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Defending democracy

Last night, I was delighted to be invited by the Crick Centre for the Understanding of Politics to respond to an outline by Professor Stephen Brennan of his book Against Democracy (some of the key points of which are summarised in this article).

I characterised my response as being one of “blunt Australianess” – a stereotype from my origins that I probably sometimes live up to.

I argued that this book is built on three fallacies:

  1. That we currently have democracy, particularly in the UK (where we have a government that has the support of 24% of eligible voters) and the US (where 3 million more people voted for Hillary than Trump). Saying our current systems in two countries don’t work doesn’t tell us about democracy.
  1. That voting/running for office comprises entire and complete democratic engagement. The anti-fracking campaigners currently walking between Yorkshire and Lancashire, to bring support to the campaigners devoting their lives to stopping the practice are doing politics, just as the people at a workshop at the University yesterday discussing how to intervene if they see discriminatory behaviour are doing politics. The personal is political is an old feminist slogan, but it is also a reality.
  1. That “experts” can decide complex questions that include politics, economics, sociology, science, psychology, better than people whose lives are influenced by it. I want a doctor to decide whether I need an antibiotic and what antibiotic that should be. Deciding how to tackle child poverty or climate change is not something anyone is expert in in the round.

Whatever other argument you want to make, democracy is better than the alternatives. The most democratic societies in the world – the Scandinavian countries – are also broadly considered the most successful societies. I’d suggest you could create an index for genuine democracy – citizen engagement in decisionmaking, localism, proportionality of elections versus successful societies and the correlation would be very close. Finland has what’s generally agreed to be the best education in the world – and not every citizen is an expert on education.

A society in which experts decide for us would be a society of not agents, but of automatums. Professor Brennan suggests we might be creating art, or tending gardens or caring for children – without politics in those things, they’d be very dull matters indeed. I’d suggest pretty well all art is political. You might suggest that “chocolate box” scenes of pretty cottages isn’t – but in its own way that’s highly political.

Levels of knowledge about politics in the UK and US are generally low – that’s an indictment of our education systems and lack of democracy. Go to Scotland in an election and referendum campaign and knock on doors and you’ll find voters know a lot – particularly since the independence vote, when people knew their vote matters, and engaged their attention accordingly.

Understanding Eritrea, and the UK’s response to its people

Thanks to the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, which this week organised an event at the University of Sheffield where former BBC editor Martin Plaut spoke about the current situation in Eritrea and how we reached this point, based on his recent book.

He began with a reminder of the long British involvement in the area – the 1868 invasion of Ethiopia, an interference in the affairs of the region that has continued – the Eritreans having won their 30-year struggle for independence despite at various time Russian and US support for the Ethiopians against them, and the fact that Eritreans were outnumbered by Ethiopians some 30 to 1 at the start of the conflict.

He explained how the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea remains on a knife edge, after a border war in 1998-2000, despite the apparently related history of the EPLF (Eritrea People’s Liberation Front) ruling in Asmara and the Tigrain People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) being the dominant political force in  Addis Ababa. (In short – differing strategies, differing allegiances – Third World Marxism versus Albanian Maoism, and differing views of their comparative status.)

Martin attributed conditions in Eritrea now as a result of a belief that the country is in a permanent state of a war of survival, with people subjected to indefinite national service under abusive, even torturous, conditions, with women grossly abused, men sent down the mines. Not only has there been no election since independence, but the ruling EPLP has not had a party congress since 1993, and in 2001 conditions have been those of, in Martin’s terms, “absolute lockdown”.

He spoke about the existence of “Department Zero Three” – an official organ for spreading smears and propaganda against anyone who wants to toe the party line, of the “Two Per Cent tax“, levied on Eritrean outside the country who needs to get anything done inside it, and of the refusal of President  Isaias Afwerki to acknowledge a famine now hitting the country following the 2015 El Nino event. Half of all children are stunted, but international agencies have not been allowed access to assess the situation or provide assistance.

In this context, I asked Martin’s view of UK policy towards Eritrea. His response was blunt, and what I expected. He described UK policy towards Eritrea, and indeed other states, as being “to stop refugees coming from Africa at all costs”. What it should be, he said, was to acknowledge the clear and obvious human rights abuses occurring, to use pressure to try to reduce or stop them, and to acknowledge the need of Eritreans who do escape the country for asylum.

Of course that’s very much not what our government is doing, indeed it changed the country guidance in way that saw the rate of initial acceptances of refugee applications fell from 85% to 60%. However, 87% of those refusals were overturned on appeal – but with the people concerned in the meantime suffering greatly. And children in Calais who might have been offered refuge, were refused.

Also: this event was one more opportunity to highlight the fact that Britain has a policy of indefinite immigration detention, the only Western state that has. SYMAAG is joining a protest next Saturday at Morton Hall detention centre calling for the closure of such centres- a bus is going from Sheffield.

Well done Friends of the Earth for getting the air pollution message out

Today the Guardian reported that despite all of the publicity, most Britons are still unaware of the poor quality of the air that they breathe.

That’s one reason why it is great that Friends of the Earth is encouraging members and supporters to install simple tubes that measure the level of nitrogen dioxide in the air in their communities in a citizen science project that will spread awareness and knowledge.

There are quite a few up around Sheffield, some at sites like Hillsborough Corner (below) where you might expect poor quality air, others in parts of the city generally thought of us “cleaner”, although some of those might shock local residents when the results come in.

Building awareness of the issue is one reason by Sheffield Green Party is running the Let Sheffield Breathe campaign. It includes a petition calling on the council to adopt a new air pollution strategy. (It adopted one in 2012, which aimed to cut pollution levels in the city to below European levels, which failed, and since then there’s not been a coordinated attempt to take action.

It is also disappointing that when five cities (Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton) were chosen to be Clean Air Zones (with associated funding), Sheffield was not among them – we must lobby hard to be added to the list.

National demonstration supports Lancashire anti-fracking campaign

On Saturday I crossed the ancient boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire, one of many people who came from around the country to support the ongoing campaign to prevent planned fracking at Preston New Road.

More than 700 people gathered at the site, and the signs and messages made two key points.

First, that the people of Lancashire, in the form of their elected county council, said “no” to fracking. I was outside the council chamber as that hearing went on, and you could hear the strain in the councillors’ voices (the hearing was broadcast to the crowd), with huge pressure being applied by David Cameron and George Osborne showing fervent support for the frackers, but the councillors instead listened to their voters. Then London overturned that decision.

The second key message was that there is an obvious, far better alternative – investment in renewable energy and energy conservation.

It was great to catch up with Tina Rothery, one of the longtime stalwarts of the anti-fracking campaign.

She was wearing her “Nana’s” apron – and it is grandmothers (and some “honorary” grandmothers among whom I’m proud to number myself) who are at the forefront of this campaign. One had this simple message:

But I liked this simple placard, which got across a lot in three words. The frackers proclaim that their industry will create jobs, what they don’t account for is the jobs that will be lost in other industries if they are allowed to go ahead – or the alternative (and far greater in number and quality jobs) that could be created with renewable energy and energy conservation.

Coming up next: The No Fracking Way walk, which will be carrying some soil from near the fracking site in Kirby Misperton to Preston New Rd. As organiser Clrr Andrew Cooper said: “As soil from Yorkshire is deposited at the fracking site in Lancashire we’ll emphasise that the assault on the environment at one site is an assault on us all.” (I’m planning on joining the final day.)

Longterm failure to invest has left the North’s rail infrastructure in a parlous state

The Yorkshire Posts’s interview with Chris Grayling, “I absolutely understand the need for Yorkshire transport investment” could not have been more apt, published on the day the Thinktank IPPR North published a report demonstrating that more than half of UK spending on transport networks is in London.

Current planned London spending is £1,943/person. In Yorkshire and Humber that figure is £190.

This is not just a question of “what is being built at the time”, as Mr Grayling claimed. It is long term under-investment that’s left our rail system in a parlous state, with, as the author of this report points out, it taking longer to get from Liverpool to Hull than it does from London to Paris.

And the slashing of rural and local bus services has left many people unable to travel at all, or forced on to congested, polluted roads when public transport would be a better option.

HS2 is only going to worsen the situation, focusing money, people and resources even more on London.

What’s needed is to abandon that expensive white elephant and make a coherent, cohesive, full plan for travel in Northern England, then invest to deliver it.

That’s something that needs to be done in the North. We know we can’t trust London, either to get it right, or to deliver the cash.

People power in action – Santander backs down under Renters Rising pressure

Yesterday I joined the Sheffield group of Renters Rising, on what was to have been a protest march.

Instead, it was a celebration.

The object of the event was the giant multinational bank Santander, which it had been found had a clause in its “buy to rent” mortgages saying that borrowers had to maximise the rent they were attracting for the property as a condition of the loan. That’s the bank doing its utmost to push already unaffordable rents even higher.

The plan was to have protests focused on Santander around the nation to highlight this.

But a couple of days after this was announced, Santander backed down, saying they would remove the clause from future mortgages.

So we enjoyed a celebration – and a reminder of the possibilities of people power!

(It was a demonstration that placards can take many forms, including cardboard box “houses”…)

Yes to free education, no to TEF

Tonight I joined members and supporters of the Free University of Sheffield at a rally at Sheffield Hallam University opposing increases in tuition fees and discussing ways to oppose the Teaching Exercise Framework (TEF), the implementation of which is being led by the Vice-Chancellor of the institution, Professor Chris Husbands.

As the National Union of Students has said, TEF is being used to justify further rises in England’s already sky-high tuition fees, reflecting further marketisation of our higher education system.

The NUS is calling for a boycott of the National Student Survey that’s going to be a key component of the scheme – and tonight it was agreed that students across Sheffield should be encouraged to sign the pledge to boycott the NSS.

A great start – but important too to spread the word about what’s happening, and also to keep up the fight for free university education, a long-term Green Party policy.

We believe that education is a public good, the cost of which should be met from general progressive taxation, rather than weighing down individuals with a burden of debt that the majority will never be able to repay.

(Here’s some reflections from the Queen Mary University Young Greens on TEF and NSS.)

Trees to save in Dore: Vernon Oak and the Chatsworth Road limes

On Valentine’s Day there was a gathering in Dore, with red hearts, fervent messages of love, and original artworks.

The subject was shared among scores of people: Vernon Oak, a magnificent 150-year-old oak tree, much valued by the community, which could have another 150 years of prime life. That’s if it isn’t cut down by private contractor Amey with the support of Sheffield Council and (because it will certainly take that) South Yorkshire Police.

I joined Green councillor Alison Teal in a visit there, where we heard from locals how the council’s own independent tree panel had recommended it be saved, but the council has ruled that Vernon is to be cut down anyway.

Around the corner in Chatworth Road is a magnificent line of lime trees, which locals reported are packed with bees when in flower. They’re on a wide road, with big pavements on both sides, yet more than half are scheduled for the chainsaw, despite the fact that their impact seems insignificant, and easily covered by “engineering solutions” such as half-width kerbstones to accommodate roots.

This is yet one more part of Sheffield where the services provided by trees to the benefit of human health – cutting air pollution, combatting flooding, providing a healthy environment – are under threat, as the profit of a private company is put before the public good.

It’s a very obvious demonstration of the failure of the model of providing public services through contracts with for-profit providers. What’s happening here is also what’s happening to our NHS, just rather less visibly.


Sheffield joins One Billion Rising global protest to demand an end to violence against women

Yesterday I was delighted to join the One Billion Rising gathering in Sheffield, which joined communities around the globe in a joint act of solidarity to protest at violence against women.

The slogan this year was “Rise, Dance, Disrupt”, and dance was what we did in Sheffield, with performers presenting dance with an appropriately internationalist flavour with flair, verve and skill.

Then all (or nearly all),  of the 200 or so participants, joined in the Break the Chain dance, with energy, enthusiasm and varying levels of skill

I did join in – although carefully down the back, since my attempts to keep in rhythm and step are something the world is probably best protected from.

In between, there was serious talk about how our government, many governments, are failing to take the action that’s needed.

The lack of funding for victims of violence was one focus. Rape crisis centres and refuges are left to struggle with crumbs of funding, frantic fundraising and continuing uncertainty, when they should receive stable, long-term core funding for the best, and most financially efficient, services.

Another was the need for good quality, inclusive sex and relationship education in our schools (something Green MP Caroline Lucas has been fighting for with her PSHE bill).

And there was rightful anger at the government’s failure to sign the Istanbul Convention.


Have a chat in Walkley

I’ve got three events coming up soon in Walkley.

Two “coffee mornings”, both at Gerry’s Bakery and Coffeehouse, at 299 South Road (S6 3TA).

The first is on Tuesday, February 7, from 11am to 1pm. And the second on Friday, February 24, at the same times.

Feel free to drop in for as long or short a time as you like, have a chat, tell me what your concerns are about local or national (or international) politics, and ask any questions you like.

The other event is a public meeting on Monday, February 13, 7pm at the Zest Centre. Free, but please book if you can for our planning purposes.

Hope to see you at one of these.