Category Archives: Democracy

Congratulations Freedom Riders: Keep up the Good Fight!

Enjoyed a lovely rally at lunchtime today, joining the South Yorkshire Freedom Riders at Sheffield station to celebrate their third birthday – and their victories.

The campaign began when free train travel for elderly and disabled people was removed in South Yorkshire, despite it continuing in London and many other parts of the country.

Here’s a report of one of their protests from 2014  – some of the police involved are today facing disciplinary action.

But today was in large part a celebration – complete with cake, for the Riders have won considerable victories – the restoration of free travel for disabled people, and half-priced fares for the elderly.

They’re not resting on their laurels however, and were in fine voice, both chant and song, demanding the restoration of free travel.

I was delighted to speak at the rally, and urged them the Freedom Riders that when they win their direct cause, they should continue to campaign – for railways run for public good, not private profit in particular. (This on the day that we learned a Chinese company – effectively an arm of the Chinese government – has been granted part ownership of a UK franchise).

There was also a speaker from Keep Our NHS Public – a reminder that this is part of a broader struggle, against the disastrous model of privatisation of public services that’s shovelling public money into private hands, cutting the pay and condition of workers and the quality of services.

And a great reminder from one speaker that campaigners need to stick together. She writing urged those present not to downplay other’s campaigns but to acknowledge that everyone does what they can, on issues that touch and move them.

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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.

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”…)

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.


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.

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.

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”.

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.

Responding to populism: we need more politics in energy, not less

I write for The Ecologist:

“It’s a pall that hangs over almost every meeting in every sector of society at the moment: the rise of the populist right. And it was certainly hanging in the air at the University of Exeter Energy Policy Group conference in London this week. …

One speaker from the floor summed it up very well: “we need more politics in energy policy, not less.”

Amy Mount from the Green Alliance suggested that the answer to ‘post-truth’ politics was more transparency.”