Lords Diary: Baroness Bennett
"It is clear that we need a new kind of politics"
If one thing has characterised my short time in the House, it has been people saying: “It’s not normally like this.” Often followed by a pause, then: “But it has been like this for a long time.” In my third week as a member of the Lords, joining Jenny Jones as the second Green peer, I did get to see a bill through the entire legislative process, one of the first “normal” events.
It was, however, the bill for a general election on the 12th of December, put through its complete cycle in one day. It saw the Queen’s Speech on which I was commenting in my first week swept away together with, sadly, the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill.
This is the new normal of our broken political system, just as we are starting to recognise the new normal of the climate emergency.
Fitting the times, my first week has not been a typical. Here to represent the two million people who voted Green in the European elections in May, and the 1.1 million who voted for us when I was leader in the general election of 2015, I felt I had to hit the ground running.
So I made my maiden speech two days after I was introduced, was speaking on Brexit two days after that, and this week spoke for our Green group in a (very) minority position in opposing the Election Bill as it was written – asking that a clause be added to modestly increase the chances of a free and fair election – to allow the Electoral Commission to levy unlimited fines. That reflected the commission’s request in May 2018 to lift the £20,000 limit, on which there has been no action.
I’ve also fitted in a contribution on human rights in Hong Kong – an issue on which I plan to continue to work.
Outside the House my “Australian bluntness” has often been commented on. Inside, I’ve decided to start collecting adjectives, having thus far acquired “spirited” (thanks Baroness Young of Old Scone) and “emphatic” (Lord Howe, Deputy Leader of the House).
I’m not sure the noble Lords realise quite how much I am toning down my natural speaking style for the House. But it is customary to begin your maiden speech by thanking the House for the kindness encountered. I followed this tradition, because it was also an honest expression of my experience.
At the long table in the peers’ dining room, in the Bishop’s Bar (also serving coffee), and in the corridors and on the floor of the House, from fellow members and staff, I have encountered unfailing courtesy and support.
And I have enjoyed particularly some fascinating conversations about farming with hereditary members, who often were very relaxed about my first action after my maiden speech, the handing in of the bill to replace the Lords with a fully elected House.
I also – to a degree – followed the tradition of the maiden speech. I spoke about my home city, Sheffield, and its history, drawing on the words of its Chartist era poet Mary Hutton, who in On the Poor Laws’ Amendment Bill, spoke of legislators and the great allowing the poor, “To writhe with endless pain and misery”.
I added, directing my remarks to the government benches and referring to Universal Credit: “I would like to think that it is uncontroversial to say that the duty of the Government is to alleviate the suffering of those most in need rather than to add to it.”
Word came back to me that I was thought to have been too controversial. Maybe, by the old ways that politics have been done.
But it is clear that we need a new kind of politics, and as I told the House, I am bringing the politics of Extinction Rebellion – of the anti-fracking stalwarts at Preston New Road and Misson Springs – and of the tree protection groups in my home city, into the Chamber
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