Author Archives: natalieben@gmail.com

Sheffield stands strong and proud against actions of Trump and May

More than 2,000 people packed into Pinstone Street, spilling along Leopold Street and Fargate in a rally organised in little more than 24 hours to protest against the Muslim Ban in the US and Theresa May’s utterly inadequate response to it.

It was one of at least 26 protests around the country tonight, with reports of well over 30,000 people in London.

In my speech I focused on the spread and the size of that reach – from Preston to Plymouth, from Leeds to London.

I said: “Donald Trump, you live in a world that believes in human rights and democracy, that rejects discrimination and racism, and that will not condone your actions.

“That reflects the response of Canada, the response of Germany,the response of France. Yes the best that Theresa May could come up with, as she stood in Turkey, having just sold fighter jets to a regime with an extremely disturbing record on human rights, could say was effectively ‘No comment’.

“The turnout tonight, around the country and around America against the Muslim and refugee ban is a demonstration of the possibility of change, the possibility of building bridges not walls, creating a new society in which we truly are all in it together on this one, fragile planet, looking out for each other, caring for each year.

“Donald Trump is the logical end point – and I do mean end – of the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, a political philosophy of greed and exploitation, of the interests of the 1% ruling those of the 99%.

“It is time for something new, something different, it it time for hope.”

There were many wonderful hand-drawn banners in the crowd last night, and in my speech I drew attention to this one in particular: Where’s your moral compass Mrs May?” A very good question.

And it was clear that this placard spoke very much for the crowd last night, which cheered most loudly at each mention of the phrase “refugees welcome”. Sheffield, the first official City of Sanctuary in Britain, said it, and meant it last night.
Update: I learnt after the rally that Theresa May had been warned by Trump – during that excruciating visit involving handholding that made her look like a small child being taken to the park – that the ban was coming, which makes her response in Turkey even more astonishingly more clearly inept and indefensible.

Yes: feminism and environmentalism are essential partners

Reflecting a speech I gave at the Women’s Environmental Network Forum, January 26, 2017

I was asked to speak a little about my personal political history, so I begin with chronologically the first part of my politics: feminism. That started at age five, when I was told “Because you’re a girl, you’re not allowed to have a bicycle.” That was a product of the thought processes of my aspirational working class grandmother, who thought it wasn’t ‘ladylike’.

I didn’t know the word feminism then, and it wasn’t until I accidentally encountered the novel The Women’s Room at about age 16 that I realised other people thought as I did.

My other key political strand came later, in my university years, as I studied agricultural science, and came to understand that Australian farming, using methods transplanted from the other side of the world, was mining the soils, destroying them. In that lay the foundation of my environmentalism.

But it would be decades before I started to see the links between the two sides of my politics.

One element that they share is that feminists and environmentalists seem to keep having to fight the same battles again and again. For feminism, this was brought into focus for me by one of British feminism grande dames, Sheila Rowbotham, in 2010, when I heard her say: “We’ve learned now that you can go backwards. In the Seventies we assumed once you made a gain it would stay there. … It is much harder to argue for equality in a situation where equality is not respected.” As we’ve found now fighting for a ban on companies forcing female staff to wear high heels.

Preparing for tonight, I was struck by the parallels with the latest report from the Committee on Climate Change’s latest report, sneaked out by the government. The Climate Change Act was hailed as a great victory, and it was a success, but not one whose continuation was assured.

The problem is that when we fight battles on individual issues, once that issue is apparently won, the momentum, the energy, heads off in new directions, and the system reverts to status quo settings.

This reminds me of many years ago when I founded the blog Carnival of Feminists. I was also at the time a regular host of the Britblog roundup, a political blogging carnival. I had a lot of trouble getting the (mostly male) hosts of that to see feminism as part of politics, but I also had some problems getting the feminist bloggers to conclude the same.

What we’ve not really grasped in many parts of feminism and environmentalism is that what we are doing is, must be, has to be, politics.

We can’t just lobby politicians – we have to be politicians. In other words, we have to stop electing the wrong people and hoping they’ll do the right things.

What’s increasingly clear now if that the problems identified by feminism and the problems seen by environmentalism are joined up – they are part of a system, a model, that’s broken – that’s based on an economic system that’s trashing the planet while society tramples all over the rights of women, failing to treat them with the most basic respect.

We can’t win by picking off small issues – we need system change, a transformation to move towards a society and economy that works for the common good within the environmental limits of our one fragile planet.

And here’s where I think a concept that comes from agriculture can help us see more broadly what we need: agroecology. I wrote about it recently after returning from the climate talks in Marrakesh.

It’s a concept of farming and land management that aims to work with each plant, animal and microbes natural strengths, to support and go around its weakness, to create a natural environment in which every species can thrive and flourish, not overstretched, not be a cow pumped with hormones to produce heroic quantities of milk, or a soil treated like a cake mix whose ingredients can be fiddled at will.

It might just be a useful way for feminists to think about the kind of society that we need, one in which everyone has access to light, and air, to space and time, to the opportunity to flourish without undue demands and pressures.

It’s one more way in which we can join up feminism and environmentalism.

Bridges not walls: a great response to Trump

Today a great many people have been unable to turn their eyes away from Washington, mourning the undemocratic result of the American election and fearing what a President Trump will bring.

Those are understandable reactions, and we need to acknowledge and respect those feelings. Before the election I was saying that I couldn’t imagine a President Trump in charge of nuclear weapons. Now I don’t have to imagine.

But the answer to this election outcome is not to get depressed, but to get even more determined, and that’s what the people of Sheffield, like many around the Britain and the world have been doing today, with about 500 people gathering at the two events I attended in the city centre on this cold winter’s evening.

bridges not walls banner

What we’re seeing today, I would argue, is the peak, and the end, of the era that began with the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the era in which the interests of the banks and the multinational companies has dominated over those of communities and entire countries, the time during which we’ve hugely intensified the rate at which we’re trashing the planet, while producing miserable, unhealthy societies.

Many in the US voted for Trump because he held out the promise of something different – but as the former bosses of the vampire squid Goldman Sachs and the climate-destroyer Exxon Mobil have taken some of the most senior posts in the Trump administration, the truth is already becoming clear to some who voted for Trump, that he’s just an extreme, vulgarised form of more of the same.

The US vote was a vote for change – and the voters will quickly realise that that’s not what they’ve got – and the desire, the hunger, for change will still be there.

While it is of course worth noting that he didn’t even in the election – in terms of getting the most votes. The corrupt, undemocratic electoral college system clearly has to go. That a problem for the American people, while we can focus on our own corrupt, undemocratic politics, and demand democracy also in the UK,, where we have a government with 100% of the power based on the votes of 24% of eligible voters, and a manifesto now entirely irrelevant.

More, today Green MP Caroline Lucas was presenting before parliament her Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) bill, which would make providing an education for life, including sex and relationship education, required in all government-funded schools. It was widely backed by civil society groups, including the Fawcett Society, the Terence Higgins Trust and St John’s Ambulance. But it didn’t get debated, being filibustered by a group of the usual Tory suspects, who make no pretence at respect for democracy.

As we work on creating a democratic system for the UK, we need to make sure that the misogyny, the racism, the vile level of public discourse is not normalised, which means standing up against it and calling it out – as the lovingly handcrafted signs saying “pussies against Trump” (yes, some lovely cat pictures) in Sheffield did tonight.

It means saying “refugees welcome”, “multinational companies must pay their taxes”, “decent benefits for everyone who needs them”, “climate change is real” and much more.

It means presenting a message of hopeful, positive change, to counter the fear and division of Trump, Farage and their ilk.

For as Green Cllr Magid Magid said tonight, “hope always trumps fear”.

Pregnancy discrimination – twice as bad as a decade ago

To Westminster today for the launch of an excellent campaign by Maternity Action, highlighting the issue of pregnancy discrimination, which recent research has shown is twice as bad as it was a decade ago.

The Women and Equalities Committee completed an inquiry into maternity discrimination in August of last year.  The Government’s response is now 11 weeks overdue.

The group was launching three videos featuring women in low-income jobs talking about how they overcame discrimination and won their rights – a really important message.

Letter in the Financial Times: Privatisation has failed

Published on January 15

It is disappointing that unnamed Labour “colleagues” of shadow business secretary Clive Lewis should be criticising his statement about the privatisation of public services.

Lewis said “public good, private bad”. That reflects the views of many millions of Britons who have seen public assets handed over to be managed for private profit, an approach built on cutting the quality of services, eating away at the pay and conditions of workers, and shovelling public money into private hands.

Here in Sheffield, we’ve seen huge public protests at the management of our street trees by Amey plc.

Across the country, the privatisation of our NHS, with the importation of the failed American healthcare system with for-profit providers, is causing growing disquiet.

And as Green MP Caroline Lucas was pointing out yesterday, we risk seeing the essential purpose of the Green Investment Bank, to fund the infrastructure we need for an affordable, secure energy future, replaced with asset-stripping.

Public services need to be run for public good, not private profit.

That’s something that is now widely understood.

Bad news: three more peaceful Sheffield tree protectors charged

I was very disappointed to hear the news that three people, who were roused from their beds in the early hours of the morning on a cold November morning in November, who stood in their night clothes to peacefully defend the trees in their street, have after months of uncertainty, been charged for their non-violent action.

The Rustlings Road Amey/council/South Yorkshire Police action achieved notoriety around the world.

The Green Party understands that sometimes nonviolent direct action is necessary when authorities decline to listen to democratic voices. These brave actions have already highlighted an inappropriate official action and led to the council climb down.

The Green Party will continue to offer support to the now five people charged for peacefully defending their communities and our democratic rights.

A protest is planned at 9am on January 26, outside Sheffield Magistrates’ Court. Sheffield Green Party will be there.

Letter in the Guardian: Pay Ratios

As sent. Published on January 12

Madam,

Your leading article “The Guardian view on Corbyn and pay: close that gap” was entirely right to say that “pay for those running FTSE companies is too high” and you were right to welcome the proposal floating by Jeremy Corbyn to set a ratio of top to lowest pay.

There’s nothing novel about this proposal.
This has been Green Party policy for many years – although we’re calling for a ratio of 10:1, not 20:1.
There’s a growing civil society movement calling for companies to publish their pay ratios, as provided for in the US Dodd-Frank legislation.
Historically and globally, it is the extremely large ratios found in America and the UK now that are anomalous, not attempts to restrict them.
Countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Japan have ratios an order of magnitude lower than the UK’s, and in the 1960s a ratio of 20:1 was the norm.

Smithy Wood – not the site for a motorway services!

On Sunday I found a very productive – if muddy – way to spend the morning, in the beautiful Smithy Wood.

The idea that this ancient woodland (and the bell pits that are remnants of mining dating back to the 1400s) might be levelled for a motorway services really is ridiculous.

fungi on a tree

A wide range of biodiversity

hawthorn

A very old, twisty hawthorn

tree

The beauties of nature

Happily the Woodland Trust is backing a campaign to save it.

Spending the time plucking plastic drinks bottles out of puddles and extracting them from the middle of brambles really did provide time to focus on the urgent need for replacing these single-use plastics with a bottle deposit scheme – and moving to complete end single-use plastics. (One good thing, I suspect there would have been a lot more carrier bags a couple of years ago – there were very few, and a lot of those were clearly old.)

rubbish bag

One of the many rubbish bags we collected

Oddest thing I picked up – a car muffler. I don’t know what kind of car it was from, but it was very heavy!

Another fare rise in our failed, privatised rail system

Another chilly January morning, another protest against further rises to what are already the most expensive rail fares in Europe.

From 7am yesterday morning I joined members of Sheffield Green Party at the station to sympathise with travellers, many of whom were facing the rise on their first day back at work after the festive break. Greens across Yorkshire (and the country were doing likewise – travelllers reported to us they’d seen Greens in Leeds, Rotherham and Barnsley.

We were criticising the rise, but more than that, focusing on the failed structure of our privatised rail services, and encouraging people to sign this petition calling for rail to be brought back into public hands, to be run for the benefit of passengers, not shareholders.

This video explains more:

And here’s how our action was covered in the Sheffield Star.

Educating Beyond Borders: Students With a Rightful Grievance

In 2010, visa rules for international students changed. Recently I met with a representative of some of the students who’ve been left in a disastrous, unreasonable situation as a result who’ve got together with supporters to form Educating Beyond Borders (EBB). They have effectively been defrauded of very large sums of money, paid in good faith on the expectation they would achieve complete qualifications.

To fully achieve professional qualifications in a number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) and VET (Vocational Education and Training Courses), there’s a requirement for students to work in a supervised way for a period after completing the academic components of a university course. In total it is thought 415 STEM and 222 VET courses are affected.

So for example to become a RIBA-qualified (Royal Institute of British Architects) architect, you have to work in an approved practice for two years before taking a final exam. Only after that can you get your qualification.

Students pay £200,000 or even more for courses, and then do the work (explicitly excluded by law from minimum wage legislation because it is part of their training).

Yet in 2010, for visa purposes, this was reclassified as “employment” for international students. Instead of being able to complete this period under a “Tier 4” student visa, the students have to find a way to get a far more difficult “Tier 2” working visa.

For some it’s impossible, for others it is extraordinarily difficult and expensive. It is going to be the students of relatively less means who find it the most difficult.

Yet many students started their studies before the rules changed – they, and any other student who started their course in good faith, should at a minimum be able to complete their studies and the achieve the qualifications they’ve paid for, under Tier 4.

More, universities should not be offering these courses to new foreign students unless they have government guarantees that they’ll be able to complete the practical part of the course they’re paying huge sums for.

This situation needs to be distinguished from an issue affecting many students that at first glance looks similar, and is often confused with it. That’s the issue of “post-study visas”, the right for which was removed in 2012.

This allowed all non-EU graduates to remain in the UK for two years after their studies to work – a highly valued right that allowed students to them return to their home countries with combined practical and academic experience.

The loss of this been blamed in part for the plummeting numbers of students from the sub-Continent.

It’s an important issue, but a different one from what the EBB is addressing.

More, there’s an even bigger underlying issue here, about which I’m hearing increasing concern – that universities are treating non-EU students as “cash cows”, not properly meeting their needs or reasonable expectation. And there are accounts of universities using the threat of immigration officers to try to extract money from students and bring them into line.

And disturbing suggestions that students are getting a message that they’ll put their status in danger if they take part in political activities while they’re here. Very disturbing when you’d hope one of the “British values” they’d be learning about here is the right to peaceful political activity.