Sunday, 23 November 2008

A week in the life...

... of a Green Party activist. Ok so I'm not feeling inspired this week so I'm using my weekly slot as a diary of some events which I have attended over the last few days. Not really a typical week - I don't think there is any such thing - but hopefully it gives the impression of diversity.

Last Wednesday Manchester Green Party hosted a public meeting on 'Faith and Climate Change' which featured guest speakers from the Christian, Muslim and Humanist faiths, and was attended by about 40 people. Whilst there is a whole ecosystem of groups campaigning on climate change in Manchester this brought some new angles to the subject, and there is every intention that it is repeated with different faith groups. The meeting was held at the 'Nexus Cafe' a relatively new meeting place, and thanks are due to the group of people who run the cafe for letting us use it.

Thursday saw 2 events: at lunchtime Gtr Manchester Stop the War held an event in Market Street at which 1,000 names of the many thousands of people who have died there since (soon to be ex-) President Bush declared victory there no less than seven years ago. This attracted a lot of attention (and support) from passers-by. Work prevented me from staying long, but an advantage of city-centre working is that I can take part in such events.

This was followed in the evening by a relaunch rally for Manchester Unite against Fascism (UAF), which was a lively event attended by over a hundred people. Any schadenfreude over the recent public leaking of the BNP membership list was short-lived as the possibility of the North West having the odious Nick Griffin as an MEP hit home. There will be more on this topic on this and related blogs to come. For an ongoing low-down on the BNP see the Lancaster UAF blog in the list on the right.

The most recent event of the last few days was a Tea-Party at the threatened Rose Cottage (mentioned briefly in an earlier post 'South of the River'. Seeing the beautiful 17th Century Cottage and its surrounding buildings in the flesh brought home to me the sheer vandalism of the Airport's expansion plans. The cottage is sandwiched between the M56 and the Airport and its immediate surroundings have become a haven for wildlife driven from the already huge expanse of the Airport. Small-scale compared to the Heathrow 3rd Runway maybe, but symbolic of the battle lines between those who recognise what is unsustainable and those who do not.

Of course this is only the part of the life of an activist; there is all the online stuff - emails, websites etc. Plus of course work, family and other interests. Anyone know any good multitasking courses?

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Tif and the Charge - the Debate heats up

I thought it wouldn't be long before I returned to this topic. I am referring of course to the impending referendum on the TiF bid for transport funding and the linked congestion charge proposal. As ballot papers are due to go out very shortly and the deadline for voting is 11th December, the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns are engaged in all-out battle.
This was evidenced at a debate last Thursday organised by the South Manchester Reporter, in which I took part. An audience of around 180 took part, with a panel consisting of Lis Phelan (Chair of the yes campaign)and Andrew Simpson (of Peel Holdings and the yes campaign's favourite pantomime villain) plus representatives of the four main political Parties in the area (yes, four) as a supporting cast.

Clearly both Lis and Andrew have done a number of these events and now present their respective cases with the slickness of professional politicians. A vote was taken of the audience before and after - the pre-vote was 44 in favour (of the bid) and 57 against; the vote at the end was 74 in favour and 80 against. To me this this all suggests that opinion is pretty evenly divided (at least amingst people who attend public meetings) and is pretty entrenched on both sides.

Of the 4 Party representatives, there were 3 in support (Labour, Lib Dem and me for the Greens) and 1 against (the Tory). Manchester Lib Dems have clearly come off the fence now; actually I shouldn't be too hard on them as we Greens have also had internal differences of opinion on this. I have to say that, just as the devil seems to have all the best tunes, it is more fun to argue against the many flaws in the whole package than to argue in favour. The pragmatic argument in favour wins out for me however, and seeing some of the bedfellows one would have in the 'no' campaign, reassures me that I am in the right place.

Unsurprisingly there were many 'questions' from the floor; of course these were mostly comments, although there were some definite questions along the lines of 'where are you lot getting your funding from?' (on both sides). Arguments raged over the numbers of people who would pay and the use of the word 'zone'. Fortunately climate change and other environmental issues did get a good look-in (they haven't always in previous debates).

Interaction between audience and panel was fast and furious; I was at the end of the row and being a naturally polite person was reluctant to interrupt; at one point I confiscated a microphone to ensure I could get my turn. The 'debate' was billed to end at 9 pm, but continued till 9.20 and the time seemed to pass in an instant.

It is hard to overestimate the significance of the coming referendum; people all around the country are looking to Manchester to see what happens. Not just in this country too - apparently no less a person than Barack Obama is showing an interest. A referendum is unusual in itself - last time I remember being able to take part in one was for the Common Market (as it was then called) in the 70s.

I also think it is important to see this bid as only one of a number of changes which will be needed in Greater Manchester to reach a sustainable low-carbon future.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

South of The River

Manchester is in a strange city in the geographical sense. It's shape resembles a slightly squashed banana, sandwiched in between the neighbouring Greater Manchester boroughs. The centre is about 3/4 of the way up, leaving a south which is 3 times bigger than the north. In turn this south can be divided into an 'inner south' (down as far as the Mersey Valley) and Wythenshawe.

There are major cultural difference between the different parts of the city too. A look at the spread of Green Party members is revealing; the vast majority are in the centre and south, and 'inner south' at that. I would expect an analysis of members of groups such as Friends of the Earth to be similar. This in no way means that people living in the other areas are any less green or potentially green (Green Party vote levels are not that different across most parts of the city). It is maybe more that people in those areas are less likely to have time or inclination for involvement in a political Party.

Because of this imbalance, we are not always as aware as we should be about what is happening in these other areas, so I would like to do a series of posts highlighting them, starting South of the River (Mersey) with Wythenshawe (including, and at the risk of upsetting people there, Northenden).

Wythenshawe was built as a garden city in the 1930s and was formerly known as the biggest council estate in Europe (we like our superlatives here in Manchester). Over the years it unfortunately acquired a reputation for high unemployment, crime and poor health which it is still struggling to shake off. My wife worked for several years at a school in Benchill (which was officially the most disadvantaged ward in the country until it disappeared in the last boundary changes)and became well-acquainted with the difficulties. National attention was last drawn here when a 'hoodie' pretended to shoot David Cameron.

However there are moves to bring more of a sense of community to the area. The area is the site of a pioneering community radio station (Wythenshawe FM) which was set up in 2000 with the backing of Manchester's Radio Regen project. As well as providing local information, the station has made a point of providing training.
Huge amounts of money have been invested in the area, but the City Council's usual top down, control-freakery approach is less likely to bring dividends than initiatives which are genuinely rooted in the community. The latest such move featured in last week's Guardian (article here); time will tell how successful it proves.
Another avenue being pursued in Northenden is the creation of an urban parish council, which has the support of many groups and individuals in the area, but which the City Council seems determined to strangle at birth (control-freakery again). I will probably return to this in a subsequent blog.

It is interesting to note that the high unemployment has continued in this area, the part of Manchester which includes the Airport, despite the claims of jobs, jobs, jobs every time the authorities want to expand the airport. This conflict between Wythenshawe and its remaining green lungs is highlighted by the campaign to save Rose Cottage - see link here.