Tag Archives: politics

Environment and the election

voteHere is a very simple, very quick, discourse analysis on the Labour and Conservative manifestos, with regards to their position on the environment and climate change. It is not in depth, because contrary to appearance, I do have a life and I don’t have time to do more!

Basically I searched for the word ‘environment’ and the phrase ‘climate change’ in each manifesto. This is a pretty crude measure and inevitably misses stuff. But you do get a flavour of the importance of this issue to each party relative to the other. It tells you more about principles and priorities than policy detail. But that in itself is insightful.

One more proviso. When you search for ‘environment’ you get other stuff like ‘the business environment’ or ‘the school environment’ so I discounted those. But that’s also way I haven’t done a word count on ‘environment’.

The first thing that appears in the Conservative manifesto when you search ‘environment’ is support for fracking, or shale gas extraction, as they call it. Then there is some discussion about the landscape and environment in the UK countryside, looking at agri-business and environment, hedges and dry stone walls. The Conservatives give their support for SDGs (sustainable development goals) with regard to sustainability and and preventing environmental degradation.

The phrase ‘climate change’ comes up 5 times. The Conservatives are leading the way in international action, though there’s no detail about how. There is discussion about what they have done in the past – the Climate Change Act and the Paris Agreement but no detail plans for the future.

The first thing that appears in the Labour manifesto when you search ‘environment’ is its own chapter heading. It is a key point that the Labour manifesto has a whole section devoted to the environment, signifying its importance. Then the manifesto moves onto plans to incorporate environmental protections in business, introducing a duty to environment not just share holders. It talks about clean energy, securing environmental protection when we leave EU, investment in a low-carbon economy, getting people out of their cars, sustainable farming and fishing, a policy based on science, and support for the SDGs.

The phrase ‘climate change’ comes up 11 times. The first mention is to introduce a ban on fracking. The manifesto talks about how there needs to be a transition, to move to clean fuel and renewable fuel. There is still, however, a commitment to off shore oil/gas.

Finally a search on the phrase ‘low-carbon’ reveals 5 uses in the Labour manifesto and 0 in the Conservatives’. Likewise a search for ‘renewable’ has the same result. You can try your own searches on the issues important to you.

Download the Conservative Party Manifesto.

Download the Labour Party Manifesto.

Why I’m voting Labour

vote labour

Jesus told a story about a group of people on zero-hours contracts. Well, not exactly, I’m paraphrasing, but I think this captures it.

Anyway, this group of people would turn up at their Agency first thing in the morning, hoping there would be work for them. One morning, very early, Mrs Merlot from the fruit farm also came into the Agency, looking for workers. She arranged for 10 of them to come and work for her. “It’ll be hard work,” she said, “and a long day, 8 ‘til 6, with an hour for lunch. But I’ll pay you a proper wage for the day, £8.45 an hour is the Living Wage, so that’s £76.05 for the day.”

The workers agreed, and went off in her mini-bus to work. The rest of the workers stayed at the office. They didn’t dare go home, in case someone else came in looking for workers, but they didn’t know how long they would be hanging around waiting.

At 9 o’clock, Mrs Merlot came back. “Everything is coming ripe at the same time,” she said. “I need another bus-full of workers. Same deal as before.” “You mean £8.45 an hour,” asked one of the people waiting. “No, £76.05 for the day, until 6pm, enough to live on,” she replied.

So 10 more people agreed to the terms and were driven off in the minibus.

At noon, and again at 3pm, Mrs Merlot came back again, in need of another 10 workers to come and work in the fields until 6pm, again offering £76.05 for the day’s work. Finally, she returned just before 5pm.

“Are you lot still here,” she said to the raggle-taggle bunch of dejected workers who had waited all day in vain for some hours work. “Have you had nothing better to do? Never mind, I’ve still got work to be done. Get in, and you can work the last hour for me, just like the others.”

The last 8 people climbed aboard the minibus and soon arrived at the field, which was full of people picking fruit.

When the rest of the workers learned that the last 8 people would be getting paid the same amount for working an hour as those who had worked all day, there was outrage. At 6pm, when the workers came to be paid, someone who had been there since 8am made his point.

“This is totally unfair. We’ve been slaving away all day in the field, and now we discover that we’re not getting any more than this lot, who only turned up for an hour!”

“Have you got a problem with that?” asked Mrs Merlot. “You agreed terms, and came to work on that basis. I’ll pay you everything we agreed. The worker deserves a decent wage for her or his time. It’s up to me what I choose to pay, it’s my business.”

Perhaps this is really a story about eternal life, a gift whether you are reconciled to God near the beginning or near the end of your life. But it is told as a picture of the kingdom of heaven, and I believe we should be in the business of bringing kingdom values to bear in this world and not just the next. After all, we do pray, ‘your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’.

It was important to the owner of the farm that the workers were paid what was just and right for a day’s work. Without a proper wage, workers cannot pay for their homes, food, and family responsibilities. Wages today don’t seem to be right or just. That’s why I’m an advocate for the Living Wage, so people have enough to live on. And that’s also why we need to stop casual labour becoming standard practice. Zero-hours contracts for people who are looking for regular work; counting people as self-employed to avoid holiday and sick pay; the gig economy, where income is unpredictable; and care workers not paid for their travel time. All these things make work insecure, and therefore make life insecure.

And the owner of the farm was also very clear that she would decide what to do with her money. In the kingdom of heaven, she decided to pay it to her workers. Meanwhile on earth, less and less money is being paid in wages, and more and more is being paid out to the holders of capital. In the US, since the mid 70s, wages as a percentage of national income have fallen 7%, while corporate profits have risen 7% (see this article).  Across the world, the same pattern is seen, the ‘labour share’ of national income has been falling. A falling labour share implies that even though workers are more productive and make more money for the businesses they work for, these gains no longer get returned to workers in the form of rises in pay. Instead, an ever larger share of the benefits of growth is given to owners of capital. Even among wage-earners the rich have done vastly better than the rest: the share of income earned by the top 1% of workers has increased since the 1990s even as the overall labour share has fallen (more here).

It’s not always easy to articulate the relationship between faith and politics. When I read the Bible, it’s easy to see God’s concern for the poor and the values of justice shining out. But it’s less obvious whether this translates into a right-wing or left-wing approach to achieving those aims. It’s also possible to look at earthly versions of these approaches, that is, to see whether the actual political parties are concerned for the poor and for justice. To me, this also demonstrates an obvious answer, but others see it differently . So I was looking for a more fundamental expression of what feels incontestable in my core, but isn’t always easy to express. So here it is, for me, a Biblical model of why, as a Christian, I am and could only be a Labour voter. Check out the Labour Party manifesto on a fair deal at work.

The Democratic Deficit

westminster.jpgWe’re proud of our democracy in this country. We’re so proud of it, we like to march round the globe implementing it in other countries, and standing in judgement making sure other elections are free and fair. But we need to talk about our own democratic deficit.

First of all, we need to talk about Tory election fraud. Following the 2015 General Election, the Electoral Commission found the Conservative Party guilty of election fraud and fined it the maximum penalty available for the offences – £70,000. Currently, 14 police forces are investigation 30 individuals for criminal offences relating to the last election. Up to two dozen Tory MPs face criminal charges, and if found guilty could face a year in prison, and the results in their constituency declared invalid. Before parliament was dissolved, the Tories had a working majority of 17, which would have been wiped out if 24 seats were overturned. How convenient that another election has been called, ruling out that eventuality. And how many of those MPs who are under investigation are running for their seats again? As the police have not released names, we don’t know.

I’ve written before about the proposed boundary changes, which I’ve dared to label gerrymandering. These changes have been given the gloss of ‘saving money’ by reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, and a further sheen of ‘fairness’ and ‘better representation’ by equalising the size of constituencies. But a population represented by fewer people is not going to be better represented. And the process of the boundary changes has not been fair by any means. Instead of counting the number of people in an area, the changes are based on the number of electors, even though MPs represent everyone, not just voters. Despite best efforts, the electoral role is never complete. People move, other people hide, and transient or wary populations are higher in deprived urban areas, and amongst the young and minority ethnic communities. All more likely to be Labour voters.

And, lets face it, the government hasn’t made the ‘best effort’ to make sure the electoral roll is complete. In fact, it has made it harder for people to register, changing the system so that households or institutions cannot register people en masse. Universities can no longer register students, each student has to register her- or himself. And while universities like those in Sheffield, have worked hard to get students to register, this isn’t universal.

So the new boundaries have been drawn up on inaccurate electoral numbers, disenfranchising the urban poor by reducing their representation, further discouraging them from the ballot box and the register, making any future revisions of the boundary likely to go against these same communities. These changes haven’t come in yet, they are out for consultation. But when I went to the website to raise my objections, none of my objections above were deemed valid, because I wasn’t allowed to object to the process of decision making, only the technicalities of where the lines were drawn on the map.

This nicely sets the scene for the General Election. The election that Theresa May told us would never happen. But one that she has seen fit to call as exam season begins, to take place at the end of term. By the time the election comes, the student population will have dispersed, leaving concentrated urban areas and becoming spread out throughout the country, diluting the power of the student vote. Yes, this matters to me, because I live in a constituency with the highest population of students in the country, whose vote really matters for the party I want to elect. But actually, this timing makes it tricky for everyone, and removes more people from the electoral process. How can any party successfully canvass when lots of the people who will vote in an area are not there, but are away at university? And come the end of term, even if students don’t go home, they will still move to next year’s digs or halls. They will live where they are not registered, and be registered where they no longer live. How many will make the effort to go back and vote, or find out whether they can re-register in time? The democratic deficit grows again.

Because, yes, people should take responsibility to register, and use their vote wisely. But they don’t – the local council by-election in Sheffield last week had a turn-out of 24%. This matters to society, because 76% of that population didn’t think their vote mattered. Are we happy to have created a society where 76% of people think it is ok not to have a voice, or at least, not one that anyone will listen to?

If we want a fair and democratic society, we should be doing all we can to help people participate, removing barriers, not creating them. Not everyone is fully up to speed with the process. Certainly not the group of students I met on the doorstep who thought the election didn’t apply to them because they were under 21. Or the voters who are worried about getting the answer wrong, believing that there can be a wrong answer in an election. Or the people who believe their vote doesn’t count because no-one listens to them anyway. (See the views expressed here.)

We shouldn’t just dismiss these concerns. Participation is more important than sneering or writing people off. There are so many people who don’t know who to vote for because there is no medium to access the information they need in a straightforward, unbiased way. Newspapers and TV put their own spin on the stories, only telling the stories that they choose to share, with comment and analysis that fits their own world view. Witness the local election, where UKIP’s losses have been reported everywhere, while the Green party’s gains are an after-thought at best and totally absent in most places, even though neither party runs any of the councils in question and the one with the least coverage has the most MPs. Getting beyond the sound bites to the truth requires commitment and dedication. But we want everyone to be informed and to vote accordingly, not just the tedious political activists like me.

Democracy isn’t just about holding regular elections and being able to vote in secret without a gun to your head. It means transparency and accountability. It requires free and independent media that call governments to account and speak truth to power instead of being the powerful. It means democratic processes are run independently of those in power, and those who break the rules are held to account. We should be doing all we can to include as many people as possible to play their part in democracy, making it easy, not difficult, sharing responsibility and not just shrugging our shoulders when people don’t engage. Our democracy has a long way to go.

Pushing the Boundaries

bce_306_aw_1I know I shouldn’t do it. But sometimes I just can’t help it. I’ve been arguing with strangers on the internet. I just couldn’t let it go, so perhaps a blog is better than an incoherent rant on Facebook. I’m talking about the boundary review published this week by the boundary commission.

The headline story is that the number of constituencies, and therefore the number of MPs, is to reduce from 650 to 600 in order to ‘save money’ and to equalise the number of voters in each seat. The net effect is that most of the seats that will go are being lost in urban areas, though Wales will also lose 11 seats, going from 40 to 29 representatives in the Commons. This all seems calmly logical, but I’m fizzing rage!

For a start, the whole premise of the review is smokescreen. Six years into Tory administration, we are still being sold the line that our economy is broken and the only way to fix it is through austerity, an austerity that seems to apply to some more than others, and that we are still struggling under after six years. Austerity is a false premise to start with, and merely an excuse for the government to conduct this review. And as this blog points out, any cost saving from cutting our elected representatives has been wiped out nearly three times over by the 260 additional Tory Peers in the House of Lords.

If the genuine desire is to equalise the number of voters in each seat, then this could have been done without reducing the number of seats. The reason given for making constituencies more equal in terms of voter numbers is so that each person’s vote carries the same weight as any other. But this is never going to happen in our First Passed the Post system. My vote in a safe Labour seat or your vote in a safe Conservative seat will never carry as much weight as someone else voting in a swing marginal. Currently, a few voters in a small number of constituencies make all the difference when it comes deciding which party will form the next Government. The only way to truly make sure everyone’s vote has the same value is to bring in a proportional election system.

The rules which have governed the boundary review are also deeply flawed. It’s not clear why size of constituency should be based on number of registered voters rather than number of people living in the constituency. After all, the MP has to represent everyone living in the area, not just those registered to vote. Having decided that voter numbers is an appropriate measure, the review has been carried out according to the electoral register in December 2015.

Getting people to register to vote is not an easy job – I used to help my Dad compile the register of electors when I was a teenager and some people then were notoriously difficult to pin down. It is well known that young, transient urban populations are not fully represented on the register of electors. Note how this coincides with the group of people who are also the most disenfranchised from our democratic system. Since then, instead of introducing measures to make it easier to register and easier to vote, and helping local councils to track down all their voters, the government has made it harder to register by introducing individual instead of household registration. Estimates suggest that 1 million people were already missing off the electoral register in February 2015.

This system disenfranchises the mobile, the young and those in private rented accommodation – mainly those living in urban areas. At a time when the urban population is growing quickly, the number of registered voters in these areas is not keeping pace. A parliamentary boundary review is expected. If it takes place after millions of people are removed from the electoral register we could see the biggest transfer of parliamentary representation and political power from urban to rural areas for more than a century.

So we have a review falsely presented to us as a money saving exercise, apparently trying to improve democracy, while at the same time, literally disenfranchising millions of young people and urban dwellers. It’s no wonder that seats are being taken from urban areas because voters in these areas are disappearing down the cracks too.

The Boundary Commission is working with one hand not knowing what the other is doing. The proposals are made based on ward boundaries as of May 2015, but a previous review has just changed ward boundaries in Sheffield, so the boundaries in the constituency review are already out of date.

I did use the word gerrymandering during a rant-y phase on Facebook. The boundary commission is set up as an independent body. Perhaps it is making the best of a bad job. Urban areas tend to return Labour MPs, so it does feel like an attack on one party, but the rules of the review and other changes to the registration process have set it up to make skewed decisions. But tinkering with boundaries is never going to deliver greater democracy, and certainly not going to bring more power to the electorate. Only some version of proportional representation is going to do that. But this means that those in power will need to surrender some of it, and why on earth would they do that

What happens now?

This is me, just pouring it all out. It’s a bit rough and ready, raw, like I feel today.

I can’t believe this day has actually come, but I also knew it was coming. We have actually gone and voted to leave the EU. A vote by older people has betrayed the voice of the young who wanted to stay. But it was also a vote by the poor, the working class, the left-behind. Those who feel betrayed by austerity, who feel under threat from people moving into their communities who are different. People in areas where schools can’t attract teachers and surgeries can’t attract GPs. Where jobs are scarce, where cuts to benefits bite hard and where council cuts are felt the keenest.

So – what happens now? Will we build a hospital a week with the £350million a week we supposedly now have at our disposal? No – because we don’t actually have that much at our disposal because the figure was a fallacy anyway. And Farage has already said that to suggest we could be spending this money on the NHS was a ‘mistake’. Hm.

What does happen now? Sterling is already worth 9% less. We are already 9% poorer in the world. Which businesses will invest in our economy now our relationship with the mass market of Europe is now in doubt? Sunderland were afraid to declare in case they upset Nissan. Will Nissan pull out? Other manufacturers? I’m guessing the French won’t be building our nuclear power station now?

I can’t see how the future will make things any better for those who feel betrayed and disenfranchised now. What happens now to all those EU citizens currently living and working here? and what happens to those Brits living and working in the EU? Do we have to swap in a ratio of 2:1 hard working EU citizens from schools, hospitals and businesses for elderly, retired Brits? What happens to our NHS? To our European Health Insurance on holiday in Europe?

What happens to those workers’ rights which EU law protects? Do we trust whoever comes next in this country’s government to honour them? What happens to the European Convention on Human Rights? As we’re leaving the EU we can leave that too. Will a so-called British Bill of Rights really secure our rights? Remember, we helped write the ECHR – what’s wrong with it now?

We will no longer be able to stand with our neighbours to fight climate change and protect the environment. What happens to our clean beaches? To our heritage sites and sites of special scientific interest? To our ability to influence and drive forward reforms to save the planet?

Will we really now act with compassion towards refugees? Now people actually have to reach our shore to claim asylum, will more drown in the Channel? Or die in the Chunnel? What happens to those waiting at Calais? Will the French just send them over? Or send them back? Now we are acting alone and can keep out ‘economic migrants’ will we really welcome those in need escaping war and persecution in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea…? In my heart, I don’t believe we will.

I read one person’s reason for leaving was the EU’s unfair trade rules making life almost unliveable for African farmers. Well – no we have no chance of making EU rules fairer. And what of our own trade rules as they emerge? Will we protect our own farmers? I think we will as it seems much of the leave campaign was driven by farmers wanting to escape the EU agricultural policy. Will there be fairness and compassion to support African farmers at the expense of our own? What do you think?

Today I believe we are all poorer – in Britain and in the rest of Europe. Leave keep talking about the United Kingdom, but I don’t believe we will be a United Kingdom for much longer.

My husband is pretty upset with those who have led us down this path. But I am just sad. Sad for my children’s future, who feel betrayed. Sad for our country and how we feel about ourselves. Delusions of grandeur but about to cut ourselves off from friends and neighbours to try to regain something we never had and not realising what we’ve lost.

I am deeply sad that the outpouring of love and grief after the murder of Jo Cox MP could not translate into a desire to move forwards with reconciliation and unity. We have moved significantly politically to the right as a country. How did a fringe political party become mainstream policy? How have we embraced a ‘them and us’ policy? A narrative of ‘othering’ those who are different?

Where do we go from here? Who will look after those places once regenerated by EU funding? Who will rebuild our relationship with Paris, Berlin, Prague, where I get the impression all they feel is bewilderment? Who will stand with them against the far right? Are we in a place to rebuild? To regroup? Will we actually listen to those who voted to leave because they are beleaguered – do we have the political will do make their lives better? Or will there be more cuts, more austerity, more division?

I’ve poured it all out. Now all we can do is watch and pray.

Well – OMG – as I’m writing, David Cameron has resigned!! Is this worse?? Does this meant we’ll now get Boris Johnson and Michael Gove? A new PM by October

 

I’m in!

EUflagWith 5 days to go to the EU referendum, this may be a perhaps a little late. But it no longer seems tenable to host a blog about politics without commenting on the biggest political issue of the day. Indeed, the biggest political decision most of us will make in our lifetimes.

Despite knowing for months how I was going to vote, I’ve put off writing a blog because I felt I didn’t have all the answers or the expert knowledge. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped most people who have got involved in the debate. And the nearer the vote comes, the more I realise how important the issues are. So the time has come to stop hiding behind excuses. It’s time to say I’ll be voting to Remain in the EU and to untangle the arguments to show you why.

Capitalism

I’ve never really understood why the call to leave the EU should come so strongly from the Conservative party. Our modern neo-liberal capitalist society is epitomised in the EU. A free market unfettered by trade barriers and tariffs. A place where the price of goods and services are set by the market, just as wages are. Where jobs are created by the supply and demand of the market, and people are free to move to where the jobs are. The capitalist free market works only where you have free movement of goods, capital and people and the EU is a massive free market zone. If that’s what you believe in, why on earth would you want to leave it?

Actually, I suspect most of those on the Leave side don’t really want out of this neo-liberal paradise. They have other reasons for leaving, and are busy trying to make sure that we will still be able to be a part of this unfettered market by negotiating our own individual trade deal when we leave. However, if we really want to continue with a tariff-free trading arrangement for our goods and services into the EU, we are going to have to agree to stick with the free movement of capital and people too. That’s how it works. That’s how it works for Norway, and for Switzerland. We’re not going to get a better trade deal with the EU by refusing to sign up to all the rules of the club.

Running close alongside this argument, is the idea that leaving the EU will free us up from the EU’s bureaucracy and red tape. Now, this is something I have dealt with in a blog. In short, if we want our goods and services to be acceptable to an EU market, they will have to comply with EU regulations. And most of this red tape is more like gift ribbon, protecting workers’ rights, quality assurance, our health and safety and our environment.

I’m really not a fan of neo-liberal capitalism, but we’ll still be stuck with it even if we leave the EU. So that’s not the argument for me.

Social Chapter

Somewhat paradoxically, the EU is also the source of much that has a left-wing feel about it. I guess that’s what happens when you’re working with the French. Things like the Social Chapter, protecting pregnant and part-time workers, and the European Working Time directive, protecting over-time pay. Not every flavour of government in this country would work to bring about these kinds of protections, so I’m glad of the EU in this case.

Spending moneyP1000049

During the debate, there has been a lot of talk about the amount of money it costs us to be
part of the EU. The figures have been hotly disputed and like has not been compared with like. But it is clear that the amount of money that leaves the UK and goes to Brussels is a very small percentage of government spending (less than 2%). And a lot of it comes back. A lot of it comes back to things that I don’t believe the current government would spend it on, and things I know for sure that previous governments of the same type wouldn’t have spent it on. Having lived there for 14 years, I saw transformation in Liverpool through EU money, as Capital of Culture and other projects. And we also found out that one Mrs T’s preferred option for Liverpool was one of ‘managed decline’.

Now I’m in Yorkshire, where the local news compared money leaving the region for Europe to money coming in. Pound for pound (or euro for euro!) more money goes to the EU per head for Yorkshire and Humberside than comes back in inward investment. But financial benefits of the resulting jobs from that investment is harder to quantify. Would the same money have been spent in the region by the UK government if it hadn’t got to Europe? It seems unlikely, as the region received 3% less government spending than the national average. It seems the EU is more likely to deliver than any so-called Northern Powerhouse.

Leave campaigners can suggest all kinds of things they would like to spend money on which is saved by leaving the EU. But only whoever is in power if we leave will actually decide where that money goes. Economists predict our national income will shrink if we leave. If so, any savings will be swallowed up in a smaller economy. But even if there is some left to spend, George Osborne doesn’t have a strong track record of generosity to the needy, and in this arena, I trust Boris Johnson and Michael Gove even less.

Do I really mind giving money to the EU? Actually, no. I’m sure there are inefficiencies and wastage. (Is it really a good idea to decamp to Strasbourg every few weeks?) But just as our money comes back to us in funding for research, and investment in deprived places etc, so our money is spent on even more of these projects in other EU countries where the need is even greater than ours.

Democracy

There are complaints that the EU is undemocratic. Only one of the bodies involved in legislating is unelected – the European Commission which proposes and drafts EU legislation. It functions rather like our civil service. EU heads of government (the European Council) set EU priorities, and the EU parliament and council of ministers debate and vote on legislation.

EUstructure
How the EU works

I’m afraid I can’t get too worked up by this argument, when we live daily with our own ‘democratic deficit’ in the UK. A system which returns governments elected by only around a third of those who voted and less than a quarter of all those eligible to vote has a democratic deficit of its own. Both need reform, but that’s never going to happen from the outside.

Perhaps there is an EU democratic deficit, but mainly on our part. How many people know who their MEPs are? Have you ever written to them, asked them to intervene on your behalf? I’ve had a great response from my MEP, Linda McAvan, when I’ve contacted her. She’s been involved in bringing about legislation to regulate the mining industry (top culprits in sucking resources out of poor countries) and making sure minerals used in electronic technology are traceable and haven’t been used to fund wars (so-called conflict minerals).

Standing together

I’ll admit this is a bit niche, but it is the kind of the thing the EU can do, which countries on their own can’t. Which finally, after two pages of this stuff, brings me to the real reason why I’m in. Maybe we could do this on our own, but we can do it much better together.

Immigration has coloured and clouded this debate from the start – as it has UK politics for a while. We haven’t debated this issue wisely or well. There is a lack of clarity but plenty of shouting.

I’ve done quite a bit of shouting myself, mostly at the telly, mostly about words. But words matter, and lots of words in this debate are used interchangeably, when they shouldn’t be. So I’m actually going to start with the word ‘refugee’. The crisis facing Europe at the moment is a refugee crisis, not a migrant crisis. The streams of people desperate to enter Europe are fleeing violence, war, persecution and starvation. Mostly they come from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and Afghanistan. Their homes have been destroyed, they are not safe because of their religion or their politics, or because their government is attacking them or is unable to prevent others from attacking them. Their children cannot go to school, they cannot access medicines or food. By any measure, these people need our help, they need refuge, the country they call home is no longer safe, and they have a right to ask for safety elsewhere.

There is not one country which could help all of these people, though it looks like Germany has tried. But the EU could and should act together and provide refuge and safety. I want to stand in solidarity with my European neighbours to act in support of those who are fleeing. But actually it feels like we have already left Europe on this issue, refusing to agree to welcome our share of needy people, opting out of agreements to help. The EU has not handled this situation well. But I believe in the UK we have handled it even less well, and it is this lack of solidarity and sense of humanity which has made it worse.

All of this is quite different to people moving to the UK to look for work or opportunity. Most of this is pretty well regulated, certainly when it comes to people from outside the EU. And I think I’ve already dealt with EU migration in the discussion above. I don’t believe for a minute that the EU will give us any kind of trade deal without including the free movement of people. So if we want to trade with the EU – in or out – it won’t make any difference.

There are other global issues where we need to continue to stand together to make a difference. The biggest crisis facing the world right now is climate change. We will make much more progress in cutting carbon emissions and halting global warming if we work with the EU than if we work alone. We’ve already benefitted from the EU’s work on the environment now that we have clean beaches to enjoy. So we know we can make a difference. I guess the EU could carry on this work without us, but we have a crucial role to play within the EU. We can be leaders on this issue in terms of technology and our grassroots movements of activists. If we stand alone, we are both poorer for it.

Who are we?

I think we have forgotten that we are in the EU not just for what we can get out of it, but also for what we contribute to it. And here, I’m not talking about money. What does it say about us if we decide to stand alone? I think we already know a bit how it feels because we have been so ambivalent about the EU for so long already. We already know we are unloved because no-one votes for us in the Eurovision Song Contest! To leave is to shut the door on friendship, partnership and working together. Sure, we can still work with our European partners, but what is the message we are giving off?

To leave is to say that we don’t belong, that Europeans are different, foreigners, other, and we don’t want any of that over here, thank you. Where is our famed British tolerance when we turn our backs on our neighbours? To remain is to say that we want to be part of a European future together. We do belong, we have shared history, shared ambitions for peace and stability in the future of our continent. We need to choose to stay, and we need to choose to embrace Europe. To give of our passions, of our wisdom and yes, of our wealth. To support parts of Europe where poverty stubbornly digs its heels in. To stand firm with our neighbours against the rise of hate-filled, racist far-right ideologies. To remember that we are a country of compassion and take care of frightened people looking for a safe place to call home. To get our hands dirty and get involved and be prepared to say we are European.

If we leave, both the UK and the EU will be diminished, as the poem below expresses so well. I hope and pray that after next Thursday the bell will not be tolling for us.

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

John Donne

Staffing the NHS

Nurse Jessica
Latest solution to nurse staffing crisis

The NHS isn’t really the subject of this blog, but once again I find myself compelled to comment. Mainly about the total failure of joined up thinking coming from the Government…

I used to work as a speech and language therapist. I stopped finding it remarkable when I used to go onto wards in the afternoon to find only one trained nurse in charge of 3 bays of 5 beds and 3 siderooms. But with no official guidelines as to what constituted a safe level of care, it was hard to make a case for more staff. The Mid Staffs scandal changed all that. The problems at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust shocked us all. Poor patient care, lack of dignity for vulnerable people, deaths which should have been avoided. There have been extensive inquiries, which found, among other things, that inadequate staffing levels played a significant part in the problem. Recommendations were made as to what safe staffing levels might be, and the Government told hospitals to increase the number of nurses on the wards accordingly.

Fast forward three years. The Government is now telling hospitals they need to cut back staffing levels, including nurses on the wards, in order to deal with huge financial deficits in most trusts. Patient safety and high standards of patient care can once again be sacrificed on the altar of balanced books.

Let’s look a little closer at these deficits. Far and away the biggest expenditure in the NHS is on staff salaries. And a significant proportion of the money spent on staffing is spent on agency staff; agency staff who are needed because there are not enough qualified nurses (or doctors) directly employed by the NHS to fill all the shifts required. I think it would be very revealing to ask why people choose to work as a locum or via an agency, rather than taking a regular job. But for whatever reason, there is a shortage of trained nursing staff available to fill posts.

Finally, let us consider one more piece of recent Government policy regarding the NHS. It concerns nurse training. Aha! No doubt this is a policy designed to encourage more people to train to be nurses and so eventually overcome staff shortages! Well, not exactly. It is the decision to scrap bursaries for student nurses and midwives, and instead replace them with loans, making it much more expensive for anyone wanting to train and therefore creating an additional barrier for anyone considering the profession.

Maybe this isn’t a failure of joined up thinking. Maybe it all joins up very nicely, forming a perfect pathway to privatisation, with a few lucrative deals for some along the way.

For the love of

cromer storm
Almost unprecedented winter storms damage the sea front and pier in Cromer, December 2013. Picture: Duncan Abel

It’s hard to be bothered too much about global warming when I’m sitting in my chilly kitchen in the middle of June wondering when summer will finally arrive. But I am bothered, and it figures on this blog, which is mainly concerned with poverty, equality and justice, because climate change is a justice issue.

Global warming, caused by the activity of people, is happening now. The 10 hottest years across the world have all occurred since 1998. Global warming is causing catastrophic climate change through systematic changes to global climate and weather patterns. This includes extreme cold, drought, flooding and the increasing strength and frequency of winds and storms.

The impact of climate change is not something we can leave to worry about in the future. Its impact is being felt already around the world. Glaciers, which provide vital water supplies, are retreating in South America. Drought leading to food scarcity is leading to hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, from Mali to Ethiopia. Rising sea levels are inundating low-lying countries like Bangladesh, where villages become uninhabitable and land uncultivable and people flee to the cities. The current refugee crisis in Southeast Asia will only worsen and spread as more land succumbs to the sea.

The one theme running throughout all these examples is that the impact of climate change is hitting hardest amongst the poorest. That’s why climate change is not just an environmental issue, or a health issue, or an economic issue, but a justice issue. The poorest are least able to cope with the devastating impact of drought or flood or storm because they are already living on the edge with limited resources to adapt. Not only this, but poor communities have also contributed the least to the carbon in the atmosphere which is causing the temperature to rise in the first place. In the UK, plenty people are outraged that the pain resulting from bankers’ folly and greed is being felt by the poor, sick and disabled when income and services are cut. We should feel this anger and outrage multiplied exponentially when it comes to the injustice caused by climate change.

In the dying days of the last parliament, a law was passed committing the UK to giving 0.7% of our national income to other countries as international aid. We should be rightly proud of this achievement. Britain may have many faults, but a generous spirit towards those in need has long been part of our identity. We do care what happens to our global neighbours, we are moved by their plight and our giving has transformed many lives. But all this is at risk of being undone if we do not roll back the tide of devastation wreaked by climate change.

So, let’s not negate our hard work in ensuring we are committed to generosity. Let’s take responsibility for our impact on this planet, being caused by the wealthy but being felt by the poor. Let’s recognise that climate change is a matter of justice, and a matter which needs to be addressed now, not in some dim and distant future.

Our government is committed to cutting carbon emissions (and we know how good they are at cuts!) by 80% by 2050. This will mean better energy efficiency at home and in businesses, and investment in renewable energy. But more than this, these kinds of carbon cuts need to be implemented around the world, and Britain needs to lead the way in talks being held in Paris at the end of the year. We also need to stand in solidarity with those poor communities whose lives are already being devastated by climate change. Britain must continue to support the International Climate Fund, which helps developing countries adapt to climate change. We also need to see climate change as a thread running through all the new Sustainable Development Goals as well as a specific goal to tackle climate change. Our government must take the lead to bring about these goals at the SDG summit in September.

So there is plenty that we can do as a nation. But what about as individuals? I’m sure there are many changes you have already made in your lifestyle in an attempt to be more environmentally friendly, and there’s lots more ideas all over the internet. But we can also bridge the gap between individual and national action. Government, after all, is made up of individuals, and each one represents a whole constituency full of individuals. We have a responsibility to hold them to account for the commitments they have already made, and to encourage them to take further steps to tackle climate change now. Governments don’t operate in a vacuum. A movement of people can create an environment which allows politicians to take bold action, knowing they are supported by their citizens.

ftlo heart

So I’m calling you to take action. I’ve talked about communities round the world whose lives and livelihoods are imperilled by climate change. I’m sure there are people and places close to your heart which are under threat, far away or close to home. So come and join me in London on June 17 to tell your elected representative about the people and places you love and why they must act to tackle climate change. Lots more information here. And if you can’t make it, you can write or arrange to meet your MP back at home.

The Queen’s Speech

P1000347It’s been just over 3 weeks since that most shocking of election results. It wasn’t so much that Labour, the party I was supporting, lost, but the consequences of that loss. No repeal of the bedroom tax, another assault on those with the least with a reported £12bn cut to benefits, creeping privatisation of the NHS, no lifting of the gag on charities to “speak truth to power” while private lobbyists and big business continue to wield undue influence. I felt sick, and then I felt angry, and then I realised that I needed to harness that energy, join with others, and do what I could to challenge inequality and help those most in need. So it was great to find 100 people at the constituency Labour party meeting two weeks later, all feeling the same thing

What happens now? I reckon we need to be active on two fronts. Firstly, people are in genuine need. Current policy is making life tough for many, and there are equally many ways we can get involved to help. What is going on in your community that you can join in with to help those in need? We had Baby Basics in church this morning, talking about how they provide clothes, nappies and toiletries for vulnerable new mums and babies who have nothing – asylum seekers, teenage mums, those fleeing domestic violence. And anyone in Sheffield can sign up as a Fairness Champion, to commit to tackling inequality across this city. I’m sure you can find examples where you live.

But equally, we need to challenge injustice where we find it in the legislation that will be put before us over the next parliament. Like a stuck record, I keep saying that we can support food banks, but we must continue to denounce the fact that food banks even need to exist in 21st century Britain. So I thought it would be worth looking at the Queen’s Speech, to see what a Tory-only government looks like. As I see it, what are the challenges that lie ahead, the challenges to justice and equality?

The speech starts well, promising to “help working people get on”, and “new opportunities to the most disadvantaged”, and to “provide economic stability and security at every stage of life.” I think we’ll be coming back to these promises later on. I’m really keen to get beyond the sound bites and look the legislation that is actually being proposed.

Take, for example, the legislation put forward “to help achieve full employment and provide people with the security of a job”. This refers to the “full employment and welfare benefits bill”. The main purpose of this bill is to lower the benefit cap (the total a non-working family can receive in benefits) from £26,000 to £23,000 a year and to freeze most working-age benefits for two years. Not so much of the opportunities for the most disadvantaged there, then. Instead, an arbitrary cap on income for many whose expenditure will continue to rise. Support for young people will also become much more difficult to access.

The government’s attitude to welfare seems to be unchanged. Despite the fact that by far the biggest spending on welfare goes on pensions, the speech promises to “secure the real value of the basic state pension”. Not that I want to knock pensioners, but it is funny how welfare reform never quite reaches this far. Meanwhile, that other huge chunk of welfare spending, housing benefits, is not mentioned at all, except that it will be included in the benefit cap above. No plans to tackle exorbitant rents, poor housing or exploitative landlords. Instead, the government offers housing association tenants the right-to-buy their homes. The fact that the government doesn’t own these assets which it seems so determined to sell doesn’t seem to matter. This is the government’s answer to the housing crisis, despite the fact that under previous schemes, newly built replacement housing doesn’t keep pace with the number of houses sold. And we’re still not getting anywhere near “new opportunities to the most disadvantaged”, who wouldn’t be able to afford to buy their homes anyway.

The plan that people working 30 hours a week on the national minimum wage would not pay income tax is a good one. It does seem ludicrous that a minimum wage is set which is then subject to income tax. This will be done by raising the income tax threshold. Now, here comes the science. Raising the income tax threshold does not help the poorest and most disadvantaged people in our society. They are already not paying tax! But it does help everyone else – including those who are already well-off or rich, because they end up paying less taxes too. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it, I’m just saying it’s not a measure to help those who are really poor.

There’s a lot of reading between the lines to be done, as far as I’m concerned. Take the promise of providing 30 hours of free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds. This is clearly linked to working 30 hours on the minimum wage above. But providing 30 hours of childcare doesn’t mean you can work for 30 hours, unless we are expecting 3 and 4 year olds to take themselves to nursery? And another thing! This isn’t free child care! It is places in nursery schools. Since when was nursery simply free child care? I’m not sure what the fully-qualified, Ofsted-inspected nursery teachers will make of that. Credit to my friend’s blog for pointing this out.

make tax fairPresumably, this is going to cost money, which apparently we don’t have, and it’s unclear where we’re going to find it, as the Queen’s Speech also promises “no rises in income tax rates, value-added tax or national insurance for the next five years”. Nor does it offer any measures to tackle tax dodging, despite this being a manifesto promise.

“Securing the future of the NHS” is another empty promise unless it is accompanied by some funds. I agree that access to GPs and mental healthcare needs to be improved. I also know people who work in both these services who are working way beyond their contracted hours, in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances. To genuinely attempt to get this right will require money, time, patience and proper consultation with those at the sharp end. I particularly like the comment on Have I Got News For You that increasing the number of GPs may be incompatible with reducing immigration!

But we really see Cameron following in Thatcher’s footsteps with his plans to “reform trade unions”. This amounts to making conditions for a strike ballot far tougher than those any elected government has ever needed to reach. Conditions which the TUC predicts will make it almost illegal to strike. Nice to see what it really means to help working people get on, by removing their right to withhold their labour, while low-pay, zero-hours contracts and other exploitative working practices continue unchecked.

The government will continue with its plan to expand academies and free schools, despite the lack of evidence that free schools in particular actually do better in the long term. Despite appearing to bring control of education closer to communities, in effect it actually centralises it, taking schools away from local authorities and bringing them under central government authority. I’ll leave you to decide if this is good or bad.

I read the Queen’s Speech with a profound sense of disappointment at how small Great Britain seems to have become. So much of what is proposed focuses only inwards, and the outward looking legislation is diminishing. Our relationship with the EU is to be renegotiated, and then we will decide whether to stand with our European neighbours or to stand apart. Although he backed off from proposing legislation, Cameron still insists on a discussion about whether we continue to hold ourselves accountable to others on the issue of rights, or whether we will decide to be accountable only to ourselves. The plan to “modernise the law on communications data” is a revival of the micro-managing snooper’s charter. I’d like to see “extremism” better defined before we get to the legislation. Disagreeing with governments is healthy, spying on your citizens is not.

It’s good to see climate change getting a look in. The government pledges “effective global collaboration…to combat climate change, including at the climate change conference in Paris later this year”. I’m also pleased to see measures to increase energy security. It would be good if this included more investment in renewable energy and an end to fossil fuel subsidies, so we can be liberated from our dependence on gas, coal and oil. Fracking is not the answer.

I hope we can lead the way to effective action on climate change, and I hope we can “continue to play a leading role in global affairs”. But the rhetoric on Europe alongside our abdication of responsibility for the refugee crisis in the Med means Great Britain is starting to look very small indeed.

Stand up and be counted

P1000360_2So, Thursday is nearly here, and there’s one thing you really need to do on Thursday – and that’s vote! However you feel about politicians and politics, I can’t subscribe to the Russell Brand point of view that urges us not to vote.

Please don’t think your vote doesn’t count. It does for sure – someone in a community building somewhere will count it! Admittedly it is pretty exciting voting in a constituency with a majority of only 165! But however big the majority in your constituency, when the returning officer reads out the number of votes cast, yours will be included in the count. With the election being so unpredictable, who knows how everyone else will vote. I think we could see some seats changing hands unexpectedly. A vote for a small party adds weight to the argument that some kind of proportional representation better reflects the votes cast. And while we’re stuck with first passed the post yet likely to return a hung parliament, proportion of votes cast may well play a part in establishing which party has the legitimacy to form a minority government.

The right to vote has been hard won, especially for women, but also for anyone who is not part of the landed gentry. There are places round the world where the right to vote has yet to be won, or where it is meaningless due to lack of opposition or corrupt election processes. In the last election, more people did not vote at all than voted for any one particular party. What a difference all those votes could have made!

But voting is only the start of the democratic process. Democracy is not just about free and fair elections every five year. Democracy is about power, about power not residing with the governing elite, but with the people. On Thursday, we have power in our hands, because we are calling the last government to account. Do we believe they have done right by us? Or have they let us down? And do we believe that others who would stand in their stead would do it better?

And it doesn’t end there. We need to continue to hold our politicians and our government to account. To hold them to the promises they have made, to expect them to create a society where all can flourish and none is left behind. To do this, we need to pay attention to what is going on, to inform ourselves, to recognise what is happening to our communities, but also what is happening in communities that are different to our own. Which means we need information – good, accurate, unbiased information. Which makes a free press vital to democracy, and makes it essential that organisations and charities working on the ground have the freedom to speak out. It also means that we need to be able to hold the media to account if they hid the truth or fail to expose it.

Suddenly I’m feeling a heavy burden of responsibility! Who knew how much it takes to be a good citizen? Can’t wait to take that first, easy step on Thursday and put my X in a box.