The exploitation of Mongolia

More from the Green Party conference in Liverpool

Saturday at conference in Liverpool is a relative day off for me, at least compared with yesterday.

In a way I went back to my roots today (I used to be national campaigns co-ordinator before being Principal Speaker), chairing two fringe meetings about issues-based campaigns.

The first was planning and brainstorming for how we can promote and grow the Census Alert campaign to stop the UK census in 2011 from being run by arms company Lockheed Martin.

Greens campaigning locally can make a real difference here, because local councils depend on the data from the census for their funding, and also have to work closely with the chosen contractor to help ensure compliance in the kind of ‘hard to reach groups’ we think will be most put off by giving the contract to Lockheed.

Because the campaign is cross party, even Green parties without councillors can help by getting councillors from other parties to object to this involvement. There were lots of other ideas at the meeting of course, but I won’t mention them here – out of studying-Lockheed-induced paranoia.

After that, I showed a film by the International Chair of the Mongolian Green Party, Purevsuren Shah, given to me when he visited London earlier this summer.

An accomplished journalist and broadcaster, he directed the film himself to draw attention to the huge problems being caused by rampant gold and copper mining across Mongolia.

With only half a translation of the Mongolian language dialogue, plus my notes from being talked through the film, I had to put together subtitles myself. They got a bit sparse and comical in places, but the presentation got across the gist of the problem, which is anything but amusing.

The problem is that Mongolia has some of the best and largest gold and copper deposits in the world and since 1997, with a massive acceleration since 2000, the government has been selling licences to mine these at a huge rate. The area of Mongolia covered by mining licences is now about 45%, and they are going for a relative song - $20 a hectare for a 30-year license is typical.

One ‘stock watch’ website I consulted just before conference said that Mongolia is literally a gold mine for investors because of, "the incredible ease and speed of securing exploration and mining licenses." There are literally hundreds of mining companies involved in this new gold rush, but most of the biggest offenders are based in Canada, Australia, South Africa and London.

Not all of these licenses have been exploited yet, but those that have are causing immense problems already – literally carving chunks out of Mongolia’s beautiful landscapes and leaving a legacy of pollution that will be there for years to come. More than 2,000 of the country’s small and medium sized rivers have disappeared, due to mining operations digging up their sources, and there is widespread soil and water pollution from the mercury and cyanide used in the mining and extraction process.

Only 20% of the land used for mining is rehabilitated afterwards, and the film is full of images of gorgeous hills and valleys being turned into dried up, uninhabitable rubble.

The environmental problems will become bigger and more irreversible if something isn’t done soon, so Perevsuren Shah is aiming to draw international attention to the issue in order to increase pressure on the irresponsible mining companies and the irresponsible government that is encouraging the destruction.

He also wants help to bring environmental scientists and investigators to Mongolia measure properly the pollution and damage caused so far. He is a soil scientist himself, and much of the research shown in the film is his own, but it’s too big a job for one team and they badly need more investment in their projects.

We talked about how the Greens in the UK can help and plan to make contact with other green groups to help get this onto the agenda here. One obvious task is to sort out a full translation of the film, so anyone out there with skills in both Mongolian and English, please get in touch.

Oh, and finally, there’s an awful lot of talk here about the upcoming referendum on whether to have an actual Leader and Deputy (or Co-Leaders) instead of the two Principal Speakers we now have as our main representatives. But the main debate on that is on Sunday, so I’ll save that for later.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.