Fire in its belly

The models and solutions on offer at Findhorn are not off-the-peg selections aimed at bored shoppers

Last week’s blog saw me down at the Green Heart of Hawick festival, celebrating GEN’s recognition that the battle for sustainability would be won on the streets of our villages, towns and cities, with ecovillages more akin to research laboratories than models to be widely replicated.

And yet, as I come back from another working weekend away – this time in Sweden (of which, more below) – I realise that this is not the whole story.

Re-entering the community is to be plugged into a living, thriving experiment in sustainability – rather as if dry theories on carbon footprint reduction had leapt off the page of their own volition to form a vibrant 3-D reality.

As I walk back into Findhorn on Monday early evening, the wind turbines are merrily dancing in the breeze, generating enough juice for the community here with plenty left to share with the national grid. Food scraps from the garden are making the journey back to the farm’s compost piles – with such sandy soils, soil enrichment is never-ending work.

Moray Arts Centre visitors

Visitors are leaving the just-opened exhibition in the Moray Arts Centre – as far as we know the UK’s only carbon-neutral arts centre, equipped with hyper-efficient lighting, geo-thermal heating and photo-voltaic panels that also export juice to the grid.

Meanwhile, in our main meeting area, a group of sixty community members – what!......on a sunny, Monday evening, is this entirely healthy? – gather to discuss the evolution of our decision-making structures as the community grows in size and diversifies.

This is no cold and sterile laboratory. The models and solutions on offer are not off-the-peg selections aimed at bored shoppers in the sustainability saloon. Rather, the research that Findhorn and other ecovillages around the world are engaged in has blood in its veins and fire in its belly.

Dare we imagine a world in which communities like this constitute not just the research stations but, for some at least, the models they will choose to call home? Why not?! As Oscar Wilde has it, ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at’.

One such emerging experiment is a retreat centre in Sweden called Angsbacka, around which a small community intends to build a village on ecological design principles. It was here that I spent this last weekend, facilitating their process of creating a shared vision and transferring ownership of the site from private individuals to a cooperatively-owned association.

Outside Moray Arts Centre

Angsbacka has the great advantage that it is already an inspiration for many in Scandinavia as a spiritual and personal development retreat centre; its No Mind festival in early July has drawn upwards of one thousand people every year for the last decade. The aim now is to expand the initiative so that it also models and eventually teaches sustainable living on all levels.

There is a great hunger – especially among the young – for practical hands-on examples of sustainability in action. Angsbacka is one of a number of emerging initiatives across Europe and beyond that are seeking to respond to this hunger in a very immediate way.

Centres of research, training and demonstrations for the likes of Hawick, undoubtedly. However, who knows – as property prices tumble and cooperation replaces individualism in our energy-lite future, ecovillages may just also resemble the community model of choice for a growing number of people.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide