Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Finding my Feet

Since being elected to Oxford City Council for the Green Party the learning curve has steepened. At a new councillors' training event last week I came away with 3.9 kg of paper with brochures from several similar-sounding organisations (e.g. the 'Oxford Strategic Partnership', the 'Oxfordshire Partnership') each with their own list of thematic priorities to add to the existing priorities declared in Oxford's own Core Strategy and Development Plan.

All good stuff, and partnership is doubtless a good thing, but the danger is that it removes accountability and gives power to an inner circle of people (few of whom are directly elected) who decide the 'big vision'. It's no wonder that there's a growing feeling on the ground that planning (that is, the long-term planning policies not the small, local planning consents) is out of control, top-down and unaccountable. I don't think these things are mere talk-shops : they are actually setting the 'rules' by which more local planning decisions are bound. i think.

I do not make a virtue of ignorance, but one thing I bring to this political world is a very recent memory of being an 'ordinary member of the public' who has very little idea about any of this. It's easy for political hacks to imagine that everybody thinks as they do, but I'd be surprised if more than 5% of Oxford's population had much idea which political parties were actually running the city.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Energy efficiency may increase carbon emissions

A fascinating paper (almost, but not quite, incomprehensible to this very amateur economist) cited in James Robertson's newsletter http://www.jamesrobertson.com/newsletter.htm argues that without an 'ethic of sufficiency' and above all monetary reform that removes the role of providing the money supply from the banks, energy efficiency may do little to reduce humanity's environmental impact, and may worsen it.

In the course of the argument there are one or two moments of real clarity where Steve Sorrell breaks into 'plain English', and on p.14 a table contrasting Conventional with 'Green' models of economic development. To hear Cameron and Clegg preaching the accepted wisdom as they describe the need to 'restore economic growth in order to overcome the deficit', it becomes increasingly clear why we need Caroline Lucas in Parliament. Who else is going to challenge this 'accepted wisdom'?What they are describing is a world spinning out of control.

The vicious cycle created by the privatised money supply is described in Section 6, where he says :

". . most of the money in circulation only exists because either businesses or individuals have gone into debt and are paying interest on their loans. While individual loans may be repaid, the debt in aggregate can never be repaid because
this would remove virtually all the money from circulation. The health of the economy is therefore entirely dependent upon the continued willingness of businesses and consumers to take out loans for either investment or consumption. Any reduction in borrowing therefore threatens to tip economies into recession." (p.16)

Or, as Jethro Tull had it :

"In the shuffling madness
of the locomotive breath
runs the all-time loser
headlong to his death.
He feels the piston scraping -
steam breaking on his brow -
old Charlie stole the handle
and the train it won't stop going
no way to slow down"

('Locomotive Breath', from the album Aqualung)

Sorrell's closing paragraphs :

"Over the long term, continued economic growth can only be reconciled with environmental sustainability if implausibly large improvements in energy efficiency can be achieved ..

Instead of encouraging further growth and greater consumption, the benefits of improved efficiency need to be increasingly channelled into low carbon energy supply and improved quality of life. Quite how this can be achieved remains far from clear since a credible ‘ecological macroeconomics’ has yet to be developed. Most importantly, a crucial element of that macroeconomics - namely monetary reform - remains almost entirely overlooked. It is hoped that this paper will at least stimulate some thinking in that direction."

The paper in question is directly downloadable from www.sussex.ac.uk/spru/documents/sewp185.pdf

from 'New Labour' to 'New Tory'

So our prediction was right : a vote for the Lib Dems was a vote for a Conservative government. We wait to see how much of the Lib Dem programme will get lost on the way, and whether we will get any kind of chance for voting reform. The Greens argue for Additional Member System of voting as preferable to Proportional Representation or the others (AV, STV).

Is this in fact the beginning of the end for the Liberal Democrat party, as their key players are absorbed into New Conservative? And what are the prospects of Old Libs joining with many Old Labs (of the 'small-scale socialism' Cooperative variety) who are already in the party of the future - the Green Party?

Trying to look on the bright side, the most promising outcome of a New Conservative government might be getting centralised planning development objectives for the South East region off our backs, and with it a chance to bury Oxford's 'Core Strategy' once for all, and start again from scratch with proper consultation with the people of Oxford this time.

Or should we say 'peoples' : Oxford has so many discontinuities in it that there is no such thing as a typical Oxford citizen. Whether Oxford's peoples could ever agree on a coherent vision for our city . . . .

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

an auspicious encounter

A strangely auspicious event this (Sunday) afternoon : two days after being elected to Oxford City Council as a Green Party member, my wife Karen and I were cycling back from our county councillor's birthday party in Iffley along the Isis towpath. We got separated when I stopped to take a picture for two foreign visitors and after finding each other again ended up taking an unintended route back across the grassy Port Meadow.

As we approached the Trap Grounds allotments we saw a group of twenty or so parishioners and choirboys from St Margarets Church processing in their cassocks and choir vestments behind a large silver crucifix, swinging incense as they went. It was like something out of Monty Python's 'Holy Grail'.

We stayed with them as they blessed the vegetable allotments and prayed for their fruitfulness, then the meadow and river, then back over to the canal, blessing the railway en route to the children's playground next door to the school where Karen teaches. It was very moving to hear the famous Gospel passage "Jesus said . . let the little children come to me" in the context of a playground, and to see the swings and climbing frames censed.

Somehow everything about it reflected the spiritual heart of the Green vision; the simple liturgy and ritual with its completely serious intent (in years gone by, lives depended on those prayers being answered) was the 'carrier' for a light-hearted and inclusive social occasion that gathered the curious as it went. The bizarre nature of the encounter and the amazing coincidence of the timing seemed to augur well for the service that lies ahead of me.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Lib Dems last chance to make a mark?

It is absolutely essential that the Lib Dems use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drive a change in the UKs hopeless electoral system. It is so poor it is almost impossible to interpret with any real confidence the results it delivers, as people vote for things they largely don't believe in. It is specifically designed to drive smaller parties out. What that means is that the frightened huddle of parties in the middle doesn't have the courage to publicly address hugely important but divisive issues : migration, desperate inequality, climate change (climate change addressed fully and properly, that is - not just tinkering with a runaway economic system).

It is the single most important contribution the Lib Dems could make to the political life of this country in the present moment. I believe it will do them no electoral harm, whereas failure to drive for this change and succumb to Conservative overtures stands to obliterate the Lib Dems for ever.

David Cameron must be given no opportunity to drive for a re-run election : only the Conservatives have the financial backing to withstand another campaign, and I'm sure they know it.

See http://bit.ly/aBSqrL

Friday, 7 May 2010

In by a whisker

The Oxford City Council count is over. Labour took one very marginal seat off the LibDems and claimed one place off the Independent Working Class Association whose candidate withdrew, Lib Dems took two seats off the Greens - by 14 votes. But not the seat I was contesting, which we held by 79 votes (it went to a recount). That was 32% of the vote.

In some wards the Green Party made a very strong showing (17%) in a formerly strong Labour ward with minimal input and 14% and 15% in safe Lib Dem territory on nothing more than a single leaflet.

It leaves Labour with an overall majority of 1, from having no overall majority.

"What do we want?" "No idea!"

What a great voting system! I've been looking through a somewhat random selection of Parliamentary election results and find it impossible to discern what signals the voters have wanted to send. The only clearly discernible trend across the board is the small, steady but remorseless rise in single(ish)-issue anti-EU and anti-immigration vote of BNP and UKIP. (Our local UKIP candidate was a fervent climate change denier, too - don't know whether that's party policy.)

It's all very well having a system that delivers (supposedly) a 'clear winner' - but if the 'clear winner' actually has no idea why - or even whether - they really won, what kind of mandate is that? In what sense can they claim to represent 'the British people'? Yet Prime Ministers can send our armed forces into battle without even going to Parliament.

On the streets of East Oxford (I was canvassing students all afternoon) it seemed the Labour vote was collapsing and Lib Dems were surging. In fact, the opposite happened.

In Oxford West & Abingdon, I've just learned that the Green Party strategy of putting out a single, carefully crafted brochure/leaflet (instead of the very un-green reams of glossy bumf and 'personal' letters from Lib Dems and Tories) backfired : the Royal Mail simply failed to deliver them to much of the constituency. But then to those of us who suffer the vagaries of the local postal service perhaps that should have come as no surprise.

As I write, the city election ballot hasn't been counted; but we fear the Greens may have taken a hit.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

"Meet the new boss - same as the old boss"

Until my mid-30s there was a clear ideological difference between the two main parties. At gut level, you knew what they stood for. With the Lib Dems it wasn't so clear — they seemed to me as some sort of fudge in between although, being in origin far older than socialism, that couldn't be quite right.

Thatcher's assault on the old working class — the dismantling (and eventual banishing overseas) of nationalised industries, the forced sale of council housing, the intimidation of trades unionists through fear of litigation or unemployment — roundly and permanently defeated the (old) Labour Party. In order to preserve something of its past glories New Labour had to abandon socialism, and left behind a large chunk of its membership.

What the 'first-past-the-post' system has delivered is three grey parties competing for a narrow middle ground that most of us know instinctively has had its day. The rise of Nick Clegg's LibDems is not exciting. It does not usher in anything particularly new. I have reached the point where I am not only bored by the BBCs election coverage but angered by it.

Only the parties on the fringe are addressing the real issues in people's minds. The BNP, UKIP and the Greens are not afraid to speak their mind on migration, and the gulf between the latter and the other two is almost total. People instinctively know that there is something horribly wrong with financial systems that have nearly bankrupted the country yet continue to pay eye-watering sums to those responsible for their failure. They know that capping bonuses will do nothing to address the fundamental sickness, even though they can't put their finger on what that sickness really is. Many fear that serious attempts to address our carbon-hungry lifestyle will be 'too little too late' for their grandchildren, and that electric cars and green technology on its own is an inadequate answer. Oxford probably has the highest-qualified wine waiters in the world — young people taught they have a 'right' to aspire to something 'better', but unable to access housing and the promised exciting jobs with prospects. The Cabinet Office's recent publication "Unleashing Aspiration" says we need to see how parents 'could be empowered with a new right to choose a better school for their children'. The absurdity of this statement is laughable. As Stefan Collini's excellent article in a recent issue of the London Review of Books says : 'If all parents have a right to choose a 'better' school, won't we have to maintain in each locality a number of ghostly 'worse' schools to which no children are actually sent, whose function is to show that some schools are 'better' than others?'

What is most galling is that the same parties that promote such 'aspiration' have actually delivered a society in which, of all the world's rich societies apart from the USA, parental levels of wealth are by far the single biggest determinant of a child's life chances in the UK. Indeed, it's the father's income that most determines the child's. And this is the conclusion of a January report from the government's own Equalities Office! If this is what New Labour delivered, can anyone seriously imagine the Conservatives or even Lib Dems delivering anything better? 'Fairness' is on all their lips, but only the Green Party talks robustly about equality.

'First past the post' has delivered a debt-ridden, politically disenfranchised electorate torn apart by inequality, where people with less chance of economic self-improvement than ever in living memory are given sermons on their duty to aspire to 'better'. A 'brave new world' for electoral politics emerging? I hardly think so. Which shade of black do you prefer? Until we can get the real questions addressed by politicians with some political courage it will only get worse — and 'first past the post' saps political courage. That is the reason, amongst a hundred others, why I'm throwing my weight behind the Green Party. The BNP and UKIP claim to be 'telling it like it is', except that they're 'telling it how it seems' to disenchanted, largely white, little-Englander Tories of working class and middle class (respectively) who think that human-induced global warming is a European plot. The Green Party alone actually 'tells it like it is' and knows how to begin tackling it.