Life in the goldfish bowl

For good or bad, television cameras have become an unavoidable part of life in the ecovillage

Another camera crew is in town at the moment, shooting another film about life in the community.

We have become a good deal more careful about who we let in with movie cameras following the debacle several years ago with the three-part Channel Four series, The Haven, that made us look and feel rather foolish. Our naive hope had been that the film would try to depict something of our philosophy and work in the world. In fact, it turned out to be a fairly standard 'reality TV’ romp that was interested primarily in seeking out the whacky and the tacky.

Still, even though we exercise more control than we used to, a good number of film projects continue to get the nod. We are no strangers to cameras moving among us as we meet, eat and go about our daily business.

The question of privacy in the context of research, training and demonstration centres that also happen to be people’s homes is a common one for ecovillages. The community at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales (a founder member of the Global Ecovillage Network), for example, mostly moved off-site when their visitor numbers grew to today’s levels of 70,000 per year. Just too much human traffic to make any sort of normal home life possible.

The theme is taken up in Violet’s letter this week in the Rainbow Bridge, our weekly community newsletter. Violet is a gorgeously irreverent teenager whose letters provoke regular frissons of delight as she dares say the things that most of us too-careful adults keep carefully under wraps. In this respect, Violet has one great advantage over the rest of us; she is fictional.

The address on this week’s letter reads:

"Violet’s bedroom
(What is like a goldfish bowl in summer)
Feeld of Dreams"

Violet has no doubt where the problem lies:

"I blame all the programmes on British telly what tells you how to bild a house or sell a house or clean a house or make a house better or sell or swap a british house for a house in spain and make money too. I mean where else in scotland can you see a big fancy ecohouse near a yurt near a barrel house near a rusty old caravan. We got like everything."

We have nothing like CAT’s volume of through traffic. Nonetheless, with around 3,000 paying guests a year doing programmes plus several thousand more wandering around looking at the houses, the goldfish bowl metaphor can sometimes feel all too appropriate.

For most of us, most of the time, this is simply part of the package that comes with the choice of living in a social and ecological laboratory. In fact, more often than not, my feeling is one of pride that folk tend to be so interested and impressed.

Violet seem to have a different perspective. Her letter this week concludes: "Chow for now fans. I just got to go and moon at some folk who have been starin at our house too long."

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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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage