Boosting green entrepreneurs

Sian Berry argues the slow growth in green industries demonstrates more action is needed

It’s amazing how slowly things happen sometimes. This week I visited Pli Design, one of a growing number of green manufacturing companies in south east London, at their workshop in Dulwich. While we filmed a short report on business policy for the local news, the owner, Christopher Pett, told me how he imagined, when they started making sustainable furniture in 2003, that they would be jumping onto the back of a well-filled bandwagon. In fact what he found was that he was joining a very small group of business people who can only be described as pioneers.

The slow growth in green industries means unfortunate gaps in the supply chain, too. When looking for an alternative to formaldehyde-filled MDF, Chris found that he couldn’t source eco-friendly, waste straw fibre, compostable fibreboard from anywhere in this country. No company in the UK was able to supply him, so importing materials from China was the only option. This is a shame when we’re not exactly short of waste straw in this country and could easily make what he needs closer to home.

What we do have, however, is lots of old, unwanted games consoles, leading to what I found the most exciting of Pli’s products. The ‘Reee’ chair has been made possible by the European WEEE Directive, which means producers of electronic equipment have to collect back old products at the same time as filling the world with new gadgets.

The plastic casings from games machines are an ideal raw material for the back and seat of the Reee chair. Being a ‘pure’ material, in contrast to most plastic collected for recycling from households (which is mixed up with all kinds of other bits and pieces) its mechanical and aesthetic properties are known precisely. And, while the plastic’s flame retardant content is too low to meet regulations for new games consoles, it has excellent fireproofing by office chair standards.

The reason I’m so excited by this is that it’s a great example of real re-cycling, not the down-cycling you get with mixed collections, which means recycled products are often lower-grade and lower-tech than the original product. And, because the material is kept pure while making the chairs, it can be used again for a similar grade product in the future. This is fantastic stuff, but in one way it’s also quite depressing. William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s inspiring book ‘Cradle to Cradle’ was published back in 2002, but this is the first time I’ve actually met with a business that is really putting their principles into practice.

The fact is we’re changing things far too slowly, which is why I’m hoping my campaign for the London elections this year can do more to help businesses like Pli to grow, and help more businesses working in green manufacturing to spring up right across the city.

The major problems these companies face is the availability and cost of premises, and the difficulty - as a small company - of securing contracts to supply larger businesses and public bodies. The new planning rules I propose, which will require workshops and office to be made available at affordable rents in new developments, will see opportunities increased for start-up businesses. And to help them grow, I am proposing a central hub that will compile joint bids for larger contracts from a range of smaller, local businesses.

Providing this service will solve problems for both buyers and suppliers. For the small businesses, it’s risky to rely heavily on one customer, so a clearing house that spreads the risk across a range of contracts is ideal. On the other side, buyers for public bodies and large companies may want to support smaller companies, but may be put off by the complexities of setting up multiple contracts – problems which are also eased by having a central point of contact.

These plans are integral to building a better economy for London. The problem is that we are far too reliant on a small number of large companies for employment, and far too reliant on cheap oil to import almost everything we consume. By helping companies like Pli and building up a more diverse economy, we are also building an economy that will be more resilient to whatever problems develop in our current major industries. After all, what are the Greens for, if not building a more secure future?

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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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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