Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party since September

Trains, London’s bike lanes, and feminist politics: a five minute walk with Natalie Bennett from the station to a local café, and our polite pre-interview chit chat has already veered into discussion of the liberal social issues with which the Green Party is most identified. “Will we have anything left to talk about now?” I wonder briefly.

I needn’t have worried. Natalie Bennett is a woman with a lot to say, and a vision of Britain’s political future which consists of far more than polar bears and climate change.

Bennett is in Cambridge to deliver a talk at Emmanuel United Reform Church as part of the University’s Green Week. The Green Party leader was elected in September 2012, succeeding Caroline Lucas, who left the post to concentrate on fulfilling her MP responsibilities in the party’s first parliamentary seat of Brighton Pavilion. Bennett, however, is hardly hiding in the shadow of her famous predecessor. On being elected, she declared an intention to make the Greens this country’s ‘third party’, and her talk tonight - ‘Jobs-Rich and Low-Carbon: Britain’s Green Economic Future’ – sees Bennett offer an economic policy unprecedentedly radical in its scope. She calls for nothing less than the overhaul of British society.

“Dealing with the economic crisis and dealing with the environmental situation actually go together”, she tells me. “The neoliberal globalisation model of having a low-wage economy built around multinational companies…it’s clearly failed. What we need to do is bring manufacturing back to Britain, we need to bring food production back to Britain.

Insulating homes, installing renewable energy, ideally community-owned, and greatly improving public transport: all these things will create jobs, Bennett suggests, within an economic package the Green Party has labelled the ‘Green New Deal’. “The whole economic structure that we have now, it never really did work, but in tough economic times, it’s particularly failing, and so we need to rebuild by fixing our environment at the same time.”

Her judgement on the current coalition government’s environmental record is less a criticism than a denunciation. “Yes, I mean the whole greenest government ever thing has become such a sick joke”, she says. “The problem is they haven’t got in their own terms any coherence in policy. There’s about four different energy policies; there’s the Lib Dem energy policy which might not be that bad; there’s the Tories’ ‘We hate wind farms’, anything but wind farms tendency, then there’s the Boris Johnson tendency which is “um, we’re going to find some magic wand like fracking or something to just solve everything…, and then we’ve got whatever David Cameron put on the back of an envelope last night, which changes from day to day.”

Far from putting the economy on the backburner, moving towards more environmentally friendly practices is actually in industries’ best interests, she insists. Meanwhile, adopting the Living Wage of £7.45 to replace the current minimum wage, she says, is simply a fairer way of doing things. “When you’ve got a new vice-chancellor saying that the top paid person in the university shouldn’t be paid more than ten times the lowest paid person, the administration normally goes ‘oh, oh, well we’ve got to pay well to get the best person’, to which the answer is, ‘well, that’s fine, the cleaners can get paid a bit better.’”

I move on to Bennett herself. She has what she describes on her website as a ‘generalist’ background. A degree in agricultural science from the University of Sydney; more than two decades experience as a journalist; a five-year stint as editor of Guardian Weekly prior to taking up her leadership position, and consultancy for the World Health Organisation in India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives suggest Bennett is not your typical party leader.

“I very much don’t come from the classical ‘go to Oxbridge, become a political advisor, go to a think tank for a little while, and then get your safe sear.’ She expresses enormous pride at being “probably the only political leader who can shear a sheep.” Truly, a woman of the people.

A Manchester branch of the Green Party at a recent rallyBinaryApe

Does Bennett worry that the party’s green agenda, for all its worthiness, risks shoehorning the party? Bennett nods. “People do simply mix up the Green Party and Greenpeace”, she acknowledges. “That has been known to happen.” But, she insists, the party has always had a full range of policies. She tells me that during the run-up to the 2010 general election, Channel 4 investigated the fully costed manifesto which the Green Party had written up explaining how they proposed to finance their reforms, should they be elected. “It added up”, she tells me, “and so they didn’t pursue a story about it”.

This manifesto even allowed for zero tuition fees for students, a stance now unique among all the major political parties. “What we think we have to do”, Bennett tells me, “is regard education as a public good, not as an individual getting debt sitting on their shoulders for ages”.

The EMA wasn’t perfect, she recognises, but something like it should be restored to ensure young people staying on in compulsory education from disadvantaged backgrounds have the means to do so. She is particularly vocal on the need to restore proper apprenticeships. “A six month apprenticeship in shelf stacking is not what I call an apprenticeship at all. There’s absolutely no justification for paying them £2.50 an hour; it’s just another excuse for getting really low paid workers.”

Yet for all the benefits the Greens appear to offer students, we do not see young people mobilise to support them. The environment, I suggest to Bennett, just isn’t very cool. She accepts that this certainly used to be the dominant attitude: “during the boom years, people though that things were going to be alright, and that their lives would work out alright, and there was a natural [attitude of], “well, I’m just going to engage in my own affairs, have my own experiences as a university student.”

But she is certain times have changed. She recounts a question time event she participated in a few days before the 2010 demonstrations against student fees in London at Westminster College, where the turnout was so huge that they had to change rooms. “This was just three local councillors and me, it wasn’t a particularly sexy group of people. The sixteen, seventeen year old were really engaged, really angry, really concerned, and I think we’re heading into a new, very different generation.”

I return to her famous aspiration to become Britain’s third biggest political party. How does she feel about the fact that a party as right-wing as UKIP are currently vying with them for that third spot? UKIP, she says with a smile, are “a bit like a hot air balloon: fill them up with a lot of hot air, they look really big on the horizon, but they’re not going to make much long-term impact on the landscape.”

They may have been able to capitalise on Tory discontent, but “having that natural constituency is still a long way away from electing your first MP, which we’ve already done”. Would the Greens ever consider entering into political coalition, à la Lib Dems? “I cannot foresee any circumstances in which we would even think about coalition with the Tories”, she stresses.   

Bennett’s wariness of such political compromise no doubt stems from the number of disaffected Lib Dem voters which the party is currently attracting, together with Labourites who feel that “Labour is incredibly soft on things they should be tough on”.

“For instance, we’ve been banging on about the minimum wage needing to be a living wage, and its not coincidental that Ed Miliband came out and had a weekend where he was focussing on living wage, except he was saying that they’d ask companies really nicely if they’d pay a living wage. And you know, every time that something like that happens, there’s a few more Labour people who go ‘uggh, we give up!’”

In a week in which the media spotlight has been shone so brightly on the darling of the French far right, Marine Le Pen, it is refreshing to meet a female politician who can match ‘strength’ with apparently sensible policies.

“We need to change the way the whole of society works so that it’s nice and easy and simple”, Bennett concludes. Cynics may deride such idealism. Yet the novelty of a genuinely nice political leader could be powerful come election time.