Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Is this the Ungreenest Government ever?

Some months back I attended a public meeting entitled 'Is this the Greenest Government Ever?' with speakers including local Lib Dem MP John Leech.  The verdict of the meeting was that it was too soon to tell, and that whilst being the greenest ever wasn't setting the bar very high, things still weren't that promising.  Given the events of the past few days, it might be more appropriate to turn the question round to 'Is this the Ungreenest Government ever?.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

High Speed Rail - Green? - Good for Manchester?

There's been a lot of propaganda around recently in support of the Government's High Speed Rail plan (HS2) for London to Birmingham, and subsequently to Manchester and Leeds.  A couple of weeks ago I saw a group of people with balloons and leaflets in Piccadilly Gardens, seeking to convince passers by to sign up to  the scheme.  Adverts can also be seen on the local buses.  Is it the boon its supporters claim?  Is it green?  is it worth the cost? 

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Greens and Art

I've thought it myself, and I've heard other people say it 'the green movement would benefit from more artistry'; and for green movement also read protest movements generally, including the recent anti-cuts demonstrations.  Well, if some recent events that I've attended are a guide, there is a growing interweaving of political action and art.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The battle for Fourth Place

It's nearly the end of the football season and the title might suggest a football piece (after all its the main topic of conversation in Manchester this weekend), but no - I'm talking politics.

Everyone knows about the 'Big Three' but other Parties such as UKIP, the Green Party and even the BNP often like to claim fourth place (I'm excluding the SNP and Plaid Cymru as they only stand candidates in their respective countries; I'm also excluding Northern Ireland).  So who should be fourth (or top of the Championship if the 'Big Three' constitute the Premiership)?.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Watching the Red Tide come in

Observations from the Manchester count:

It was another late night, although not as bad as last year with the co-incident general election.  This time there was the co-incident AV referendum, so the first task was to separate out the two sets of ballot papers from each box.  This gave the opportunity to gauge the referendum vote - I'm pleased to note that in my ward, Chorlton, the 'Yes' vote was definititely in front, probably at least 60% 'Yes'.  Sadly, Chorlton is not typical of the country as a whole in this respect.  

My view is that the referendum ballot should have been allocated a separate box at each polling station; actually my view is that the referendum shouldn't have been held on the same day as the council elections at all - I blogged on this last summer when the referendum was announced.

As the counting progressed a clear pattern was emerging in those South Manchester seats where the Liberal Democrats were defending.   In ward after ward Labour were out-polling them. 

There were even optimistic noises from fellow Greens who saw areas where they seemed to be challenging the Lib Dems for second place in their former heartlands.  In Whalley Range, Ayo Ogolo - standing for the first time - came within 50 votes of the Lib Dems, in a ward where recently they had two councillors.    But the big victors in the City were undoubtably Labour; it gradually became clear that they had won all 32 seats up for election (33 including a co-incident by-election in Burnage).   A red tide indeed.            

Talking to a couple of Liberal Democrats, I got the response that while they were expecting it to be bad, they didn't think it would be this bad.  They were taking it with a mixture of grim resignation and gallows humour (I saw one sporting a yellow rosette and a 'No2AV' sticker).       

The results couldn't be announced officially until a separate verification of the referendum ballots was done, which was taking forever, and so for the first time ever I left before the declarations (leaving at 2.45 am).

So now to digest the results.  Whilst at a national Party level the Liberal Democrats may have had it coming (all those students, and other people who thought they were voting for a progressive Party...), I don't celebrate their wipe out.  Many good local councillors (and I include Paul Ankers, my Lib Dem opponent in Chorlton in this) have been put to the sword in the process and an increasingly one Party Labour state in Manchester is bad for democracy.      For us Greens, our vote has held up amidst the carnage, but it hasn't really grown much.

The big step forward for us is that we came second in four wards; we beat the Tories in 15 wards and the Lib Dems in 6 - definitely our best result in terms of beating 'major' Parties.  In all our second place wards we've  got a long way to go to beat Labour on Thursday's showing; however if the Lib Dem decline continues, someone will need to fill the gap; that could only be us.  Interesting times ahead - even if we are stuck with first past the post for the foreseeable future.

Full results are available on the Manchester City Council  website.      


Sunday, 1 May 2011

Not your typical Royal Wedding Weekend

Another long weekend partly thanks to Will and Kate, but to be honest they haven't featured much in my activities over the past 2 days. 

In fact for much of the duration of the wedding I took part in a walk on Manchester's 'Radical, Rebellious and Riotous history' - a well-presented and well-attended 2 hours in which Michael Herbert (who has been researching and writing about Manchester's radical history for 30 years) underlined the many times when Manchester and it's people were in the front line of reform (e.g. I never new that the first fatality in the English Civil War was a linen weaver in what is now Market Street). Michael Herbert is planning to put more of these Manchester-based walks together in future, under the name Red Flag Enterprises. 

All of which segued nicely into a protest in Albert Square, organised by people in the uncut movement, and featuring a mock funeral for our public services.  Coffins and wreaths represented areas ranging from the NHS to the Arts were preceded by a long trumpeter (pictured right).  One of the things I like about the Uncut movement (as well as telling it like it is about the rich and powerful) is its use of more imaginative, almost street theatre, approaches to protests.  It was a small but select band, which fortunately avoided the wave of arrests on peaceful protester which took place elsewhere in the country on Friday (for shame! - see various Youtube videos for evidence).

On Saturday I was back in Chorlton, where I am standing as candidate in Thursday's local elections.  Unity Arts Manchester were running a workshop for children in Beech Road Park, and I was pleased to meet them and have a lengthy chat with one of their volunteer workers, about the work they do in the city for both children and adults, bringing people from different cultures together to celebrate and enjoy our rich heritage.   One impact of the cuts is that they may have to carry more of the burden of issues which would previously have been handled by the paid public sector (without more money to help); it hope that doesn't adversely impact the work they currently do - i fear it might.  

In the same area, I visited the monthly farmer's market outside the Horse and Jockey; whilst I am often critical of the Council, the markets here and outside the Library have been a welcome addition to the Chorlton scene.  We'd like to see more though, and a higher percentage of food actually produced within our city and it's immediate environs.

Next up (this afternoon) - Speaker's corner - an initiative in Platt Fields Park, modelled on the famous Hyde Park speakers' corner.  A chance for a bit of oratory (getting nervous already), whilst a number of my colleagues join the May Day march and rally in the city centre.     Then there's some leaflets to deliver... and so on...

Coming up for me in the next few days:  Speaking at a debate on the AV referendum at Manchester Students Uni. on Wednesday, a slot on Peace FM radio station, later on Wednesday night and the official launch of the 'Save Manchester Sure Start' campaign on Tuesday lunchtime.        

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Save Manchester Sure Start

Yesterday I attended a public meeting of 'Save Manchester Sure Start', a campaign launched when the council threatened to privatise Manchester's 36 SureStart Centres as part of 'The Cuts'.  A number of women spoke eloquently and sometimes movingly of how much Sure Start had helped them in difficult times; how it was so much more than a basic service for young children.  A key point raised time and again was that the early intervention provided by and through Sure Start Centres prevented situations where social services would have had to get involved, saving grief for parents and children - and saving money for the authorities including the council.

Another key topic was an alleged campaign of intimidation by the council against staff working in Sure Start Centres.  There is plenty of evidence that staff and users have been discouraged from campaigning on this issue since it first arose earlier in the year.    Council Leader Sir Richard Leese, who attended the meeting, claimed that this was because of the 'Purdah' which prevents local councils from expressing political views during election campaigns.  However the problems precede that and include a leaked email instructing Children's Services staff to block out parents campaigning to protect their Sure Start centres (as reported in 'The Mule').

The campaign produced the following draft statement which was agreed overwhelmingly at the meeting (with the addition of a deadline of Tues 3rd May for the council to agree - just before polling day...).  I agree totally with the statement.

"This forum believes that the children of Manchester are the City's future and as such they should be regarded as its major asset.  We are committed to work tirelessly to ensure that all the public services in the city are providing the best public services to our children's futures and the resources needed should be regarded as a long term investment not just for our children but also for our communities and Manchester as a city.

This forum believes that the first stage of this investment begins at birth.  We believe that all children are equal and should be guaranteed equality of opportunity regardless of race, gender, disability or social economic status.   All public services should be inclusive not exclusive.  It is the view of the Forum what these criteria are currently being delivered through Manchester City Council's Sure Start Childrens Centres.

This Forum agrees that despite the City Council's finances, Manchester's Sure Start Childrens Centres should remain publicly funded and run as a public service which in our view  will ensure better quality standards and greater accountability with parents, users and our communities.

This Forum believes Manchester City Council should agree to holding a 3 month consultation involving representatives from the Friends of Manchester Sure Starts Forum and the Trade Unions to discuss in detail all the options regarding the financing and future of Manchester Sure Start Childrens Centres.  The outcome of that consultation shall be produced in a report with options for Manchester City Council to consider. 

In conclusion, until that process has been completed this Forum calls on Manchester City Council to suspend with immediate effect all outsourcing related work on its Sure Start Childrens Centres"   

As well as being thanked for attending the meeting Leese was given a tough time.  Under pressure he did appear to put on the table a '4th Option' of keeping the Sure Start Centres under Council control.  We will see. 

Monday, 11 April 2011

Which Manchester do you Mean?

I see David Cameron has been blessing our city with a visit again, and in addition to the totally unsurpring (but still outrageously hypocritical) attack on the City Council's cuts (see here), he brought up the idea of a Mayor again.

Now I'm not a great fan of elected mayors - smacks too much of politics by personality - but I'd be happy to go along with an elected Mayor of Manchester providing the following conditions were attached.

- It was for a Mayor of Greater Manchester, just as the Mayor of London is the Mayor of Greater London)
- It was combined with a democratically elected Assembly to provide conurbation-wide checks and balances

(I could add a third, namely that the Mayor was elected by Alternative Vote rather than First Past the Post - but that would almost certainly be the case anyway in line with other elected Mayors - surprised the 'No2AV campaign hasn't put a stop to it...)

Regarding the first condition - there is a lot of confusion and ambiguity around the word Manchester - how often do you hear in the national media of some dastardly crime committed in 'Manchester', only to find its actually somewhere like Salford or Rochdale?. Do Manchester United play their home games in Manchester?

On a range of policy areas from transport to policing to waste management (typical areas under responsibility of the Mayor in London), the appropriate level is Greater Manchester, not Manchester. The ten boroughs which make up the conurbation already co-operate in these areas; there was of course a Greater Manchester Council until the Tories abolished it.

And yet somehow when Cameron states how much Manchester needs a Mayor it's just this troublesome Labour City he's on about, not Tory Trafford or Lib Dem Stockport.

The second condition (the Assembly) again reflects the London situation; as far as I'm aware Londoners are reasonably happy with the set-up (I'm not aware of any plans to abolish the Assembly). Maybe one reason for that is that it's the only legislative body within England which uses a genuinely fair electoral system.

A similar body in Greater Manchester would be a breath of fresh air amongst the one-Party states which make up most of Greater Manchester's council chambers.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Referendum Revisited (It's a definite Yes)

When the AV (Alternative Vote) Referendum was announced last summer, I wrote a piece about it which was highly critical (and pessimistic) - see here . Re-reading it today, I felt it needed an update, as my views on the subject have gradually changed in the intervening months.

I still take the view that AV versus First-Past-the-Post is a pretty poor choice. Caroline Lucas did her best to get a wider choice of systems on the ballot paper, but with not a single Lib Dem supporting her (so much for their commitment to proportional representation) she couldn't get very far. However with respect to the referendum with which we are now stuck, I have become increasingly convinced by the following:

- A 'No' vote will be far more damaging to future reforms than a 'Yes' vote
- There is sufficient advantage in AV when compared to FPTP to make it worth arguing for a yes in itself.

However the strongest motivator I have for supporting the 'Yes' campaign isn't to do with the 'Yes' campaign, it's to do with the 'No' campaign, who (bereft of any constructive ideas) are running an increasingly dishonest and dirty campaign.

Some weeks back there they launched a series of expensive billboard ads, claiming that use of AV would cost hundred of millions of pounds, thereby depriving babies of life support machines and soldiers of effective body armour. The public were therefore exhorted to vote no to save the babies and the soldiers. This in spite of treasury figures showing that this additional cost was untrue - unsurprisingly this was taken up with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). More surprisingly the ASA let it go.

I'd hoped the 'No' campaign would have had the decency to withdraw it anyway, but No. A version of the advert appeared this week on the wall opposite the office where I work (there's enough to wind me at work as it is without this addition). Unfortunately it's just out of vandalising reach

The latest guff being spouted by 'No' campaigners (such as Ken Clarke on Radio 4's Any Questions last week) is that the AV voting system will benefit the BNP. Supporters of different electoral systems often get 'the BNP question' - with some systems it's true that the chance of the BNP gaining seats is higher; however that is something which is definitely not the case with AV.

To win with AV requires a vote from 50% of the electorate either via first preferences, second preferences or subsequent preferences; how many voters of other Parties are likely to give any preferences whatsoever to the BNP? Hardly any, I'm sure which would mean the BNP would have to get over 50% on first preferences alone. It's no wonder that the BNP are the only Party with an official Party policy of supporting First Past the Post in the referendum.

So this is another 'No' campaign lie, attempting to scare the voters. My fear is that this sort of negative campaigning works (the referendum a couple of years back to grant proper a proper democratic assembly for the North-East foundered on propaganda about increased cost - so I know that can be a persuasive argument even when false).

I have to say that I'm not totally happy with the 'Yes' campaign either; I can just about swallow comments in their leaflets about the desirability of the constituency link (which tends to work against true proportional representation) but they shouldn't be saying that AV eliminates tactical voting (no system will do that entirely, although first past the post is worst for it). But compared to the 'No' campaign, those in favour of this reform are a beacon of integrity.

See here for Link to the The Yes Campaign

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Kicking a Leather Sphere around a Green Field

If there is one thing which Manchester is noted for internationally at the moment it is football. Regardless of country or continent, if you mention Manchester the reaction is 'Ah yes, Manchester United!'. Of course Manchester also possesses arguably the richest club in the World in Manchester City, but I'm not going to get drawn into the customary United / City arguments (I'll just say that for historical reasons I'm a Newcastle fan and move on).

Under the circumstances it's not surprising that football features regularly in the political and economic life of this city, and recent events provide plenty of examples. City moved centre stage last week, with the approval of a massive plan to develop sports facilities in East Manchester see here. Greens are sometimes accused of being against all developments - on the contrary, my initial reaction is that this is a welcome development in a part of the city which has suffered disproportionately; it is much better than the supercasino which Manchester Council were trying to get previously.

Manchester United has its own political dimension. Following the takeover of the Glazers, many Man U fans sport green and gold scarves (a colour scheme which I find quite fetching) rather than the conventional red; those of a more radical bent formed a breakaway club with the prosaic name of FC United. Whilst not yet in a position to challenge the senior divisions of English football, they have had their moments. Their rebellious origin and democratic approach appeals to me; If I were to support any local team it would be 'FC'. Manchester City Council seem less supportive; a plan for a stadium on derelict land in Newton Heath was dumped last week because the council has refused financial help to get it off the ground - see FC United's take on it here

Now, from this last fact one might assume that the City Council weren't interested in football. Not quite - despite the cuts imposed by the ConDem Government, and passed on to the people of Manchester by the council - they are paying £7 million to get the national museum of football into the Urbis building. Now I think that Preston was an entirely appropriate venue for the museum, and I was one of those campaigning for Urbis original cultural role to be retained, but if we are to have the National Football Museum here, surely we should be looking at the two super-rich Manchester clubs to be funding it?

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Links to the Past

They say nostalgia isn't what it used to be; that may be true but it still exists, as brought home by two events which I attended in the last few days.

Site Battles

Firstly – 'Site Battles' on Thursday was a commemoration of the protests against Manchester's second runway in the 1990s, (Campaign against Runway 2 or CAR2) and was timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the opening of said runway. Veterans of the trees and tunnels were there, some reunited for the first time since the protests, to tell of their experiences. It generated a really good atmosphere in the room – these were people who had been though a life-changing experience together, on the front line in a battle for a sustainable future.
My involvement in the campaign was somewhat fringe – I remember visiting the camps on the site, taking food down and being part of demonstrations in the area. I have the utmost respect for those who lived there for months, buried in tunnels and sitting precariously in the trees for the cause. Here's an account from the time Schnews and here's the MEN account on the 'reunion' Reunion

It was good to see many links to the Green Party; among those speaking about their experiences were long time Green activist Lance Crookes (seen on video here and former Manchester Green Councillor Vanessa Hall. A 'World in Action' documentary of the time was shown, which included lengthy interviews with a 'youthful-looking!' Professor John Whitelegg and Gaynor Trafford, one of the 'Mobberley Mums' supporting the protesters who went on to be a Green parish councillor.

On paper you can argue that the protesters failed – the second runway went ahead. But together with the earlier protests at Newbury and other famous road battles of the 1990s, they helped to change opinion. Since those days it has become more difficult for both road schemes and airport expansions to get off the ground.

Expansion is still on the cards at Manchester Airport however – homes and environment are threatened by freight expansion – for recent news see stopmanchesterairport.blogspot.com: Non-violent direct action is also still on the cards – this Monday sees the start of the second trial of protesters from an action at the airport last year. For details see manchesterairportontrial

George Osborne isn't Working

Given the apparent hostility of our new Government to the north – see here – it comes as a surprise to realise that the constituency of one of its principal actors is just down the road. Chancellor George Osborne is MP for Tatton which includes places like Wilmslow, Alderley Edge and Knutsford.. Famous previous Tatton MPs include Neil Hamilton and Martin Bell, indeed two of the biggest news stories of spring 1997 were the battle between those two, and the CAR2 campaign mentioned above, and both of them affected the same constituency!

Those with long memories will recall a poster advert from the seventies showing a long queue of people at a dole office and the slogan 'Labour isn't Working'. This event was a recreation of that queue at Osborne's constituency office in Knutsford, with the title 'George Osborne isn't Working'.
The idea was the brainchild of Respect member Richard Searle and provided an opportunity to dig out an old coat and flat cap for the occasion. As well as the photo shoot, it was a chance for people to deliver a message to Osborne, which could be anything from a lengthy critique of his economic policies to a simple request to take the advice of the initials of his name and just GO.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

Last week a Tory got some stick for a comment which denigrated waitresses and bus-drivers – see here. Clearly bus-driver is seen as a term of contempt – one cannot imagine, say, airline pilot being used in the analogy, even though they are both forms of transport. The bus-drivers insulted by Lord Lang do a job which I would not envy, combining as it does the role of driver, navigator, fare-collector, and security guard (difficult passengers on buses are rare in my experience, but the driver always has to be alert for possible trouble). Imagine if an airline pilot was expected to do all that on his/her own?

In a way the comment is hardly surprising, - the humble omnibus (meaning 'for everyone' in Latin) is the Cinderella of public transport. There is a famous quote from the 80's – often attributed to Thatcher, but actually Loeila, Duchess of Westminster that 'Any man who finds himself on a bus after the age of 30 can count himself a failure'. Thatcher probably thought it however and successive Governments of any persuasion have failed to dispel it. Outside London, where different transport arrangements prevail, bus use has generally been in decline.

I'm well past the age of 30 and am proud to be a regular bus user; it reliably takes me to and from my place of employment in the centre of Manchester on a daily basis. It is slow, but that gives me a chance to relax and read the paper and occasionally chat to a friend or colleague also using this form of transport. Sometimes the slowness can be irritating (e.g. last Friday morning as the bus had to wait several minutes to get into Piccadilly – surely the worst designed bus station in Europe).

Whilst Metrolink gets much more emphasis and publicity, Greater Manchester's humble buses are largely out of the limelight. Bus users will still have to wait until December to know the fate of major schemes – see here. Yet even when the Metrolink expansion is complete most of Greater Manchester's travelling public will be closer to bus stops than to tram stations, and many will still rely on the continuing rotation of the 'Wheels on the Bus' as described in the well-known nursery song. .

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Liberal Democrats Waning Here

There have been two ward by-elections in the City of Manchester since last May's combined general and local elections, and the results of them cannot make pleasant reading for the City's official Opposition Party, the Liberal Democrats.

In November's Hulme by-election, the Lib Dems absolutely flooded the ward with leaflet after leaflet claiming 'It's neck and neck!' 'It's Lib Dems or Labour!' 'Greens and Tories can't win here!'; the barcharts – which started with the legitimate fact that the Lib Dems held second place in the May election, if only slightly - stretched reality further and further with each leaflet. Hulme is of course a ward where the Greens have won in the past 10 years, unlike the Lib Dems.

Come polling day and it transpired that 'neck and neck' meant Labour outpolling the Lib Dems by a factor of 7 to 1 (over 1000 votes compared to 151); if the Lib Dem campaign had any effect on the result it was probably to bolster Labour, at the expense of the Greens, to make absolutely certain that the Tories' allies didn't win. Full result and Green comment can be seen here

Perhaps chastened by this result the Liberal Democrats appear to have gone for a more low key approach at the second Manchester by-election in Baguley (part of Wythenshawe). The consequent result of Thursday's poll (20th January) was even worse for them:

Labour 996 70.5%  (+23.4%)
Conservatives 160  11.3%  (-4.9%)
UKIP 77  5.5%  (-1.3%)
BNP 52  3.68% (N/A did not stand in May)
Liberal-Democrats 52  3.68% (-20.8%)
Green Party 51 3.61% (+0.8%)
Donnelly (Independant) 19  1.3% (N/A, did not stand in May)

So the Liberal Democrat vote share dropped a staggering 20.8 percentage points from 24% to less than 4%. The Green Party campaign did not spend resources in what is a part of the city where we have no history of election campaigning. It's a pity because even the smallest increase in campaign activity would have seen us outpoll not only the BNP, but also the Liberal Democrats. I've been looking at election results in Manchester for a long time now, and I can't remember that low a vote share for the Lib Dems in a ward election anywhere. And with a turnout at the sort of level which would be achieved by people wandering into polling stations by accident, it will certainly be their lowest vote aggregate by some margin.

Manchester is not an exception in this respect; there have been shockingly bad results for the Lib Dems in other northern urban seats, including in Sheffield, Nick Clegg's backyard. This doesn't bode well for Clegg's Party in the coming May elections. With the deep feeling of betrayal many people have for that Party, it's tempting to cheer that prospect. There are reasons to regret it though as well. Many Lib Dem councillors have worked hard and well in their wards, and are likely to lose their seats through no fault of their own. There is also the prospect of Manchester becoming even more of a one Party (Labour) state than it is now.

If the voting trends continue - and as Manchester City Council have just announced 2,000 job losses as they face cuts imposed by the 'ConDem' Government this is likely - someone else will have to rise to the occasion as an alternative to Labour dominance. It should be the Green Party, and after all we were the third Party in the City in the last European Elections. That was under a PR system however, and first past the post is tough to crack. Hopefully a Yes victory in the AV campaign (which itself will be a tall order if the campaign gets associated too much with the Lib Dems), will open the door to a fairer voting system for local council elections (which I've also blogged on in the past).

Whatever happens we should have our work cut out in the coming months and years.