The TUC rally, hummus and me

Those of us who were proudly and peacefully protesting in Hyde Park resent being associated with the

I don't like hummus. In fact, I despise hummus. I prefer going straight for the main "dead animal" course in my local Lebanese -- a shawarma, perhaps, or even a lamb chop. But hummus? Never.

So the claim that those of us who preferred to go on the TUC march -- rather than vandalise a state-owned bank or throw paint at the police -- were just "munching houmous in Hyde Park and listening to some speeches" would have offended me if it wasn't so silly.

But my fellow NS blogger Laurie Penny is allowed to be silly if she wants to. If she wants to hang from a set of traffic lights in Oxford Circus, then that's her prerogative. She's entitled to her views -- and her "riot boots".

But I'm entitled to my views -- and I'm annoyed with the violent "protesters" (thugs?) who tried to wreck an important and historic march by rewarding right-wing, pro-cuts media outlets with the negative headlines and imagery that they had so craved. Then again, what else does one expect from a bunch of outraged kids who prefer to gesticulate for the sake of the Murdoch-owned television cameras? For whom "solidarity" is merely a word to daub on the side of Topshop, rather than a lived act of joining fellow citizens on a mass scale? In my view, solidarity isn't about smashing windows in a co-ordinated manner. (Oh, and I refuse to refer to those louts as "anarchists" until I see any evidence that the disgruntled youth I saw kindling that pointless bonfire in the middle of Oxford Street has read even a page of Kropotkin.)

Here's my rather simple and old-fashioned view: the trade union movement persuaded 500,000 people to turn out on Saturday to protest against the coalition's spending cuts and "march for the alternative" -- the Robin Hood Tax, green investment in education and jobs, reform of the banks and tax justice. Five hundred thousand people. That's half a million people for those of you who can't count.

There were dozens of speakers at the Hyde Park rally -- from the leader of the opposition to elected general secretaries of Britain's biggest and smallest unions; from the National Pensioners Convention to Operation Black Vote; from poets to freeminers. There was a call-centre worker who'd walked all the way from Cardiff to make his voice heard. And, no, I didn't spot a pot of hummus in his hand.

So why was there a need for an "alternative" protest, away from the main march in London and the rally in Hyde Park? Why did UK Uncut -- a group, incidentally, whose aims, principles and even tactics I have wholeheartedly supported since its creation last year -- decide to stage a sit-in at a posh shop no one's ever heard of on Saturday afternoon? Don't get me wrong: UK Uncut had nothing to do with the violence at the weekend and have since been wrongly maligned by much of the mainstream media, but why consciously opt out of a march involving -- one more time -- 500,000 of your fellow citizens? Couldn't the well-heeled shoppers in Piccadilly have been rudely interrupted on Sunday instead? Or Friday? Or Monday? Any day other than the day of the TUC march? This scene from the Life of Brian comes to mind . . .

It's a point that Anthony Painter makes this morning over at LabourList. Like me, he objects to Laurie's blog post on the NS site and I can't help but agree with much of what he writes. Having said that, I was amused to see Anthony, an intelligent and informed blogger, whose posts I often enjoy and admire, making an idiotic demand via Twitter for an "apology" from the New Statesman. Referring to Laurie's post, he says: "A hasty apology and retraction of that part of the piece would be welcome."

First, isn't it odd that centre-left bloggers should be demanding such brazen censorship from a centre-left magazine? We're a broad church here at the NS; plural and proud of it. Second, I'm astonished that a clever, web-savvy guy can't seem to distinguish between the New Statesman -- the award-winning current-affairs magazine, founded in 1913, employing dozens of writers -- and a single blogger on the New Statesman website. Third, I think it is remiss of Anthony to write a blog post in which he takes a potshot at the New Statesman on the subject of the march/rally without acknowledging that the senior politics editor of the magazine compered the final section of Saturday's TUC rally (the video, if you want proof, is below). In return, I could now demand an "apology" from LabourList. But I won't waste time.

Instead, I'll carry on marching and rallying with the mainstream. Some of us actually want to try to change things.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.