The Green Party has been in the news, but this time it isn’t because they had a surge in membership or been invited to the leaders’ debates, it is because their policies were actually being discussed. On LBC they had a chance to put their housing policy directly to voters and the outcome was not good. Faced with some simple questions on financing their leader Natalie Bennett completely collapsed. The phrase train wreck does not begin to cover how badly it went - you can hear the interview and read the transcript here.
The story quickly became about how bad her performance was, which is a shame as we do urgently need more council homes to alleviate pressure on the private housing market, and no other party has seriously suggesting tackling the problem. Bennett also made a good point about how much of the housing benefit bill ends up in the pockets of private landlords, something I have been pointing out for years. The lack of a living wage means that benefits are used to subsidise both private landlords and the low wage offered by employers. If you are concerned about the cost of housing benefits, then look at who it really goes to: buy-to-let landlords, and not low income workers.
Increasing the stock of council housing, coupled with other Green policies like a living wage, would reduce the housing benefit bill, move vulnerable people out of the private rented sector, increase standards of living for the lowest earners, reduce inflationary pressure on rents in the private housing market and provide more home security for those in need.
All of these benefits, which would help the Greens electorally, were overlooked because the story became about Bennett’s performance. The Greens do need to get better at pitching themselves, or else they will not be able to expand their electoral support. The fact that their leader fell completely apart during an interview that was not particularly difficult or pressing is not encouraging this close to the election. It looked like they were not expecting their policies to come under the same level of scrutiny that every other party gets.
Those posters asking "the boys" what they are afraid of look childishly overconfident now, especially as one of the “boys” Bennett will be up against is Nicola Sturgeon who is a very good debater and will make short work on Bennett if she cannot answer simple questions about figures without tripping over her own feet. That's without taking into account Farage's bolshie style of public oratory, Cameron and Clegg who have done this before and Miliband who has been able to held his own against Cameron during PMQs. The Greens could end up looking like amateurs playing in the professional party's league.
This home spun, ordinary-people, lack of professionalism is part of the draw of the Greens - up until the point when it stops them appealing to ordinary people who have little tolerance of politicians with a lack of media savvy– case in point, look at what happened to Gordon Brown five years ago.
This, and other, recent media gaffs are symptoms of a wider problem with the Green Party - and I write this as someone who is tempted to vote Green in the general election. The Greens appeared to have assumed that everyone would support their policies if they knew what they were. However this is because there policies have had little scrutiny outside the ranks of their supporters or people who are likely to vote for them. Appealing to a wide cross section of the general public is more difficult, and does not necessarily require changing of policies but it does involve expressing them properly.
Expressing them properly does not mean becoming the slick PR machine that the Tories are or raising the huge ground swell of volunteers that Labour have, it means framing their policies as the answers to the questions voters are asking and, where possible, changing the national debate to questions to which the Green Party are the answer. UKIP, remember, have only become relevant by making sure every question on every issue can be answered with ‘Europe’, ‘immigration’ or ‘political correctness’ – whatever you think about their worldview, they’re good at it, and they’ve been successful in getting these issues onto the agenda, largely against the wishes of the established parties.
It also means having a consistent message on policy areas such as the economy, health, housing, etc. Which are areas where it is possible to make gains from Labour among left learning people. They are doing some of this already, which is why left learning people like myself are inclined to vote for them, but they need to be better at it.
They also have to phrase their policies in a way which voters can clearly understand what the party as a whole stands for. A recent example, pointed out to me, is that the Greens want to legalise membership of groups like IS (who want to destroy our society) but will make criminals of small business owners who do not want women to breast feed on their premises. I think these are both good policies but when put together they seem very contradictory and are likely to alienate people who would otherwise support the Greens.
As a country we need the Greens to do well, they are the only party that is challenging the status quo - with the possible exception of the SNP. From safe guarding the environment, to protecting the NHS, to ending the scapegoating of those on benefits and immigrants, there are many reasons to support the Green Party, but the Greens themselves need to start acting more professionally or this Green Surge will not translate into electoral results.
The main piece of advice I would give to the Greens are to stop focusing on the details like the minutia of how policies will be funded and leave that the other grey suited politicians fighting it out to be accountant-in-chief. By focusing on the cost of policies the Greens are playing the other party’s game, a game they cannot win. A sustainable future and a fairer society is not something which can be subjected to cost benefit analysis.
To appeal to voters the Greens need a simple and consistent narrative of hope and change. They need to be the breath of fresh air that will clear away the old establishment and vested interesting and usher in a fairer, cleaner, greener future. They need a message of hope and change and not one of small-minded bean counting. This will engage people who want change and believe that the Greens can deliver it.