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Green Party leader Natalie Bennett: This last government has talked talk but not walked walk

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As part of our dedicated focus (General election 2015: Insight for business leaders), Real Business has been quizzing senior politicians at all the major parties to find out how each will be winning the votes of business leaders.

This week it is the turn of Natalie Bennett, the Australian-born leader of the Green Party who has been in charge since she replaced the party’s first and only MP, Caroline Lucas, in 2012.

Beginning her party’s approach to business policy, Bennett told us: “The Green Party has always had a strong focus on local and small business. Strong local economies are critical to healthy communities.”

She cited the well-trodden finding that of every pound spent in a small local business, 50p will stay in the community – much more than could be expected by giving it to the likes of Tesco or Argos.

“We need a healthy ecology of small businesses. These companies will then employ more locals for things like accountancy or sign making.”

The Greens have today (14 April) launched the party’s manifesto, in both full and mini forms. Front and centre of its approach to the economy and business is the following pledge. “Imagine an economy that gives everyone their fair share.”

That concept of equal opportunity, redistribution of wealth and a helping hand for those finding the going tough, bears a resemblance to Labour’s stance. Also in the manifesto is the line: “We have everything we need to build a fair economy: natural resources, skilled people, modern technology. But the Westminster establishment has built an unfair one where those at the top gain while those at the bottom suffer.

“We can transform our economy if we have the courage to challenge the vested interests and close the gap between the rich and the poor.”

This rebalance of power will be partly generated by splitting corporation tax rates. The Greens will raise corporation tax for big business to 30 per cent while leaving it at 20 per cent for small businesses – the lowest rate in the G7. Calculations predict this would yield a return of £12bn a year.

Read more about the Green Party:

Particularly close to Bennett’s heart, she said, was the need to provide legislation ensuring small and growing businesses get paid on time. She recounted a story from her youth, when she worked for a supplier to a big supermarket, to demonstrate the crippling effect late payment can have.

Describing her boss as a “great guy who nearly went broke each month” because of 90-day payment terms, she sees it as an unbalance in power. “The state needs to step in,” Bennett explained. “We campaigned, calling for a supermarkets ombudsman, but got a regulator with limited power.”

“This last government has talked the talk but not walked the walk in terms of taking action. Just look at the Tesco scandal, making small businesses pay to be on the shelves. That is just not on.”

Have a look at our interview with business and enterprise minister Matthew Hancock

The minimum wage is another area the Greens and Bennett would like to see radical change. It plans to create over one million “good jobs” that pay at least a Living Wage. Funding this through a new wealth tax on the top one per cent, a “Robin Hood Tax” on the banks and the closure of tax loopholes, Bennett and her team envisage an increase of the minimum wage to a situation where it is a Living Wage worth £10 an hour by 2020.

Other key policies in the area of work involve bringing back the role of “democratic” trade unions, introduction of a 35-hour week, ending zero-hour contracts and “exploitation” of interns and creating a maximum pay ratio of 10:1 between the best paid and worst paid jobs in a particular business.

The Green Party plans to reduce National Insurance contributions by the same amount as the yield from its new wealth tax. In the long run, this is said to remove £25bn a year from a tax on jobs, enabling the tax to be reduced from 13.8 per cent of pay to around 8 per cent.

Moving onto the subject of finance, Bennett wants to create a network of local banks for each city and region. “We want to have bank managers who can understand the community, restoring that link between finance and communities,” she explained.

“If you restore localism then it becomes a personal relationship, existing to invest in the community. That was lost with a handful of big banks.”

This network of community banks will receive an investment of £2bn and will be supported by the expansion of the role and funds associated with the Green Investment Bank. Green individual savings accounts and pensions will be offered, allowing the bank to borrow and boosting the equity in the bank by £9bn over the period of government.

Transitioning back to more familiar ground for the Green Party, our discussion with Bennett moved onto renewable energy. “We every much want to break up the big six,” she revealed. “Through vertical integration, we want to encourage community-owned energy. This allows them to operate on local scales generation energy. It’s democratisation for energy supply.”

Growing firms

Asking her what businesses in the mid-market could expect from the Greens, Bennett said it would again be a case of creating a level playing field – allowing each company to grow and compete without being dominated by big business. “If you find a niche and want to do something more you come up against these giants who can trample all over you. They can make losses competing against you, so we need to create that fair level playing field.”

One particularly topical issue Bennett touched on was the new EU VAT laws. From a situation where EU VAT was charged based on the country in which goods were sold, it is now a case of where they are being bought.

Green Party member of European Parliament Molly Scott Cato has been at the heart of the party’s efforts to reduce the impact of this legislation on small businesses.

“It was meant to hit the likes of Amazon, but has actually hit small business. She [Cato] has been lobbying for a £100,000 turnover barrier.”

From the party’s breakthrough moment when Lucas become its first MP in 2012, the Greens have experienced a rocky progression punctuated by instances of success. Many have often called for the party to produce a more diverse set of policies, going beyond its traditional environmental heartland and telling the electorate what can be expected from its approach to healthcare, schooling and infrastructure.

From a business perspective, the Green Party does appear to have listened to these voters and produced a set of manifesto policy points that give some indication on where it stands.

You can bet your bottom dollar it’s going to be an entertaining ride as well. From Bennett’s now notorious car crash interview on BBC Radio 4 to the party’s innovative take on what it might look like if the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and UKIP joined forces to produce a boy band, the Green Party are sticking a head above the parapet. 

Let us know what you think about Green Party business policy, and whether it is attracting your vote, in the comment box below.

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