Labour disenfranchise 60% of electorate to win Oxford seat with lowest mandate ever

Posted on September 5, 2014 by | 2 Comments

Back in May, there were city council elections in Oxford. In the Carfax ward, the former Labour council leader, Alex Hollingsworth stood. He lost narrowly to the Green candidate, Ruthi Brandt. A couple of months later, something else happened. Each Oxford ward has two councillors, and there are elections for one of them every two years. The other councillor in the ward, Ann-Marie Canning, announced she was standing down. Ann Marie had moved to London for a job soon after she’d been elected in 2012 (beating me into second place), and was finding it hard to do both jobs.

Usually, it’s pretty frowned upon to trigger a by-election immediately after there’s been a city-wide election, as it costs extra resources and it’s easier for everyone just to elect both seats for the ward on the same day. But Oxford Labour have done it three times this summer. They know it’s easier to hold by-elections than to hold seats during the city-wide vote because they can pour resources in from across the county and beat the various smaller parties they have to contend with in each area. Since Greens won the Carfax seat up in May, it seems likely we’d have got two, had both been contested then. Up against the whole Labour machine, it’s harder.

This case is more shocking though. Carfax is a funny kind of a ward. 60% of the people who live there are students living in college. In a move clearly planned for many months by Labour, Ann-Marie announced her resignation at exactly the right moment to ensure that the by-election would be held at a time when students weren’t there. She and the Oxford Labour Party connived to ensure that the majority of voters in the ward would be disenfranchised.

Oxford students tend to vote Green. The non-students in the ward lean more to Labour. Not surprisingly, therefore, among the 40% of the voters who remained, Labour won. Or rather, among the 8.6% of the electorate who voted.

8.6% is apparently the lowest turnout in British electoral history. It provides no mandate at all. Hollingsworth should refuse to take up his seat, and the by-election should be held again. If it was, Hollingsworth may well win again. But he won’t stand down. He’ll instead claim to represent an electorate his party actively chose to disenfranchise, and vote in their name on issues which effect them.

Autumn’s here, and the yes campaign has a spring in its step

Posted on September 2, 2014 by | No Comments

Ten years ago today I climbed to the top of Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine. I’d walked 2174 miles up the Appalachian Mountains from Springer Mountain, Georgia to get there. It was, in retrospect, probably a stupid thing to do – at the age of 18, I’d ruined my knees for life. But I learnt a few important things.

One of them was this. Only 10% of people who start the Appalachian Trial finish it. But you can usually tell right from the start who will succeed. It’s not necessarily the people who have forked out a fortune for the best gear. It’s not always the most experienced hikers or those who are most physically fit. It’s not even necessarily the one with a determined look in their eye.

It’s the people with a spring in their step and a smile on their face. It’s the those who are having fun. I don’t mean the people who carried booze in their packs and were up all night getting drunk. They flaked out within the first 50 miles. I mean the people who loved the hiking itself, who were thrilled to be walking through the woods day after day in the first place.

When I finished, I went to university, and did something even more foolish. I got involved in student politics. I soon learnt that the same lesson applies to student elections. The winner is, almost always, the person, and the team who are having fun. Again, I don’t mean the group who cop off early and go to the pub – they invariably trundle in in last place. I mean the people who enjoy the campaigning itself.

I think this isn’t just because elections are more fun when you’re winning – though they are. I think it’s a positive feedback loop – just as a spring in the step makes a hiker walk faster, a smile on the face makes a campaigner more compelling. We all want to agree with the cheerful looking woman who just knocked on the door, looking all happy and confident. We don’t want to side with the grumpy bloke who came round and asked how we were voting.

I say all this because, in the last few days, it’s felt like we, those of us campaigning for independence, are enjoying ourselves again. A couple of weeks ago, it all seemed a little low, and the whispered conversations seemed to ask only what the scale of defeat was going to be. Now, whether it’s the chat on twitter or the skip of canvassers footsteps on pavements, something has changed.

Of course, we all know the cause of the change. Eck slam-dunked the debate. Better Together decided to follow up by patronising the hell out of half the electorate. All of a sudden, it felt possible again. The sun’s been out and it’s no surprise that yes campaigners are a little cheery this week. But what we don’t talk about is the effect of all this.


Smiley campaigners are a hundred times more convincing than grumpy ones just like happy hikers get hundreds of miles further than sad ones. We all know from any good party or gig that enthusiasm is infectious. That applies to politics too. We’re still behind in the polls, and we have a hell of a lot of people to persuade. But if we keep on having fun and being fun, if we refuse to argue amongst ourselves, and if we get on with the job at hand then maybe, just maybe, we can do it.

And that’s something to be happy about.

The Security Dilemma, The Media and the Israeli Bombardment

Posted on July 11, 2014 by | 3 Comments

At the time I write this, 90 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, to no Israelis killed by Gazan rockets. There is plenty of moral indignation about this unpleasant fact. As Chomsky put it:

Israel uses sophisticated attack jets and naval vessels to bomb densely-crowded refugee camps, schools, apartment blocks, mosques, and slums to attack a population that has no air force, no air defense, no navy, no heavy weapons, no artillery units, no mechanized armor, no command in control, no army… and calls it a war. It is not a war, it is murder.

The narrative of defenceless Palestinians being massacred by the vastly richer, vastly more powerful Israelis is a compelling one for all those who care about human life. And yet even this narrative, used in a certain way, can be read as a subtle example of the subtle pro-Israeli bias that predominates in much of the Western media. Why?

The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ tendencies that characterise much of political discourse not only in his own country, the United States, but increasingly the rest of the developed world, are understandable in terms of the way that they seek to activate different fundamental ‘bases’ of human morality. Liberals, Haidt believes, are concerned primarily with care, fairness and liberation. Conservatives want these things too – but usually only for a particular in-group, which they define in terms of a different moral vocabulary, rooted in culturally constructed, but ultimately primal notions of purity, authority and loyalty.

When ‘liberals’ read about one side killing 90 people with advanced weaponry, and the other side killing no people with primitive weaponry, they naturally root for the underdog. In doing so, however, they play right into the hands of those with ‘conservative’ political sensibilities. After all, ‘all’s fair in love and war’. And, if leftists (it’s a bit daft to call a radical anarchist like Chomsky a ‘liberal’ but he is for the purposes of the argument here) say it isn’t war, then hard line conservatives beg to differ. Read the words of ultra-hardline Knesset member Ayelet Shaked.

The Palestinian people has declared war on us, and we must respond with war. Not an operation, not a slow-moving one, not low-intensity, not controlled escalation, no destruction of terror infrastructure, no targeted killings. Enough with the oblique references. This is a war. Words have meanings. This is a war. It is not a war against terror, and not a war against extremists, and not even a war against the Palestinian Authority. These too are forms of avoiding reality. This is a war between two people. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people. Why? Ask them, they started.

The logic here is grotesque, but there is a logic, somewhere. If you have two groups, each one perceiving itself to be in an existential struggle with the other, then the idea that you would voluntarily restrain yourself can be argued to make not that much sense. Why should Israel restrain its firepower just because Hamas doesn’t have access to the same firepower? War isn’t pistols at dawn. It isn’t cricket.

Of course, this is an example of foaming at the mouth fundamentalism that few will sympathise with. But a more insidious version of basically the same logic comes up in the ‘security dilemma’ claims that deeply permeate the way that our media presents Palestine and Israel. According to this narrative, Israel is stuck in an unfortunate catch-22 situation. It knows that its occupation is breeding misery and extremism. It wants to withdraw. But it can’t, because the very extremism which occupation produces means that if it loosens its grip, it will expose itself to devastating attacks by an unrelenting opponent.

Of course, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is simply illegal. Technically, refusing to withdraw on these grounds is a bit like saying that you won’t give back the plasma tv you stole because you’ve tried watching cheaper models, but it hasn’t really worked out for you. But, being realistic, the security dilemma argument looks compelling. It looks compelling because security dilemmas are good stories. They are plausible – we’ve all experienced something similar in microcosm. They offer a realistic a priori account of human motivation. They explain why good people might have to do bad things. They don’t force us to demonise one side or the other.

So, to resume, the security dilemma argument, placed side by side with the asymmetric killing argument sets up the Palestine-Israel issue in terms of the consumer market in political opinions that we are all familiar with. If your politics are shaped by the ‘care’ instinct, then you will probably empathise (all things being equal) with dead Palestinian children. You don’t need, then, to worry too much with the wrongs and rights that got things to that point. If you think of yourself as still compassionate, but a bit tougher minded, then you will go with the ‘tragedy’ narrative, and perhaps lament the lack of ‘leadership’ on ‘both sides’. If, finally, you are a hard core political partisan on one side or the other, then you will simply pick your team and stick to it through thick and thin. Either way, each market sector can be comfortable with its choice, knowing the dispositions that have accounted for its own choice, and the contrasting dispositions that have accounted for others’ choices. And there is, of course, another winner from all this: the incumbent power, (Israel of course, in this instance) which gets to keep the status quo.

What gets obscured in all this, of course, is that the central issue is not really a security dilemma at all. We do not have a conflict, but rather a colonisation. Israel is not occupying the West Bank to protect Israel (were that so, Israelis would have given up tolerating the expense of that long ago). It is occupying the West Bank to protect the infrastructure of Israeli settlements that crisscross and cut up the West Bank. It is laying siege to Gaza, choking it just short of death, not to prevent Hamas from getting the wherewithal to build rockets, but to collectively punish its citizens for refusing to recognise Israel’s ‘right to exist’ or, nowadays its ‘right to exist as a Jewish state’. (There is also the small matter of the gas fields in Gaza’s territorial waters which Israel is presently selling off permits to develop). It is bombing Gaza not because of rockets, but as part of a broader campaign to undo the remarkable achievement of the Palestinian authority in reconciling Hamas to a project of moderation and Palestinian national unity. And when I say ‘Israel’, that conceals the fact that this is really being done by a narrow elite made up of politicians, the military, and the hi-tech arms industry who grow ever richer in a country which is one of the most unequal in the developed world. If you care about human life you should be appalled by what is happening in Gaza right now. But you should also be appalled if you are a hard headed political realist. Or even if you simply love Israel.

Young Green Amelia Womack to be new GPEW Deputy Leader

Posted on July 2, 2014 by | 1 Comment

Amelia WomackPhoto: Harry Grindrod

Environmental scientist Amelia Womack is set to become one of two deputy leaders of the Green Party of England and Wales.

A recent change to the party’s constitution means that GPEW will now have two deputies, of different genders. Amelia is the only woman nominated, leaving foreign affairs spokesman Shahrar Ali, Bristol Councillor Rob Telford and Suffolk Councillor Mark Ereira-Guyer to challenge incumbent Will Duckworth for the other post.

Party leader Natalie Bennett is running uncontested for re-election.

Amelia is a member of the Young Greens’ 30 Under 30 programme to develop young activists and candidates. The 29-year-old is originally from Newport in Wales and now lives in Lambeth in South London, where she was a European Parliament and Borough Council candidate earlier this year.

She has said that her priority will be “to boost membership and activism by engaging with those most affected by policies of austerity and inequality, particularly young people.”

There will be a four-way race to see who shares the title of Deputy Leader with Amelia.

Will Duckworth’s easygoing, working-class style has been a hit with party conference-goers since his election as deputy two years ago, but all three challengers represent a credible threat to the genial Solihull councillor.

Fundraising consultant Mark Ereira-Guyer is highly experienced in local government, having served over 10 years as a Labour borough councillor and parliamentary candidate before joining the Greens in 2008 and becoming a Suffolk County councillor a year later. His is a traditionally ecologist pitch, urging that “we must all move from being a reckless ego-centric society to an eco-centric one”.

Rob Telford enjoys a high profile despite having been a Bristol councillor for only a year. He is the party’s spokesperson on democratic reform, and has made this the central theme of his campaign for Deputy, arguing that the Green agenda should be “enacted in our communities through new models of collaborative democracy,” and asking members to discuss the party’s future on social media.

Though he is the only challenger for the post not to hold elected office, philosophy lecturer Shahrar Ali might be the leading challenger if early endorsements are any indication – he boasts the support of former Mayoral candidate Sian Berry, London Assembly Member Baroness Jenny Jones and civil rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

Green Party members will receive ballot papers at the end of July and will have one month to vote.

It’s time to join the Green Party

Posted on May 28, 2014 by | 6 Comments

Last week, more than at any time I can remember, politically active friends from across the left – from the feminist, student, anti-austerity, environmental and democracy movements, seem to have turned out in droves to vote for The Green Party. This is an appeal to them – you – to join the party, and to get involved.

Perhaps it seems obvious to you why you might. Maybe you’ve long been looking for a party which wants a democratic transformation of the economy; which supports free education and will defend the NHS; wants to cap rents and bring back council housing; fight to keep oil in the ground and stand up to austerity, the banks, corporate power and the frightening growth in inequality; a party which won’t pander to the scapegoating of migrants or people on benefits, and will point the finger of blame firmly where it belongs: at the powerful; a party which brings together ideas from the feminist, anti-racist, environmental, disabled people’s and working class movements, radical democratic movements, the peace movement, the LGBTIQ movement, and so on.

Maybe you can already see why you’d want to be a member of a party which allows its membership to set its policies democratically; around the core principles of radical democracy, equality, social justice, peace and the environment?

That party exists. It came 4th in the European elections. You can read its most recent manifesto here. If it’s obvious to you why you’d want to join, stop reading and go and do it (or, if you’re in Scotland, here or in Northern Ireland, here).

Parties are about more than elections, but engaging in electoral politics is one key thing they do, and I think more of us need to start doing just that. It’s one tactic among many. It should never come at the exclusion of other political tools, but to avoid using elections is, I think, a big mistake – for a few reasons.

Firstly, elections drive much of the political agenda. Even most modern civil disobedience – think UK Uncut or much of climate camp – aims primarily to shift debate rather than actually disrupt permanently. If this is what you want to do, then why would you ignore such a huge inroad into the national conversation as elections? If you’re a genuine anarchist, I can understand. Otherwise, I don’t.

Secondly, getting prominent spokespeople into council chambers and parliaments is vital. Was it Lenin who said something like “even a pile of horse shit can make a good stage to stand on”? This isn’t just about getting MPs onto Question Time. The main role of a local councillor is being a (minimally) paid organiser. If you want to engage in political action in your community, being given a small salary and a minor platform is hugely helpful. Without infrastructure, movements dwindle rapidly. Councillors are a good way to get it.

Thirdly, elections force you to talk to people. You don’t win (if you’re on the left) unless you knock on doors and chat. It is, of course, entirely possible to do this without elections. But the people I know who actually get round to it frequently out-with the electoral process are few and far between.

Ultimately, by standing in elections, you take votes away from the powerful, which forces them to win those votes back off you, driving politics in a progressive direction – and, ultimately, you might gain some power – which, ideally, you’ll then work to hand to the community you represent as fast as possible.

You can stand in elections without joining a political party, but if you are interested in a broad political project, in grouping together with people with similar ideology to you and getting them elected too, and in developing a programme for how you might change things, then that’s what a political party is and does.

And parties are about more than elections. Politics requires infrastructure. It needs people who will organise rotas for who is going to go and reach out to whom, places that as yet uninvolved people can come to meet and organise with those of similar ideology, spaces for people to get a political education, think about what they believe and together work out what they want to do in the world. It needs us to come together across generations and beyond our groups of friends – with those whose routes were different from ours, and so are coming from slightly different places. Parties do all of these things.

In short, our social movements need an electoral expression. If you wish to change the world (and surely we must), I think you should probably join a party – not as the exclusive output for your politics, but as one of them.

Why the Green Party? I’m not going to rehearse the arguments against Labour here. Suffice to say that even in those areas in which they ought to be strongest, they are pathetic: Greens have supported more strikes in the last fortnight than Labour has in its whole history. I hope the next government is Labour rather than Tory, and I think we should all seek to encourage it to do better, but I think more influence is placed on them from outside than inside – if they can get your support without changing their position, that’s what they’ll do. Perhaps most importantly, as anger with the establishment soars, I don’t understand why radicals would side with the establishment.

The case against Lib Dems is obvious. Respect have vanished, and No2EU’s performance showed little hope of the march of a new socialist party of that ilk. In the elections last week, the Green Party showed it was more able to unite the left than Left Unity ever has and National Health Action is a genuine single issue party with no ideological platform, much as it’s a vital issue, much as I hope they do well where they stand.

More importantly, Greens reflect better than any other party what I would see as the shared values of much of what you might call the activist left of my generation. The party is radical in its economics – aiming to socialise financial institutions, nationalise public services and monopolies and defend trade union and workers’ rights – but has learnt the lessons the left needs to learn. It is founded on the principle of decentralist democracy and power to the people, rather than believing that the alienation of markets can be defeated only with the bureaucracy of the state. It supports a citizens’ income, a workers’ right to turn their company into a co-op. It is feminist, anti-racist, and has always stood for LGBTIQ rights.

It does have problems. One is that it is seen solely as being ‘about the environment’. But it is beginning to challenge that perception, and the more people who join it from across radical politics, the more it will articulate a broad vision for society. Of course we must save the planet, but we’ll only do that by changing the system. Another is that it needs better to involve and be led by people of colour. With this, in particular, we need help from new members.

But as I have argued, the election results last week showed something remarkable. Greens came (admittedly distant) second across Manchester and are now the opposition in Liverpool, Solihul, Lewisham, Islington and Norwich. We came first across not just Brighton Pavilion constituency, but also Bristol West and Norwich South and very nearly Glasgow Kelvin. We won a seat in a Belfast City council ward so big that on its own it gives us a good chance of winning a second seat in the Northern Irish Assembly, and one of Northern Ireland’s leading feminists very narrowly missed out on picking up another seat, apparently in the face of opponents (from the Labour affiliated SDLP) telling voters that she wanted to kill babies because of her prominent and vocal campaigning for the right to an abortion in one of the few parts of the EU in which it is still denied.

The party had a vast number of candidates standing in the local elections – we ran in all but one seat in the Wirral, in most seats in Carlisle, St Helens, Southampton, almost every ward I could find results for in London in hours of googling. In fact, though I’m sure they exist, I am yet to find a town or city in England which had local council elections last week and in which Greens didn’t stand in most or many wards. Apart from the more left wing trades unions (you should certainly join one of them too) how many genuinely radical, member-run organisations have anything like that reach on the ground?

Finally, it’s important to understand how much difference you can make by joining and becoming active in the party. Greens got an MEP in the South West of England this week. A significant part of that success comes down to the rise of the Bristol Greens. Whilst they have mobilised significant support, I could list a handful of people who, together, have made that happen. Across the country, other Greens missed out by a few votes. A group of four or five people in a couple more towns, cities or areas of those regions could have persuaded enough people to make the difference. Last week, five friends and I got two city councillors elected in Oxford – two people who will now be political organisers for four years, bringing infrastructure and activity to the communities they represent. As British politics contorts itself in the wake of the UKIP Euro-victory, we’re going to need to organise ourselves into a large, national, sustained and vocal response. There is no need to start from scratch in building this.

If you do join the Green Party, I guarantee you that you will find people you disagree with. I assure you that you that you will find yourself frustrated at times. Because politics is a collective endeavour, and people can be bloody annoying. But ultimately, if we’re going to change the world, then we’re going to have to do it together, including with some people who have slightly different priorities from us.

Likewise, I am sure every member disagrees with some of the party’s positions. But there’s a democratic process for debating and changing policies, and the activities are driven by voluntary members. It’s not because the party is perfect that you should get involved, but to help build it up, to improve it. There has to be a compromise between on the one hand the vast and centralised tent that is the Labour party and splintering like Trotskyites each time we disagree.

Over the last five years, the membership of the Green Party of England and Wales has more than doubled. Largely, that new intake is young, radical, and impressively good at organising. It’s people from the anti-austerity movement, the student movement, the feminist movement. I’ve been a paid up Green half my life. I’ve never known such a thrilling time to be in the party. Conversely, with UKIP on the march, I’ve never known a scarier time in politics. It’s time to join us.

If you’re in England and Wales, you can do it here. If you’re Scottish, here. If you’re Northern Irish, here. Go on. It’s time.

Greens are now building a genuine base

Posted on May 26, 2014 by | 8 Comments

Deyika Nzeribe, chair of Manchester Green Party. Greens came second across Manchester in the local elections this week.

When looking at the Green Party result today, there are two important things to understand. The first is that the 2009 European election took place in the month after the expenses scandal. The second is that the UK lost many of its MEP seats in 2009, meaning it was harder to get each one.

Because of this reduction in seats, in the months before the 2009 Euro-poll, it looked inevitable that we would lose both our MEPs – not because we would get fewer votes than in the 2004 election, but because the same number of votes would not equate to a seat. Ironically, it was the Daily Telegraph who saved us from this fate. As they published, day after day, revelations of how MPs had abused the expenses system, the country worked itself into a frenzy. All across Britain, people of almost any political persuasion sought ways to punish the Westminster establishment.

It’s worth remembering too that this is the genesis of the current UKIP rise. Before the expenses scandal, they looked like they were going to be wiped out – two of their MEPs had been jailed for fraud, and they were generally seen as a joke – or, more importantly, they were generally ignored. They did much better out of that particular crisis than we did. But it saved our two MEPs.

There are other reasons to believe that 2009 was particularly good for Greens. It was the year of the Copenhagen climate conference and The Wave: the climate movement was at its peak. That Euro election was one of the worst votes for Labour in its history, after the press had turned against Brown, but without the risk that not voting Labour would allow a Tory government in. The election took place right after Fred Goodwin’s car had been set on fire, when people were viscerally angry about the banking collapse, but not yet debating long term solutions. This climate of rage at the establishment helped us hugely.

From then on, there were many who expected the Greens to do badly. As the long recession eclipsed concern for the environment and, more importantly, as the desire to get the Tories out replaced anger with Labour on the left, many a pundit proclaimed that the party was about to enter the doldrums.

The Lib Dems going into coalition helped a bit. But it’s worth remembering that around a third of Lib Dems prefer them to work with Tories than Labour. It’s worth remembering that much of the Labour strategy at the moment – from electing a wonkish middle class leader on – seems to be aimed at hoovering up the rest of those Lib Dem votes. It’s worth remembering that anger at Labour brings access to a much bigger pool of voters than does anger at the Lib Dems.

It is in this context that we should judge the state of the party in last night’s European and last week’s local election results. To keep our MEPs, we had to attract voters to us rather than have them fall into our lap because of anger at the political establishment. We had to get people to vote for us rather than just against everyone else. This required an ideological appeal rather than just being ‘someone else’; and it required such an appeal in the context of an Ofcom ruling which declared there to be four big parties, of which we were not one.

Faced with this challenge, the party took a gamble. It took the kind of risk that you need to take in order to grow out of a comfortable position. In 2009, we had focussed our campaigning in the South East and London, where we already had two MEPs. We had played a defensive game, and won both seats with comfortable margins, whilst missing out narrowly across much of the rest of the country. Greens never needed a national swing to get more seats, just a more even distribution of votes.

This time, despite struggling against a headwind, the party chose the tougher path. It put its resources not into just defending its two seats, but into attempting to win six (the Scottish party also worked hard for a seventh, but is an independent organisation with its own strategic decisions).

The fact that the national total for Greens is down, but that the number of seats is up is in part a product of this gamble paying off. It’s easier to get lots of votes in the same place, but that doesn’t add extra seats. It’s worth noting that, whilst the national vote share was down, the biggest falls were in London and the South East (where we already had MEPs with comfortable margins), as campaign resources were pulled out of these regions and poured into the next targets – South West, North West and Eastern in particular – where the vote respectively increased, and held steady. The payoff for this strategy – and for holding our nerve as it looked like we might lose both of our MEPs – is a third seat.

But it’s a product of something else too, something more important, long term. Since 2009, the party’s membership has doubled. It was, arguably, Bristol which granted Britain its newest Green MEP. The Bristol Greens have grown drastically in recent years, winning council seats where they had none, and becoming serious players in the city where they weren’t before. Bristol is relatively typical. Greens are now the opposition on Liverpool city council. We came second across Manchester, and picked up good votes in numerous cities across the country.

The point is this. In 2009, Greens were lucky to keep our two MEPs. They were in part delivered to us through astonishingly friendly last minute circumstance. This time, the MEPs were retained – and a new one elected, despite circumstances being much less friendly – through genuine growth in the party, through the development of roots in communities, and through a strategic decision which risked everything in order to break out of the South East bubble.

This tells us something else too. The people who voted Green in 2009 gave us little base to build on. They came from across the ideological spectrum (apart from the far right), and all that they had in common was that they were angry with the establishment parties and they didn’t want to support UKIP. This time, the votes were fought for and won one at a time. They were progressives voting for a clear ideological programme. Opinion polls before the election showed that they are overwhelmingly young, usually from social class C1 (lower middle class), and largely live in Housing Association or privately rented housing. In other words, they are the precariat. Anecdotally, the activist left and those involved in the student movement of 2010 turned out for us like they never have before.

Five years ago, we had the wind on our back. This time, it was blowing against us. Gaining ground in that context is hugely encouraging for the party. This gain is reflected in the local election results. Whilst the increase in council seats were not huge, the increase in vote in seats the party did not target and did little work in was remarkable – scoring 15% across all of Ealing, 10% across Hillingdon, 7% across Carlisle, 8% across Portsmouth, 13% across Manchester, 14% across Barnet, 13% across Reading. These, remember, are in first past the post council elections, mostly in seats Greens will have done no work in, often in the middle of two other parties squeezing. We also picked up our first seat in Belfast across a vast ward, giving us a good crack at a second Assembly seat in Northern Ireland next time. This is not to mention 20% across normal strongholds of Hackney, Islington, Lewisham, Oxford, and coming first, according to ballot box samples, across Brighton Pavillion.

In the past, we depended on pockets of support in the midst of vast deserts of nothing. Today, where we stand a candidate, we consistently get 5-10% of the vote rather than 1-3%, and often pick up 15%. Most remarkably of all, when I scoured local council websites late into the night to work out the above results, I found a Green candidate in the vast majority of wards I looked at, all the way from the far North West to the deep South East. Five years ago, undertaking the same exercise, it was a challenge to find any candidates in many of these places.

There are many great people who narrowly missed out in this election, and for them we should shed a tear. But let us too understand that, in this election, to get where we have, we needed to build a house out of rock. The winds of national politics huff and puff, and who knows what will happen next year, but the long term growth of the Green roots is remarkable. We are becoming the go-to party for people to the left of Labour. That brings with it not just an occasional vote, but a big activist base if it can be mobilised. And that is very encouraging indeed.

Nine (more) reasons to vote Green

Posted on May 8, 2014 by | 2 Comments

Over on Novara, I published a list of nine of my favourite policies from the Green manifesto for the European elections. They were:

Universal Basic Income, a workers’ right to turn their company into a co-operative, restore trade union rights, support Scottish independence, rebuild the banking system, oppose dodgy ‘free trade’ deals, crack down on tax dodging, free education, end austerity.

I bloody love all of those policies, particularly because I think all of them are in some way transformative – they shift power away from the powerful and so help achieve all the other justices we would want.

But it’s only nine. And the manifesto is around 25,000 words long. So I thought I’d do a quick follow up with some more of my favourite bits and bobs from it.

1) stand up to the immigrant bashers.

Here’s the introduction to the section on migration:

“Across Europe, as austerity has reduced living standards for ordinary people, politicians keen to shirk the blame for their own failures have reached for a scapegoat. All too often, they have settled on migrants But the Green Party has always been clear. It wasn’t migrants who caused the economic collapse. It’s not migrants who are cutting jobs and failing to pay decent wages. It’s not migrants who sold off our social housing and failed to replace it.”

While the other parties pander to UKIP, it’s important to have someone who’ll stand up to them.

2) Ban most derivatives, make investment productive

“Work for a tightening of laws banning irresponsible banking. All financial products should be screened. Those with no social purpose should be banned.”

There is a problem at the core of our society. We all create wealth together. When we create more than we need, we then invest it in the future. Only, rather than all deciding together what kind of future we want to invest in building, we leave that decision to banks. Rather than building the society of tomorrow, they funnel our investments into gambling on derivatives markets and making things we have already produced like food and old houses more expensive, because it’s easier to do that than it is to invest in building the future.

I wrote over on Novara about the kind of banking system that we should build. But it’s equally important to understand that the current banking system is sucking the wealth from our society and stopping us from building the world we desperately need.

3) Defend public ownership:

“Public services and natural monopolies ought to remain in public hands. Consumer co-operatives, worker co-operatives, community or local council control and other forms of democratic ownership should be supported to expand throughout our economy.”

The EU have a nasty habit of promoting privatisation or, sometimes, foisting it on countries. The manifesto has a bunch of practical proposals for how to do the opposite. The vast majority of British people support public ownership. Only the Greens agree with them.

4) Rewilding:

I was weaned on this – my parents reintroduced beavers and wild boar to their farm in rural Perthshire, so it’s not a surprise I like it. But check out these stats from the manifesto:
“Between 2005 and 2010, the number of eels in the river Thames fell by 98%. From 2003 to 2013 there was a 13% drop in the number of farmland birds in Britain. Between 2003 and 2012, the British hedgehog population fell by a third. The wildcat is on the verge of extinction from the UK.”

If this was happening in a developing country, there’d be appeals all over the telly and the tube. But the people killing British wildlife are rich, white, and usually men. So their slash-and-burn doesn’t matter. The manifesto picks up on George Monbiot’s recent call to change the way the Common Agricultural Policy works so that farmers aren’t punished for allowing land to return to nature.

5) rights for Cornwall! (decentralising power)

Other than West Wales and the Valleys, West Cornwall is the only region of the UK to qualify for EU regional development funding, such is its poverty. Currently, the UK government get to decide what to do with that money. Greens are calling for it to be given directly to the Cornwall county council. In fact, Greens are the only party apart from Mebyon Kernow (‘left, decentralist, Cornish’) to support a Cornish Assembly. But this is a step towards that.

I think this is important for the same reason that I think Scottish independence is important – it’s about bringing power closer to people. If Cornwall won some degree of devolution, it wouldn’t only give them the power to tackle their own poverty, it would also set an example for regions of England. If the game is replacing the corporate-captured British state, this is a pretty good move.

6) “The Green Party is proud of its feminist principles”

From better regulations against gender discrimination in the work place to making it easier to take legal cases when equal work doesn’t mean equal pay to massively expanding parental leave and proposing a basic income to help recognise reproductive labour like care work, this is, I think, what a feminist manifesto looks like.

7) standing with Gypsies and travellers

Last year, Jean Lambert, London’s Green MEP was slammed in the Daily Mail for producing a report in which she suggested that gypsies and travellers are humans. “Roma gypsies should be guaranteed cash hand-outs and police protection, claims London MEP” they screamed. Because apparently one of the most oppressed groups in society don’t deserve the police protection or social security the rest of us expect.

Jean doesn’t scare easily, and certainly doesn’t give a shit what the Daily Mail thinks of her. The manifesto promises that Green MEPs will continue to confront racists, and demand that marginalised groups, including Traveller communities, get their rights.

8) Science

“In 2013, a Scottish trade union organiser and a holocaust survivor from Belgium were together awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics after a remarkable discovery at a Swiss research institute. By collaborating across Europe, Peter Higgs, François Englert and CERN had theorised and then proved the existence of a particle without which our understanding of the world around us would not make sense: the Higgs Boson. They also demonstrated something else. Academia has no borders. Discovery is a social endeavour.”

That’s the opening of the science section. It calls for a big increase in public funding for science, along the “Haldane principle” – that academics (within ethical bounds) not politicians, should decide what’s interesting. It calls for science funding to be de-linked from military infrastructure, and for a protection of the funding for the European Space Programme.

I’ve written before about Greens seeing the intrinsic importance of science. It’s one of those things which short termist capitalism can’t ever understand. The capitalist would rather sell you a sugar-pill with an exciting label than spend money on finding new antibiotics, and they certainly don’t get that humans are made for greater things than circulating plastic tat.

9) protecting our internet freedom

Coz the web is the new global commons, and we can’t let them claim it; it’s the new means of communication, and we can’t let them tap it; it’s where many of us spend most of our days, so we can’t let them control it; Greens will fight for net-freedom.

South Africa: lessons for the SNP and for Radical Independence

Posted on April 17, 2014 by | 1 Comment

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine has become a staple (some might say clichéd) reference point for many on the anti-authoritarian left. However in the lead-up to the Scottish independence referendum, and as the opinion polls show an increase in support for a yes vote, many minds in Scotland are turning to what will happen in the event of a yes vote. How will the negotiations be carried out with the rUK? How will Scotland’s constitution be written? Here, Klein’s chapter, Democracy Born in Chains shows a radically democratic path, and the pitfalls associated with abandoning that path. I should be clear that although there are lessons to be learned from the parallels, I’m certainly not comparing the cause of Scottish independence to the fall of apartheid and national liberation in South Africa.

The question of negotiations and a constitution are particularly pertinent to the left, and to movements such as the Radical Independence Campaign and its associated organisations, including the Scottish Green Party. The vision that Yes Scotland and the Scottish National Party puts forward for the future of Scotland is one which in many respects is not shared by the pro-independence left, most notably in terms of currency, the monarchy, membership of NATO, and other SNP policies outside the constitutional framework such as the lowering of corporation tax. And if promises of a cross-party negotiating team come to fruition, even this flawed SNP vision may well be the best of a bad bunch if Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives have their say.

The process for writing a constitution seems more promising. The White Paper says that the new constitution will be written ‘by the people of Scotland, for the people of Scotland’, but it also makes reference to a constitutional convention, which implies a constitution written by the ‘great and the good’ in consultation with the people of Scotland. There are a lot of fuzzy lines in this area, which will likely become defined by real political power rather than by any particular principle. For the left, the question in both areas becomes how the people can take control and ownership of these processes where we can, and how to hold politicians’ feet to the fire where we can’t take that control. Here, Democracy Born in Chains offers some lessons.

The chapter deals with the transition to democracy in South Africa, and in particular with the principles of the Freedom Charter. This was, and still is in some ways, the document of core principles of the African National Congress and its allies under apartheid. Where the Green Party has its Philosophical Basis, and the Labour Party used to have Clause Four, the ANC has the Freedom Charter. This foundational document was written in the 1950′s in a very radically participative democratic way. As the ANC website itself explains:

In 1955, the ANC sent out fifty thousand volunteers countrywide to collect ‘freedom demands’ from the people of South Africa. This system was designed to give all South Africans equal rights. (…) The Charter was officially adopted on June 26, 1955 at a Congress of the People in Kliptown. The meeting was attended by roughly three thousand delegates but was broken up by police on the second day, although by then the charter had been read in full. The crowd had shouted its approval of each section with cries of ‘Afrika!’ and ‘Mayibuye!’

The volunteers ran through the townships and countryside with demands written on scraps of paper, taken from workplaces and public meetings, where the people were asked ‘what does freedom mean to you?’ The answers were radical and clear – “The people shall govern!”, ” The people shall share in the country’s wealth!”, “The land shall be shared amongst those who work it!” These demands were compiled and written into one document, and agreed by a mass assembly in Kliptown. In 2005 a monument to the Charter was unveiled in the same place – they literally carved the Freedom Charter into stone!

The Freedom Charter Monument in Kliptown.
Image from Kliptown_Freedom_Charter_Memorial.jpg

The Yes Scotland ambassador scheme is a poor substitute for this process. Although their explicit aim is to recruit and train 10,000 volunteers to take the Yes message to the people, the aim is to talk, not to listen, and there are no links at all between it and the politicians who will negotiate the future. Importantly, and just like the impressive community organising that elected Barack Obama, these structures will not continue after the referendum. There’s a gap here waiting to be filled.

What if after the referendum, the left keeps canvassing, we build for public meetings in as many communities as we can and we ask, “the people voted for independence, so what does independence mean to you?” Even now in the ANC, candidates for selection are frequently asked “do you subscribe to the Freedom Charter?” Those who hesitate to say yes are not electedThere are other lessons to be learned from the South African transition. Through incompetence, inexperience or ideology, the ANC’s economic negotiating team, led by future President Thabo Mbeki, gave away the powers that would be necessary to fulfil the Freedom Charter. Mandela’s negotiations on the political transition were much more successful, but without the necessary economic tools, these successes made the ANC little more than a figurehead government, whilst the real power was wielded far away from the political sphere. As Klein explains:

Want to redistribute land? Impossible—at the last minute, the negotiators agreed to add a clause to the new constitution that protects all private property, making land reform virtually impossible. Want to create jobs for millions of unemployed workers? Can’t—hundreds of factories were actually about to close because the ANC had signed on to the GATT, the precursor to the World Trade Organization, which made it illegal to subsidize the auto plants and textile factories. Want to get free AIDS drugs to the townships, where the disease is spreading with terrifying speed? That violates an intellectual property rights commitment under the WTO, which the ANC joined with no public debate as a continuation of the GATT. Need money to build more and larger houses for the poor and to bring free electricity to the townships? Sorry—the budget is being eaten up servicing the massive debt, passed on quietly by the apartheid government. Print more money? Tell that to the apartheid-era head of the central bank. Free water for all? Not likely. The World Bank, with its large in-country contingent of economists, researchers and trainers (a self-proclaimed “Knowledge Bank”), is making private-sector partnerships the service norm. Want to impose currency controls to guard against wild speculation? That would violate the $850 million IMF deal, signed, conveniently enough, right before the elections. Raise the minimum wage to close the apartheid income gap? Nope. The IMF deal promises “wage restraint.” And don’t even think about ignoring these commitments— any change will be regarded as evidence of dangerous national untrustworthiness, a lack of commitment to “reform,” an absence of a “rules-based system.” All of which will lead to currency crashes, aid cuts and capital flight. The bottom line was that South Africa was free but simultaneously captured; each one of these arcane acronyms represented a different thread in the web that pinned down the limbs of the new government.

Although the context is very different, the lessons for the left and for the negotiators are clear. The Westminster parliament and government are utterly beholden to the interests of finance capital and the rich. Independence is an opportunity to cut off some of the control which the capitalist class wields over us through that establishment, but without effective scrutiny and accountability it will be too easy for the negotiating team and the writers of the new constitution to allow those existing channels of power to remain – through the monarchy or a currency union with the Bank of England – or to concede to a different section of the capitalist class the same control over Holyrood they currently enjoy over Westminster.

The SNP and Yes Scotland talk the talk on the sovereignty of the people of Scotland, and on the participative nature of the constitutional process. But action is more important – if they genuinely want the people of Scotland to have power over their own affairs, if they want genuine independence, and if they don’t want their reputations and legacies to lie in the gutter alongside Thabo Mbeki’s, then the following are necessary minimums:

  1. Our political, economic and monetary policies must be set as independently as possible from Westminster
  2. Our new political, economic and monetary institutions must be set up within the political/democratic sphere, and must be run democratically in the interests of the people
  3. The new constitution must be created using a democratic, participative process, and not by lawyers, politicians or technocrats.

Then, once we have these powers, we can begin to decide democratically what to do with them.

Glasgow blows up the post war dream

Posted on April 11, 2014 by | 2 Comments

The news that Glasgow is to celebrate the Commonwealth Games coming to the city by blowing up the Red Road flats tells us a great deal. It tells us about the way we think about cities, it tells us about government priorities, it tells us about how big sporting events are used and it tells us most profoundly about our ideas of progress.

The Red Road flats are one of the most striking examples of Scottish post-war slum clearance. They were built to house those whose lives in Victorian tenements were crowded, unhygienic and scarred by infectious diseases. The desire to build a new world started with destroying the worst of the old world. Slum landlords were to be replaced by democratic control of housing. Cluttered houses with outdoor toilets were to be replaced with comfortable modern accommodation. And this accommodation was to retain the community that had been one of the few positive features of Glasgow’s slums.

When they were built the Red Road flats spoke of a world of community, modernity, equality, democracy and opportunity. That they do no longer is testament of the failure of the post-war dream. The need to provide huge numbers of houses for an expanding population and the lack of money led to poor construction in many of these new housing developments.

Too often this poor construction is misused and abused to undermine the principles the houses were built on. Our new housing is individualistic, nostalgic, elitist, undemocratic and backward looking both in style and in the cities it creates. The sprawling estates built by private sector home builders are the easiest way to see what our society values: a defensive mindset convinced that nothing can ever get better and that other people are a threat.

This reflects the failure of the post-war dream.

The failure to sustain jobs in heavy industry was the beginning of this decline. Government’s inability to replace these industrial jobs exacerbated the problem. But the real failure came with the Thatcher government of the 1980s, who saw working class community as a threat to their individualising, atomising economic project.

No longer was housing to be controlled democratically. Instead much council housing was flogged off to those who could afford to buy their homes. What remained was the worst of the housing stock. And the badly maintained high-rise flats at Red Road ended up being the worst of that housing stock.

This brings us to the demolition of the flats. The destruction of the old and its replacement with the modern is of course essential. So it’s not wrong to demolish the flats. But what is wrong is that these are homes that could be used to house those in desperate need (as the block to be left standing will). More importantly, what will replace these homes will be individualistic, designed to break community down, not build it up. It will be partly privately owned and partly run by housing association. There will be no democratic housing.

The design will be backward-looking and based on elitist histories. It will be about ‘making the East End of Glasgow the new West End’. The aim is to mimic the bourgeois areas of the city. Without of course giving the people who live there the ownership of their companies or control over their lives to actually be bourgeois. The principle appears to be that if the poor live in houses that look like those of the rich, they will behave like the rich.

Perhaps most interesting is what the timing of the demolition tells us about the link between major sporting events and urban regeneration. One of the reasons Ken Livingstone gave for seeking to bring the 2012 Olympic Games to London was that it was the only way he could see to get the money to regenerate London’s east end. The Labour government elected in 1997 spent a lot of money on knocking down homes and rebuilding them. But they realised that this was really very unpopular with the middle class voters whose approval they craved. So the money taps were being turned off.

As with every decaying regime the Labour government resorted to bread and circuses to justify its rule. Except without the bread. To justify investing in some of the poorest areas of Britain the government needed something for middle class people to enjoy. And where London led, so Glasgow followed.

In this context it seems entirely appropriate that symbols of the post-war dream of equality, democracy and opportunity are blown up as part of the opening ceremony. It is increasingly obvious that our cities, rather than being places to live have been captured by elites to be used for their entertainment. Urban renewal is based on attractions for the middle classes. Our parents and grandparents dream of a better future, their dream of progress, has become the subject of a superior fireworks show. And all we’re left with is a couple of weeks of entertainment and cities dominated by a neoliberal elite.

Of course they were bluffing about Scottish currency – when do these people tell the truth?

Posted on March 29, 2014 by | 4 Comments

It should come as no surprise. The extraordinary admission from a government minister that Westminster would find a way to make currency union with Scotland work is, in fact, entirely ordinary. The idea that Westminster politicians have put political convenience ahead of rigorous honesty is no newer than the notion that what they say in public is very different from what they know in private to be the truth.

Let’s review the story. A minister, who the Guardian believe will be very involved in negotiations after a yes vote said to the paper “Of course there would be a currency union”. Perhaps more importantly, the Treasury admitted that:

“Westminster’s emphatic rejection was taken on the specific advice of the former chancellor and Better Together chief, Alistair Darling, and the main Downing Street Scottish adviser, Andrew Dunlop. The Treasury had assumed that Osborne would stick to his position of saying that a currency union would be highly unlikely.

“The decision to toughen up the message was made because Darling believes Better Together needs to do more than win the referendum – it needs to kill off independence with an emphatic win. “Alistair and Andrew are running the show – we just did what they said,” one Treasury source said.”

In other words, the comments from Osborne, Balls and Alexander were a political choice of the No campaign chief, not the economic decision of the Treasury. It was a bluff. It was bluster. They said things not because they believed them to be true, but in order to win the referendum.

None of this should be a surprise. As many people said at the time, the idea that a Westminster establishment so mutually intertwined with a city of London desperate to maintain the price of the pound would want to chop the second richest region of the UK out of its currency union is ludicrous.

But more importantly, what I never understand is why anyone would trust the people saying this. These are the same Lib Dems who promised to vote to scrap fees before trebling them; the same Conservative party which said its NHS reforms wouldn’t mean privatisation; the same Labour party who told us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction deployable within 45 minutes.

This is the Westminster establishment which five years ago was caught out lying about money in a very different way when the Telegraph published their expense revelations; the same Mssrs Balls and Darling those who flipped their homes repeatedly. It’s the same Mr Alexander who insisted on endlessly repeating lies that pension reforms were about saving money; the same Mr Osborne as the one who claimed in the recent budget that we’re borrowing less because he delayed the repayment of some loans.

The idea that, in the fight to save their beloved union, these people wouldn’t significantly exaggerate the risks over things like currency is absurd. Of course they were always, at the very least, stretching the truth.

But now they have a problem. Because this was the No campaign strategy. As the same article says:

“We went early with the currency union announcement in the hope that a rational, rather than an emotional, judgment will prevail among voters,” one Better Together source said. “But people have got to believe we mean it.”

Now that the cat is out of the bag, these lying liars can spin all they like, but their tied up in their own untruths. The Scottish people would be fools to believe a word they say. And campaigns lose when they take the electorate for idiots. Already, people were fed up with silly fear-mongering. Already, a significant number believed that the government was bluffing. Now, they know that at least one minister at the centre of the campaign doesn’t believe what’s being said either.

The Westminster elite which lied its way into a war which killed hundreds of thousands of people, which cheated on its expenses and bullshits its way through economic data has been caught out putting a desire to fear-monger ahead of a wish to be frank with the people of Scotland. Every time they pop up with some new scare story over the next six months, people will remember that.

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