Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The students are back!

Amongst Manchester's many claims to fame is that it has the largest campus in Europe (probably the largest anyway). Late September always shows a huge increase in the south Manchester population, public transport almost grinds to a halt, and the bars fill to overflowing. It is a time of high activity for student groups keen to recruit from amongst the freshers, and the Young Greens are no exception. As well as a series of Thursday sessions coming up on policy areas, they hosted a meeting with Green MEP Jean Lambert yesterday evening, and around 30 students braved weather which was vile even by Manchester standards to hear what goes on in the European Parliament, and what Greens have to say on the issues of the day.

Our newly-elected leader Caroline Lucas has such a good profile that the media sometimes forget that we have 2 MEPs. Jean's work in the Parliament has been as significant as Caroline's, and has focused on areas such as employment and civil liberties which many people don't automatically associate with Greens. Jean's website can be seen here

Despite representing London, Jean has made several trips to Manchester over the years and it is always good to see her up north. Unfortunately she had to get back to London after the meeting, but not before fielding questions on subjects ranging from education to Palestine. Also there to field questions was Peter Cranie, prospective Green MEP for the North-West.

Prospects for green activity at the Universities this year are very good. There are Young Greens on the executives of both Manchester University and Manchester Metropolitan University. Dan Lee is Campaigns Officer for Manchester University (a sabbatical post) and amongst other things, he is planning an intense week of climate-change related activity at the end of October.

Meanwhile over at MMU Tom Redford is working with other green-minded students to make an impact at that institution, although with the disadvantage compared with Dan of having to combine it with his studies. Tom has a blog in my bloglist on the left, (entitled the Thursday briefing), as indeed does the aforementioned Peter Cranie.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Flashmob works fast and no messing

Apologies to those of you who don't remember the Flash adverts from the olden days, but it did seem like an appropriate title. Today in front of Manchester Town Hall, about 100 people revealed themselves in bright red T-shirts bearing the slogan 'Stop Airport Expansion'. Timed to coincide with the Labour Party conference, this marked the official launch of the Stop Expansion of Manchester Airport campaign (SEMA). The Town Hall venue is appropriate; Manchester City Council own 55% of Manchester Airport. After a few minutes, and in the absence of any high-powered Labour Party representatives (no doubt kept well away from us), we got more adventurous and lay on the ground to spell out words across Albert Square.
A nice change from the usual type of demonstration - participants get to keep a nice T-shirt and there are no mountains of placards to deal with afterwards.

For me this made 2 aviation-related events in 2 days; the other being a Friends of the Earth action to demand the inclusion of aviation in the climate change bill. This time a minister was sighted - indeed it was the second time this year I have come within a few feet of Ruth Kelly. Given that in addition to that I have taken part in a demonstration outside her constituency office, I'm worried people will think it's an obsession.

Anyway the flashmob was followed by more on transport, a meeting at the Convention of the Left. This meeting pitched the Scottish Socialist Party's Ken Ferguson with prospective Green Euro-MP Peter Cranie, and their speeches and the lively debate which followed highlighted a division over the issue of free public transport.
The SSP made this a big campaign in the recent Glasgow East bye-election and a similar campaign is being launched in Manchester this week. From an out and out socialist perspective this makes sense, as well as having popular appeal; why not when we support a public health service free at the point of use. However, bringing a green perspective shows drawbacks. All forms of transport have an environmental impact, and our priority should be to reduce the need to travel, focusing on accessibility rather than mobility. Completely free public transport would run counter to that and help to perpetuate the model of long-distance commuting.

More on transport to follow soon no doubt.

Why do I know all these people?

Well the Labour conference is in full swing and as expected there is no shortage of meetings and events. There is also no shortage of disruption to life in and around the city centre, but the Manchester Evening News assures us it's great for the economy - of course they said that about the invasion of Rangers fans earlier in the year as well. But I digress. Taking advantage of all this whilst balancing family and work as well (and writing this blog) is not easy. However one thing that has struck me so far is the number of faces I recognise at said events.

Now this might be considered a good thing, but the phrase 'preaching to the converted comes to mind'. A good example is the fringe on 'A Green New Deal' held on Sunday night.' I half expected to be turned away, to make room for all the Labour MPs and delegates packing the meeting (it's supposed to be their conference after all). The meeting was full, but the regular Manchester climate change cognoscenti probably outnumbered the Labour Party. Most noticeably absent was Government Minister Yvette Cooper, who was due to speak on the platform. Whether or not she would have contributed more than the empty chair is debatable, but she could at least have been there to hear the arguments or provide a counter-argument. However, if anything, I found the lack of 'normal' Labour MPs there more dispiriting. Here is an approach to tackle the triple threat of climate change, the credit crunch and peak oil; given the events of last week it could hardly be more timely. For more information on the Green New Deal see here

Of course the Labour conference is not the only show in town this week. Running parallel to the 'official' conference is the Convention of the Left, with its own series of meetings and events, like the Edinburgh fringe which runs parallel to the main festival. Older readers will remember the days when the Labour Party was considered on the left, and no-one would have foreseen any need for a separate event.
For the reasons of balance stated above I have not been able to attend much of the convention, but people tell me it has been good-natured and positive overall, without the factional rancour which can arise. The Green Party's involvement in the Convention has been in the hands of 'Green Left' and Manchester Green Party, rather than official national involvement. On yesterday's evidence we are a little light on speakers at meetings, but seem to be regarded as good chair-people. Of the 3 meetings I have attended at the Convention, 2 were chaired by Green Party members.

One obvious question is 'Is the Green Party part of the left?'. You will get a difference of opinions amongst members. I think the answer is yes and no, but mainly yes. The 'yes' is that if by 'left' one means a real commitment to social justice and economic equity, to greater control over the corporations and financial institutions, to civil liberties and to international co-operation, then we are absolutely left. If being 'left' requires adherence to old industrial models and language and support for economic growth then we certainly are not. Any successful coalescing of left opinion which includes Greens has to be based on genuine understanding of constraints of climate change and resource use; I think the 'traditional' left is heading that way, but the jury is still out.

However the 'usual suspects' argument mentioned above applies to the Convention as well as the official Labour fringes, and agreed statements and worthy rants will count for nothing unless and until a much wider circle of people are involved.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

It's All Happening In Manchester

The coming few days see a flurry of political and campaigning activity as the Labour Party circus rolls into town. Whilst the Conference area is sealed off to normal citizens (including most Labour Party members, there are a host of fringes going on around the City Centre which are accessible to the public. There is therefore plenty of opportunity for those outside the Labour Party (indeed who feel there is a huge amount to criticise about said Party) to get involved.

Of particular interest is the Convention of the Left, a coming together of a wide range of organisations who regard themselves on the left of British politics and who are providing something of an alternative conference in the City. It includes many in the Labour Party - veteran campaigner Tony Benn was among those speaking at the launch of the convention). Among the sponsors are Green Left (a collection of Green Party members who take an eco-socialist view and have been seeking to build more bridges with the Trades Unions) and Manchester Green Party. It will be interesting to see how much attention this venture gets and how well the various groupings will rub along in the confined space of the Friends Meeting House lobby! See here for a full programme of the
convention events
There are also an interesting series of fringes on the vital subject of Climate Change run by the Climate Clinic and opportunities to get to meetings on everything from health to civil liberties.

So, get some time off work if you can and make the most of this once in every 2 years opportunity. You may meet some (relatively) famous politicians; you may get the chance to boo and jeer them, or even (long shot this one) change their opinions.

Of course no Labour conference in the City would be complete without a Stop the War demonstration. You would have hoped the need for these would have passed long ago, yet here we are with War in Afghanistan not only hotting up again but spreading to Pakistan. Yesterday's march took place in perfect weather, unusually for recent demos, which must have helped to boost the numbers. Taking that into account the attendance was actually pretty disappointing.

I was stewarding and got a good view of the size of the demonstration, and there couldn't have been more than about 10,000 there at most (the BBC quoted 'over 2,500', probably based on a police estimate). What should also be noted was the makeup of the demo; there were the large contingent of Socialist Worker Party, the other left Parties, some Greens and a significant number of anarchists. This last group seemed to worry the hell out of the Police and the Organisers but all passed off peacefully. The 'ordinary people' of the big 2003 demo and even the 2006 one in Manchester have largely gone. I saw no sign of any Liberal Democrats (apart from a couple on the No2ID campaign) but maybe that isn't surprising these days.

There were also hardly any banners from outside the Manchester area, reflecting my suspicion that people only think events are 'national' when they happen in London.

So maybe it is time to rethink this traditional march from A to B approach, and consider some of the more imaginative approaches coming out of the Climate Camp movement.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Green Party Conference Report

As there is plenty of dry information on conference elsewhere I will restrict myself to particular fringes and observations.
The main conference room lacked the usual tables where members can sit round during plenary session; instead the layout was the serried ranks more usually associated with the grey parties. "It's the start of a slippery slope" I heard from a couple of the anti-leader persuasion. I certainly hope that is not the case and put the seating arrangements down to the constraints of a Central London venue. Hopefully we'll be back to our distinctive table feature next time.
Why a Central London venue, with its implication for cost and space? To get more of the media along, for the great moment of transition to a leader / deputy leader, of course. Did it work? Well we got some great coverage on the BBC and the BBC and err, the BBC. But where were the national print media???
Now, don't get me wrong, I voted in favour of the new structure, and think that we have an excellent leader and deputy leader in Caroline Lucas and Adrian Ramsay, but anyone who thinks that most of the media in this country are going to start treating us fairly from now on is being very naive.

Another new experience, and related to the above, was the standing ovation. Is this another slippery slope? We have had such things before on occasions at conference, but this time you knew there would be a standing ovation for the leader and deputy leader speeches. Would they feel artificial? How long should they go on for? As it happens both Caroline and Adrian delivered very well and it did feel natural to stand to applaud them; even so, that question mark still lingers; is this a new ritual which we have to perform to be a 'proper' Party?

There was plenty going on at conference to inspire and encourage as well. The panel session on the Green New Deal was excellent, to hear how Solihull Greens went from 4th place to victory in a ward in 1 year (usual rule is you have to make 2nd place before you win) was inspiring, and we are heading into the future with a keen and promising executive along with our leaders.

I had an interesting experience on the journey home. In my first class compartment (before you say anything, in todays insane world of rail fares it was cheaper than standard) , I was perusing some excellent reports of Jean Lambert MEP on housing, insulation and renewable, when I overheard my neighbours in the carriage talking about the same subject! Turns out they are working in the insulation and renewables sector in Manchester, and one of them is the custodian of the council's Eco-House in Miles Platting.
It's a small world as they say, and shoes that there are some people out there in the 'Grey' world who can be our allies, at least up to a point.