Sunday, June 19, 2016

The referendum, Jo Cox and Eckhart Tolle

It does not matter so much whether we vote in or out of the EU, as what we do afterwards. Do we behave like an isolationist country defending our borders vehemently or do we we act humanely and in a spirit of international peace and co-operation?

The death of Jo Cox, shattering for her friends, family and country, has made the voice of humane action more audible on the stage of fear-mongering which has so demoralised and underserved this country in the run up to this referendum. Although most of us had never heard of her before her death, it turns out that she was a champion of human rights and compassion. Her support for the anti-racist, anti-fascist organisation Hope Not Hate and for the Syrian refugees was diametrically opposed to the rhetoric of Farage and Johnson and their posters of migrants queuing to get into Britain.

Not everyone in the Leave camp is on board with the xenophobia, but it essentially derives its energy from the fears of mostly white people who see themselves as British rather than European or World citizens. Some of these people have genuine grievances which are easily (if not accurately) portrayed as relating to immigration - the housing crisis perhaps, the lowering of wages, the demand for school places. Some of them are comfortably off but nonetheless feel insecure - they want to section off a familiar world for themselves where they know the rules and don't have to listen to languages they don't understand being spoken around them (saying who knows what?) .

This is not to blame or ridicule either group. Those in power have long exploited the divisions and the fears in society for their own gain. It is called 'divide and rule'. Scarcity, much of it due to enormous inequality of wealth, could fuel greater social co-operation (think war rationing), but is instead the basis for fear and competition. 

Eckhart Tolle refers to the 'collective ego' which 'strengthens itself through emphasizing the "otherness" of others' . He says ' the ego needs an "enemy" for its continued survival.' Seeing oneself as particularly British (or English) is about collective self-identity, which is essentially the same as collective ego. At the bottom of all this divisiveness is the fear of losing self-identity, of not being able to differentiate oneself from others and therefore not being able to demonstrate one's superiority and greater entitlement.

We desperately need to change this mindset. It can only lead to greater inequality, hostility and misery. Let us hope that the death of Jo Cox can inspire us to move in another direction. Our leaders have a responsibility to call for social co-operation and to reassure everyone that they will all have a share, that there can be enough for everyone.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Making Your Mind Up

I’m in a mixed marriage – I’m in, he’s out. Of the EU that is. My partner is an anarchist, with a loathing of global governance and social control. He’s crystal clear about his decision.

I, however, am an active member of the Green Party, and it is hard to distinguish whether or not my opinions are derived from the peer pressure of being in a party where a Leave vote is considered eccentric and na├»ve. 

I’m told this is the most important decision of my life, that leading Greens with much more knowledge and experience than myself are campaigning to Remain, and just look at that toxic mishmash of right-wingers who want to Leave! How could I possibly agree with them? 

Yet there is so much that is wrong about the EU – the secrecy, the austerity agenda, TTIP. How can I possibly vote for it?

The challenge is that I, like most of the population who have a vote in the 2016 Referendum, know very little about the structures, policies and laws of the European Union. Its unwieldy complexity acts as a smokescreen making it very hard to judge who we are actually ruled by.

This fog is perhaps at the heart of the debate.  People always want certainty, simplicity, clarity. For the old, this means a sovereign national government, just like the one ‘we used to have’.For the young it means their own status quo – their only experience is being in the EU, so why would they want to take the risk of changing that?

And yet, change is what we so desperately need, in or out of the EU. We need a massive switch of resource and focus onto environmental sustainability across the world. We need to challenge the haywire neoliberalism which has created spiralling inequality and political conflict and is premised on a win-lose paradigm. We need to break down the orthodoxy that says we need infinite economic growth, which is of course impossible. In short, we need a future.

In, Out, Shake It All About

The Green argument is that we stay and fight for reform within the EU. As a pragmatist, I’m trying to make my decision based on whether we are more likely to achieve the required scale of change by staying in or by leaving.

If we remain, then Cameron stays as Prime Minister, the EU limps on, the economy breathes a short sigh of relief. Perhaps we can then put pressure on for the reforms we so desperately need, but it will take a huge amount of concerted effort across Europe and a firm clarity of vision. The contradictions of the EU run deep. The European Commission has climate change as a priority but it also has ‘competitiveness’, often a byword for lower wages and tax avoidance, and in any case a zero-sum game.

If we Leave, then we have to look at Nigel Farage’s smug face (and then the disappointment of those who somehow think this will put an end to immigration) and face the consequences of Scottish independence. Leaving is not a simple process – we will be tied into lengthy withdrawal negotiations and still have to decide whether or not to leave the European Economic Area (which is the bit that creates freedom of movement among other things).
The Tory party is in crisis either way, which is the good news.

 If I stay there will be trouble …if I leave there will be double.

In my pessimistic heart, I don’t think it makes too much difference overall at one level whether we are in or out of the EU. The same greedy and reactionary forces will be at work either way. It is more a question of how best we can fight against them.

Perhaps the single most convincing point for me is that any gains that we make in reforming the EU and getting it to work in the interest of social justice and the environment will be gains made across 28 countries. If we leave and campaign for reform just here in the UK (ultimately perhaps losing Scotland) then our impact will be much tinier.

If this is true then we need to commit to EU reform as a leading area of campaign activity. Now is our chance to articulate what we need from the EU and to use the threat of Brexit as leverage for fairer and more sustainable world.

So, in summary, It’s a Yes from me.

Monday, March 7, 2016

More consultation on the Arena needed

Virtually everyone agrees that the Arena will be a good thing for Bristol, providing a world class entertainment venue and re-vitalising the area just South of Temple Meads. In particular it should bring jobs to a part of town where there is high unemployment nearby.

It was very disappointing then to hear the Arena planning application being deferred last Wednesday.

The application was deferred largely because the Development Control committee (made up of councillors from different parties) was unhappy with the robustness of the transport arrangements for people coming to major events at the Arena. It is self-evident that bringing 12,000 people to an event in the city centre 20 times a year needs some serious planning.

Personally I'm not sure that it needed to be deferred; the committee could have imposed some conditions on the application but allowed building work to begin.

I am fairly confident that the sudden announcement at Cabinet on Tuesday of a very ill-considered proposal to build a car park on the newly acquired Bath Road site on the other side of the railway tracks played its part in undermining the confidence the committee had in the transport planning of the Arena team. Although it wasn't part of the planning submission it had obvious ramifications and it was hard to see how the two could be separated.

I have always been a big supporter of the plans to have a virtually car-free Arena. This has been pioneered successfully by Cardiff and the Bristol site can only work in this way. It is also very important that the Arena Island provides a good cycle and pedestrian alternative route linking Bath Road to Temple Quarter and East Bristol - the current shared path is absurdly narrow and dangerous. I have lobbied hard for this and we have moved from a position where the Bath Road was being completely ignored to one where we have the potential for a wide walk/cycle way and hopefully a ramp which is open 24 hours a day to wheelchair users and cyclists.

I also have spent a lot of time calling for more information to be made to councillors and residents. We had to fight hard simply to get an ordinary consultation event happen in Totterdown where the Arena is being built!

Hopefully the Arena team will get their act together quickly and satisfy the committee. What I would say is that more consultation at an early stage with residents and their elected representatives would greatly assist in making plans which are robust and workable.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Why Corbynmania is a Win for the Green Party

It's difficult as a Green not to feel a little conflicted about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. After all the policies he is espousing are pretty much identical in many cases to those the Greens championed during the General Election. Against austerity and fracking; in favour of state ownership of the rail network; cancelling the renewal of Trident; a humane and intelligent response to immigration. Indeed Jeremy's latest soundbite about education is lifted straight from the strapline of the Green Party Manifesto: 'For the Common Good'.

Not only did the Labour Party not stand on this manifesto (far from it), but they also received a lot of votes from the very people who are now excited about Corbyn. Much of this may be due to the electoral system which favours the big parties and the breadth of 'tactical' voting which went on across the country ( in the end to no avail). In Bristol we estimated about 18,000 people may have split their vote, electing Green councillors but 'playing safe' in the national elections, even in seats which were nowhere near marginal such as Bristol East or South.

There is also a wariness in the party that now that Labour's failure to oppose the Tories has been made crystal clear, the people who might have turned finally to the Greens are hanging in with the Labour Party in the hope that Corbyn will be the new leader. It must be true that the Greens are losing out here on potential new members and supporters.

Nonetheless I see the enthusiasm for Corbyn as a success for the Green Party. The Greens (along with the SNP and Plaid Cymru) held the torch of opposition to mainstream neoliberalism and the  austerity programme throughout the General Election. For all the criticism of Natalie Bennett's technique, people on the doorstep told us they liked what she had to say. That torch is - for now- in the hands of a man who might actually be able to set something on fire.

The point of the Green Party is to see its policies implemented. We can achieve this directly through electoral success or through shifting political discourse towards the environmental sustainability and social justice which are our core values. Electoral success and the agenda shift are of course interconnected and voting Green certainly turns the heads of the parties who lose votes in the process. In Bristol City Council the Liberal Democrats demise has co-incided with the Green's rise but the Tories and Labour are also finding it harder to hold their seats.

I am in no way suggesting we should not stand for election. The Green Party is not simply a pressure group. However we have to recognise, with the electoral system we have, that success may not always come in the form of winning seats. Watching a major party shift its position towards our own has to be viewed gladly. After all it is the policy not the party that counts.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Why Suits Don’t Suit Greens

In a recent article in the New Statesman, a former Green Party candidate declared that ‘t shirts with slogans and sandals’ were not helpful to the Greens. He was described himself in the article as wearing an ‘immaculate suit’. On the same day the Green MEP, Molly Scott Cato, was photographed wearing a t shirt in the European Parliament, with the slogan ‘No to TTIP’. The Green MP Caroline Lucas made a famous appearance in a No to Page 3 t shirt in the House of Commons in 2013. And, most pointedly, the popular Green political broadcast in the run up to the May election this year was at pains to differentiate the Greens from other parties on this very issue– a quartet of white men in suits was foiled by a more informally dressed young black woman.

So who is right? Should Greens be wearing suits?

Purists might query whether or not it matters what one is wearing – the policies and principles are what counts. However clothes do matter. As sociologists and communication specialists know, clothes convey meaning – they are signs. The suit suggests business, efficiency, competence and leadership. This is why some Greens advocate its use – they believe that it will enhance their credibility and more people will vote accordingly.
There are significant problems with this approach. The suit itself is a masculine affair: women’s suits are evolving but a woman who dresses in the full jacket, trousers and tie sends out quite a different message to that of a man in the same outfit. The Greens pride themselves on gender equality and suit-wearing may put women at an inherent disadvantage.

But there is a deeper problem. The suit is primarily a sign of the middle classes. It is not something you can wear while doing manual work. Class is an issue at the centre of the Green Party and the Green movement. The party already has a middle class image, which may or may not be deserved. Its policies may be ones that benefit the most disadvantaged – environmental destruction affects the poorest the most and austerity is targeting these groups too, but having the right policies does not mean that people trust or feel an affinity with the party.

Of course, wearing jeans and a t shirt does not make you working class and does not automatically engender the trust of the working class (the opposite may be true). But accepting the status quo and donning suits is to accept and reinforce the desirability of being middle class and alongside it the principle that it is only the (male) middle classes who are really capable of leading and managing our economy and society.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Digital Billboards & Green Economics for Tories

Advertising on roadside presents a multitude of street-level opportunities, targeting your audience while they are engaged in some form of transportation. OOH International can provide your campaign with enormous opportunities across many roadside advertising mediums. Surfaces such as phone boxes and lamp-posts can be transformed from outdoor furniture into purveyors of your business, with options escalating as far as fully wrapped buildings and motorway trailers.
The commuter of today spends more time out of their home than previously in history, which means that your publicity will be vastly strengthened by a carefully organised plan. As advertising platforms have the possibility of illumination, there is nothing limiting your visibility – from dusk until dawn, your brand can unavoidably walk alongside the public as they engage in their daily journeys.’

This is an extract from Out of Home International’s website – the company which Mayor George Ferguson wants to install digital billboards in Bristol.*

The Greens were mocked in the Bristol City Council meeting today for their opposition to digital billboards. One Conservative declared that he could ‘not understand Green economics’, on the basis that we were against austerity but also against generating income from digital billboards.

I’ll explain it to him.

Green economics arises from the very simple scientific fact that there are finite natural resources on this planet. Using up these resources rapidly – mining, soil degradation, overfishing – creates a poorer world in the long term. In addition all sorts of complications arise from the extracting, processing and disposing that industrial production and consumption incur. We now have climate change and toxic waste on a massive scale as a result of the accelerated consumption of natural resources.

We depend on our environment to continue providing us with the basic physical necessities of life – food, clean water, warmth and shelter. The famous Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has these as the most fundamental.

Advertising exists to promote consumption. It does exactly the opposite of what we need to do. Along the way it creates a host of other problems for mental and social wellbeing, creating discontent and objectification of people, undermining the next tier of Maslow’s pyramid (for some excellent insights see

What Green economics offers is the idea of investment in wellbeing rather than in growing consumption (which is the basis of GDP orientated economics). We want enrichment of people’s lives – hence we are opposed to an austerity that cuts vital services and the incomes of people who need help. We want investment in technology and systems which minimise and reverse environmental impact. We believe that a fairer taxation system could provide this. We don’t need digital billboards to fund this investment – that would be counter-productive.

The Tory councillor who could not understand Green economics was operating in a paradigm where profit and income generation are thought to be intrinsically good. It is ‘self-evident’ to him that any profit is good profit. This is part of a fantasy culture where consumption can be infinite. Greens are accused of not living in the ‘real’ world; in fact we are the only political movement which fully acknowledges the limitations of the planet.

*It turns out it is a different company with a very similar name. The principle holds however.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Photo Tim Pierce, Creative Commons Licence

Libraries - a Common Good

Bristol, like many towns and cities across the UK, has recently faced the prospect of major cuts to its library services as a result of the central government's programme of austerity. This has included the proposal to close seven community libraries, principally on the basis of the locations and conditions of the buildings which house them.

Marksbury Road Library faced closure a few years ago and is once again on the list of those libraries under threat. While there has been a stay of execution for a further year for the library, it continues to be vulnerable. The 1930s building is old-fashioned and freestanding, without the benefit of being among other services such as shops. One reason cited for its place on the list of proposed library closures is the absence of a toilet.

The Green Party supports public libraries. Up and down the country Greens have been involved in campaigning to keep libraries open. We believe in local public services, in access for everyone to information and imagination through books and the internet. We cannot hope to improve literacy and education without them. Libraries are a vital part of democracy and lifelong learning. Marksbury Road Library in its distinctive building, with its own garden, is a focal point in a place where there is little other community space. The lack of a toilet is not an adequate excuse to close it down.

Bristol Green councillors are working closely with the Mayor to find resources to keep the libraries open. It is a difficult task, because the funding will have to be taken from another area of council activity. What we really need is a government which invests in people via public services and which sees the provision of local libraries as excellent value, engaging people of all ages individually and in groups in learning, as a common good.