Election 2010: the Best and the Worst

Five high points and five low points from election night.

The best

1. That we don't have a majority (neo)Conservative government, and that the truly frightening prospect of the fanatical neocon warmonger Dr Liam Fox as defence secretary may still be avoided.

2. The likelihood that we'll get a move to a more democratic voting system, which will lead to the break-up of our traditional parties and reinvigorate our political system, as I argued here.

3. The re-election of the solidly anti-war John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and some other genuinely leftist Labour MPs.

4. The conduct of Gordon Brown. As regular readers will know, I'm no fan of Brown's neoliberal policies, but I must admit to admiring the way he has conducted himself over the past 48 hours. His speech outside No 10 yesterday was very measured and politically very astute. (On the subject of Brown, here is a very interesting piece on the Blairite plot to replace him with David Miliband in the event of a Lab/Lib coalition.)

5. Er, that's it.

 

The worst

1. The defeat of George Galloway in Poplar. The neocon warmongers, who are itching either to attack Iran or to destroy the country by imposing swingeing new sanctions, will be gloating that their strongest critic in the UK won't be in the next parliament.

2. The way that the cult of celebrity has infected election-night television coverage. Did you want to hear the views of Bruce Forsyth, David Baddiel and the "property guru" Kirstie Allsopp on a hung parliament? No, me neither.

The BBC spent £30,000 of OUR money on a freebie junket for millionaire celebs and hangers-on, all of whom were perfectly capable of paying for their own wine and champagne. All at a time when we're told that the state must curb its spending drastically. It's beyond parody.

3. The contestant from The Apprentice -- I didn't catch her name -- who seemed to imply that public-sector workers should be disenfranchised because they don't vote the way she wants them to.

4. The way that working-class voices are nowadays almost totally excluded from election night, and indeed during the election campaign. Solidly upper-middle-class presenters, introduce solidly upper-middle-class analysts and then interview solidly upper-middle-class politicos. If you're working class you can sod off -- unless your name is Mrs Gillian Duffy, and you make comments about eastern Europeans "flocking" here and have a spat with Gordon Brown.

It hasn't always been like this. I recently rewatched the BBC's coverage of the 1979 election night, the last election before the neoliberal era. There were regular interviews with trade union leaders, and interviews with workers and ordinary people (including a cleaning lady), about how the result would affect them. Today all the talk is about how the markets will respond and what the City thinks of the result.

And what's the end result in this most upper-middle-class of elections? Two upper-middle-class public school/Oxbridge-educated politicians discuss how they're going to form the next government. Welcome to the classless Britain of 2010.

5. The election of the solidly middle-class Blairite carpetbagger Luciana Berger (a candidate who didn't even know who Bill Shankly was) in the solidly working-class seat of Liverpool Wavertree. If only Ricky Tomlinson had stood against her. Let's hope he does in October.

Anyway, that's my "best and worst". How about yours?

This post originally appeared on Neil Clark's blog

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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.