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).


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





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 This article is a fair discussion: Neil Clark (2008). Not so suicidal after all. Guardian

3 David Mackay, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air.

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.

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Oslo, by rail and boat, in January

We made another trip to add to those in the previous post. Carolyn was invited to examine a PhD in Oslo and not having been there, I went along too, as tour organiser.

This was similar to the Gothenburg and Malmö journeys. As far as Copenhagen, but from there we took an overnight DFDS ferry to Oslo. Everything went well, except for missing a tight connection at Hanover on the way back: Deutsche Bahn (DB) like giving tight connections in their routings but unfortunately the trains don’t always run on time (ours from Hamburg was 9 minutes late) and we just missed our onward train to Cologne. The DB staff re-routed us on the next train but from Cologne we had to take the Thalys rather than the DB ICE. On going to the Thalys office for seat reservations we were told we had to buy another ticket and reclaim it. We refused since the CIV and Railteam conditions (DB and Thalys are both part of this alliance) mean you just “hop on the next train”. We did this: the train was about 15% full so finding a seat was no problem and although the conductor started to question our tickets, the mention of CIV led to his hasty retreat. As a result we just made our original Eurostar connection in Brussels.  [Update 15/2/17: Thalys have just responded to my complaint about what the Cologne staff told us: “You’re totally right. The HOTNAT allows you to take the next available Highspeed train. Unfortunately you were misinformed. “]

Leaving Copenhagen on a very cold day

Leaving Copenhagen on a very cold day

The ferry crossing reminded us of the former DFDS crossings from Harwich to Esbjerg and to Hamburg. Now there are no UK-Scandinavia ferries, incredible really – especially for us after visiting the Viking boat museum in Oslo where there are preserved Viking boats from burials – more than a thousand years old and preserved by the clay under which they lay. If they could cross the North Sea and beyond (to what became called America) in these craft surely our abundant industrial “civilisation” could arrange a ferry crossing. Crazily it was environmental regulations on sulphur emissions that meant the end of those DFDS ferries- there was talk of restarting them but nothing has transpired, so most people make far more damaging emissions by flying. Next time we’d try Hull-Rotterdam and then Kiel-Oslo.

Sunrise on the boat: Oslo fjord

Sunrise on the boat: Oslo fjord

Here again is our cost and carbon data for the trip. Again note that aviation is highly subsidised (e.g. no tax on fuel) and pays nothing for its environmental damage, so price comparisons are misleading. Carbon metrics are not a precise science, at least as applied to such activities since precise figures depend on the assumptions made. This time I provide two estimates for comparative aviation emissions – flying direct to Oslo would make for between 4 and 7 times the carbon footprint.


Oslo was cold on arrival, about -4 degrees and we experienced the first snow of the year, late and not much of it. It warmed up a bit with temperatures around freezing point. As you’d expect (the latitude is that of Lerwick), short days and very low sun. We visited lots of museums and galleries, went to a New Year concert (where Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no 2 was played, with the audience singing a patriotic Norwegian song to it!), and got a feel for this very quiet city. Highlights were the Viking ships, the polar exploration museum (Fram), the Munch collections (we hadn’t realised what a great painter he was) and the Vigeland and Ekeberg sculpture parks. And of course riding on trams!

Tram emerges from the fog: Ekeberg Park

Tram emerges from the fog: Ekeberg Park

Yes, it was expensive – mitigated by some good hotel deals and the Oslo pass. Take a hip flask!

Viking ship.

Viking ship.

Snowy Oslo

Snowy Oslo

Edvard Munch - a phenomenal technique

Edvard Munch – a phenomenal technique

One of Vigeland's many sculptures.

Oslo in freezing fog.


One of Vigeland’s many sculptures

Statue by Hilde Moehlum, Ekeberg Park

Statue by Hilde Moehlum, Ekeberg Park

Late c19th Norwegian hyper-realism: Girls of Telemark

Late C19th Norwegian hyper-realism: Girls of Telemark

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Train travel in Europe and the UK

We’ve covered a lot of miles by train this year, both in the UK and on the continent.  Here are some brief  notes about it.

We did several long journeys: the bare facts first and then some reflections.

Manchester to Inverness in May.  The sleeper was all booked up so we had to take day trains.  A bit of a nightmare when the first train, to Edinburgh was cancelled on our arrival at (Manchester) Piccadilly.  Wrong information from station staff meant a longer time to get to Preston than was necessary to pick up another Edinburgh train. Of course all our seat reservations were to no avail and we had to stand for some of the way to Stirling.  We got into Inverness about 90 minutes late which entitled us to a refund of the full price forthe outward journey.  The return journey went smoothly (and it was Sunday too).

Manchester to Budapest in August/September.  Down to London, an overnight there and then Brussels and Cologne before taking the Austrian Railways sleeper to Vienna.  A couple of days there and then a morning train to Budapest for the 5th International Degrowth Conference.  Return to Salzburg for a couple of days and then all the way back to Manchester by daytime trains.  A lot of this journey was on First Class as there were some very cheap advance deals.

Manchester to Gothenburg, later in September.  Down to London and just caught Eurostar after delays due to a prior derailment near Watford.  Then Brussels, Cologne again and Hamburg for an overnight.  Hamburg-Copenhagen (see previous post about this interesting journey on the “boat train”) and up to Gothenburg over the Oresund Bridge.  Back via Hamburg and an overnight in Bremen and then all the way to Manchester in one day.

Manchester to Exeter, in October.  Direct train via Birmingham and Bristol.

And of course several trips to London and around the NW region.

The UK trains and network compare very poorly with the continental ones.  Remarkably little is electrified so on long journeys you end up chugging along in rattly multiple unit diesels which are crowded.  Prices are also high in comparison.

Long distance continental journeys needn’t be costly, although it does help to have flexibility of dates.  Here is my comparison table for the Gothenburg trip.  The flights taken by other conference attendees from Manchester are used as comparison.  Carbon emission estimates are also given.  (NOTE: problems with table formatting- will fix shortly).The carbon emission figures aren’t (particularly) to claim a high moral ground, because carbon is systemic rather than individual. Cost per person (two made the jouney by train) was about £20 cheaper than the flights.  Of course we also had three nights accommodation extra but we’d calculated for three city-breaks in addition to the Gothenburg stay. The costs are a bit misleading because railways have to pay tax on fuel while airlines don’t – to name one hidden subsidy among many. Two late trains made for a dash in London on the way out and Copenhagen on the way back, but that’s all part of the fun … afterwards. Carbon emissions used the German DB calculator, pro-rating for Manchester-London, and using as comparison 2 separate flights via Frankfurt each way – assumptions, assumptions.  The advantage would have been less had our colleagues flown direct to Gothenburg, but still considerably in favour of the train.  Moreover, within Germany you can opt for green energy (a bit like green electricity tariffs here – a bit meaningless maybe since it doesn’t really change the big energy production picture).


Minor niggles are the general lack of adequate luggage space.  Continental trains do a lot better (and have the advantage of bigger size due to the UK’s first mover disadvantage, with its lower “loading gauge” – clearance under bridges etc.).  But on the fancier German ICE’s there were no rack at the end of the coach so big cases had to be manouevered onto the luggage rack.  British trains are totally inadequate for luggage leading to dangerous obstruction of gangways and doors and no doubt great frustration for staff.

We went on a sleeper from Cologne to Vienna.  These are great because you travel while you  sleep – a cost and time efficient way to go.  But Germany is terminating its remaining sleeper services this year.  OBB, Austrian Railways is taking over some of them, but others will not be replaced.  French railways is doing the same with just three left and those threatened.   There have been some good articles about this (e.g. HERE) and campaigns, including a petition to French railways SNCF.


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Labour again: Corbyn’s victory and the growth narrative

This is a short post to note Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership re-election and ask some fundamental questions.  Despite some misgivings in the last post, I’m delighted.  This is all about rejecting the politics and economics of the last 30 years or more: how impressive that the party has a socialist majority and the membership has the ascendancy over the parliamentary party.  This could lead to a renewed approach to politics, linking extra-parliamentary action with an electoral strategy.  There is a long way to go but this is most definitely not about one man who we should see as an honourable place-holder.  But politics is full of surprises.

I was really pleased to see the paper on energy and environment released by Corbyn.  It is far better than I had anticipated.  But as we learn that the concentration of CO2 will not return below 400ppm, then it has to be said again and again that if the Labour team is serious about the environment, about the climate, and about a future for humanity, then it needs to get a grip on economic growth.  The economy (or at least its material flows) must be downsized.  Continued “growth” makes it far more difficult to realise the radical emissions cuts that are needed, probably no longer to prevent runaway climate change, but to delay it.  I wrote at length on this in a recent post – one that proved impossible to get into more mainstream outlets.

That knowledge presents some extremely challenging dilemmas: how do you ensure that the population has sufficient to live on.  How to you prevent extreme economic turbulence of the kind that will lead to extreme social conflict (including a further rise in xenophobia and the demonising of minorities)?  More immediately, how can a Labour party with productivist ideology and reliance on environmentally reactionary working class organisations (Unite, GMB for example – trade unionist consciousness has never been the same as socialist consciousness, although the two can work together and the one can set the scene for the other) resolve the internal conflicts that a truly redistributive, and environmentalist strategy will provoke (a dilemma for all of us in the degrowth movement – the left of the environmentalist movement)?  How can the realities of climate and ecological security be translated into the bread and butter realities facing people and which will decisively influence their behaviour at the ballot box?


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Labour’s post-Brexit woes and a possible solution

Updated, 30 June, 2016
It turns out that the party’s rules make my suggestion unfeasible in its present form: the leader of the party is ex officio the leader of the PLP (Chapter 1 clause vii).  However, there appears to be nothing to stop a leader delegating part of their role, maybe pending a rule change….
But my more fundamental point is that a creative solution is needed to manage the tension between the different parts of the party and their differing requirements and expectations of the leader. Maybe not this solution but a solution that maintains a left-leaning hegemony, which is to say brings together those elements of the party except for anyone still self-identifying as a Blairite neoliberal.  That really ought to be doable.  Beyond that I support the idea of a progressive electoral alliance with cross party primaries to select candidates across England and Wales.

The UK Labour Party has descended into seemingly terminal conflict after the defeat of the remain campaign by a narrow margin (52:48 – just 35% of the electorate opted to jump off the cliff and many of them are now having second thoughts) in the EU referendum.

This has been used as a pretext for a coup against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn by the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).  This was expected but the scale of the revolt is surprising.  Corbyn has clearly lost the confidence of the majority of the PLP, including former centre-left allies.

Meanwhile in the Labour Party itself (outside parliament) he still has strong, majority support.  This was demonstrated by an almost spontaneous rally outside parliament attended by maybe 10,000 people.  Corbyn’s supporters are uncompromising, as he is, refusing to countenance his resignation.  I have a great deal of sympathy with this view: the PLP is no longer representative of the Labour Party.  Corbyn and the movement behind him represents a clear break from the neoliberal consensus and has led to some innovative policy development, particularly on the economy, that could speak directly to the left behind citizens who voted for Brexit.  But it is not so easy as that.  Like it or not the Labour leader has to lead the entire Labour Party, its members, its affiliated organisations, and its elected representatives.  For whatever reason, Corbyn has not managed to maintain hegemony over all sections of the party, although the party under his leadership has actually done better electorally than under his two predecessors.

I have a simple solution, that at the very least would buy time for the Party to heal itself and restore its credibility.  It is not necessary for the leader of a political party to be the leader of the party in parliament, nor even to be Prime Minister.  In other places this kind of arrangement is normal.

So I suggest Corbyn concedes to the vote of no confidence by Labour MPs by agreeing to stand down as leader of the PLP, but not of the party as a whole.  MPs would then elect a parliamentary leader who would work with him.  To ensure a consistent approach I suggest either giving the national leader (Corbyn) a veto on nominations, or putting nominations in the hands of the National Executive Committee.

Under this formula, Corbyn could get on with what he’s best at – building a strong national party with innovative socialist policies, and the MPs (excluding the Blairite rump) get a potentially more charismatic and combative leader who they will see as legitimate.  The big challenge of this arrangement will be to ensure a coherent, united approach between the two leaders, but an arrangement such as those suggested in the previous paragraph could help to make this possible.  Without such a compromise the party will tear itself apart just when it needs to take on a divided Tory party and win back the UKIP/Brexit voters.


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Biodiversity day – a diverse salad

Salad from the garden on biodiversity day, 22 May, 2016

We ate this green salad – we have one of these most days in the growing season.  The ingredients vary. Some are cultivated, some are edible weeds (you do need to research both identification and edibility).  Some we encourage and some we don’t.  Some are annual and sown / self-sown while some are perennial.  We do grow lettuce but there is none at the moment and actually it is the most vulnerable of our crops to slug attack.

There are so many edible plants and yet we rely on a handful for our food.  That’s why we grow unusual crops and varieties, partly to preserve them and partly to help spread awareness of alternatives.

Here’s what was in the salad.

  1. Garlic mustard

  2. Ground elder

  3. Wild rocket

  4. Salad rocket

  5. Mizuna (an oriental mustard)

  6. Chinese mustard

  7. Sorrel

  8. Mint

  9. Marjoram

  10. Vine tips

  11. Sweet Cicely (flowers and young seeds)

  12. Perennial buckwheat

  13. Chives

  14. Hairy bitter cress

  15. Claytonia

  16. Columbine (flowers only are edible)

  17. Nipplewort (young leaves)

  18. Fat hen (young leaves)

  19. Dandelion

  20. Musk Mallow

  21. Red veined sweet dock.

Also availble:

  1. Young hawthorn leaves – getting a bit tough by now.

  2. Garlic chives

  3. Parsley

  4. Land cress

  5. Nasturtium (tropaeolum) – just starting

  6. Good King Henry (young leaves)

  7. Chickweed.

  8. Pelagonium (“geranium”) flowers.

  9. Turnip tops.
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Progress as a trap.


Craig Bennett is the Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth UK. Last night (11/2/2016) he gave a lecture at Manchester Business School, “What is Progress: how are we doing and where next?” It was an interesting topic for a largely business-orientated audience and the lecture was eloquently delivered.

A look at definitions of “progress” highlighted, following Sidney Pollard, the idea of irreversible changes in one direction leading to improvement. The idea of progress is an ideology of relatively recent origin. Craig might have noted the intimate connection of “progress” with the Eurocentric world view, itself rooted in the colonial domination of other “less valuable” humans, and of nature, an ideological nexus going back 500 years or so. This would suggest that the problem has rather deeper roots than those of either the enlightenment or industrial revolution.

However, he then went on, this time drawing on Ronald Wright’s Short History of Progress, to identify a potentially very helpful concept, that of Progress Traps: “seductive trail of successes that may end in a trap where we cannot survive without the technology”, or perhaps more accurately, where the technology creates intractable problems while tending to close off alternative solutions or exits. Craig identified three particular important ones for our times:

  • The path dependency and lock-in arising from adopting certain technologies, such as the motor car or the jet aeroplane. Antibiotics might be another one where the health-industrial system is ill-geared to the development of alternative approaches to infectious disease.

  • Fossil fuels, which relying on pre-historic stock rather than current flow (of solar-derived energy), supply such a huge subsidy to the economy while creating the conditions for runaway global warming (1 degree already and according to current, unenforced Paris pledges, set to rise to somewhere between 3 and 4 degrees this century).

  • Economic growth itself, which seems so difficult for our “civilisation” to do without, but which produces ecological, social and indeed economic grief. As Bennett noted, while mainstream economists whether of left or right bemoan the lack of adequate demand, the real problem is too much demand (although this is intimately linked to too much production).

Now by his articulation of this last trap, I would say that Craig placed himself firmly in the degrowth camp, a movement that is indeed growing in its adherents and its persuasiveness. The concept of Progress Traps, which I had not come across before, seems to me to be just the kind of concept that we can use to popularise the understanding that we have to collectively find another way, with an alternative perspective on what is most important and a strategy for how to get there. It is easy to understand, easy to illustrate, and it directly identifies the need for a change in direction rather than a technological adjustment to the current course.

Where I was less convinced was with Craig’s attempt to rescue the idea of progress. He used Maslow’s set of human needs as a set of criteria for what he called “Real Progress”, but he might as well have spoken of conviviality, right livelihoods, common wealth, or of the social and solidarity society and economy (or come to that The Viable Economy. Had he explored some alternative conceptions of a decent society, in keeping with its ecological base, then he might have indeed spoken about degrowth, ecological swaraj, ubuntu or buen vivir. For all these conceptions the notion of a linear conception from a less developed to a more developed state is very suspect, resting on a narrow means-ends rationality (ill suited to the systemic, recursive, open, emergent and unpredictable complexity of ecological, planetary and human systems) and most likely rooted in the politics of exploitation-domination.

But then this was a business audience and there is a limit to what can be said and heard. As it was the reception seemed sympathetic, something I would not have predicted five years ago: this indicates what a parlous state we are in politically, socially, environmentally and economically.

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Corbynomics: let’s be sceptical about the growth rhetoric.

“So all our emphasis and work and campaigning is about an expanding economy and investing in an expanding economy”
Jeremy Corbyn,
quoted by The Independent, 29 February 2016

“El socialismo puede llegar sólo en bicicleta.”
Socialism can only arrive by bicycle
attributed by Ivan Illich to José Antonio Viera-Gallo
Assistant Secretary of Justice in the government of Salvador Allende

Revised version posted 5 March, 2016. Minor revisions 17 March, 2016, 16 April, 2016
pdf version.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn and the appointment of John McDonnell signals a refreshing break from the politics of austerity and the economically illiterate notion of running a permanent government surplus. At last we are seeing Labour openly recognise that a government can borrow at advantageous rates and can, where necessary and appropriate, create money. While the new leadership is widely portrayed as of the “far left”, the new approach is economically broadly neo-Keynesian rather than Marxist. Far from overthrowing capitalism, it recognises that the State needs to intervene in the capitalist economy, both to regulate it and to moderate the cycle of boom and bust (and provide protection to those who would otherwise be vulnerable). Much of the inspiration seems to come from a small group of thinkers who could be called post-Keynesiani, some of them associated with the Green New Deal Group, (Richard Murphy, architect of proposals for the National Investment Bank and Green, or People’s Quantitative Easing, and Ann Pettifor, one of McDonnell’s advisory team). Indeed, with Corbyn’s generally high commitment to the environmentii, we might see Corbynomics as Green Keynesianism.

Limits to Keynes

But herein lie some problemsiii. The first of these is in the idea, spelt out very clearly in the original Green New Deal paperiv, of stimulating the economy for environmental benefit. That means using things like investment in public transport, housing and massive programmes of insulation for buildings, to create jobs, whose occupants then spend their wages in the economy, so contributing to taxes, and to broader economic well-being: this is the so-called “Keynesian multiplier” (for some caution about the generality of multiplier effects see here). The problem, what Green MEP and former professor of ecological economics, Molly Scott Cato calls the “paradox of Green Keynesianismv, is that those multiplier effects are likely to mean greater consumption, meaning greater resource throughput, and hence increased greenhouse gas emissions and other kinds of damage to the ecosystems we all depend on. It is sometimes argued that there is a distinction between stimulating investment (for example for infrastructure) and stimulating consumption. Yet the distinction seems difficult to sustain after the first round of expenditure, since the whole point of Keynesian stimulus is to re-energise economic activity, now usually subsumed under “economic growth”, a concept that is so much part of everyday political and economic parlance that we hardly notice it, let alone question what it means, and what impacts it has.

The decoupling myth

Now, the International Panel on Climate Change, in their most recent report, make it very clear that economic “growth” is the main culprit for the inexorable rise in Greenhouse Gas concentrations in the atmosphere, which seriously threaten runaway global warmingvi. Some commentators, notably the New Climate Economy NGO led by Nicholas Stern of the LSE and former right wing Mexican president Felipe Calderón, suggest that it is possible to de-couple economic growth from emissionsvii. The problem, with that, as Tim Jackson (commissioned to research this by Ed Miliband) and others have shownviii, is that the evidence to date only demonstrates decoupling in relative terms: the rate of increase of emissions may decrease with GDP growth but in absolute terms they are still rising, just more slowly. Claims have recently been made that some economies have achieved absolute decoupling (where GDP growth goes with either no increase or a reduction in emissions), but I have shown them to be unfounded because they turn out to be based only on emissions made within the national territory, ignoring all the emissions their consumption causes elsewhere in the world (most of our consumer goods are made in China and other majority world countries and then shipped here, entailing yet more emissions)ix. So, the paradox of Green Keynesianism is that it turns out not to be green at all.

Growth and social justice

This is not the only “diseconomy of growth”. Firstly, “growth” is typically seen as the way to deal with poverty and the metaphor of “lifing all boats” is invoked, or implied. But the metaphor doesn’t work: the bigger boats actually rise more than the little ones, some of which capsize (investment leads to technological investment – Marx’s “organic composition of capital” – which puts people out of work). And even if all the boats floated upward, the inequalities would still be there – we know full well that wealth does not trickle down: poverty reduction requires specific economic and social interventions to redistribute (and indeed pre-distribute) both income and wealth, while securing meaningful and economically resilient occupation for all that want it. So it makes more sense to focus directly on increasing equality than to try and improve the lot of the disadvantaged “remotely” by general material growth of the economy. Corbyn’s calls to to limit pay multiples and incentivise companies to pay the Living Wagex are just what is needed.

Secondly, there is the so-called Easterlin paradoxxi: increases in GDP (or personal income) do not lead to increases in life-satisfaction or well-being The measurement and statistical issues here are complex, but it seems that once a reasonably comfortable standard of living has been reached, then the gains in well-being are uncertain, and levels of inequality are a better predictor of population well-beingxii. This is not so surprising: accumulating more and more material possessions can lead not to happiness but to an emptiness, in contrast to cultural and social growth which is less dependent on material consumption. Again, there is a class dimension to this: the more disposable income a person has, the higher the carbon emissions (richest 10 per cent emit three times that of the poorest 10 per centxiii): hence the call for a frequent flyer levy, which would hit the rich but not the person with the occasional overseas holidayxiv.

Socialism without growth?

So we need a different approach. While the dominance of the economic growth narrative makes this difficult, there is a growing body of work to identify practical policies for an economy that does not grow but that nevertheless delivers economic, social and ecological well-being, what we have called the “Viable Economy”xv. There are several places to look. The work of ecological economists such as Tim Jackson (University of Surrey) and Peter Victor goes into detail about the macro-economics of the steady state economyxvi, while Dan O’Neill (University of Leeds) has put together a compilation of policies for practical implementation, with an emphasis on social justicexvii. Our group, Steady State Manchester, has been focussing on what such policies look like in a regional contextxviii.

Yet both Corbynxix and McDonnell are posing growth-orientated policy as the counter to Tory austerity. Investment in areas like health, social care, education, low cost housing, renewables and insulation would be desirable, and to a significant degree self-funding via incrased tax receiptsxx but we are left with the problem identified above of the inability to select the subsequent economic and environmental impacts (indeed in an economy like the UK one, with so little domestic manufacture, one consequence of stimulus would be increased imports of consumer goods). Probably the only way that Keynesian demand stimulus could be made to work without contributing to environmental damage is to combine it with a cap on carbon emissions. As Herman Daly shows in his textbook Ecological Economicsxxi, capping resource use is a more effective policy than trying to put a price on it, either by taxation or through some kind of market mechanism (the effects of both are rather unpredictable). The Irish think tank FEASTA has suggested a policy called “cap and share”xxii where an annual reducing global cap on fossil fuel extraction is allocated to citizens, who can then elect to trade it with one another: this is inherently redistributive, since it is the richer people who engage in higher carbon activities – they would have to pay someone else for the privilege. Maybe it is hard to see this being put into place, but it is just the kind of creative and innovative approach that we need, and which could work, possibly funding the increasingly discussed citizens’ basic incomexxiii. Why not trial this in the UK?

Perhaps of most interest in relation to “Corbynomics” has been the set of proposals drafted by Giorgos Kallisxxiv and colleagues from the Barcelona Research and Degrowth group in response to the economic strategy published in November 2014 by Podemos (which does include a variety of very welcome proposals such as forgiveness of a proportion of citizen debt, a reduction in working hours, and shifting investment towards caring, education and the green economy). It is worth listing their suggestions, which are intended to be complementary, rather than “pick and mix”, to give a flavour of what John McDonnell’s team could be considering. Here I list them with some re-contextualisation for the UK context.

1. Citizen debt audit to not just restructure but eliminate the debts via their “pardon” (already implemented in Slovenia). This shouldn’t penalise savers and those with modest pensions but the debt of those that have considerable income and assets should not be pardoned, and those who lent for speculation should certainly take the losses.

2. Work-sharing by reducing the working week at least to 32 hours and develop programmes that support employers that want to facilitate job-sharing.  Loss of salary from working less should only affect the 10% highest income bracket. This has from time to time been a demand of the Labour movement (in the 1980s in Australia and more recently, with some success in France).

3. Basic and maximum income. This involves a minimum income for all. Despite poor publicity for the Green Party’s proposal on a citizens’ income, studies in the UK (including one by Richard Murphy) point to its feasibilityxxv. (However see our discussion of the issues involved).

4. Green tax reform. Implement an accounting system to transform, over time, the tax system to one based on the use of energy and resources and combine this with a wealth and property tax.

5. Stop subsidizing and investing in activities that are highly polluting, moving the liberated public funds towards clean production. Pretty much the opposite of Osbornomics!

6. Support the alternative, solidarity society. This is probably stronger in Southern Europe, although there are elements here that can be supported and promoted, through subsidies and tax exemptions. It also means the de-privatisation of public space, opening up resources to community groups.

7. Optimise the use of buildings. The Barcelona group suggest this means a halt to building new housing, which probably makes sense in Spain with many vacant, speculatively built properties (and a high level of evictions). Here it would suggest a hierarchy starting from expropriation of vacant housing, incentives for people to down-size and share, to prioritise retrofitting and refurbishment, and then responding to any remaining need by building social housing on brownfield sites. To this should be added a jobs-generating deep retrofit programme to ensure that property brought back into use is both cheap to heat and has very low emissions.

8. Reduce advertising.  Establish very restrictive criteria for allowing advertising in public spaces, reducing the incessant promotion of consumption – something that has been done in both Grenoble and São Paulo and which we have called for in Manchesterxxvi.

9. Establish environmental limits, as discussed above, via absolute and diminishing caps on the total of CO2exxvii that can be produced and the total quantity of material resources (material, water, land) that the country uses, including, via a footprinting approach, emissions and materials embedded in imported products.

10. Abolish the use of GDP as indicator of economic progress. If GDP is a misleading indicator, let’s stop using it and look for other indicators of prosperity. Indeed, as Ann Pettifor has arguedxxviii, and shown how, in some of her writing, we shouldn’t be talking about growth at all, but instead (as Keynes did), focus on what is actually going on in the economy, things like jobs, incomes, activity, investment. Richard Murphy has recently made a similar pointxxix. Interestingly, US social democratic candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, who has been loosely compared with Jeremy Corbyn, makes very little mention of economic “growth” in his campaign speeches and publications, despite promoting a similar reflationary approach. However this demonstrates that the issue here is not merely one of language, but of the need to change the narrative in conjunction with implementing economic and social policies that are neither growth-generating nor growth-dependent.


The above suggestions make it clear that an economic policy can be generated from a degrowth perspective without being labelled as such (which might be too scary for some supportersxxx). Although mutually complementary, the proposals should not be taken as a definitive final list. There is a need for them to be refined, modelled and above all debated within the movement and with the public. There are other proposals that could be added, particularly in the context of the UK with its overblown financial services sector. Whatever the final mix though, Corbyn and McDonnell really do need to stop the blether about “economic growth” and tackle, using less abstracted terms, the puzzle of maximising economic and social well-being while making and keeping safe the global and national ecosystem we share and depend upon.


iThat is, they build on the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, also bringing in more recent theory and research.

iiiLeaving aside whether these measures would actually work. See for a sceptical view.

vCato, M. S. (2014). The paradox of Green Keynesiansim. In J. Blewitt & R. Cunningham (Eds.), ‘The Post-Growth Project: How the End of Economic Growth Could Bring a Fairer and Happier Society’. London: London Publishing Partnership.

viIPCC. (2014). Summary for Policymakers. In Climate Change 2014, Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

viiiJackson, T. (2009). Prosperity Without Growth: the transition to a sustainable economy. London: Sustainable Development Commission.

ixBurton, M. (2014). Less levity Professor Stern Economic growth, climate change and the decoupling question. and Burton, M. (2015) The decoupling debate: can economic growth really continue without emission increases?, Burton, M (2016) Again and again: supposed evidence for decoupling emissions from growth is not what it seems , and in response to more robust recent studies, Burton, M (2016) New evidence on decoupling carbon emissions from GDP growth: what does it mean?

xiiCostanza, R., Kubiszewski, I., Giovannini, E., Lovins, H., McGlade, J., Pickett, K. E., … Wilkinson, R. (2014). Development: Time to leave GDP behind. Nature, 505(7483), 283–285.

xivCampaign site:

xvBurton, M., Irvine, B., & Emanuel, J. (2014). The Viable Economy (1st ed.). Manchester: Steady State Manchester.

xixMost recently on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 11 January, 2016 For an example where “growth” almost takes on the qualities of a mantra through repetition, see the Northern Future paper:

xxi Daly, H. E., & Farley, J. (2011). Ecological economics : principles and applications. Washington, D.C: Island Press.

xxiii ibid.

xxiv This has appeared in several versions. I have used the one that appeared in The Guardian:

xxviiCarbon dioxide equivalent: the usual measure of greenhouse gas emissions since gases such as methane are far more potent than CO2 in preventing re-radiation of heat from the Earth.

xxix See the first comment, from me, and Richard’s response.


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