Sian goes whaling

Exciting times as Sian goes head-to-head with a whale plus the glamour of a rickshaw ride in Leicest

We’re in the final week of the Welsh, Scottish and local election campaigns and, quite frankly, I’m on tenterhooks.

I was helping out Leicester Green Party this weekend. No pedalling myself around this time – oh no. I was transported up from the station in a swanky rickshaw eco-cab, to visit shops and knock on doors in Castle ward, which is officially the most marginal ward in the country for the Greens.

Four years ago, our candidate failed to be elected after reaching a tie with the Labour candidate for third place in a three-councillor ward, enduring four recounts, and then watching as the other candidate’s name was drawn from a hat. After all that, Green lead candidate Matt Follett and his team have been working hard to make sure they win with votes to spare on Thursday.

This time next week, the political map of the UK could be very different. Last year Labour lost control of several councils they had run for decades, including Camden where I live, and now a virtual meltdown in Scotland doesn’t seem out of the question. The Scottish Greens are being talked about as a potential partner in a new government.

Unusually for an election campaign, there’s lots of talk about green issues in the media. I have never been busier, and top of the list is of course bins. The rush for councils to make their recycling targets in the face of a steep increase in landfill tax next year, has meant nearly a third are going for the ‘panic button’ option of cutting mixed waste collections to alternate weeks, in the hope this will force people to recycle more.

This has left many households hanging onto their food waste (rarely collected by councils for recycling) for a fortnight, with some unpleasant results. I was called onto Newsnight to argue with ‘shock jock’ James Whale, which was fun. Although he wasn’t exactly engaging in sensible debate, (“Green - isn’t that something that comes out of your nose?”) I do have some sympathy for the campaigners – and not a lot of sympathy for councils that are playing catch-up after failing to invest in full recycling before now.

It seems it’s not just the media who have got the environment high on their agenda. Polling organisation MORI ask the public every month what they think ‘the most important issues facing Britain’ are. It’s an open question – people don’t choose from a list – and the results are classified into groups such as prices, education, defence, etc. afterwards.

You can look at MORI’s results going back to 1974 on their website. Anything relating to pollution and the environment has only been given its own category since 1988, but the results since then make fascinating reading. After reaching the heady heights of 35 percent (ahead of everything else) in July 1989 and staying mainly above 20 percent for another year, the growing recession of the early 1990s sent green issues back to the bottom of the pile for a while.

But, since 2003, there has been a sure and steady rise. A couple of big jumps in the past few months has seen nearly 20 percent of people bring up environmental concerns for the first time in ages, and it’s now figuring almost as high as education.

What this means for Thursday’s polls I don’t know. We’re expecting a record result above 10% as I mentioned last week, but that’s just based on election results a year ago and our canvassing. Thursday might prove even more exciting than we imagine.

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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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