Going global against 4WD

Last week was a milestone in the battle against gas guzzlers - the first ever international conference of anti-4×4 campaigners.

Since the Alliance Against Urban 4×4s started two years ago, groups have been springing up in cities across Europe as the deadly 4WD trend has spread. We have been sharing ideas and artwork by email for a while and on Wednesday arranged a meeting, labelled it grandly ‘a summit’, and caught the early train to Brussels.

There are differences between our campaigns, mainly due to our different cultures (while parking tickets are an issue in most countries, only in the UK do teachers in caps and gowns strike a chord). However, we are all facing the same challenge of the motor industry selling more and more 4×4s to freedom-craving mums and dads as urban family cars.

First to present their ‘story so far’ were the hosts of the summit, Joeri and Jeroen from 4×4Info in Belgium. They are lucky to have the European Commission on their doorstep so can target the people responsible for setting (and we hope enforcing) Europe-wide targets for vehicle emissions.

Joeri recently infiltrated a popular Belgian news show to embarrass Commission President José Manuel Barroso on live television, showing a photo of his gas-guzzling 4×4: the massive VW Touareg (an anagram of ‘outrage’ as a helpful supporter pointed out the other day). The group has also invaded the local motor show and, for car-free day last month, created ‘the day of the living crash test dummies’ to highlight the dangers of 4×4s. They have kindly lent us their excellent costumes and we are now wondering if we should chuck ourselves in front of Chris Martin’s X5 or Jamie Oliver’s Range Rover.

Next up was the Swiss Stopoffroader group, represented by a pair of energetic Young Greens called Matthias and Marc. The main tools of their campaign have been stickers for the rear windscreens of 4×4s with surprisingly humorous slogans including, ‘Ich bin auch ein Panzer,’ ‘Gib Kindern keine Chance’ and ‘Ich saufe fur drei’ (‘I drink for three’ – the others are pretty obvious, even in German).

Thanks to a court decision clearing them of breaking the law, they are getting away with this tactic, which is something for us to think about as we have always steered clear of producing stickers for the UK.

Matthias and Marc also have the advantage of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy. Collecting 100,000 signatures will earn them a national vote on a Volksdirectiv, a ‘people’s law’ keeping cars that exceed emissions and weight limits out of cities. I expect they will succeed - their zeal has already gathered nearly 60,000 signatures in just a few months.

The Finnish 4×4 campaigner Lauri Myllyvirta was unable come to Belgium after being hit by the door of a 4×4 while cycling (the irony was not lost on us all). Instead he sent his apologies and a powerpoint presentation showing how his JunttiAuto campaign has made an impact in Finland even receiving legal threats from Toyota for their adbusting efforts. The campaign has also added a new word to the Finnish language. ‘Juntti’ means a backwards or ignorant man and combined with ‘auto’ sums up the 4×4 craze perfectly.

Sarah Connolly from the American organisation, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) was on an intercontinental mission to tell us about the progress of their Jumpstart Ford campaign, which has been targeting Ford’s SUVs for several years as part of a call for zero-emission cars. They have done a huge amount to expose the madness of a situation where the top-selling Ford SUV has lower fuel efficiency than the original Model T.

Helped by rising fuel prices, the campaign has been so successful it is temporarily on hold, with US car-makers (who rely almost wholly on SUVs for their profits) in turmoil after sales fell through the floor this year. RAN’s ‘Adopt a Dealer’ programme - taken up by groups ranging from students to nuns - has morphed into ‘Console a Dealer’ as car salesmen across America wait for the conclusion of merger talks. As well as passing on their wisdom to groups in Europe, RAN is now trying to work out a nice way to say, “We told you so. Now make us the clean cars we deserve!”

Charmingly calling 4×4s ‘les quatre-quatres’, French representative Stéphen Kerckhove, from green think-tank Agir pour l’Environment, told us how they set up anti4×4.net last year. He said that French citizens tend to expect government to deal with social problems like 4×4s and showed us their sticker and postcard campaign demanding eco-taxes for gas-guzzlers and calling on the mayors of large cities to bring in exclusion zones.

French manufacturers have been notable in steering clear of 4×4s so far, but news that Renault will be launching an SUV in 2008 has made them the target of action this week by Stéphen’s group. This event will also mark the launch of our new website: 4×4network.org, which includes the joint mission statement agreed on Wednesday and links to our campaign websites.

After a lot of discussion, we resolved at the end of the meeting to link up and work for common aims in future. After all, with a globalised motor industry insisting that controls on car emissions should only be introduced on an international scale, it’s about time we globalised our efforts 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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Commons Confidential: What happened at Tom Watson's birthday party?

Finances, fair and foul – and why Keir Starmer is doing the time warp.

Keir Starmer’s comrades mutter that a London seat is an albatross around the neck of the ambitious shadow Brexit secretary. He has a decent political CV: he was named after Labour’s first MP, Keir Hardie; he has a working-class background; he was the legal champion of the McLibel Two; he had a stint as director of public prosecutions. The knighthood is trickier, which is presumably why he rarely uses the title.

The consensus is that Labour will seek a leader from the north or the Midlands when Islington’s Jeremy Corbyn jumps or is pushed under a bus. Starmer, a highly rated frontbencher, is phlegmatic as he navigates the treacherous Brexit waters. “I keep hoping we wake up and it’s January 2016,” he told a Westminster gathering, “and we can have another run. Don’t we all?” Perhaps not everybody. Labour Remoaners grumble that Corbyn and particularly John McDonnell sound increasingly Brexitastic.

To Tom Watson’s 50th birthday bash at the Rivoli Ballroom in south London, an intact 1950s barrel-vaulted hall generous with the velvet. Ed Balls choreographed the “Gangnam Style” moves, and the Brockley venue hadn’t welcomed so many politicos since Tony Blair’s final Clause IV rally 22 years ago. Corbyn was uninvited, as the boogying deputy leader put the “party” back into the Labour Party. The thirsty guests slurped the free bar, repaying Watson for 30 years of failing to buy a drink.

One of Westminster’s dining rooms was booked for a “Decent Chaps Lunch” by Labour’s Warley warrior, John Spellar. In another room, the Tory peer David Willetts hosted a Christmas reception on behalf of the National Centre for Universities and Business. In mid-January. That’s either very tardy or very, very early.

The Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, is a financial maestro, having cleared the £25m debt that the party inherited from the Blair-Brown era. Now I hear that he has squirrelled away a £6m war chest as insurance against Theresa May gambling on an early election. Wisely, the party isn’t relying on Momentum’s fractious footsloggers.

The word in Strangers’ Bar is that the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock held his own £200-a-head fundraiser in London. Either the financial future of the Aberavon Labour Party is assured, or he fancies a tilt at the top job.

Dry January helped me recall a Labour frontbencher explaining why he never goes into the Commons chamber after a skinful: “I was sitting alongside a colleague clearly refreshed by a liquid lunch. He intervened and made a perfectly sensible point without slurring. Unfortunately, he stood up 20 minutes later and repeated the same point, word for word.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era