Wedding and windbills

Is the credit crunch going to have an impact on guest numbers at eco-villages? Rhiannon Hanfman reve

Last week I drove my friend Judi Buttner to Loch Ness to officiate at a wedding. Judi is the Findhorn Foundation’s official marriage celebrant and can legally perform weddings not only in the community but anywhere in Scotland. The Foundation has, for at least ten years, had its own celebrant so that community people who do not, as a rule, want a traditional church wedding could have the kind of ceremony they prefer without needing to go the Registrar’s office to formalise it.

She is very busy these days with engagements throughout the Highlands, hence the trip to Lock Ness. More couples and not only those with an alternative outlook want to create individual ceremonies that incorporate words that are meaningful to them. I have been to a number of these events and each one is different and all are moving in their own way. This particular wedding took place on a boat in the middle of the loch in the shadow of Urquhart Castle. It was a very small and informal affair with family only, nevertheless the bridal pair was decked out in full wedding kit. Unusual as the venue was, some conventions do persist.

While waiting for the ceremony to begin I was chatting with a young woman who was one of the crew and learned that the number of visitors to the Inverness area is down on last year by 300 a day. Why, is no mystery. The cost of fuel, the credit squeeze and economic shambles we are in are keeping people away.

As a result of that conversation I was curious as to whether the Foundation was also experiencing low guest numbers. Fortunately, it seems not, or at least not yet. The numbers are pretty much the same as last year. This is good news for us but it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the economic downturn will reduce guest numbers eventually.

I wonder, however, if the reverse may not happen. When times are tough, people begin to question accepted truths like, for example, the superiority of free market economics, and will look for alternatives. An eco-village model such as Findhorn provides alternatives on many levels. The free market is increasingly becoming unsustainable and people may want to look for something that is.

Only yesterday, I spotted an interesting alternative in the front garden of my friends, George Goudsmit and Mary Inglis. There was a large metal object that looked like a cross between a bird and a modern sculpture, turning gently in the wind. George, who runs AES, a solar heating company in Forres, explained to me that it was a wind turbine designed to operate on the roof of an ordinary house. He and his neighbour hope to promote it and had placed it in the garden to see what interest it generated.

It certainly got my attention. Single-dwelling windmills have already been manufactured but some have the unpleasant side effect of making the house shake when they are going flat out. Apparently this turbine does not do that. What it does do is produce about 500w of electricity. The cost is reasonable too. George thinks it could pay for itself within three years. It’s encouraging to learn of a green energy option that doesn’t cost the earth.

It’s a bit of a ramble from weddings to windmills and sustainability. The common theme, if there is one, is change—change of status, change of lifestyle, change in the world. In the community we talk about change as a good thing, generally. The changes afoot in the world at the moment are challenging and it remains to be seen how we meet them, individually and collectively. The thought I am left with is that in the I Ching the hexagram symbolising ‘danger’ is the same as ‘opportunity’.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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