2020: a year of learning, a year of turmoil

“I called my first vote on the principle of keeping freedom of movement in the EU, the event that I regard as my highlight of the year.” Green Peer Natalie Bennett reflects on 2020 as she experienced it from the House of Lords. 

Natalie Bennett in parliamentary office.
Natalie Bennett in parliamentary office.

Hollin Jones

Natalie Bennett

My name appears in the 2020 edition of Hansard 354 times. At least, that’s to date. There’s a significant probability that the House will be recalled between Christmas and New Year – it certainly should be, given the status of Covid-19 and Brexit.

That’s quite a lot by Lords standards; the adjective ‘hyperactive’ has been used more than once about me. But Jenny Jones and I have a lot of ground to cover as two Greens representing the 12 per cent of Britons who voted Green in the last democratic elections in the UK, the European Parliament poll that elected the six Green MEPs who are sadly no longer in place. We keep reminding the powers-that-be about the need for more Green peers – and one of our hopes for 2021– is that the great elected team of would-be Green peers all join us.

My year in the House began with a question about the Iran nuclear deal, and ended with the Second Reading of a Brexit Taxation Bill, dealing with issues of VAT and Northern Ireland (which I was able to use to explore the way the surfers of disaster capitalism profit from chaos).

Hansard records cover when my name is mentioned, not just when I speak, so the day with the most records, 6 October, I didn’t speak the 15 times that I’m on the record, so it was a busy day but also pretty representative.  

Working with the Green Party of Northern Ireland, I asked about payments for victims of the Troubles. I also had a question about a government statement on lifelong learning, where I focused on the need to get away from thinking about education being narrowly considered as job training, and more as preparation for life. And reacting to a broad-ranging government health statement, I reflected on the need to improve the terrible state of our unhealthy society and increase the focus on public health.

But the biggest piece of the day was an amendment I had tabled to the Immigration Bill, working with the campaign group Liberty, about ending ‘no recourse to public funds’. As the mover of the first amendment debated in the group, I got two chances to speak in this, so I got to thank Labour’s Baroness Lister, a long-term campaigner and expert on the issue, for her detailed contribution, as well as to respond to a question from Conservative Baroness Neville-Rolfe about the cost of the measure, saying that ‘ensuring that we do not see Victorian conditions of destitution in the UK in 2020 is something we should seek to deliver with every sinew, as human beings’.

I did not push that to a vote – a weapon that can only be used sparingly – as though I regard this as a huge matter of principle, the Bill Office, hugely helpful people who operate under restrictive rules, had said that the ‘scope’ of the Bill could only cover European citizens, rather than everyone. Although I reflected the same day for Left Foot Forward on the stonking six defeats the government had suffered on the Bill, the House of Lords is nonetheless now the centre of political resistance to the UK Government in Westminster.

I did, however, call my first vote on the principle of keeping freedom of movement in the EU, the event that I regard as my highlight of the year. I knew that I wouldn’t win, but 112 peers voted with me – mostly Lib Dems and crossbenchers, with a few Labour rebels (the party was whipping for abstention). As I said, sometimes you just have to take a stand, and I was pleased with the level of support it received.

I also had the pleasure – after working with the Scottish Greens and the General Teaching Council for Scotland – of seeing a significant change in a Bill for the first time as a direct result of my efforts. That was to the Internal Market Bill – which saw recognition of the different systems of teacher registration (and more broadly education) in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so England’s system could not be imposed on them. Although, frustratingly, I did not succeed in getting the Government to sort out – a scientific rather than political issue – the treatment of fungi in the Agriculture Act.

It was, above all for me, a year of learning, being a House newbie, introduced on 15 October 2019 and plunged into a general election. (Doesn’t that now feel like an age ago?)

I’m still experimenting. Speaking in the House is something only I can do, but there’s also much I can do speaking at events (some that stand out in my mind this year are the launch of the important MCS Foundation report on provision of advice on home energy efficiency, and debating universal basic income with the Battersea Arts Centre), and asking questions at meetings of All Party Parliamentary Groups, which from being co-chair of the Hong Kong Group and deputy chair on the Legal Aid group, have occupied a significant part of my time.

And then, of course, there were media appearances. Sometimes – all too rarely – what happens in the House will get covered, as was the case with the debate that I initiated on ultra-processed food, beautifully summarised by Today in Parliament. But often it is outside the House, as was appearing with Lord Deben, chair of the Committee on Climate Change on Radio 4’s PM.

And then there’s writing op-ed pieces and blogs, where at least there is space to explore issues at some length. I’ve written 27 pieces for Left Forward Forward this year, 14 for Yorkshire Bylines, 10 for The Ecologist, and more than a dozen for Green World. I’ve also written all around the media landscape, from a letter in the Sunday Times on women and medicine to one in the Financial Times on our constitution, with op-eds ranging from one in City AM on human rights in Hong Kong to commenting in the Independent on World Soil Day.

Social media – particularly Twitter, but also Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin – takes up a lot of my time. I try to ensure that what I’m doing is visible, and social media is a great way to do that: it’s where as Greens we’re on a relatively level playing field – no cash required at least for the organic spread of news. I try to share as much useful information that comes to me as I can and to respond to every person who contacts me, although sometimes the volume defeats me.

I’m very much still learning, trying to work out which actions will have the most impact and where, given there is so, so much to do in our broken societies. Although even for our House veterans, this was very much a year of learning, as the House went hybrid, procedures changed and adapted, everyone is on new practical and political ground. Huge tribute has to be paid to the staff who helped peers, average age 70, to go online and become Zoom old hands. The ‘grace under pressure’ prize goes to the wonderful Lord Dubbs, who reacted very calmly when it was pointed out to him that only the top of his head was showing on Lords TV.

It wasn’t just procedures that changed. A huge amount of time was taken up with detailed, legally complex Statutory Instruments, particularly with replacing regulations previously covered under European Union membership. Is engaging in great detail on these a good use of time? That’s something I’m still debating – getting to grips with issues such as those around the statutory instruments on animals, feed, food, plant health and veterinary medicine takes a lot of time and energy, but someone has to do it.

The veterans tell me they’ve never known a year like 2020. The House has sat far more than usual, the UK has faced a barrage of challenges. It looks unlikely to be different in 2021, but one of the things we need to focus on, that I’ll always try to keep at the forefront of everything I do, is the good news that the future doesn’t look like the past.

We’ve been trashing the planet and creating a thoroughly miserable society, one that’s unstable and seriously insecure, as Covid-19 has exposed. That it will change is good news – what we have to do is make sure that we live within the physical limits of this one fragile planet, looking after nature while ensuring every human being has a decent life. That’s what I try to use as a guide, one that I’m sure will in 2021, as this year, take me into many varied activities and places.