Looking ahead in 2008

Sian Berry looks ahead to a busy year including the possibility of running for London mayor alongsid

2008 is going to be another eventful year for green and civil liberties campaigners.

In January we’re expecting announcements on two major campaigns I’m working on. Transport for London will soon release the results of their consultation on new Congestion Charge bands for high and low emission vehicles. By the looks of a recent opinion poll, which will also inform TfL’s decision, charging gas-guzzlers more remains popular amongst a big majority of Londoners (not surprising when nearly half of us in London don’t even own a car).

Later this month, we’ll also hear the government’s decision on who will be running the next census in 2011. I’ve blogged here before about our campaign to prevent arms manufacturing and intelligence gathering giant Lockheed Martin from getting the contract and undermining public confidence in the census. With recent government carelessness raising security concerns among the public about personal data, a decision in favour of Lockheed is looking increasingly self-defeating, as do plans to impose ID cards on us all.

Radio 4’s iPM programme picked up on the census issue a couple of weeks ago, and their interview with the Office of National Statistics showed they are taking the concerns we have raised into account and seeking to prevent the Patriot Act from sending all our details to the US intelligence agencies. The Census Alert petition is nudging into the top 150 of more than 8,000 on the Downing Street website, which isn’t bad but still maddeningly far behind the ‘Make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister’ petition. Perhaps Jeremy should join me in running for Mayor – even I’ll admit he makes more sense than Boris Johnson.

And at least Transport for London and the ONS seem to be taking the concept of public consultation seriously, unlike the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. According to the Independent, ‘within days’ new nuclear power stations will get the go-ahead from BERR following the government’s re-run ‘consultation’ on the issue.

This second exercise in coaxing a positive reaction out of hand-picked members of the public has been even less convincing than the first, which was thrown out by the High Court last February after a legal challenge by Greenpeace. The situation hasn’t fazed Secretary of State John Hutton. The Indy quotes sources in his department who are oddly proud of the underwhelming fact that, “dozens of individuals and organisations have contributed to the consultation.” Not sure that will impress the judge when the decision is challenged again by Greenpeace. They and other green organisations pulled out of the second process after being ignored and sidelined and are signalling their intention to take the matter back to court.

Later in 2008, the Climate Change Bill will continue its path through Parliament. With science telling us loud and clear that we must set emissions targets that will keep warming below two degrees, we will be watching closely to make sure the government commits to real action at last. Personally, I’ll also be keeping an eye out for the policies that will enable 7,000 new offshore wind turbines to be built by 2020. This intention was announced in a grand speech by John Hutton (him again) a month ago, but the details of how this will be achieved are thin, if not non-existent. Given that German-style feed-in tariffs, guaranteeing higher prices for clean energy, are by far the most efficient way of funding new renewables, we might just see the government’s perverse commitment to the comparatively useless Renewables Obligation dropped.

Aside from big projects, carbon savings in our daily lives will need to be stepped up this year too. Unfortunately, as outlined in an Observer article last week, polling organisations report worrying signs that the efforts of the other parties to make greener lives appear difficult and expensive may be paying off, with ‘green fatigue’ threatening to set in. People are reluctant to pay green taxes and change their lifestyles mainly because they don’t see the issue being taken seriously by business or government. “There's cynicism because on the one hand we're being told [the problem] is very serious and on the other hand we're building runways, mining Alaskan oil; there's a lot going on that appears to be heading in the opposite direction,” says Phil Downing of MORI.

Keeping the public behind green policies will therefore be a major challenge this year. Since last January, when I blogged about a new high for the environment in MORI’s ongoing ‘most important issues’ poll at 19%, the proportion of people bringing up environmental concerns with MORI’s researchers has dropped back to a much more modest 10% - still way higher than pre-2006 levels but now heading in the wrong direction.

It’s hardly a surprise people lost enthusiasm during 2007 when they saw so little of it from their political leaders. It couldn’t be more obvious that Gordon Brown is looking for an excuse to drop green issues from his agenda: climate change doesn’t even appear on his ‘big issues’ webpage. The Tories also gave the game away last year when their green policy document was repudiated with the ink still wet as soon as an election looked imminent. And, despite their good intentions, the Lib Dems’ mantra of ‘more green taxes’ is surely doing more harm than good to the public’s perception of green issues.

No, it looks like it will be up to us real Greens to make the case that action on climate change can be good for the pockets of ordinary people, not just for our consciences.

Refreshingly, some political previews of 2008 have given airtime to the concept of peak oil, and the fact that high oil and gas prices will become a permanent fixture this year and beyond. In this context, the policies we have planned for London – free insulation for homes, improved public transport with lower fares, more local food, more small and green businesses not complete reliance on the volatile financial sector – start to look like pure common sense, not just for green reasons, but for economic ones too.

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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.