The mood darkens as civil society is shut out of COP15

The early hope and empowerment in Copenhagen is dying as it transforms into a gathering of elite men

The past week in Copenhagen has seen temperatures and tensions rise, building up to the arrival of Barack Obama today. But it's the thousands of ordinary people who travelled to the city with the full intention of being a part of this agreement who are feeling the worst of the burn. Protests, clashes with police and arrests have escalated since Saturday's predominantly peaceful march. The mood among NGOs and campaigners is dark.

One of the factors that has defined this conference is the overwhelming civilian presence. Twenty thousand accreditations were issued to non-governmental agencies for the conference centre, and that figure doesn't touch on the numbers speaking, writing and blogging from fringe venues and events around the city.

The unprecedented scale of the non-governmental presence has had a profound effect on the spirit here. There was a sense at the beginning of the week that sheer popular will meant this summit could not fail -- or at least could not afford to. Hordes of journalists, campaigners and bloggers came, determined to break down layers of political jargon in a quest for transparency.

Thousands of ordinary people came too, wanting, like Simone Lovera, a volunteer forest campaigner and indigenous Paraguayan, "to tell the world that climate catastrophes are not the problems of tomorrow -- we are already living with it".

However, for the past three days, access to the talks has been strictly restricted and quotas have been put in place for observers. On Wednesday, Friends of the Earth was the first to fall victim to the civilian cull. FoE representatives were stopped on entry to the centre and the organisation's entire international contingent was greeted by Yvo de Boer himself, who told them organisers were acting on "intelligence" that they had been planning to disrupt talks with a mass walkout.

Dumbfounded and more than a little insulted, the group staged a sit-in in the centre's foyer. Executive director Andy Atkins reflected the mood among NGOs yesterday when he said "the Copenhagen conference is fast becoming an international shambles".

At a press conference on Wednesday evening, de Boer made a comment on the transparency of the conference. "If you ever witnessed a G8, G20 or EU summit where whole city centres are closed off, with containers and warships circling the venue, I don't believe . . . that there is anything anywhere where you have such access and transparency," he said.

This has been true until now. Ousting Connie Hedegaard from her role as conference president and replacing her with the Danish prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, was a symoblic gesture. This summit has rapidly changed from a meeting of "united nations" into an elite gathering of the world's most powerful men.

Today only 1,000 independent observers will be allowed access to the talks. As the doors closed to civil society, the hope and sense of empowerment I felt among the people on Saturday's march are beginning to feel like a sad joke.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.