the opposition on the council for some time. What we’re looking to do after that is have a number of advance constituencies, the obvious one that comes to mind is Bristol West.
Where are you targeting in London?
It’ll almost certainly be somewhere in North London possibly Camden, Islington, Hackney and Haringey.
On business, would the Greens increase corporation tax?
Very much so! But it needs to be highlighted that what we’re talking about is the tax that big companies pay.
What this government has done is they’ve brought corporation tax down to the level of small companies. Traditionally, there has been a very significant differential but rightly so.
We know that most of these giant companies aren’t paying anything like the headline rate anyway! The previous disadvantage in tax that was meant to help Joe’s corner store compete with Tesco has been deliberately taken out by this government. You also look at the fact that Joe’s Corner store wouldn’t use tax loopholes or have three subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands, but the companies they’re competing against do.
So whose fault is it? The tax system or the companies who use loopholes?
It’s absolutely fine and a good thing to name and shame, and say I’m not going to use [these companies]anymore but the primary force for action needs to be the government. We have a government of the multinationals, for the multinationals.
I think if we start with Starbucks, I don’t think it’d be a great disaster if it went away to be honest. I think we’d be able to get rather better coffee as a general rule of thumb, but more seriously our current business model is utterly unsustainable and profoundly broken.
The £5 t-shirt in the chain store on the High Street actually has far greater real costs as we saw very tragically with the recent factory incident in Bangladesh with more than a thousand dead. The current model has to change and the way it has to change is by building strong local economies and bringing manufacturing back to Britain.
How would you bring manufacturing back? Through Enterprise zones perhaps? Tax incentives?
No that’s not how we’d do it.
One side of it is making sure that the real costs apply to the £5 t-shirt in chain store X, in which case the t-shirt made down the road is going to be a great deal more competitive.
Surely if you clamp down on outsourcing, businesses will find savings elsewhere, potentially jacking up prices for the consumer?
Yes. Things will become more expensive and that’s where we want to make the minimum living wage a starting point. If you work full time, you should earn enough money to live on and shouldn’t have to rely on welfare benefits to pay your food bill.
But if the cost of living goes up, the minimum/living wage will have to go up too?
Yes. That is where we come back to the inequality thing. The top 10% got 11% wealthier l
ast year. If only that wealth was distributed much more evenly…
If you put more money into the pockets of people who are in the lower percentile of society, they are going to spend it on essentials.
This is happening already, in a sign of the broken economic system. You’ve probably heard of the term reshoring. My favourite example of this is the manufacturer of Pot Noodles coming back to Britain. As a Green, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Pot Noodles as a great product but it’s an example of a very basic low level product.
Isn’t that just the free market process in keeping costs low?
That relies on very low cost places being available and we’ve basically worked out all of the obvious places.
The costs of transport are going up enormously and given that we’re at or near peak oil, transport costs are going to keep going up. Various things like the Tsunami and the floods in Thailand have made people realise that the long fragile supply chains break down and then you’re really left in a hole.
It’s obvious that globalisation overshot any kind of sensible limits and has to pull back anyway. What we’re suggesting is going with the trend.
Pulling back and being more localised? Wouldn’t there be much less trade?
Yes. It doesn’t mean no trade. I’m not talking about autarky. I like my coffee and we’re not going to grow coffee anytime soon.
So that means the end of the multinational?
Exactly. Going back to an economy built around strong, local businesses. Fifty per cent of the money spent at your local small shop stays locally. The shop owner employs an accountant. When she needs a new shelf, she employs a builder. If you have a multinational, they’ll bring in their contracts from wherever.
But how soon would you predict the decline of the multinationals? Google hasn’t been shrinking away in defending its tax arrangements!
Search engines will basically be global, maybe with China and the languages and script difference, there probably are Chinese engines. And things like if you’re making immensely complicated scanning machines, that kind of thing will always be global. It’s the idea of having the economy at the appropriate level for whatever the product is.
Why not locally made mobile phones then?
What you might have is a locally made mobile phone with the high tech chip in it coming from one or two central factories but I’ve just been horrified seeing the adverts in the tubes saying “change your phone as often as you like!” We have to get away from this throwaway society and the costs of changing your mobile phone.
Sure, we want to keep our mobile phones upgraded all the time but ideally what we do is stick a new chip in the side or download some new software, not change the frame of the phone.
I notice you’ve got a Sony Xperia smartphone, when did you get that?
I got that about six weeks ago, when my keyboard stopped working. I didn’t upgrade it, the A and the E stopped working on my old one, which made it rather difficult to send text messages!
That was about a two-year-old phone and the manufacturers have made it to last two years. So we’ve got to move to manufacturing that builds things to last.
We’ve talked about Google and that search giants would remain global, but what about something like Amazon?
Amazon is built on the basis, as we’re now aware, of huge tax avoidance.
But those warehouses bring a lot of jobs to the UK?
Yes, but the trades they’re doing aren’t going through Britain, but through offshore places.
My answer to Amazon is eBay. I know eBay doesn’t pay their taxes either, but eBay can meet all of the needs of Amazon but it’s based on millions of small traders and on second hand sales. Ultimately, the eBay model will defeat the Amazon model and that’s a good thing.
So Amazon will go bust one day?
If Amazon is made to pay its taxes, and if it’s made to pay its workers properly, then I suspect you’ll find its economic model starting to shift around.
What we’ve learnt over the last couple of decades is that we’ve been through periods of massive change and there are companies that have appeared and disappeared and we have to change from an Amazon world.
If a company isn’t paying the living wage, then the money that the worker is relying on instead will include family tax credits and other government benefits. That is really corporate welfare.
On tax avoidance, you’d want firms to pay the fair rate of tax, how would you judge what is “fair”?
The government should set a tax rate and the company should pay the tax rate.
But they are already paying their taxes, if at least the legal minimum…
Well yes. But if you have a corporation tax rate of 26%, then you’d expect the company to be paying around 26%.
You can make a reasonable judgement of this. If your turnover is X, we can assume that – it depends on the industry – 10% of it is profit, then you should be paying 30% if the tax rate is 30%.
There is a fear that in clamping down on tax avoidance and forcing businesses to pay the living wage, some firms could be forced to relocate out of the UK. Aren’t you worried about the danger of the best and brightest leaving the City?
I’ll quote to you the net figures on the social benefit of bankers. They all cost us £7 in value for each pound they are paid. We’d actually be six times better off…!
So the Greens would be fine with bankers leaving the City to go elsewhere?
Well… we want to maintain a financial industry but a much smaller financial industry that actually meets the needs of the real economy, which it doesn’t now.
They haven’t learnt their lesson, but in a way what they say or how they behave in their sack cloth and ashes isn’t the point. The point is to fundamentally change the way you do business and they haven’t done anything.
If they don’t clean up their act, will protest movements like Occupy keep going?
Yeah. I know some Occupy people and I’m confident that it’s one of those things that will keep popping up in different forms in different ways.
Labour has the trade unions, Tories have businesses – who are the Greens’ big backers?
We regard ourselves as the political wing of what I call the small green movement, which is everything from Occupy to UK Uncut through to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
But where is the money coming from?
(Laughs) It isn’t… Increasingly we’re getting support from different bits of the union movement which are thoroughly disillusioned with Labour.
Yeah, the problem is if you talk about money you can forget co-operatives…because by their nature, they plough their money back into their business.
Our fundamental funders are our members. It’s the Obama model of lots of small donors. Most of our members can’t give a huge amount but they give what they can and cumulatively it adds up.
What about yourself and your income – do you draw a salary as Green Party leader?
I draw an allowance of £24,500, which was created when Caroline stood down and it became clear that whoever succeeded wasn’t going to do it full-time. Obviously, if I became elected as something, I’d drop that!
How are you living then?
Quite cheaply! I went from being editor of the Guardian Weekly to doing this, so obviously I’ve taken a large cut in salary.
What else are you doing while being leader?
Basically just this. I have a little American website that I’ve been doing forever that pays me $150 a month.
I’m below the median wage. The last party conference set a limit saying the most we would pay in an allowance for anyone in a position like me would be the median wage.
Jenny Jones led the way in the London mayoral elections in calling for the candidates to have their tax returns published. Should UK politicians do it too?
I think they should. I’m perfectly happy to do it, mine would be extraordinarily dull!