Zac, are you serious?

On 13 September, <a href="http://www.newstatesman.com/200709170001">Sian</a> gave her reaction to th

Zac, are you serious? Of course I had read the Quality of Life group's report before I commented. In my piece I quote directly from it, and the main findings had been extensively leaked by your team for weeks beforehand.

I don’t want to become your sworn enemy. We both have scarier opponents to face, so I won’t deny that the discursive parts of the report are an excellent read. But it’s in drafting actual policies that the crunch comes, and upon careful reading of the policies you propose, the report did fall well short of expectations. It was, in other words, disappointing.

I said your proposals ‘fail to fully hypothecate’ eco-taxes into measures to help people be green. It’s true. Your reply that ‘some of the money’ from new green taxes would go to support rail clearly implies that the rest will be used for something else.

These are more than likely to be the top-rate income tax reductions proposed by John Redwood, which would provide nothing at all for people on average or low incomes – those who will certainly be hit hardest with new green consumption taxes. There is a big financial hole in the Tory’s tax plans and, as Shadow Chancellor George Osborne said in April, “any reductions in specific taxes will have to be balanced with tax increases elsewhere, most notably green taxes.”

We Greens recognise that the only equitable way to spend eco-taxes is to give them all back in subsidies that help people lead greener lives and therefore avoid paying the taxes in the first place: free insulation to cut your fuel tax bills, cheaper public transport to cut the need to pay petrol duty. Of course, this will inevitably shrink the money raised from eco-taxes – and that's the point.

Relying on eco-taxes to replace income tax betrays Conservative assumptions that poor people will not be able to change their behaviour and will therefore be saddled with eco-taxes indefinitely, while the rich celebrate their tax cuts with another holiday.

I seem to have caused the most offence by accusing you of offering new subsidies to nuclear power and of backing down on airport expansion, so lets look at these again in more detail.

On nuclear, as I said, the proposals do propose a new taxpayer subsidy for nuclear power at the expense of the onshore wind industry. The nuclear industry, which currently has to pay the Climate Change Levy, would not have to pay the proposed Carbon Levy. The report itself says so: “Nuclear would receive comparative competitive benefit from the EUETS [European Emissions Trading Scheme] and the carbon levy to recognise its contribution to carbon reduction.” (page 296)

Cancelling support for onshore wind is even worse. Under your proposals, onshore wind farms would have to rely solely on the Carbon Levy, meaning a drastic reduction in support for the only well-developed renewable technology we have.

You cite some NGOs welcoming the report, but two organisations that support an effective renewables policy have already voiced their concern about this move. The British Wind Energy Association said, “the proposals on wind energy would be a devastating blow to meeting Britain’s renewable targets.”

And the World Future Council, long-time supporters of feed-in tariffs for renewables, have even said your group is “misusing the term to provide a cover for its proposals that will dismember the UK’s renewables programme.”

Your temporary ‘moratorium’ on airport expansion is a long way from ‘explicitly ruling it out’. The most your report is prepared to accept is a brief pause for thought, before the aviation lobby eventually gets its way. Far from stopping new runways, this paragraph lays out the conditions for a 'go-ahead':

“There should therefore be a hold on all plans for further airport expansion in the UK while in each case such plans are tested against the challenge of climate change and in the context of a wider European agreement on the restriction of airport expansion. In this way the effect of expansion of our carbon footprint would be factored into the equation before any go-ahead on any of these projects is given.” (p 356)

And how about this on how the existing flights would be used? “This means reducing the rapid growth in short-haul flights with a shift towards the less price-sensitive business and long-haul leisure flights.”(p 355)

And “a fifth of the slots at Heathrow would potentially become available for longer haul flights – where no alternative exists.” (p 355)

This is fairly clear cut stuff. No reduction in flight numbers, with those that take off going further away. More carbon emissions from the UK’s airports, not less. And, apart from at Gatwick and Stansted, the way left open for airport owners to argue for more runways.

Finally, you tell me that Green voters “expect you to raise the debate, to celebrate and encourage best practice wherever it appears”. Well yes but, as Green politicians, our job is to fight for policies that actually work. Tricks like saying the right things while caving in on the details is exactly what I’m here to expose.

And if you want me to applaud your personal strategy of trying to promote green policies via membership of the Conservative Party, then of course I won’t. I’ve chosen a different way for a very good, practical reason. You will get more real action from the other parties by challenging them at the ballot box and taking their political power, than you will by joining their fast-track internal promotion schemes.

Even though we are small and not elected everywhere, the pressure we exert when we do well at the ballot box can be immense. The largest green policy shift in this country’s history famously took place shortly after the Greens gained 15% of the national vote in the 1989 Euro elections. We threatened their power, so they changed their ways. No vocal minority of green-minded Tory back-benchers could have achieved that.

Our two London Assembly members have more influence on London’s policy framework than any Tory in the GLA because we hold the casting vote every year on the Mayor’s budget. Without our support it doesn’t pass, so we have steadily increased the amount of hard cash going into the fight against climate change in London (£150 million this year) while the other parties have to sit on the sidelines. Norwich City council now plans to reduce carbon emissions by 6% a year, thanks to 12 Green Councillors, and just three Greens in Kirklees helped turned Huddersfield into the solar power capital of the UK.

I think in the end you will learn the mistake you have made. At the next general election, both you in Richmond Park and Green MEP Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion are likely to be elected to Westminster.

Caroline will be free to say what she likes, heading up the new Green Party opposition group. You, on the other hand, will have to negotiate with people who have very different feelings about what is acceptable to say to their voters. You will also have to steer a tricky course between your advancement in the party and saying what you really believe. I think you will have some painful decisions to make, and you may find that Caroline is saying the things you can only think.

Read Zac Goldsmith's article responding to Sian's original post

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
Photo: Getty
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Lowering the voting age is the best way to protect the franchise we've fought so hard for

Empowering young people is the best way to renew civic and political engagement.

Too many believe that politics isn’t working for them. That those who make decisions are not acting in their interests. And too often, narrow interests win over the wider public interest. Our economy isn’t working either. It never will until we repair our fragile politics.

When I was leader of Oldham Council I recognised that to reform, it must open up. It needed to bring forward ideas and challenges from all those who are affected by decisions taken in their name.

We gave constitutional rights for the youth council to move motions and reports at our full council meeting. We opened up our meetings with live web-streaming and questions from all residents. And we embraced social media, combined with instant comments, which were shown in the chamber during debates.

It opened up democracy and gave councillors an insight into issues which affect young people. But two things stood out. The first was that many of these issues are the same ones which affect the wider public. But they are affected in different ways by decisions or the lack of action by government. Second, and most importantly, while we were engaging young people they had no say over who was making decisions on their behalf.

So of crucial importance to me is how we bolster democracy to weather the challenges it faces today and in the future. Recent events at home and abroad have convinced me of the importance of this. There are two separate approaches that parliament must take. Firstly, we must devolve more power from central government to local communities. And secondly, we must at all costs renew civic and political engagement here in the UK. I’ve come to believe that getting more and more young people engaged in politics is fundamental to realising this second point. And I see lowering the voting age as key to cementing this.

I hear the arguments against this loud and clear. Eighteen is the official age of independence. Eighteen is when someone forms their world view. And 18 is when reasoned, judgemental thought suddenly kicks in. On that basis, the years preceding that are presumably some kind of wilderness of rational thinking and opinion forming. Someone even tweeted at me this week to inform me that under-18s don’t know what they want for dinner, let alone how to vote.

Needless to say, I find all these points unconvincing and in some cases dismissive and patronising.

I speak with people even younger than 16 who have coherent views on politics, often a match for any adult. They even know what they want for dinner! And I am of the strong belief that empowering young people through a wider enfranchisement will speed up this development. Even better if votes at 16 is accompanied by compulsory political education in the preceding years.

So if your argument is that young people are too immature, that they lack political knowledge to be given the vote, or that they aren’t responsible enough – then I say to you, bring on lowering the voting age! As my argument is that empowering young people to vote will help overcome these challenges where they exist.

But where do other countries sit on lowering the voting age? Admittedly, among western democracies, the UK would be taking a bold step-forward. In Europe, it’s only Austria where all 16-year-olds can vote. There are some patchwork exceptions to this closer to home. For example, the voting age on the Isle of Man is 16. And this week we heard that the Welsh Assembly is considering lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections.

Outside of these scant examples, there is little precedent for change. However, we shouldn’t find ourselves cowed by this. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote.

200 years ago on Tandle Hill in Royton hundreds of protestors, who had travelled from nearby mill towns like Oldham and Rochdale, gathered together. They were preparing to march on Peters Field in Manchester on a summer’s day in August 1819. What was at stake was a greater say in parliamentary decisions, at a time of famine and widespread poverty. Non-land-owning workers were entirely excluded from the franchise. By the end of the day, government cavalry had cut down 14 protesters, and injured hundreds more. In 1832 only men renting or owning valuable land were given the vote. And it wasn’t until 1918 that all men were included in the franchise.

This month we remember the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The sacrifices made during the First World War by our working-class men and boys, 250,000 of whom were under 18, was a catalyst for extending the vote to all men.

Next year we celebrate 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage. In Oldham, Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst fought tirelessly. They would both be arrested before seeing that privilege granted to only some women in 1918. Today it is sobering to think that women didn’t have the vote before 1918.

And it was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK. Prevalent then were exactly the same arguments that stop 16- and 17-year-olds voting today.

While we recognise the fight of others, we fail in our duty if we believe the fight for democracy is settled.

So I draw inspiration from how the franchise has steadily grown throughout our history. And I reflect on the acts of courage, grit and determination that have won us that change. With the extension of the franchise have come the liberties, freedoms and values that make our society what it is today. It hasn’t happened of its own accord. Lives have been lost and bold steps have been taken for us to enjoy placing that cross alongside the candidate of our choosing.

This cannot be seen as a way to shift the political debate to young voters either. Many older voters, including many of my friends and family, feel that politics isn’t working for them either. Reducing the voting age isn’t the silver bullet to address that disconnect, but it is vital to strengthening connect between decision makers and those who pay taxes.

I welcome the debate on lowering the voting age. A debate about once again spreading the freedoms and responsibilities of our society to many more people. And I’ll match arguments against this every step of the way. Because I am clear in my mind that defending the franchise and extending the franchise are two sides of the same coin.

Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

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