Could Labour implement a post-growth economy?

Here is the full version of the article published, in rather truncated form today, on Left Foot Forward. I will be posting a fully referenced extended version in the near future.

pdf version of the full text

Could Labour implement a post-growth economy?

Earlier this month, John McDonnell gave a remarkable speech to the IPPR who had asked him to address the economy after Brexit. But John went much further in speaking

John McDonnell

John McDonnell By Rwendland (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

of a context that is both wider and more fundamental. For perhaps the first time, a leading Labour politician has acknowledged that the pursuit of economic growth is itself problematic and the reason is the ecological and climate crisis that threatens the very basis for any kind of economy, and indeed for human society itself.

This is what he said:

“At the most abstract, the problem we face can be stated very simply. Every 1% added to global GDP over the last century has meant, on average, adding 0.5% to carbon dioxide emissions. As the size of the world economy has grown, so too has the pressure it places on our ecosystems. The consequences of that pressure are now becoming all too apparent. …. On current trends we are heading for a 3.5 degree celsius increase in global temperatures this century; a rise that would wreck everyone’s economy. This isn’t only about climate change. Other fundamental natural systems are at risk.”

These lines wouldn’t have been out of place at an International Degrowth Conference.

But he then spoilt it with a standard, technologically optimistic “green growth” policy perspective, which goes against evidence that the material demand and impact of the economy cannot be significantly reduced while it grows. This is so both for the very deep carbon emission reductions we need and for the demand on other raw materials.

What might it look like if Labour were to seriously adopt the principle of an economy that doesn’t have to keep growing? Could it be realistic? I think so.

Some sectors will have to grow, the “replacement economy” of socially and environmentally benign production. Much of Labour’s economic and industrial approach is relevant and appropriate to this. But it is only ecologically realistic if the aggregate level of resource throughput decreases and then stays stable: it can’t be done in an economy that is growing overall.

Dumping the mantra of “growth” means devising and securing support for unprecedented and innovative policies. Our group, Steady State Manchester, has explored them at the level of the city region in some detail. At the national level, a start could be made with the following (where I’ve built on suggestions by Giorgos Kallis and colleagues of the Research and Degrowth Group).

1. Stop subsidizing and investing in activities that are highly polluting, moving liberated public funds towards clean production.

2. Sharing work-and resources, reducing the working week to some 32 hours, supporting employers to facilitate job-sharing, with income loss for the top 10% only.

3. Minimum and maximum income. High incomes mean disproportionate resource use: cap them but also set a floor.

4. Tax reform for a progressive system that taxes use of energy and resources, wealth, property and land value.

5. Control money creation ,regulating bank lending for tight but cheap credit.

6. Citizen debt audit: “pardon” unpayable household debts.

7. Support the alternative, solidarity society through subsidies and tax exemptions for co-operatives, social enterprises, community land trusts, opening up resources to community groups.

8. Optimise buildings. Establish a hierarchy from expropriation of vacant housing, incentives to down-size and share, prioritising retrofitting and refurbishment, and then respond to any remaining need by building low energy social housing, within already urbanised areas. Invest in a jobs-generating deep retrofit programme, saving fuel costs and emissions.

9. Curb advertising, reducing the incessant promotion of consumption.

10. Establish environmental limits, via absolute and diminishing caps on the CO2 that can be produced and the material resources the country uses, including emissions and materials embedded in imported products.

11. Abolish the misleading GDP indicator. Focus on real things- jobs, incomes, activity, investment, care, health, wellbeing and environmental restoration. McDonnell proposes that the OBR include the impact of climate change and environmental damage in its long-term forecasts – that’s a start.

This isn’t a full programme for a steady state economy but it demonstrates how, far from suggesting something impractical and unpopular, Labour could and should promote a genuinely ecological literate and socialist approach: degrowth.

Mark H Burton

…. is a member of the Steady State Manchester collective, a Labour Party member and divestment activist.

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After peak capitalism: the livelihood challenge – revised version

Here is the revised version of my working paper, “After peak capitalism: the livelihood challenge“.  I’m grateful to those who have offered encouragement and constructively critical comments. 

This new version,

  1. Has numerous improvements to the text and further references to substantiate or situate (or rhetorically inflate?!) points made.
  2. Adds another crucial objection, national welfarism and imperialism, to the various strategies that are criticised.
  3. Finishes with a new sketch of a “better collapse” in the context of the post-industrial parts of North West England.

Click for the article (pdf)

Summary

The former industrial towns of the global North have already seen capitalism
peak locally. Globally we may be living through a similar peaking as the
system exhausts both its options to fix its internal contradictions, and more
critically, the capacity of the planetary systems that sustain it. This essay
begins with the first sense of peak capitalism and moves on to the second.
Strategies, mainstream and alternative for economic and social restoration,
are criticised the context of the relentless expansion of global capitalism that,
having created these places in conjunction with colonial pillage, has now
moved on. It is suggested that the reform strategies, whether proposed by
mainstream or critically inclined bodies and campaigners, is inadequate to
scale of the challenge posed by footloose capital. Moreover, such strategies,
insofar as they require growth in the material scale of the economy, are
ecologically illiterate and will both hasten and be rendered powerless by the
coming resource and climate crisis and catastrophe. Given this picture, the
counsel of the degrowth and similar movements, North and South, to live
better with less, makes sense, as practice and as policy. Given that a global
economic and social collapse will happen, the only policy and practice
approaches that make sense today are those that provide scalable resources
that will aid (but not guarantee) communities to make a livelihood under
turbulent and harsh conditions. Helpful guidance can be found from
permacultural thinking on materially and socially retrofitting urban and
suburban human settlements.
Read the working paper by clicking here.

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Brief notes on Catalonia

Flag of the Second Spanish Republic: a plague on both your houses!

Having friends in Barcelona and liking the city and region, as well as Spain in general, the situation in Catalonia causes me a lot of concern.  A lot of the commentary here oversimplifies the situation with some on the left, who should know better, characterising it as a simple matter of self determination and struggle for freedom.  If only it were that simple.  Here are some brief observations.
1) Independence is probably not supported by a majority of people living in Catalonia although it is difficult to tell.  The recent referendum took place under conditions of duress from the Spanish authorities with astonishing levels of violence from the Guardia Civil in particular.  But it also seems likely that a lot of people who oppose independence did not vote, not wanting to give legitimacy to the process.  A rigorous opinion survey in March showed that a majority (63%) think that Catalonia has insufficient autonomy but only 37% supported full independence.  However the independence sentiment was rising.
2) Given the clear desire of a majority for more autonomy, there should be a referendum to test this and the action of the governing right wing Partido Popular (PP), supported by the PSOE  (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Part – sic) at their coat-tails, in blocking it can only increase the support for independence, as do the fascist era style violent actions of the two national police forces under PP direction.
3) A motley collection of parties support independence – the right have consistently used it as a distraction from austerity policies while the maximalist left mostly seem to think it will mean Keynesianism (or even socialism) in one “country”. Much of the motivation  for independence has the ugly tone of economic privilege, rather like the Right Wing Northern League in Italy. But like our own London and the South East, Catalonia should subsidise the poorer regions. It’s basic socialist redistribution.
4) It seems that only Podemos and its allies (e.g. Barcelona en Comú) have any kind of a sensible position on this in their call for a national constitutional referendum orientated to a federal model, with as well as for dialogue with mediation. They largely oppose independence but respect the right of self determination (unlike the independistas who want to take the populace out of Spain whether they like it or not).
5) Both the nationalist sides (Catalan and Spanish) are playing with fire. Catalonia is a multi-cultural polity like former Yugoslavia. We know what happened there (and comparisons with the relatively peaceful Slovenian secession are disingenuous).  Spain, like former Yugoslavia is a plurinational state with considerable mixing of populations, including the many from the poorer regions who have settled in and raised families in the wealthier parts.  Nationalism, as opposed to regional government (based on the principle of subsidiarity), should be opposed by leftists and republicans.

My own hope is for a mutual backing off from confrontation and an agreement to call elections to both reset the mandate for the Catalan parliament and test the strength of support for greater autonomy.   Meanwhile I hope that the minority and PSOE-supported PP government in Madrid falls soon.

Finally, on the margins of the debate, there has been a more promising development: Sergie Saladié, a deputy from the CUP (actually one of the left parties criticised above for their maximalist separatist stance) introduced a debate on degrowth.  This is probably a first for a political party and it is heartening to see the rejection of Juan Carlos Monedero’s widely quoted suggestion that degrowth means electoral death, a myth recycled, along with other misrepresentations, by the UK Labour Party’s Chi Onwurah in a polemic in the SERA magazine New Ground. We translated an interview with Saladié and an analysis of the debate on the Steady State Manchester website.

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After peak capitalism: the livelihood challenge.

Note: there is now a revised version.  See this later post.

This is my new working paper. It attempts to deal with the question of peak capitalism and ecological crisis on two levels – the post-industrial wastelands of the core capitalist countries and the global exhaustion and toxicity of capitalism as a system for appropriation, commodification and accumulation. It has an explicit degrowth perspective and asks the question, how adequate are policy proposals, mainstream and alternative in this challenging context. Finally it suggests that a criterion for their adequacy might be their relevance to a “better collapse” of “civilisation”. Obviously it is a working paper, exploring, thinking aloud questions for which there is no adequate answer, but possibly suggesting a compass rather than a roadmap.

NEW: I’ve also uploaded it to the academia.edu site where I’ve invited readers to join the discussion and comment on the paper.

After peak capitalism: the livelihood challenge.

download (revised version)

Mark H Burton

Summary

The former industrial towns of the global North have already seen capitalism peak locally. Globally we may be living through a similar peaking as the system exhausts both its options to fix its internal contradictions, and more critically, the capacity of the planetary systems that sustain it. This essay begins with the first sense of peak capitalism and moves on to the second. Strategies, mainstream and alternative, for economic and social restoration, are criticised in the context of the relentless expansion of global capitalism that, having created these places in conjunction with colonial pillage, has now moved on. It is suggested that the reform strategies, whether proposed by mainstream or critically inclined bodies and campaigners, are inadequate to the scale of the challenge posed by footloose capital. Moreover, such strategies, insofar as they require growth in the material scale of the economy, are ecologically illiterate and will both hasten and be rendered powerless by the coming resource and climate crisis and catastrophe. Given this picture, the counsel of the degrowth and similar movements, North and South, to live better with less, makes sense, as practice and as policy. Given that a global economic and social collapse will happen, the only policy and practice approaches that make sense today are those that provide scalable resources that will aid (but not guarantee) communities to make a livelihood under turbulent and harsh conditions. Helpful guidance can be found from permacultural thinking on materially and socially retrofitting urban and suburban human settlements.

Read the (revised) working paper.

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How much greenhouse gas has been emitted in your lifetime?

This simple tool allows you to calculate how much annual global emissions have increased since a certain date, e.g. your year of birth.

It also calculates the proportion of all time cumulative global emissions during your lifetime. It also shows this in a simple bar graph.

The data set is the freely available spreadsheet file from http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/tre_glob_2014.html using data from the US Oak Ridge laboratory.

Note that this web resource will be removed as a result of the present US regime’s climate denialist policy but it will still be available at https://web.archive.org/web/20170731170115/http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/tre_glob_2014.html. The full citation is http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/tre_glob_2014.html.

To use the tool, open the tab “Emissions since date” and enter the desired date in the box with yellow highlighting. Click here for the global carbon emissions tool.

The file might download as “read only”, in which case use “save as” where upon you can enter your own birth or other key date – try 1997, the year of the Kyoto accord, or 1992 the year of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, for example.

bar chart

The gaphical output looks like this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jeremy Corbyn, Prime Minister. What could go wrong?

Labour manifesto coverHow things change! Within the space of a few weeks, there is now a real possibility of a Labour government with a left wing leadership. That is the result of the snap UK General Election that resulted, not in the Tory landslide, predicted at the start of the campaign, but a hung parliament with a large swing to Labour and the reversal of approval ratings for the Labour and Tory leaders. There is plenty of coverage available so I will not repeat the details here. However, it is worth noting that

a) Labour benefited from the eclipse of UKIP – more in Remain-voting constituencies than in Leave voting ones. The votes did not all go to the Tories as many of us had feared.

b) The call for a Progressive Alliance, while not operating on a formal level, did mean that Green (and Liberal Democrat, NHS Action Party, Women’s Equality Party) voters tactically voted Labour, sacrificing the overall vote share, except in Brighton Pavilion where Caroline Lucas, the only Green MP increased her majority, despite Labour bizarrely refusing to stand down.

What I want to do here is raise some questions about the likely outcomes of a Corbyn-led Labour government.

To clarify my own position, I voted twice for Corbyn in the Labour leadership elections and helped campaign for Labour in a Tory marginal seat. But I oppose the growthist economic model that underpins the neo-Keynesian policies on the economy, despite welcoming many elements of the manifesto, including many of the economic ones. This blindness to the Limits to Growth represents everyday climate denial and invites an eventual ecological, social and economic collapse.

It seems to me that there are three possible outcomes of a Corbyn government.

1) Labour for Degrowth. They see the writing on the wall and both embrace and gain increasing support for a steady state / degrowth approach, with the kinds of innovative policies people like Tim Jackson, the Greenhouse think tank (and we in Steady State Manchester) have been advocating.  This seems highly unlikely, but maybe as the ecological and climate crisis intensifies, ecological realism will prevail.

2) Labour for Growth. More likely is a traditional Social Democratic, Keynesian, demand stimulation, growth approach, successfully implemented.  There would be some raising of ambition and action in line with the manifesto – how could there not be after the Tories’ dismal record, but ultimately the contradictions will set in and it will be like the Latin American pink tide governments, using the receipts of growth to fund some redistribution, but not actually changing the production of poverty / inequality by the capitalist system.  Most of the left will be deaf to the ecological dimension (climate and environment was almost absent from the GE campaign), so I expect little help from there.  Even our alllies in neon are largely concerned with economic and social justice – those more immediate, pressing concerns.  There are also good reasons to expect a mere Keynesian reboot, even with more redistribution, to fail, on economic terms (see this piece, the comments on Melenchon towards the end: https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2017/04/16/france-the-choice/

3) Labour defeated. Nearly as likely would be a Corbyn government (whether with a slender majority or not) beset by a concerted fight back from the owners of capital, most of whom would not ally with a reforming supposedly socialist government – the city, and finance capital would be a key element, either launching capital flight or subverting the government (as in Scotland, as in Lula and Dilma’s Brazil).  Stage set for the re-installation of the “rightful” stewards of capitalism – whether in Tory or Labour costume.

So it seems to me that we still have a double struggle on our hands – against all who will marginalise the environment and against those who will seek to defeat a left labour government. Or, more positively, for a Labour government that is consistently both green and left.

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The General Election in Greater Manchester: what do the results mean?

What happened in Greater Manchester on June 8th?

Here is a map showing the swings in Greater Manchester’s parliamentary seats. Red figures indicate a Labour victory while Blue figures indicate a Conservative was elected. Positive figures mean a swing from Tories to Labour, negative figures (also in italics) indicate a swing to Labour from Conservative. In two cases the swing reported (I  used the data from the Guardian’s seat by seat compilation) was from Conservative to Liberal Democrats .

Map outline from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Greater_Manchester_UK_constituency_map_(blank).svg
Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right

Key to constituencies – map source as above, annotated by MHB.

These figures can be compared with the National average swing of 1.8% to Labour (1 per cent in Leave voting seats and 8% in Remain voting seats).

Larger swings to labour (and the LD’s) are found in the South of the region (with Bury North, Labour’s gain in the city region, and Heywood and Middleton, the exceptions). There were only slight swings in the economically less favoured “inverted horseshoe” to the North and North East of the city, while in the Bolton and Wigan seats the swing was actually to the Tories (except in Wigan itself). Having helped the Labour campaign on three days in Bolton West (I was elsewhere until last weekend), I’m not altogether surprised, from doorstep conversations, apart from a few public sector workers, there was little evidence of voters switching back to Labour.

The Green vote collapsed, here as in most of the country. In Manchester Gorton, the Green candidate came second in 2015. This time they were in fifth place, even the opportunist irrelevancy that is George Galloway did better (in third place but with just 5.7% of the vote). This is disappointing. I may be a Labour Party member, but I’m an eco-socialist, critical of the growthism in Labour’s economic strategy (though there is a lot in the manifesto to like) and Labour would benefit from pressure exerted by a stronger Left Environmentalist presence.

UKIP, once seen as a challenger in seats like Heywood and Middleton, were, as elsewhere, obliterated, with Labour and the Tories the main beneficiaries.

Returning to the large swings in the area enclosed by the “inverted horseshoe”, these cannot just be attributed to Remainers rejecting the Tories, nor to the student and youth vote, although both are likely factors. The Liberal Democrats campaigned almost exclusively on the Brexit issue, but this did them no favours – they were, at second place, 30,000 votes behind Labour in Manchester Withington, a seat they held until 2015 (although there were swings their way in Cheadle and Hazel Grove. Tactical voting will have played a part). Nationally, Labour got bigger swings outside its traditional heartlands: areas not unlike the southern and central parts of the City Region in terms of educational levels and generally socially liberal outlook. Labour’s manifesto seems to have appealed to enough people here, and in these areas people are perhaps more likely to be aware of it, less influenced by the xenophobic, right wing tabloids, accessing and evaluating alternative sources of information.

What is this telling us?

Where does that leave the post-industrial, “peripheral” areas? In a region whose Labour leaders have seemed to favour economic “development” in the city centre and the south of the conurbation, it is perhaps not a surprise if people remain unconvinced by a Labour promise to improve things for them. Of course the huge changes in the Labour Party with, rejection of New Labour, the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn his team, and mass membership, does mean that the national party is now making a different offer, but scepticism is understandable from the de-industrialised working class and those groups who have experienced a precarious upward mobility, whose housing estates I walked around last week. There are some signs that the new Mayor of Greater Manchester recognises the need to break with the old model but there are plenty of traces of orthodox economic thinking (at least in the manifesto for that election). Time will tell whether we will see a real alternative to austerity, urban boosterism and trickle-down theory in the dangerous social, economic and environmental context we are living of this “interregnum” between a failed and destructive global order and whatever will take its place.

Interested?  Steady State Manchester will be discussing the implications of the General and Mayoral elections on Wednesday 14 June, 6.30pm, Central Hall, Oldham Street.  More info HERE.

minor corrections 12/6/17

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Italy by train

By train to Milan and Como, via France and Switzerland.

Another European journey by train: this time to Milan, going via Zurich, Chur and the Bernina Express and returning via Lausanne and Dijon. Full cost and carbon analysis below.

Bernina express

Bernina express

(more pictures below)

If you’ve the time, I recommend these routes. The Bernina Express, a narrow gauge line over the Alps, is particularly worth going on – one of those experiences that lives up to its promise.  Again, credit to Mark Smith’s seat 61 website for all the tips on how to arrange the tickets.  The ride from Tirano (end of the Bernina line, just in Italy) to Milan isn’t bookable in advance – we made the mistake of forgetting to validate our tickets on the platform (not required for reserved tickets) and got fined, having to buy new full price tickets, by a very sullen ticket inspector (just our luck, all the others were friendly) accompanied by two security guards.

We also stayed at a wonderful eco bed and breakfast in the hills above Como, walking through the forest and criss-crossing the Swiss border. Truly a slow travel, slow holiday experience.

The cost and carbon analysis (click image for pdf).


Notes:

1.  I don’t include fares across Paris between Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon (still undecided whether RER or metro is the better option – RER always seems very packed but metro is slower and involves a change).
2.  CO2 estimates are just that, estimates, dependent on a number of assumptions.  The amount per mile varies, in part because the type of train varies as well as the energy mix – a lot of nuclear in France and a lot of hydro in Switzerland, for example. The upshot is that train travel emits about 10% that of flying, and strangely we wouldn’t have done better on direct trains (though maybe would have on the Thello Paris-Milan sleeper which goes slower than the TGV).
3.  We had to be in Milan on those dates, but otherwise could be flexible with trains, so we got good prices.

Como, the city and the lake, from the Spina Verde forest park.

My sketch of Cascina Rodiani, green hospitality, Drezzo near Como - click for website

My sketch of Cascina Rodiani, green hospitality, Drezzo near Como – click for website

 

Dijon

Dijon

 

Chur, Switzerland

 

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Fixing the roof when the sun shines

Hello is that Mr Osborne?

Well, you know that roof you fixed the other summer?  It’s begun to leak again.  Could you come round to sort it out?

You don’t work there any more? Firm taken over? Oh.  Could you let me have their contact details?

You could but they only do demolition now?  Oh dear.

Well can’t you come round and take a look anyway?

Oh you’ve left the district.  So what are you doing?

Oh, a job in London, selling papers, for the Russians!  Nice little earner you say.

That sounds nice, but what about my roof?!

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Platitudes, positions, policies and principles.

Platitudes, positions, policies and principles: what can we learn from Gorton’s selection meeting?

I attended the selection meeting for the Labour Party’s Gorton by-election last week. There were five candidates, a short-list selected by a 5-person national Labour party panel. It would be possible to write another article analysing the factions at play – there were several. What I think might be more helpful is to consider what the meeting told us about the candidates’ understanding of policy. Their responses to questions were not particularly impressive, and it is worth exploring what more adequate responses might be. This is not to get at the candidates who are probably no better or worse than most other aspiring politicians, but rather to draw out lessons for effective policy and politics.

Candidates responded to a series of questions selected at random from the many submitted by participants. They had no prior notice of the questions so had to think on their feet: a daunting task in front of some 600 people. Those questions were rather variable. Some were poorly framed but the responses to all were rather revealing, not so much of the candidates’ position on the left-right spectrum, or their loyalty to the party and its leadership, but of the quality of their thinking on key policy questions and the nature of political and social change. After the candidates gave their pitches and answered their questions, nearly everyone I spoke to remarked on how disappointing their responses were.

Why? Some candidates gave rather good speeches, the better ones avoiding platitudes and sound bites, and some didn’t. When it came to the questions, most struggled most of the time, and all struggled on some questions. In what follows, I’m generalising across the five, so I offer my apologies if I misrepresent, but I want to write this in general, rather than personalised terms, the better to identify the lessons. For some questions I’ve tried my hand at drafting a more adequate politician’s answer, or setting out the elements that would need to be covered.

1) Was Jeremy Corbyn right to impose a 3 line whip on the vote to trigger Brexit.

Nobody answered the question. Two seemed to indicate that they thought he was wrong (or maybe I’m reading too much into what they said – it happens to be my view). All acknowledged that he was in a very difficult position – “defy the people’s will or back the Tories”, and the media would exploit whatever he did. Most made the argument that the referendum must be respected and nobody made the case that the referendum was an advisory one (“Should the UK leave the EU….”) with no clarity at to what leaving the EU meant. It was won by 52% against 48%, with a majority in Gorton voting to remain: so on the 72.2% turnout the “majority” is 37.5% of the electorate (i.e. 52% of 72.2). Most importantly of all, the referendum was won on the basis of a series of myths and lies from the Leave campaigns, channeled enthusiastically by most of the mainstream media. None of this was noted; instead we got a simplistic invocation of “democracy”. Most noted that now the struggle will be to prevent a self-injurious hard Brexit.

A better answer?
Brexit is the wrong decision, the result of a campaign of misrepresentation and outright lies about Europe. Jeremy was possibly wrong, but he was pretty much in a no-win position. But what now? I will fight with his team to obstruct the hard Brexit that will seriously damage people here in Gorton and the rest of the country.

2) Loyalty

This question was about the divisions in the party and the candidate’s stance on them. All handled this one pretty well, committing to work against division, and emphasising the need for a disciplined PLP.

3) How will you deliver progress – and specifically for the NHS.

Not the best drafted question maybe, and there were two parts to it. Most opted to answer the easier, crowd-pleasing NHS part but their answers were generally formulaic – more funding, end privatisation (nothing to disagree with, but not enough). There were some mentions of Greater Manchester devolution and its possibilities and at least one noted the risk of this being a devolution of austerity. There was a little mention of health inequalities.

As for the “deliver progress” part, this could have been interesting, an opportunity to show how innovative a politician the candidate was. There was some mention of consultation but nothing on what to do with it. How would the candidates communicate policy goals and milestones and work with the various stakeholders in the constituency to monitor action, together deciding how to resolve issues that arise, prevent backsliding, and build a coalition of support for change?

A better answer?
Oh that’s two questions really. I’d want to work with my constituents to build a better way of working together for change. It’s not good enough to elect your member every 5 years and then leave it to them. I’ll need your help to keep up the pace of change, and to fight against bad policies. Let’s identify key things to achieve in Gorton. Let’s together identify the steps on the way to achieving them. Let’s plan and plot how to make it happen and decide what to do if it doesn’t work out.

As for the NHS, its principle of health care for everyone regardless of wealth and status is essential and can only be effectively be delivered by a public service free of the waste of the market. And we have the choice as a nation to make it a priority – it’s not a question of money, but of policy choice. But it isn’t enough to just protect the NHS, we need to raise its standards, and those of social care, to those of the best bits while dealing with the challenges of changing patterns of ill health and changing technologies. That won’t be easy, but with adequate funding, the end of market madness and a commitment to much more democratic ways of working, we can do it.

4) What do you think should be the key principles of foreign policy?

The answers here were generally shockingly narrow. Most failed to identify any principles at all. Some talked generally of ethics and several talked about refugees.

A better answer?
This country has done some good things on the international stage but an awful lot of bad things. We continue to benefit from the exploitation of the majority world and our foreign policy and military defend our unfair advantage. We live with the consequences, including the threat of terror and the plight of refugees, to which we must add the threats of resource depletion and climate change that will mean further shocks to life on the planet, from which we are not immune. These challenges need truly international solutions and not the domination of the “international community” by a few powerful nations.

So what’s the answer? Firstly, we need to be truly internationalist, offering help and support where we can, without conditions. Many people in this room will know about Cuba’s wonderful assistance after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Secondly, we need to stand with the majority world against the rigging of trade by the rich countries; we need to oppose militarism and cease supplying arms to oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Thirdly, we need to fight for international institutions fit for purpose – the kind of international financial institutions envisaged by Keynes after WW2, but blocked by the USA and the bankers, for example, and a reformed United Nations where the General Assembly is sovereign, not a security council dominated by the historical big powers. And that’s just a start. Our Foreign Policy should not just be ethical but one that actually redresses past and present wrongs: there can be a better world!

5) Transport

I think all mentioned the GM Mayor and explicitly or implicitly alluded to the Burnham campaign (in some cases that was all that was said). Most mentioned integration and regulation. Most mentioned improving bus services. There was a little mention of active travel. Nobody really tackled the central problem, the private motor car in this car-dominated city. Nobody mentioned strategies to reduce the need to travel. Terms like “modal shift” (or a non-jargon version of it, didn’t figure. I’m not sure air quality was mentioned either.

Although the question was framed in terms of transport in Gorton and Manchester, here was an opportunity to identify the national level interventions that, as a MP, the candidate needs to begin thinking about.

6) What makes you unique?

This was one for candidates to answer in their own way, but their answers were all rather similar.

7) Left or Centre Left policies?

A potential trap here, and candidates were circumpspect in saying they supported “Labour policies”, the label not being an issue. I’ve some sympathy with this (as a non-orthodox leftist). But here was an opportunity to again offer principles, getting behind and under the labels.

A better answer?
In 1983 the Labour Party’s manifesto promised
‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’1. That’s what I believe in. But there’s a problem, one identified by Sir Gerald Kaufmann himself who called it “The longest suicide note in history”. Now, much as I respected him, he was wrong about the content: read it and you’ll recognise many things we take for granted today and quite a few proposals that we are still greatly in need of, though the world has changed and we can’t just reproduce the same manifesto content today. But the conditions, then as now, were extremely hostile to such policies, and I think that’s the relevance of Sir Gerald’s point. I’m not saying you can create such a shift by stealth: it is important to be uncompromisingly honest, but we have to communicate those ideas effectively. We need to explain that Labour didn’t bankrupt the country, the private banks did. We need to explain that government debt is often a good thing – it’s what paid for the victory in WW2, and the post war reconstruction with its NHS, social housing and secondary education for all: the country can afford it, and becomes more wealthy through it. We need to explain that the wealthy and powerful will fight us tooth and nail, and why. So we need nothing less than an ambitious public political and economic literacy campaign to match our policy aspirations. I see no sign of the party seriously doing that – it will be my personal mission to change that.

So yes, you might call my policies “left” but at the same time they are practical – so long as we’ve the political campaign to bring them about.

8) Inequality and homelessness

Between them, the candidates identified most of the key points: supply of social housing and a variety of stock, debt and the benefits system, the need for early intervention. But hardly anyone seemed able to put all that together. My notes for this question have the words “no specifics” and “vague” in several places. Manchester pretty much dismantled a decent homelessness service when the first round of Osborne cuts came after 2010 – no mention of that. After a period of denial, the council is again beginning to respond, but with a “Charter” – hmmm.

A better answer?
A good answer would combine the following

1) Supply of housing, that is affordable and allocated on the basis of need. Some candidates only mentioned council housing but this alone is not enough. On the housing front, there needs to be an end to the sweetheart deals with developers that allow them to build developments without even “affordable” housing, let alone social housing.

2) A social security system that supports people to stay in housing rather than making it difficult to meet demands – meanwhile more help for people to challenge decisions.

3) People who become homeless often need a lot of help – they aren’t always easy to work with so skilled and sensitive workers are needed. So the third element is a safety net that responds immediately and sensitively to the variety of people who find themselves homeless or at risk of homelessness (the Housing First2 model is the key here).

With the above components it is clear that some things need national policy changes, but there are also things that can be done locally now.

9) Accessibility and Accountability

Again the answers were remarkably sketchy. The ideas that the candidates came up with, between them, in addition to doing the job of responding to constituents’ problems, were: living in the community and being visible, having a full time constituency office and having one job. In response to a different question there was mention of consultation and the use of social media.

The Gorton constituency has an estimated population of 116,889 (mid 2015 estimate) some 73,000 electors. That’s a lot of people to be accessible and accountable to; some creative thinking is required. It is arguable that one reason the EU referendum had a Leave majority, despite the benefits flowing to some of the biggest Brexit-voting regions, was the invisibility of MEPs to the electorate. What were they doing? What was the European Parliament and the EU itself doing? What was good and what needed changing or opposing? With some exceptions, MEPs were invisible. Much the same can be said for many MPs. Popular discontent with the “political class” (a misnomer if ever there was one) calls for a different relationship with citizens.

A better answer?
I will do my best to be accessible and accountable to all the citizens of Gorton constituency. As well as living and spending as much time as possible here, I will work with you on new ways of keeping two way communications open. I’ve a few ideas, but I will consult with people before deciding which ones to develop. We could,

  • Have six-monthly public meetings where I report back on what I have been doing in your name, where I can both explain and seek views on key policy choices coming up and on other matters that are important to you. We could live-stream these meetings and also complement them with webinars.

  • I will use Labour campaign leaflets to highlight what I have been doing and to seek views.

  • I will maintain Sir Gerald’s courteous and fast response style to constituents’ correspondence.

  • I will look at the possibility of a constituency office, which with relatively paperless new technology, could run on a roving basis, going to different corners of the constituency each day or week.

  • I will use social media, selectively, to publicise key points of information and to advise constituents on how bes to contact me.

  • And I will do my best to maintain an active relationship with you, our membership.

Here was also another opportunity to mention the Burnham campaign which has tried very hard to take an open and inclusive approach to policy formulation via the crowd-sourced manifesto.

10) Environment and Climate Change

All candidates did highlight the central importance of this issue. There was mention of the environment having no national boundaries, and of the need for international action, with the Paris agreement mentioned, I think once. There was mention of climate change affecting all classes and of the impact of Western lifestyles. But no candidate really got beyond platitudes and more than one seemed to think individual actions would solve the problem. (“If we all do a little, we’ll achieve ….. a little”3).

A better answer?
We are living in dangerous times. We know that the lives of all of us depend on maintaining the natural systems of the earth that are the basis for our food, water and the air we breathe. I’m going to talk about just one of the environmental crises facing us4: climate change. We stand on the threshold of runaway global warming – unless we can radically reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, by around 10% per year according to University of Manchester climate scientists5, then we will soon pass into that danger zone where the temperature will rise by 2, 3 4 or more degrees, rendering large parts of the earth uninhabitable through heat, drought and rising sea levels. Let’s look at the north of the Indian subcontinent, from where many of you, or your families come: not only are coastal areas threatened by rising seas – people are already being displaced in Bangladesh, but the glaciers that feed the great rivers are receding, threatening water supply, agriculture and energy supplies for huge populations. Here in the UK, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and frankly, “you ain’t seen nothing yet”.

We have to act urgently on many levels.

The Paris agreement was a great achievement but the pledges made by nations are insufficient to stop the warming. We have to press the UK for more radical action, with a plan for drastically reducing energy use via improving the insulation of homes and other buildings, through a rapid transition to renewable energy (and this government has been moving in the other direction), so we leave fossil fuels with the other fossils – in the ground. A programme like that can actually create many more, and decent jobs for our people, as the Trade Union Climate Change Campaign has shown6.

And we need to do the same things here in Manchester – pressing the Combined Authority and City Council for more demanding targets and more assertive action to cease carbon emissions. We can also look at the investments of the pension funds that many of you contribute to, or rely on – moving them out of fossil fuels and reinvesting in clean energy, energy saving schemes and schemes to help our local economy become more self sufficient and resilient, reducing the emissions of overseas trade while making us less vulnerable to supply chain shocks.

Yes, this has to be the number one priority, from which all others flow: without an environment we and our children can live in, the rest of our political aims become irrelevant.

Values and Facts – Platitudes and Policies.

All too often the candidates were good at stating values but less good at translating them into concrete policy statements. A cynic might say that there were too many platitudes and not enough thought. I don’t blame the candidates – it’s a reflection of the dire political culture we have in the UK, a country where political theory is little discussed and where the term “intellectual” is used as an insult. Values are vitally important but it isn’t enough to proclaim belief in socialism: some principles we choose but some depend on facts. There has to be an understanding of how society, economy and environment work and how they interact. Without that, there can be no credible policy. Values, facts and theory need to be integrated, not in an elite ivory tower but collectively. In that work, we need leadership, but leadership that responds to those led and that teaches and learns with them. It is not easy, but without such a politics there will be no Labour government worth having.

I should say that I was broadly happy with the choice of Afzal Khan. He was clearly the most experienced of the candidates and is likely to help unite the party locally. His politics appear pragmatically progressive, if not very exciting. I trust that this piece will be seen as comradely and positive criticism and not just of these five individuals who were brave enough to put themselves forward.

Mark H Burton

March, 2017

1 The Labour Party: 1983 The New Hope for Britain. Available at http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/man/lab83.htm This article is a fair discussion: Neil Clark (2008). Not so suicidal after all. Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/jun/10/labour.margaretthatcher

3 David Mackay, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air. http://www.withouthotair.com/

5 Anderson, K., & Bows, A. (2010). Beyond “dangerous” climate change: emission scenarios for a new world. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 369(1934), 20–44. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2010.0290

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