Responding to climate breakdown: the urgency of the democratic challenge on Merseyside.

[FAO Liverpool Metro Mayor, Steve Rotheram]

  • Context evidence, ethics
  • Willing the means
  • Appendix: Notes from Greater Manchester Green Summit (25 03 2019), The Lowry, Salford Quays.

 In 2007, sociology Professor, Ulrich Beck, argued that the key issue of justice for governments entails equal concern for both economy and ecology:

“Climate change is not solely a matter of hurricanes, droughts, floods, refugee movements,  impending wars or unprecedented market failure. . . . If we want to survive, we have to include those who have been excluded. The politics of climate change is necessarily inclusive and global – it is cosmopolitics” (Ulrich Beck [13 07 2007], ‘In the new, anxious world, leaders must learn to think beyond borders’, The Guardian).

This makes poignant re-reading in 2019, against the backdrop of Trump as US President, Brexit catastrophe   in the UK, and the rise of far right/fascist behaviour and politics elsewhere in Europe. As novelist Ali   Smith cautions: “All our nationalisms are nothing in the face of climate change” (in interview with Claire Armitstead, ‘A new season’, The Guardian Review, 23 03 2019: 11). Smith contrasts narrative and politics:

“Story is an ancient form of generosity . . . . . Story has always been a welcoming-in, is always one way or another a hospitable meeting of the needs of others, and a porous art form where sympathy and empathy are only the beginning of things” (ibid.).

Politics, she says, is the opposite:

“Where our stories meet other stories or block other stories; and where people decide that other stories can’t be heard because my story is more important than your story – all that stuff – you could call it politics” (ibid).

So story (like love and friendship) involves/evolves a degree of intimacy and trust, which engenders (potentially enduring) affinity. Whereas politics is adversarial and competitive: a power struggle. Journalist and writer, Steven Poole, makes an analogous distinction: “Writing is not data. It is a means of expression, which implies that you have something to express” (Poole, ‘Deepfake or fortune’, The Guardian Review 23 03 2019). We need both.

In 2018, in the immediate aftermath of the Parkland school shooting in the US:

“A steady parade of Parkland students called out ‘thoughts and prayers’ for the stall tactic it was. Politicians were going to think and pray and legislate to keep the deadly system precisely the same. What had begun with good intentions after horrors like Columbine rang hollow nineteen years and 81 mass shootings later. The Parkland kids welcomed thoughts and prayers in addition to solutions, not instead” (Dave Cullen [2019] Parkland. Birth of a Movement: 21).

As Ben Okri counselled in his epic poem, Mental Fight: An Anti-Spell for the Twenty First Century):

It’s time we turned our formidable

Powers of heart and mind

To humanity’s solvable problems –

Problems which have become accusations.

(‘Harmony of politics and heart 1’, Mental Fight, 2002: 42).

Context, evidence, ethics.

We start with what we already know about injury, damage, inequality and injustice, as climate change morphs into climate breakdown. Interconnected challenges in the Liverpool city region, to be targeted / developed / mitigated / reduced or eliminated, include:

  • air quality / air pollution / noise pollution: NB cars, motorbikes, vans, freight, industry; trees
  • contamination: soil, food, water
  • energy: fossil fuels / fracking / fuel poverty / decarbonisation / renewables / community energy
  • the industrialisation and commodification of the natural environment, with consequences for its protection, preservation, maintenance and development: land use, green spaces, coastal places; species and habitat deterioration and loss (destruction); animal exploitation and cruelty
  • mobility: access to people, places, work/employment, culture, services & opportunities – walking, cycling, wheelchair use, cars; public transport: trains, buses; the internet
  • civic marginalisation / democratic deficit / corruption / abuses of power & position

Poverty and inequality are fundamental considerations within climate change discourse and decarbonisation. We know that poverty is not just an economic condition / issue / political strategy (Austerity politics), but variously manifests across lives and communities, e.g. as fuel poverty / lack of shelter: poor, insufficient and/or unaffordable housing / homelessness / educational impoverishment / ill health and disease / food poverty/dietary poverty/malnutrition / period poverty and gender inequality.

Poverty degrades and demolishes; creates despair and powerlessness. It destroys dignity, appetite and agency (personal, social and political); it undermines opportunity and impedes creativity, participation and collaboration. Poverty turns hope into fanciful, wishful thinking; an unaffordable luxury. This dense victimhood can lead to anger, self-harm and violence. Poverty crushes, divides and kills. For example, the marginalisation of asylum seekers and refugees is intensified by their enforced unemployment and impoverishment. Poverty and inequality undermine democracy. And like poverty and inequality, climate breakdown is a feminist issue and a post colonial issue. Malaysian author, Tash Aw, “feels a duty to reflect the distinctly un-beautiful truth: ‘Suffering is suffering – it has no aesthetic quality to it'” (‘My generation believed wealth could provide them with the emotional security they needed’. Guardian Review: 20-23).

Liverpool researcher and activist, Alan Cunningham (15 07 2014), concluded his submission to Liverpool‘s Mayoral Commission on Environmental Sustainability:

“Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Dr. Mark Stafford Smith have argued with others that ending poverty and safeguarding Earth’s life support system must be twin priorities. They suggest six goals – thriving lives and livelihoods, food security, water security, clean energy, health and productive ecosystems, and governance for sustainable societies. However, these goals are dependent upon: climate stability, reducing biodiversity loss, protection of ecosystem services, a healthy waste cycle and oceans, sustainable nitrogen and phosphorous use, clean air and sustainable material use.”

Based on the evidence, the interconnectivity of these issues – as health and safety issues, as equality and social justice issues – is indisputable. Take the value/role of trees, for example:

“Trees can reduce soil erosion and flood risk, provide food and shelter for wildlife and are proven to boost human health and wellbeing. They also have a vital role to play in combatting climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere” (John Tucker, director of woodland outreach for the Woodland Trust charity, cited Stephen Armstrong, ‘A promise to plant”, Tree Life 2019, Guardian Labs [06 04 2019: 10]).

Yet locally, mature trees have been felled across our region. There seems to be no local authority or city region policy informed by the above evidence and the expertise of those whose business is to research, understand and advise on the vital interconnectivity mentioned here. By contrast, and to avoid further climate catastrophe, author and biologist Amy-Jane Beer advises: “We should plant 1,000 trees for every one felled” (Tree Life 2019, ibid: 12-14). Recent research expands our understanding and sense of urgency:

“Whatever the precise figure, air pollution – principally nitrogen oxides and tiny particles known as   PM2.5 – kills more people than smoking, and more than Aids, diabetes and traffic accidents combined . . . . Many who do not die as a result of air pollution struggle with its effects on their hearts, lungs and brains. New findings have even linked it to psychotic experiences in young people” (Caspar Henderson, ‘Air pollution causes one in nine deaths globally each year. How are cities around the world cleaning up?’ Guardian Review, 06 04 2019: 12. Reviewing Beth Gardiner (2019), Choked: The Age of Air Pollution and the Fight for a Cleaner Future).

A recurring theme at the Greater Manchester Green Summit (25 03 2019), eloquently flagged up in his keynote address at the start of the day by poet and Chancellor of the University of Manchester, Lemn Sissay, was the question of “the gap” or gaps. This points to the importance of not just what we know, what evidence shows, but also to what we don’t yet know/maybe don’t want to know or acknowledge, and how to fill those gaps in knowledge, understanding, political will, material support and best practice. ARUP (a contributor to the Greater Manchester Green Summit) is a global firm of engineering consultants, designers, development planners and project managers, founded in April 1946. Members aim to “work together to shape a better world”. (See Katherine Farley, ‘Arup: sustainability shapes every project’ [The Guardian, 16 05 2013]). Arup chooses to combine data with local knowledge (i.e. narrative), thereby establishing a hybrid methodology capable of capturing the complexity of lived experience and diverse lives.

 There are clearly issues of ownership, control and accountability that run through these concerns, debates and projects: issues of inequality, of differential power and opportunity, which need to inform how we organise for change. “An audience is very different from a crowd, festive or otherwise”, observes Barbara Ehrenreich (Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, 2008: 253). And given “the immobility required of the ‘audience’“ (ibid. 206), “a spectacle, by its nature, offers an inherently more limited experience than a participatory event” (ibid.). It follows that a healthy democracy requires us to be more than spectators. It requires our active participation and engagement. And democracy, as a never-ending process over time (not a one-off event), requires stamina as much as imagination and courage.

Seventeen year old, David Hogg, one of the Parkland survivors and subsequent vocal activists, said at the time:

“We need to realize there is something seriously wrong here and policy makers need to look in the mirror and take some action. Because ideas are great but without action ideas stay ideas, and children die” (reported in Cullen [2019] Parkland. Birth of a Movement: 20).

Cullen reports that in the next six minutes, David publicly demanded action twelve times:

“Any action at this point, instead of just complete stagnancy and blaming the other side. . . . We are children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action” (ibid.)

Cullen’s verdict was: “That was the moment. February 15 2018, 8.22 a.m. EST. David Hogg called out Adult America for letting our kids die. The uprising had begun” (ibid.). Democratic renewal was now on the cards, care of children and young people stepping up to the political table.

The democratic renewal required to challenge and arrest climate breakdown is a participatory process. This was evident at the Greater Manchester Green Summit, where awareness of the necessity of collaboration was on view throughout the day. These engagements confirm that the challenge is not primarily technological or organisational, but a matter of political will and commitment. (See sociologist, Richard Sennett’s beautiful book, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures & Politics of Cooperation [2012]). Who should own, control and be held to account for our energy systems, is not a technical question.

Alan Cunningham highlights the advantages of using the international policy framework for healthy cities:

“If the WHO and health academics, such as Sir Michael Marmot, demonstrate a relationship between Healthy and Sustainable Living, which they do, then any process of green economics  which fails to recognise that relationship is likely to create or exacerbate inefficiency and unfairness”. (‘Low carbon pathways to health’. Presentation to Green Economics Institute annual conference, 2013).

Demonstrating how efficiency, fairness and health can go hand in hand, Beth Gardiner contrasts London’s record with that of Berlin, a city where:

“The increasing availability of attractive, affordable and readily available alternatives to passenger cars has delivered substantial improvements in transport connectivity, quality of life and health” (cited Henderson, ibid: 13).

She makes a further significant point regarding legislation:

“With the precedent of values-based legislation, such as the Clean Air Act, and mobilization for the Green New Deal in the US, a shift away from fossil fuels that poison our bodies and wreck our planet is possible” (cited Henderson, ibid.). Emphasis added.

And the values-based actions / interventions of individuals, groups and organisations also make a real difference. For example, Kenya’s “lush forests suffered aggressive deforestation from the 1970s to the early 1990s, mainly from charcoal and timber, and the effects have proved devastating – with drought and desertification looming” (Armstrong, ibid: 10). In 2015, the company responsible for Yorkshire Tea began its five-year project to plant a million trees in the UK and Kenya (ibid.), planting three main species in Kenya, in collaboration with local farmers, to provide building materials as well as food, and as a source of income.

Willing the means.
“It isn’t enough to will the ends. You must will the means” (Alan Simpson [2018] ‘The sustainable lives of others – international lessons in decentralizing Britain’s energy system” (cited Walsh, 26 07 2018). See also Simpson, ‘When the war is over’ 2018) www.alansimpson.org.uk

It is clear that renewing politics entails valuing and facilitating narrative (people’s stories, whether as novelists, poets, citizens, victims and/or activists). But acting on the evidence of both narrative and data, requires, in turn, political will and action. So a productive creative tension between narrative and data, between story and politics, is fundamental to this recovery and renewal.

“The Parkland students decided in the first few days that they needed to speak with one voice, and focus on gun safety. March for Our Lives followed on 24 March 2018. Estimates state that between 1.4 and 2.1 million people marched in the US that day, making it the third or fourth largest one-day protest in American history, equivalent to the largest protest of the Vietnam war era, led by college students, who had been rallying for the better part of a decade. The Parkland uprising was organised by high school students in five weeks” (Cullen, ‘Words can kill. What we write about when we write about gun crime. Changing the story”. Guardian Review, 09 02 2019: 11).

Cullen expands on the significance of this uprising and how it changed the story:

“When Parkland was attacked last Valentine’s Day, supporting gun safety was considered politically toxic. Suddenly, for the first time in a generation, it is starting to grow politically toxic to oppose it. .  . .  State legislatures reversed the NRA momentum, passing 67 laws tightening access to guns. But the big prize was the November midterms. Democrats finally stopped cowering on gun laws, ran on reforming them, and took the House of Representatives” (Cullen, ‘Changing the story’, ibid.).

We ‘adults’ need to learn from and with children and young people. To achieve the paradigm shift required to preserve the planet and our lives within it, we have to build a shared understanding and commitment, using a collaborative methodology embodying the principles of participatory democracy and equality. In the Liverpool city region, there already exist knowledge and expertise regarding renewables, climate mitigation and adaptation, for example, but in an era that has been dominated by neoliberalism (privatisation, fragmentation, marketisation, commodification, escalating inequality, financialisation), these skills have been insufficiently recognized, valued or deployed. And so they perish or leave the city region or country for more culturally sympathetic and financially supportive environments. And so we lose precious time as well as expertise.

We need to change the narrative. Professor of philosophy and politics at The New School for Social Research, Nancy Fraser, recommends “a new alliance of emancipation and social protection against financialisation” (‘The End of Progressive Neoliberalism’, Dissent, 02 01 2017). This double goal and process must lie at the heart of any action to stem climate breakdown and inequality. (See also, for example, political sociologist, Martin Shaw, ‘Wellbeing for everyone in a sustainable Europe’, Social Europe, 15 01 2019).

Young people have been prominent recently: as victims, survivors and activists of the Grenfell Fire in London in 2017 (see ‘The Choir: Our School By the Tower’, Gareth Malone’s work with school children as they prepare to return to their school: BBC2, Episode 1 [11 03 2019], Episode 2 [18 03 2019); as victims, survivors and activists in the wake of the Parkland massacre in the US in 2018 (see Dave Cullen [2019], Parkland: Birth of a Movement); and as climate activists striking from their schools across the world (including Liverpool), inspired by Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg’s climate protests outside the Swedish parliament, started in 2018.

In 2019, we can say, without fear of contradiction, that kids (Cullen’s affectionate term for Parkland’s inspirational young activists) have shown themselves to be ‘the adults in the room’ (on gun control, political negligence and corruption, racism, democracy, climate breakdown and UK relations with the EU). They object to their certain victimhood, if matters are left in the hands of the politicians/their elders. When both ‘sides’ feel abandoned, there is urgency in creating ways of overcoming this generational and political estrangement: together. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

As Ben Okri put it in his millennial poem (1997 & 1999):

Now is the moment to choose

                  What we are going to freight over.

(‘Hold on to your sanity’, 2, in Mental Fight: 49).

As Brexit paralyses parliament, incites uproar and despair across the country, and completes the process of turning the UK into a hostile environment for children, citizens, immigrant workers, neighbours,‘foreigners’, friends and businesses, for example, Okri’s words have added poignancy, urgency and clout.                                                                                                                                                                                       val walsh / 10 04 2019

References.
Tash Aw (13 04 2019) In interview with Lisa Allardice, ‘My generation believed wealth could provide them with the emotional security they needed’. Guardian Review: 21-23.
Stephen Armstrong (06 04 2019) ‘A promise to plant’. Tree Life 2019, Guardian Labs.: 8-11).
Ulrich Beck[13 07 2007], ‘In the new, anxious world, leaders must learn to think beyond borders’, The Guardian).
Carbon Literacy Trust, www.carbonliteracy.com)
Dave Cullen (2019) Parkland: Birth of a Movement.
Dave Cullen (09 02 2019) ‘Words can kill. What we write about when we write about gun crime. Changing the story’. Guardian Review: 6-11.
Alan Cunningham (2013) ‘Low carbon pathways to health’. Green Economics Institute annual conference.
Alan Cunningham (15 07 2014), Submission to Liverpool’s Mayoral Commission on Environmental Sustainability.
Barbara Ehrenreich (2008) Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.
Katherine Farley (16 05 2013) ‘Arup: sustainability shapes every project’, The Guardian.
Nancy Fraser (02 01 2017) in Dissent, 02 01 2017
Beth Gardiner (2019) Choked: The Age of Air Pollution and the Fight for a Cleaner Future.
Caspar Henderson (06 04 2019) ‘Air pollution causes one in nine deaths globally each year. How are cities around the world cleaning up?’ Guardian Review: 12/13.
Greater Manchester Green Summit (25 03 2019), The Lowry, Salford Quays.
Ben Okri (1999, reprint 2002) Mental Fight. An anti-spell for the twentieth century.
Steven Poole (23 03 2019) ‘Deepfake or fortune’, Guardian Review.
Rosemary Randall & Andy Brown (2015) ‘In time for tomorrow?’ Clean Slate, no 96 summer 2015: 30/31; & their book (2015), In Time For Tomorrow.
Richard Sennett (2012) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures & Politics of Cooperation.
Martin Shaw, (15 01 2019) ‘Wellbeing for everyone in a sustainable Europe’, Social Europe.
Alan Simpson (2018) ‘The sustainable lives of others – international lessons in decentralizing Britain’s energy system”. Also ‘When the war is over’ (2018). www.alansimpson.org.uk
Ali Smith (in interview with Claire Armitstead, ‘A new season’, The Guardian Review, 23 03 2019: 11).
John Tucker (06 04 2019) cited Armstrong, ibid.
Val Walsh (09 08 2014) ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritizing renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region’. Submission to Mayoral Commission on Environmental Sustainability. Also posted on togetherfornow.wordpress.com
Val Walsh (26 07 2018) ‘Reviving and renewing Labour values and politics’. Report on group meeting with Alan Simpson (07 07 2018). Posted at togetherfornow.wordpress.com).
Val Walsh ‘The democratisation of energy: the real revolution’. Short presentation to Bootle CLP (22 03 2019) & Liverpool Green party (27 03 2019).

See also:

  • ‘Healthy city checklist’ (25 07 2013), World Health Organisation (WHO), regional office for Europe.
  • The Marmot Reports, 2008 & 2010. Fair Society, Healthy Lives (2010).
  • The Commission on Social Determinants of Health (CSDH), established to support countries and global health partners to address the social factors leading to ill health and inequities. Its final report, ‘Closing the gap in a generation’, was published in 2008.
  • ‘Developing a five-year local strategy for people, places and the economy on Merseyside.’ Co-authored proposals (CAM [Climate Action Merseyside] + Zero Carbon Liverpool & others). Forthcoming 2019.

Appendix:
Notes from the Greater Manchester Climate Summit.
The Lowry, Salford Quays: 25 03 2019.
Priorities:

  • Climate change mitigation
  • air quality
  • production & consumption of resources
  • the natural environment
  • climate change, resilience & adaptation
  • people – places – economy
  • plan for homes, jobs, environment
  • population health plan
  • vision for housing
  • clean air
  • local industrial strategy
  • 5 year plan (download)
  • an immediate programme of mitigation + update plan along the way
  • SCATTER has 40 interventions
  • models are useful in informing pathways
  • engagement and education
  • the innovation that can fill the gap
  • innovative funding mechanisms
  • showing leadership
  • ARUP data + local knowledge
  • collaboration is the key
  • Oldham NB City Trees NB drainage as well as contribution to air quality / decarbonisation
  • Oldham: engagement with everyone – 300,000 people re Generation Oldham, community-led
  • Coalesce project
  • Powerpair project
  • sustainable food / growing your own / agripark
  • taking new approaches to funding and financing
  • public sector showing leadership
  • upskilling workforce
  • focus on urgent action
  • long term plan: that is reported on / that is for us all / that is ambitious
  • a clean growth mission for GM
  • Carbon literate GM
  • emergency / mobilization – not done to us but done with us
  • why is not enough / relevance / empowerment across workplaces and communities
  • Carbon Literacy Trust
  • plastics: food, drink & hospitality: reduce, re-use recyclable + compostable. No single use
  • 220 community energy groups across the UK
  • Forum for the Future: community energy + asset owners – community energy matchmakers
  • Friends Provident as funder
  • sustainable urban tree system: drainage, water fountains, City Trees
  • research into domestic energy use NB Salford University Energy House: health, warm, affordable homes
  • investment / decisions / potentially leading to procurement
  • collaboration is key + creating additionality
  • Hydrogen cells / fuel cell innovation centre (EU funded)
  • inspiring and educating the next generation
  • people-powered retrofit / city-led clean energy system = a new service + UK first
  • Scatter carbon budget analysis
  • developing the Ignition project in Manchester via private investment
  • Wildlife Trust Lancashire, Manchester, North Merseyside: mapped ecosystem services and investment
  • “We can’t build our way out of this crisis.”
  • need consistency + new funding models.
  • Transport is a huge challenge: have to deal with road junctions re walking & cycling.
  • clean air plan launched 2 weeks ago
  • sustainable transport system
  • electric buses
  • freight: decarbonizing urban delivery
  • the challenge of engagement
  • future energy supply / developing an investment
  • Catapult energy systems: holistic approach, whole systems view / action es.catapult.org.uk
  • journeys without cars
  • focus is on health throughout the 5 year plan
  • smart sysetms – heat
  • local Area Energy Planning – a living lab of connected homes & consumers
  • 300 building transitions a day between now and 2018. enwl.co.uk
  • need to understand deprivation / access to funding 7 innovation
  • heat map + CSE
  • target delivery to those most in need
  • reporting back to this Summit from last year’s contributors who made pledges.
  • notable how many of the projects and organisations are EU-funded
  • recurring problem of lack of skills in construction and engineering, for example; workforce capable of delivering the services required. This is a serious GAP and draws attention to the importance of ongoing education and training.

vaw / 30 03 2019 / end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chuka Umunna and the Labour party: a short romance

At the 2011 Labour part conference, Umunna was interviewed by Krishnan Guru-Murthy at a fringe event. At the time, Umunna was a new Labour MP, who had had a certain amount of favourable media coverage, and there seemed to be a high level of interest and goodwill. The marquee was packed. Krishnan kicked off the interview by asking: “What’s the point of the Labour party today?” Umunna seemed unsure how to answer. Perhaps it was an example of the neoliberal charm offensive approach, where the politician tries to work out what we (the audience / membership / the world at large) want to hear, with the emphasis on pleasing everyone / not offending anyone. He waffled on in an affable way in answer to questions and comments from the floor. Towards the end of the session, I got the chance to speak from the floor. I brought his attention back to Krishnan’s initial question, and said he had not provided an answer. I suggested that at this point in time (faced with the likely onslaught of the Tory-led coalition) – or at any time, for that matter, the answer to that question surely had to be that the Labour party’s priority is “to protect, maintain and fund the NHS, because it is not just a service, but because it represents our core values as a society and as the Labour party”.

It appeared that other attendees understood and agreed with my observations; the marquee erupted in approval. That the NHS might be a Labour priority had not occurred to Chuka. He had had plenty of time during the session to bring it up. Many Labour members probably left the session disappointed, even disturbed. Since then, I have had occasion to remember Chuka Umunna’s early foray into Labour politics, as doubts about his Labour values increased.

He would probably say that there is no such thing: that believing in Labour values is a sign of being ‘tribal’. He has never been, he says, “a massively tribal politician” (‘I never felt truly comfortable in Labour – leaving felt liberating, says Chuka Umunna’, The Guardian 02 03 2019). What on earth does he mean? The use of the word ‘tribal’ is Tory or UKIP-speak, directed as an insult to Labour members and supporters, along with ‘hard left’ and ‘extremist’; expletives now adopted by Labour politicians against each other. Chuka parades his mixed heritage and “different background from a lot of people in the Labour party”, and gets close to identifying it as a superior positioning: “a really rich and diverse heritage in my family”. By contrast, I had the impression that the Labour party was stuffed with people of mixed heritage, different faiths and cultures, and this makes it more representative of our society than any other party. In 2011 (and since), I looked around with joy at the diversity evident at Labour party conference: all ages, backgrounds, identities. And shared Labour values.

And now he feels in a position, not just to trash the Labour party and ex colleagues as he makes his exit, the better to enhance his own standing as future leadership material; but to lecture the party on its own history, “what the Labour party really is” and how it has now “reverted to type”. Jaw-dropping stuff: arrogance or ignorance? Or plain ambition?

In terms of how his new little group will coalesce around which values and policies, and confident that he understands the political changes now taking place and what drives them, he describes what unites them as “a radical centrist” agenda. Instead of resorting to more jargon, can he explain what he means? Probably not. They don’t yet know. It is precisely the combination of ‘charm offensive’, spin and jargon as politics, that Labour values can head off and replace. I recommend Umunna read Nye Bevan’s In Place of Fear (1952, reprint 2008), as an introduction to Labour values and Labour’s history and achievements, which remain relevant today for our fight against neoliberal, Tory Austerity politics, which his group do not see as in need of dismantling. “The function of parliamentary democracy, under universal suffrage, historically considered, is to expose wealth-privilege to the attack of the people” (Bevan: 5). No Tory or right-winger will ever agree with that.

In choosing his new bedfellows, Chuka Umunna has exposed his political values and personal ambition to general scrutiny. This is helpful. He should now stand down as an MP and subject himself to electoral scrutiny by standing as an Independent (or whatever his new designation). I presume that, along with his old Labour colleagues and his new Tory colleagues, he will stand as a prospective constituency MP against Labour in any future general election. And I hope that makes him feel really uncomfortable. As it should.

val walsh / 08 03 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reviving and renewing Labour values and politics.

These reflections follow a meeting with Alan Simpson (07 07 2018), facilitated by Bootle MP, Peter Dowd and attended by Ann Dean (Bootle clp), Andy Hamilton (Rossendale clp), Marianne Heaslip (Riverside clp), Dave Hookes (Riverside clp), John Usher (Bootle clp), Val Walsh (Bootle clp).

  • The democratisation of the energy market
  • The real revolution
  • Acting on the evidence: willing the means.

The democratisation of the energy market.
In my introductory remarks, I flagged up some of the key issues and concepts that, based on previous discussions and exchanges, seem to resonate with us as a group, and which could realistically provide a basis for the necessary wider conversation beyond our small group. At the very least, there is consensus that the democratisation of the energy market entails the development of Community Energy (saving, storing & generation), concerted (deep) retrofit, and tackling fuel poverty first (something Alan has emphasised).

  • Alan stressed the need to speak with honesty.
  • He stressed the need for fast track options, pointing out that “what scientists are telling us is that there are no ‘slow track’ options left” (Alan Simpson, ‘The Sustainable Lives of Others – international lessons in decentralising Britain’s energy system’, forthcoming 2018).
  • The starting point is that “the next Labour government will have to cut UK carbon emissions in half within a decade, in half again within the following one, and in half again during the next. . . . Climate physics dictates the urgency of this, not Labour’s NEC or the manifesto working parties” (ibid.). These statistics are hair-raising because in the UK we have been subjected to the ideological extremes of Tory government intransigence, resistance, ignorance, obstruction and incompetence for too long, which has left us trailing behind other European countries in acknowledging and acting on climate breakdown, the need to shift to a low carbon economy, to tackle inequality and social deprivation. In addition, the Labour party and trade unions failed to understand and act on climate change as a core political issue – the ‘main course’ – as opposed to one of several ‘side dishes’ (alongside feminist issues).
  • Alan stressed the importance of appropriate and effective leadership, including a local ‘champion’. This calls to mind Aneurin Bevan’s observation that “the first function of a political leader is advocacy” (In Place of Fear, [1952, republished 2008] p 14) – as opposed to denial or obfuscation. Advocacy, it should be noted, relies on said person being knowledgeable, understanding the issues, being a good communicator, as well as giving a damn, i.e. passion for the cause / challenge. Advocacy is not a bureaucratic function or stance, or a mere technical skill.
  • He suggests that “the dynamism shaping today’s decentralised energy debate can be found most easily in almost any of the 7,100 towns and cities signed up to the 2016 Global Covenant of Local Mayors. . . . Their ambition is to make ‘clean and green’ part of society’s DNA”(ibid.). See Simpson, ‘Transformation Moment: Can Britain make it to the Age of Clean?’, sponsored by The Beautiful Energy Company (June 2017: 12). So there is an inter/national movement from which Britain (and Liverpool city region?) seems largely detached.
  • Alan refuses to be prescriptive, arguing that there is no one-size-fits-all city or regional circumstances, and that it follows that ideas, decisions, priorities and strategies are a local responsibility. Nonetheless, as indicated by the Global Covenant of Local Mayors, there is clearly power and influence to be gained by collective organisation and action, as well as shared understanding and motivation. Instead, Tory / ‘Brexit’ / UKIP rhetoric in the UK is all about “standing alone”, in order to put the Great back into Britain. Catastrophic hardly describes where we are as a country, socially and politically, after 8 years of Tory misrule and 2 years since the EU referendum vote in 2016.
  • The importance of localism + is demonstrated by the examples Alan cites, such as Denmark, Germany, Norway, France, and even parts of the USA. These different countries all demonstrate what he calls “smart politics”: “using today’s technologies in ways that neatly embrace the issues of climate, comfort and cost” (forthcoming 2018) for all their citizens. By contrast, the situation of Britain’s fuel poor in 2018, and a housing market that produces burgeoning profits for the few, but diminishing quality, inadequate quantity and unaffordable housing for the many, continue to deteriorate as a function of overt political neglect, designed to promote profiteering (i.e. neoliberal government policy and practice). Dispatches: Getting Rich from the Housing Crisis (Channel 4, 16 07 2018) is the latest expose of what happens when social housing is privatized, marketised and commodified, to make way for ‘affordable’ housing and luxury accommodation: gentrification and social cleansing combine to render people homeless, or just displaced (not to mention endangered, as we saw with the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017), as housing associations forsake their original stated mission to provide social housing; abandon those they were set up to serve; and demolish homes, as they morph into corporate property developers. Stark evidence of this process can be found in the ‘regeneration’ special issue of the Salford Star (Spring 2015): ‘’Whitlane’s forgotten estate’, p 16; ‘The end of Salford’, p 17; ‘Social cleansing in Salford’, pp18-19; ‘Pendleton untogether’, pp 20-24; ‘What is the English Cities Fund?’, pp 26-28. (See http://www.salfordstar.com).
  • The insights Alan provided about the dynamics of the Labour party, its historical, structural and procedural features, for example in relation to the trade unions, touched on both the current obstacles and new organisational and political opportunities.
  • While he did not dismiss the importance of technological developments, I valued his appreciation that the most significant issues are about (democratic) power and power relations, as much as (if not more than) technological fixes. And the examples he cited illustrate this.
  • Alan was an attentive listener, as well as a lively and thoughtful communicator, who engaged generously with our expressed concerns / questions / comments.

The real revolution.
“Since 2010, all the financial levers have been skewed in favour of the transnational, the unaccountable and the non-renewable . . . . Someone has to be bold enough to transform the lot” (Alan Simpson, ‘The sustainable lives of others – international lessons in decentralizing Britain’s energy system’, forthcoming 2018).

Alan emphasises that “decentralization is a start, but only when tied in to democracy and decarbonisation” (ibid.). For the UK Labour party this is a key insight. The culture shift envisaged encompasses “clean and decentralized as a key element in job growth and prosperity, rather than an unaffordable burden” (ibid.). These are surely among the arguments to be made, within and outwith the Labour party and the trade unions, in establishing the urgency, relevance and human benefits of this shift in our energy systems, and in language which is clear, meaningful and understandable to the non specialist.

Although Alan stresses the importance of political leadership and the idea of a champion, his is not a top down model; he highlights the significance of a groundswell of support and action, and the vital role of ‘us’! For example, in his tribute to his friend and mentor, Tony Benn (‘More time for politics – a never ending tribute’, 14 03 2018), he points out that “Labour’s burgeoning Party membership is not made up of passengers or frustrated bureaucrats. . . . You don’t have to scratch the surface to see that today’s hunger is for a more meaningful democracy”. Jon Favreau, Obama’s former speech writer, makes a similar observation about the impact of Trump in America: “People are actually hungry for people not to bullshit them about politics” (cited in interview by Rory Carroll, The Guardian 14 07 2018). Favreau believes:

“A new generation of progressive activists and candidates will lead the way back to power with a ‘multiracial populism’ that can clang a big, loud bin lid over Trumpism . . . . Donald Trump has energised the base of the Democratic party. There is so much new blood out there. They all bring . . . . this freshness” (ibid.).

The idea of energy democracy is not new (see Kim Bryan, ‘Energy democracy through open source technology’, Clean Slate: The Practical Journal of Sustainable Living, No 88, Summer 2013: 16/17). But both the terms, energy democracy and open source technology, are likely to be unfamiliar to the general public, even in 2018. Nonetheless, there are many examples across the UK (and beyond even more) where people and communities have taken matters into their own hands and set up projects and initiatives in response to perceived need, and as an enactment of social and political values. (See Paul Allen, ‘Zero West – the journey begins. . . ‘ Clean Slate, No 107, Spring 2018: 10, reporting on the launch of a new Zero Carbon initiative for the West of England; and ‘Sonya Bedford, ‘Making it happen in Wedmore’ (ibid: 11), in which the vice-chair of Green Wedmore outlines the thinking behind the project of a Somerset village aiming to become Zero Carbon by 2045.

These projects and campaigns exemplify Alan’s observation that “Democratic renewal must walk hand in hand with climate repair’ (Simpson, 14 03 2018: 5). Put another way, in the twenty first century there can be no democratic renewal without climate repair. Labour leaders and the Labour cabinet need to be explicit in promoting this understanding, and its relevance for the renewal of Labour values and politics. One aspect of this equation is the significance of Parliament as a catalyst and enabler for local action. Alan concludes:

“It is no longer enough for Labour to ask those in power how they use it, or how we get rid of them. Today’s popular movements also want to know: ‘What part do I play?’” (Simpson, 14 03 2018: 4.) [His emphasis.]

He makes the connection between national leadership that “sets down climate (and carbon) obligations, and localities [that] are given the power to determine how best to deliver; from food security to housing and water supply, from transport and air quality to health and energy systems” (ibid.). This list implicitly points to the interconnections between these ostensibly discrete aspects of our lives and politics. This interdisciplinarity / multifocal, holistic practice is an important feature and consequence of a new dynamism driven by these progressive values, which stands in contrast to the fragmentation and marketisation so central to neoliberal economics. The European and local examples that Alan, Andy and Marianne are familiar with, demonstrate this new politics and its humane impact on people’s lives, not just economically / environmentally but in terms of people’s dignity and wellbeing. (See Walsh, Submission to the Mayoral Commission on Environmental Sustainability, ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritising renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region’ (2014) at togetherfornow.wordpress.com.

Marianne tabled information on Urbed’s Retrofit Fact-file (13 09 2016) and the GM Energy Futures prospectus from the People’s Republic of Energy, a project initiated by Carbon Co-op and Energy Democracy Greater Manchester, as examples of what’s already being done in Manchester and Salford, as well as a visionary booklet, ‘Municipal Energy Scenarios Explored’ (03 2018), which tracks / visualises local developments from 2018-2035.

Jonathan Atkinson, project manager and co-founder of Community Energy group Carbon Co-op illustrates what’s possible:

“In Greater Manchester, Carbon Co-op are about to kick off a four-year project funded by   the Friends Provident Foundation, to develop an infrastructure for deep retrofit in the area . .          . . We’re also working in Salford on an NEA-funded project to look at practical, smaller scale interventions that can make a real difference to vulnerable consumers on low incomes, with high bills and suffering the health effects of poorly heated homes” (Guest blog: ‘Community Energy – reasons to be cheerful!’ 26 06 2018). See also, Atkinson, ‘Delivering community retrofits’ (Clean Slate, No 101, Autumn 2016: 28/29).

Atkinson draws attention to how basic human rights are rooted in our corresponding duties; for example, to care, maintain, protect and nurture: to share responsibility. Given the social and political turmoil engendered since the EU referendum in the UK; the election of Trump as US president; the political and democratic crises engulfing Europe and Africa; and most recently, the double whammy of Trump’s time in office and the UK government’s chaotic ‘Brexit’ process (not even amounting to negotiation), these understandings (and the remnants of shared democratic values) are ever more important for the prospect of peaceful co-habitation between and within countries and communities. Survival itself (species and planet) depends on partnership and solidarity (across differences and borders) replacing exploitation, competition and conflict as our neoliberal modus operandi, socially, nationally and internationally. This realisation needs to move beyond rhetoric for all political parties, if we are to salvage the chances of a sustainable and fair future.

The neoliberal project and mindset of individuals, leaders and governments, championing racism, homophobia, misogyny and heterosexual male dominance as acceptable behaviours, will have to be personally, publicly and politically challenged and thwarted if they are not to be allowed to destroy the prospects of peaceful co-habitation and social democracies. And as Favreau has noted (14 07 2018), this means more than just voting (e.g. for Obama), then sitting back. Favreau detects a shift in the USA post Trump: “People understand now that democracy is an everyday struggle” (ibid). I suspect that Jeremy Corbyn’s campaigning and parliamentary style has had a similar impact in the UK.

Trump’s former adviser and white supremacist, Steve Bannon, has been explicit about wanting to put the world on a war footing. And Trump’s latest pronouncements on the status of historically US allies as “foes”, while embracing totalitarian and neo-fascist leaders as buddies, echo Bannon’s stance. Meanwhile, almost all the teams playing in the World Cup football competition held in Russia in 2018 (including England), embodied our multi-ethnic realities, our multicultural societies, our diverse humanity.

It is clear that the change envisaged broadly as the democratisation of the energy market is major: politically, organisationally and culturally. As Alan notes, “it is a change bigger than anything seen since the industrial Revolution” (Simpson, ‘Transformation Moment: Can Britain make it to the Age of Clean’, 06 2017: 3). He puts the question:

“Who should own, control and hold to account the energy systems that will define Britain’s future?” (ibid: 4).

This question poses a shift in energy thinking: “from power stations to energy systems” (ibid: 5), which is more than ‘environmental’. Alan implicitly identifies the energy crisis (the “existential crisis” presented by “old energy” such as nuclear [ibid: 9]) as a democratic opportunity: as “flexibility, transparency, locality and interactivity are already becoming more critical cornerstones” (ibid). This shift constitutes a key challenge to be explored and explained in the next Labour party manifesto. Engaging with this question, openly, honestly and urgently, will generate new policies and new democratic processes. It is the long-awaited trigger for the real revolution the UK so urgently needs. And Alan has mapped the problems and challenges, as well as the innovations that are both necessary and possible.

He has shown how the democratisation of the energy market involves structural change, such as changing energy market ground rules and making low cost finance available; as well as cultural change, for example how national targets can be linked to local duties (taking our lead from Germany and Denmark); promoting a shift in focus from ownership to partnership. He shows how the politics of a low carbon economy and society involves redefining the role of the state towards providing legislative, regulatory and fiscal frameworks, and how this process “will re-define economics itself” (ibid: 14). This is explicitly a renewal of our politics and purpose as human beings and citizens, as housing, health, transport, water and energy, for example, are redefined (returned to us?) as services and human rights, not markets. For example:

“The switch to energy markets that consume less is opening up new ways of simultaneously tackling climate change, fuel poverty and economic wellbeing” (ibid). See also, ‘District energy in cities’, an edited extract from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) by lead author, Lily Riahi (Clean Slate, No 96, Summer 2015: 18/19). The full report is available from http://www.unep.org/energy/districtenergycities.

As mentioned above, abundant evidence and examples already exist to demonstrate and explain this process to UK politicians, trade unionists, industrialists, and local communities. A ‘crash course’ for these different constituencies would provide information and inspiration, and would be easy to arrange in different parts of the UK.

Germany’s energy efficiency programmes cut out power companies completely. Instead, the KfW Bank de-risks clean energy investment, then loans money directly for energy efficiency improvements, and does so at 1% interest rates (Simpson, ‘Transformation Moment’, ibid: 17).

This is an example of how fiscal frameworks can create the leverage for both technological innovation and social benefits, impacting inequality, fuel poverty, health and wellbeing. Such a radical transformation of the economy exposes the likely level of aggressive opposition to such changes in the UK, for this is a mind-boggling shift of political and economic power and accountability away from the neoliberal status quo and its vested interests. This shift overtly puts ‘ordinary’ people and the planet first.

Aneurin Bevan would have approved. In at the beginning of universal suffrage, and Labour’s champion/political advocate for the new NHS (socialism in action), his incisive political understanding and compassion remain sharply relevant to these debates in 2018:

“Political democracy brings the welfare of ordinary men and women on to the agenda of   political discussion and demands its consideration. . . . . Fascism and all forms of authoritarian government take it off the agenda again” (Bevan [1952, reprint 2008] In Place of Fear: 5).

As Bevan points out, while Parliament in Britain is centuries old, parliamentary democracy is not. Bevan was writing at a time when democracy in the UK was still in its infancy. When he entered parliament in 1929 as an MP, it was the first parliament to be elected by universal suffrage. His words assail us now with the precision and eloquence of a poet: with poignancy and uncompromising political clarity.

“The function of parliamentary democracy, under universal suffrage, historically considered, is to expose wealth-privilege to the attack of the people” (ibid.).

89 years later, there are those too young to understand the historical importance of the introduction of universal suffrage (depending on how it is covered on the school curriculum). And in 2018, many older citizens have become forgetful, and are even jaundiced, disillusioned and distrustful of parliamentary process and MPs, and not without cause. This is dangerous, as it hands over more power to those who already hold the reins.

But in our meeting with Alan Simpson, he stressed the need to speak with honesty. So we need to acknowledge how political democracy has been compromised by consumer capitalism, in ways that outstrip Bevan’s experience. In 2018, the power and seduction of consumerism seems to know no bounds. Pankaj Mishra explores the historical roots of this conquest, and notes “Rousseau’s prescient criticism of a political and economic system based on envious comparison, individual self-seeking and the multiplication of artificial needs” (Mishra, Age of Anger. A History of the Present. 2018: 113). Mishra notes how Rousseau “presciently critiqued the neo-liberal conflation of free enterprise with freedom” (ibid: 96). Societies in 2018 have internalised this equation, and are busy living out this ‘dream’ (nightmare?), and calling it ‘progress’ and modernisation. Mishra poses a further complication:

“Against today’s backdrop of near-universal political rage, history’s greatest militant lowbrow [i.e. Rousseau] seems to have grasped, and embodied, better than anyone the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power” (Mishra: 112).

These cultural and political developments are among the obstacles to the re-activated democracy and politics discussed here. Reflecting on his time at CAT and all he has learnt, Jeff Ive, a recent CAT graduate, concludes:

“We need only read the headlines of Zero Carbon Britain to understand that our country can use existing technology to live in a way that is carbon neutral. The challenge we face is no longer technological, but socio-political” (‘The small festival with a big heart’, Clean Slate, No 108 Summer 2018: 21). Emphasis added.

Acting on the evidence: willing the means.
“Waiting until everything looks feasible is too long to wait” (Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. 2004, reprint 2016; 13).  Solnit is also brilliant on Left despair; see chapter 4, ‘False Hope and Easy Despair’, ibid: 19-24).

“Boldness in words must be matched by boldness in deeds. . . . Audacity is the mood that   should prevail among Socialists as they apply the full armament of democratic values to the problems of the times” (Bevan, ibid: 33).

The changes discussed so far mean that democracy will be delivered, not just by parliament, but by a social, political, technological and cultural revolution, designed to save us from physical, economic and cultural impoverishment, homelessness, resource wars, cultural conflict, exploitation and extinction. We have hitherto referred to this shift not even as a revolution, but perhaps too timidly, as about ‘environmental’ protections; as ‘sustainability’; and most recently as low or zero carbon economics and lifestyle. (See Paul Allen, ‘A just transition to Zero Carbon Britain’, Clean Slate: The practical journal of sustainable living. No 108 Summer 2018: 9); Val Walsh (CAT members’ conference, 2016), ‘Promoting fair and sustainable co-habitation; exploring grounds for progressive politics as the political landscape implodes’; Val Walsh (CAT members’ conference, 2017), ‘Strategic and ethical adjustment: the emerging opportunity to dismantle neoliberal Austerity politics. Together’. The latter are both posted at togetherfornow.wordpress.com.

Alan scrutinises the evidence, making the crisis visible and understandable, rather than just scary. He surveys examples of social and technological innovation in countries that are way ahead of the UK in taking action, and thereby inspires our sense of urgency and motivation. And he offers analysis and insight:

“The key lies in grasping that joined up strategies – rather than individual technologies – are the key to a different economics; one that can deliver jobs, skills, innovation, economic gain, security and smart, all in one go” (Simpson, 06 2017: 18).

This assessment may be rational, logical, and evidence-based, but those running the show in the UK at the moment, are likely to see little reason to give up their power and advantage. Huge short-term profits drive them, not evidence of climate breakdown or the exacerbation of poverty, inequality and conflict. However, there is the chance that these power brokers may be overtaken by events:

“A system designed to sell consumption doesn’t welcome invitations to sell less. It is even less enthusiastic about paying customers for energy they generate themselves. Power stations that used to be at the centre of everything suddenly aren’t” (Simpson, 06 2017.: 20).

The CSE (Centre for Sustainable Energy) “have argued for changes that would make the public partners, not just consumers, in tomorrow’s energy system. . . . In effect, the CSE make the case for something that looks more like a public service than a private market” (ibid.: 26), the route already taken by Denmark after the banking crash in 2007/8 nearly destroyed their economy.

There are problems and challenges to be faced, such as developing the necessary skills infrastructure locally; and obstacles / vested interests to be overcome, such as Tory politicians, industrialists, financiers, bankers, trade unionists and neoliberal Labour politicians and local councillors. But in terms of local next steps, and based on the ample evidence, practice and analysis of Alan and others, we can identify which initiatives and changes need to come from the top and which issues/ideas can be acted on/enacted locally, immediately or soon. We can identify which individuals and existing groups/campaigns are particularly relevant/possible allies for the next steps in this process of pressure, influence and change. And together we can co-write an initial clarion call / statement / vision / invitation. We must speak to comrades and other politically engaged individuals and groups, as well as engaging with those not yet part of this political conversation, both inside Labour and beyond. This now needs to be a focused, intentional process and formalised through action.

Faced with the onslaught of ‘fake news’ post ‘Brexit’ and post Trump, and the undoing of ‘truth’ as a tool and ethic (see Michiko Kakutani [15 07 2018], ‘Truth decay’, The Guardian Review: 6-11, for a powerful summary), it is vital that our shared language, the concepts and terminology we develop and use must be meaningful and accessible beyond inner circles of activism. And it is not just a matter of presenting evidence and sharing examples, but also a question of shared social and political values, and emotions. Narrative/people’s stories and conversations are vital to effect the cultural and political change needed, not least because trust has to be re-established and hope engendered as a forceful agency, fuelling change (see Solnit, 2016).

The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) has over many years provided evidence and examples to help propel environmental and technological awareness and change. Clean Slate, CAT’s Practical Journal of Sustainable Living, has also documented the importance of interactive research, cultural action and narrative strategies. For example, see CAT members, Rosemary Randall & Andy Brown, ‘In time for tomorrow?’ (Clean Slate, No 96 Summer 2015: 30/31). This extract from their book, In Time For Tomorrow (2015), draws on the Carbon Conversations project for which it was written. One group member shares how s/he started to change the way s/he approached others:

“Once I’d realised the seriousness of climate change I was gripped by a terrible urgency that I’ve seen in others. I’d launch in with my fears for the future, my bitterness about governments and corporations and my demands that people should start doing something, right now this minute. My index finger was wagging and I could see people moving away. Gradually I realised that this approach engendered fear and denial in others. People switched off. I realised I needed to provide the time and space for people to come to their own conclusions” (cited Randall & Brown, ibid; 31). Emphasis added.

Building solidarity across diversity is necessarily a peer process, not hierarchical, where those who think they ‘know’ tell others what they know! The process of nurturing genuine alliance and collaboration is reward in itself. Like food, everything is an acquired taste, including democracy. Practising democracy at every level plays a vital part in sustaining it as a living process that people can trust (again) and feel joy instead of trepidation. As we prepared for the meeting with Alan, Andy emailed me: “Good to be planning the return to a civilised society “ (29 06 2018).

“Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection” (Solnit, ibid.: 24).

In his postscript to ‘Transformation Moment’, Alan provides an inspiring glimpse of Germany’s “energy democracy story” (ibid.: 29, citing Morris & Jungjohann [09 2016] Energy Democracy: Germany’s Energiewende to Renewables), which demonstrates hIs own arguments that “the politics of empowerment and engagement drives the change” (ibid: 3) and that “the most critical issues are rooted more in questions of ‘power’ – democratic power – than energy” (ibid.: 4). The preparatory work for this big shift has already been done by many others – researchers, practitioners, inventors, activists – in their communities, groups and organisations – and governments too, but not ours. The Labour party needs to become part of this movement, and harness and support existing projects and innovations.

Alan Simpson has provided a powerful and detailed ‘map’ for a political party serious about avoiding further climate breakdown, inequality, consequential social harm and democratic deficit. The experience of our meeting with Alan, as well as engaging with his critique, his ideas and his vision through his writing, has left me convinced that the Labour party should get its skates on and similarly engage, so that the next Labour manifesto demonstrates deep understanding and heartfelt commitment regarding the democratisation of our energy system and its extensive potential for improving lives and revitalising our democracy, as we work to mitigate our impact on our planet and on other cultures and species. This shift can deliver the social justice that lies at the heart of Labour values.

For Labour this is a moral and political imperative, not a lifestyle choice or tactical manoeuvre. As we work to revive and renew Labour values and politics, Nye Bevan’s words (and example) exhort us to show audacity, in place of fear (the so significant title of his 1952 book). Striking a similar note of urgency 66 years later, Alan warns Labour: “It isn’t enough to will the ends. You must will the means” (Simpson, ‘The sustainable lives of others – international lessons in decentralising Britain’s energy system’. Forthcoming, 2018). Our task, as party members, as citizens, as activists, must be to help Labour do just that.

val walsh / 26 07 2018

 

 

Jonathan Freedland on Jewish anger and ‘Labour failure’.

Jonathan Freedland (‘Jewish anger is about Labour’s failure to listen with empathy’, The Guardian: 28 07 2018) writes with feeling about the importance of the idea of Israel and Zion and Jerusalem for many Jews, and how this is psychically embedded within their sense of self and community. This is a moving reminder of the existential dilemma Jews face in their political relations with other countries and other people. While this sense of identity is rooted in the historical experience of Jews as victims, the fault line in Freedland’s commentary is that he appears to characterise “the Jewish community” as inherently blameless, and incapable of political fault or responsibility.

In restating the “principle that Jews, like every other people on Earth, should have a home and refuge of their own”, he glosses over the facts of the origination of Israel via the dispossession of the Palestinians from their land. And “every other people on earth” does not appear to include the Palestinians, so by implication exemplifies a regrettable exceptionalism, even ruthlessness. In addition, speaking of the right of a people to a home and refuge “of their own” promotes monoculturalism and territorial and political discipline as both possible and desirable: borders to keep people out; and rules to regulate behaviour and relationships on the inside, to preserve Jewish ‘purity’ and safety. Stuff multiculturalism.

It is hard to see how the idea of Israel can be kept apart from the actuality of the Israeli state: its militarisation, its racism and its violence towards Arabs and in particular Palestinians. Is it the idea of Israel that prevents the acknowledgement of these cruelties and aggressions on the ground?

Freedland says that “Labour could have sat down with the Jewish community and ironed out wrinkles”. Which Jewish community would that be? And given the aggression of the sustained attack on Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party since his election as leader, I’m not sure “wrinkles” quite covers the problem. Freedland complains that instead, the Labour party “drew up its code of conduct [i.e. an additional protocol to be used in liaison with Labour’s adoption of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition] itself, without consulting the organised Jewish community at all”. That would be those Jewish bodies purporting to represent all Jews, but not willing to be in the same room as each other at a meeting with Jeremy, as they demand control of Labour party process.

Freedland’s reference to “the army of self-described anti-racists” (thanks for that), who are not showing enough “empathy and solidarity”. . . . includes Billy Bragg, “taking up a position antagonistic to Jews”, who he hastens to describe as “a good man” and “no anti-semite”. My guess would be that Bragg’s “antagonism” is not towards Jews as Jews (and therefore anti Semitic), but towards the behaviour of certain Jews, for example, the Israeli government and the IDF towards Arabs and Palestine; and the leaders of the organised Jewish community in the UK towards the twice-elected leader of the Labour party. Is Freedland pretending not to understand that?

Freedland admits that “maybe that editorial printed in the Jewish newspapers was over the top”. “Maybe”? And is outdoing the Sun and the Daily Mail only “over the top”?! As well as an unprecedented and irresponsible attack on a Labour leader, this recent co-ordinated front page splash across three Jewish newspapers was also a desperate effort at control of the Jewish community: a message to all Jews, especially ‘dissident’ Jews, to feel the fear, share the venom, and get in line. Choose patriarchal orthodoxy.

val walsh / 29 07 2018

The Labour leader: From harmless joke to potential prime minister

At first the Blairites/Tories/Brexiteers/Jewish Deputies treated the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as a harmless joke, so mocking and scorn sufficed. As the attacks got more vicious and personal, to their disappointment he did not break or bend, but continued with his job as Labour party leader and advocate of equality, non violence, multiculturalism and social justice (upholding the values that had guided his practice as an MP during his 30+ years in Parliament). His leadership has played a significant part in expanding Labour party membership, making it the largest political party in Europe.

After three years, and against the backdrop of Tory government chaos and ‘Brexit’ mayhem, they see him gaining ground as a prospective Prime Minister, slipping beyond their control. So they are going for the kill. Three Jewish newspapers agree to act in concert in an unprecedented attack on Jeremy Corbyn, in an attempt to control the narrative, and in a way that guarantees widespread media reaction.

This organised warfare (going for the kill) is not dissimilar to the behaviour of the Israeli government towards Arabs inside Israel and towards Palestinians in what’s left of Palestine. But to mention this is to be accused of anti Semitism. (See ‘Anti Semitism on the Left’ [21 05 2018].

val walsh / 20 07 2018

Heels, zips and fitted frocks: navigating the feminist minefield.

 “I need to feel at ease in heels”, writes Coco Khan, “to know that a fitted frock looks the part” (‘I don’t know how to dress like a grownup: it’s time to find my adult costume’, (17 03 2018). Why would you volunteer to crush your toes, carry your body weight on the ball of your feet as you tiptoe all day, and distort your spine? And call it ‘adult’. A fitted frock also requires a dresser to zip you in and out. No good if you live on your own.

So Coco thinks she has to give up on clothes she likes (or are they too an adopted ‘costume’?), and move into the corporate uniform adopted by so many women in the media, business and politics. That sounds like defeat, not strategy. Conformity dressed up as power remains a form of girlish deference. Going under cover won’t help undo society’s malevolent grip on women’s minds, behaviour and opportunities. And surely takes the fun out of fashion.

Disguise is sometimes a strategic necessity (and Coco’s “adult costume” may be just that) but like denial, it weakens resolve if taken beyond the short-term emergency. Insisting on a ‘femininity’ designed to show you are striving to please, not disturb the heterosexual powers that be, risks identifying yourself as amenable ‘fodder’: personally, professionally, politically.

It’s tough being a woman in the public domain, but as Andrea Dworkin pointed out (cited Linda Grant interview [The Guardian Weekend, 13 05 2000], ‘Take no prisoners’): “This is a political struggle, it’s not a social movement for different clothes, it’s not a lifestyle movement”. And Coco, nobody’s perfect.

20 03 2018

Footnote thoughts and examples.
Zips are for trousers and skirts not frocks; for boots, bags, and coats.

I was sitting a couple of rows behind a woman at an International Women’s Day event this March. She was wearing a short, black, fitted frock, which had a startling, shiny zip running up her spine from its hem. (It’s unfortunate that it made me think of UK Prime Minister, Theresa May!) She must have a dresser, I thought; someone to zip her in and out of that frock. It got me thinking about the feminist status of such a zip!

Yesterday, an MP chairing a public meeting wore a fitted frock (more tight actually) that followed her every curve, barely covered her bum, and stopped short at the front near the top of her thighs. Needless to say, it required adjusting (pulling down by hand) when she stood up to speak. I assumed it had a zip at the back, but what was striking were the two short zips set in the hem of the frock at the front above each thigh. I have never seen that feature before. I was mesmerised: what on earth was the function of these little zips? The frock was worn with semi sheer black tights and chunky, high healed black ankle boots. When she was seated without her legs crossed, you could see between her thighs up to her crotch.

This may be an example of the “adult costume” Coco Khan has in mind. But it was not a good look. Why? Partly because it screamed: “I’m trying to look young and sexy, not just feminine”, and this distracted from any intelligent words she was speaking. So much visible leg risked overpowering any political or intellectual contribution she was trying to make. Her appearance was guiding us to look at her as a body, not an intellectual or political contributor to the conversation. This did not apply to how the other three women on the platform presented themselves. They were, incidentally, all older and more politically experienced than the young woman chairing.

So, any feeling of feminist awareness and solidarity was stymied by her heterosexist self presentation: her clothed body was indisputably addressed to the conventional male heterosexual gaze. She may be vocal in her class politics, but on this evidence, her sexual politics fails to invite feminist confidence and solidarity.

It’s not about a ‘feminist’ uniform. Look around: as feminist-aware women, in 2018 we have a wide choice of outfits. But, especially as a public figure, it is about awareness and intelligence in relation to the heterosexualisation of women’s bodies, the problematic culture we inhabit, and which we have to navigate as well as challenge. And a woman politician who does not understand that, is inadequate as a representative for women and the feminist issues she needs to promote. Post Weinstein et al, the personal (e.g. women’s bodies) is still political. And the political is still personal.

val walsh / 23 03 2018

 

Labour and the Green party in 2018.

While there are many Labour party members and supporters who are active environmentalists, it is hard for Labour to “love the Greens” as an electoral force, as Neal Lawson (‘Labour must learn to love the Greens’, The Guardian, 26 02 2018) demands, knowing that, historically, the Green party only ever takes votes from Labour, never from the political parties on the right.

A Guardian interview with Green MP, Caroline Lucas, in the lead up to the 2015 general election (Simon Hattenstone, ‘The only Green in the village’, 28 02 2015) sheds light on this dilemma. Lucas said that a second Tory term was the last thing she wanted, “but, in the long term, it could be the best thing possible for the Greens if Labour lost”. A Tory win (with its disastrous consequences for the NHS, for example) could serve the ambitions of herself and the Green party, in their bid for electoral reform. Meanwhile, the damage to victims of Tory Austerity politics, by implication, would be mere collateral damage. In 2018, the extent and horror of this ‘collateral damage’ is wrecking not just lives, but the very fabric of our society and its institutions. Her personal and political ambition was, in the circumstances, unedifying.

In 2015, Lucas was hoping that the Greens “might prop up a minority Labour government”. She said, “I think a progressive alliance of Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru, alongside a minority Labour government, would better reflect what most people want in this country, rather than a majority Labour government”. Wish on.

Despite the 2017 general election result, which surely stalled the idea of a need for a progressive alliance instead of a majority Labour government, neither Neal Lawson nor Caroline Lucas now suggest that the Greens must learn to love Labour.

(See ‘Promoting fair and sustainable co-habitation: exploring grounds for progressive politics as the political landscape implodes’ [1-9 10 2016]; and ‘Strategic and ethical adjustment: the emerging opportunity to dismantle neoliberal Austerity politics. Together’ [25 10 2017] at togetherfornow.wordpress.com)

val walsh /27 02 2018