Thursday 26 February 2015

Natalie Bennett's "brain freeze" interview

When Natalie Bennett was interrupted an incredible 125 times by the ex-Murdoch hack Andrew Neil in January 2015, opponents of the Green Party gleefully used clips of it as ammunition to shoot at the Green Party. Few of them seemed to care that later in the very same show Andrew Neil went on to give an incredibly lenient interview to the Tory party chairman Michael Green Sebastian Fox Grant Shapps (or whatever he's calling himself these days), in which he allowed Green Fox Shapps to endlessly repeat himself instead of answering any of the questions he was being asked.

Having seen what an enormous PR disaster a poor interview can be, Natalie Bennett had absolutely no excuses for the "car crash" interview she did with Nick Ferrari (another ex-Murdoch hack) on LBC just a few weeks later.

If we listen to the full interview, she actually does reasonably well for the first few minutes, talking up Caroline Lucas' exemplary record as an MP, mentioning how the Scottish independence debate has re-energised political discourse in Scotland, explaining how Green Party policies are the most popular of all on the Vote for Policies blind test and criticising the Tories butchering of the NHS in order to hand out the dismembered pieces to their party donors.

The problems started when she couldn't answer a seemingly simple question about how much Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) debt legacies are costing the NHS. The answer is not an easy one to find because both the Tories and Labour before them have been understandably keen to hide these enormous debts from the public, so there is actually no easy answer.

What is clear however, is that these costs are enormous. Even back in 2012 PFI debt legacies were estimated to be worth £300 billion, and the coalition government has still been signing up to more and more of them. It's also an established fact that many of the most financially unstable NHS trusts are ones that are tied in to paying off these vast PFI debt legacies.

Natalie Bennett was right to raise the issue of these rip-off deals, but wrong to be so hopelessly unprepared to speak authoritatively about a subject that she had actually raised herself!

Once the interview got onto the subject of Green Party housing policy, the interview went every bit as badly as Nigel Farage's infamous LBC "car crash" interview from May 2014. Once again Natalie Bennett was exposed as being hopelessly unprepared to answer basic questions about her own parties policies.

Natalie couldn't explain how the pledge to build 500,000 affordable houses was going to be funded, and failed badly to explain the fact that investment in social housing returns at least £2.40 to the economy for every £1.00 spent by the government. In my view it is actually a positive that she tried to raise the important macroeconomic theory of fiscal multiplication, however it's something that hardly anyone is going to have heard of, so a garbled explanation (like the one she gave) is certain to sound like a load of completely made-up rubbish to a significant proportion of the public. Sometimes it's better to not say anything, than to give a totally incoherent explanation of something important.

Damage to the Green Party 

People who follow my work will know that I'm broadly sympathetic towards the Green Party (they're in the same quadrant of the political compass as I am, so it's no surprise I agree with quite a few of their policies) but when it comes to problems with the party, I'm not going to pull my punches.

The Andrew Neil interview was perhaps excusable because she was heckled and interrupted to an incredible extent by a blatantly biased interviewer, but to go into another interview with another ex-Murdoch hack just a few weeks later in the same state of unpreparedness was a terrible blunder.

What the LBC interview has done is created a perfect piece of evidence for the anti-Green brigade to post every time they want to make the Greens look like a clueless bunch of amateurs. And unlike the Andrew Neil interview, there is no possibility of offering the defence that she "lost it" because she was being heckled and interrupted so rudely, because the worst you could say about Nick Ferrari is that he was a tad condescending.

Anyone who tries to deny that clips of the last minute or so of that Nick Ferrari interview are going to damage the Green Party by dissuading a lot of potential Green Party voters is quite frankly deluding themselves.

Damage to the anti-austerity movement

A few people have raised concerns that Natalie Bennett is in danger of damaging or derailing the anti-austerity movement with her inability to answer seemingly basic questions.

It is of fundamental importance that left-wing and centre-ground politicians begin to show how ideological austerity has failed in its own terms (George Osborne has missed all of his 2010 economic projections by absolutely miles) and explain that it doesn't work because it's nothing more than a crackpot right-wing agenda that ignores the fundamental basics of macroeconomics.

Thankfully Natalie Bennett isn't the only politician arguing against ideological austerity. In fact she's not even the most important one in the UK. When it comes to the pre-election leaders' debates, Nicola Sturgeon from the SNP and Leanne Wood from Plaid Cymru will be there; they're both anti-austerity; and they're both competent public speakers. Nicola Sturgeon is particularly good judging by the well crafted demolition of Tory ideological austerity she presented in a speech in early February.

Looking beyond the UK, the emergence of high profile anti-austerity figures elsewhere in Europe is an important factor. The new Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis clearly knows what he's talking about (I've been following his excellent blog for a few years) and Pablo Iglesias has taken the anti-austerity Podemos (We Can) party to the top of the Spanish polls, even though the party was only founded in March 2014!

In my view, the idea that more of Natalie Bennett's stumbling and mumbling might deliver a death-blow to the anti-austerity movement is completely unwarranted hyperbole.

Excuses and justifications

I've heard a lot of excuses from Green Party loyalists, and none of them are particularly convincing.

One of the most commonly proffered tropes is that the other parties can afford loads of image consultants to help them look slick and professional, whilst on their shoe-string budget (the Greens don't accept donations from millionaire tax-dodgers), the party simply can't afford it. The problem with this excuse is that there is a vast difference between being not having been coached to appear slick and professional, and being woefully ill-prepared for an important public interview.

Other Green Party supporters have tried to say that Natalie's woeful performance was okay because "we all make mistakes" and "at least it shows that she's human". While there is an element of truth to both of these points, it doesn't prevent the fact that many thousands of potential Green Party voters will have been put off by this performance, and Green Party critics will now be able to use it as ammunition for the remainder of Natalie's tenure as Green Party leader.

Some people have tried to offer the defence that "policies are more important than personalities", which again is a fair point when considered in isolation. However if the politician who you've chosen to be the figurehead of your party is incapable of offering a coherent explanation of the carefully costed policies that you've been working on, and in fact makes them appear to be a bunch of made-up nonsense, then that's not a matter of "personality politics" at all, its a matter of basic competence.

Sometimes it is important to look beyond our desire to defend people with whom we have an affinity, and realise that making excuses for them isn't going to help. The only thing that is going to actually help is if we let them know that they've made a mistake, tell them that we expect better, and offer them the support that they need in order to avoid making that same mistake again.

Natalie's apologies

Natalie Bennett has tried to mitigate the damage by making a lot of apologies for her "brain freeze", including this one in the Guardian.

Making such apologies is clearly the right thing to do in the short-term, because she has damaged the Green Party and disappointed an awful lot of Green Party supporters. However such apologies are not going to win over very many neutrals.

It is certainly important to apologise when we've let people down, but something my mother always tried to instill in me was that the most important part of the apology is not actually the words that comprise it, but the effort we make to not do the same thing again.

What Natalie Bennett needs to do now is to work out a strategy so that she doesn't end up getting all flustered like that again the next time she's asked for specific facts and figures, because it's now absolutely certain that almost every interviewer she faces is going to try to catch her out again so that they too can go viral like Andrew Neil and Nick Ferrari have.

What the Green Party can learn

The Green Party have learned that Natalie Bennett is limited when it comes to remembering specific facts and figures, thinking on her feet and answering questions under stress. It's far too close to the election for her to stand down, so the Green Party are just going to have to play with the hand they've got.

The fact that Natalie Bennett struggles in interviews is a very serious problem, but it is a problem that can be mitigated through the use of a few simple tactics (tactics that anybody can use).

  • Always agree the topics of discussion with the interviewer beforehand, then make sure you're well prepared on those subjects.
  • If you're going to talk about something that the majority of people aren't aware of (like fiscal multiplication) you've got to make sure you give a very clear and authoritative explanation, because if you don't, it will sound like completely made-up rubbish to most of your audience.
  • Always take detailed notes so that you can look up specific figures if you forget them under pressure.
  • Remember that taking a moment to look up a specific figure actually gives you the time to prepare a nice clear answer to the question.
  • If any interviewer attacks you for not knowing a specific figure off the top of your head, turn it back on them by asking whether they want to know the precise answer to their question (in which case they'll have to wait a moment while you look it up) or whether they want to have a completely different debate about your personal ability to accurately memorise thousands of precise figures.

I've always had my reservations about Natalie Bennett as leader of the Green Party, but rather than make a song and dance saying "I told you so didn't I?", I've decided to try to give a more-or-less neutral appraisal of the damage Natalie Bennett's stumbling and mumbling is doing to the Green Party and to the wider anti-austerity movement, and offer some advice on how the Green Party can try to mitigate these problems in future.

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