A green conspiracy against fun?

As a member of a genuine grassroots campaigning group, I have been riveted by the recent articles and Newsnight report by George Monbiot trailing his new book, Heat (now high on my growing reading list). These have been exposing what he calls the denial industry, a wide-ranging “network of fake citizens’ groups and bogus scientific bodies” funded by the oil and motor industries to cast doubt on climate science and inspired by the example of the tobacco industry.

Their strategy of sowing confusion and misinformation is very familiar to me. The Alliance Against Urban 4×4s highlighted the involvement of the Ford Motor Company in funding the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) http://www.cei.org/ in our leaflet for visitors to the British International Motor Show in July, using evidence from the excellent Exxonsecrets website.

The AEI’s big wheeze this year was a set of adverts on US television that praised carbon dioxide build-up as no danger but a friend of nature, essential for life. Scientists whose work was cited by the AEI have since disowned the ads and they thankfully never aired in the UK, but the messages seem to be reaching us anyway. Whenever I take part in a discussion programme or phone-in on 4×4s, similar myths about climate change make an appearance.

The huge sums of money invested in this public relations scam are what astound me most about the evidence Monbiot has collected together. And what makes me most depressed. The carpet cleaning expenses of the AEI alone would have paid for all the activities of the Alliance Against Urban 4×4s in the past few years.

Starting out in a pub with six people and a fifty quid whip-round three years ago, we have kept the campaign going largely by selling t-shirts and applying for small grants from other environmental organisations and foundations. Our most famous ‘school run’ demonstration, where we dressed up as lollipop ladies and teachers and handed out mocked up school reports to 4×4 drivers, cost us £100 – an amount most PR professionals would laugh at – but because our cause was valid and newsworthy it got us six months of regular publicity.

However, despite our modest means, it seems that a certain section of the population now believes we are part of a well-funded, top-down global environmental conspiracy out to ruin everyone’s fun. Michael Crichton’s 2005 novel State of Fear took this fantasy to its ultimate conclusion, depicting the environmental movement as a cabal of jet-setting megalomaniacs prepared to commit mass-murder to achieve their sinister aims.

There’s an obvious logical flaw in this. What possible aims could we have beyond concern for the planet and a desire for a way of life that might last beyond peak oil? People like Crichton will tie themselves up in knots inventing bizarre plots before they will admit that the race to be richer and accumulate more houses and cars may not actually appeal to everyone.

There are two pertinent facts I have noticed since I joined the green movement, which commentators like Crighton simply haven’t grasped. Fact 1 is that no environmentalist I know is in this for personal gain. They would be mad if they were because Fact 2 is that there isn’t any real money in being an environmental campaigner.

I can count the people I know who make their living solely from green campaigning on my fingers and toes. And if there are any greens maintaining a flash luxury lifestyle on the proceeds of their work I haven’t met them.

Instead, as the ecological emergency becomes more urgent, it is notable that more and more of my colleagues are in fact downsizing their careers and lifestyles, living the simplest life they can and deliberately earning and working less in order to find more time and energy for their campaigns.

At the Green Party’s spring conference this year, Scarborough Councillor Jonathan Dixon gave us a lesson in creative downsizing as part of a debate on energy. His advice was to be hard working and very good at your day job. Then, when you are offered a pay rise for being so great, ask to reduce your working hours instead. After a while you will find yourself with an equally rewarding career and, in addition, plenty of time to work on non-paying things like saving the planet - or indeed anything that takes your fancy.

Brilliant and inspiring stuff, even if Jonathan turns out to be sponsored by an international conspiracy intent on making everyone more civilized and contented - at any cost.

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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MP after a moonlighting job? I've got the perfect opportunity

If it's really about staying in touch with the real world, how about something menial and underpaid? Or reforming parliamentary rules on second jobs...

There she stood outside Number 10 on 13 July last year, the new Prime Minister pledging with earnest sincerity her mission to fight injustice and inequality, to “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”.

 “When it comes to opportunity,” she promised the ‘just managing’ millions, “we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few". Another new day had dawned

But predictably since then it’s been business as usual. If we needed proof, George Osborne has provided it: those who have so little must continue to go without so that the man with so much can have it all.

What would it take for Tory backbenchers to trouble Theresa May’s serenity? Not her u-turn on Brexit. Nor her denial of Parliament’s right to scrutinise the terms of the UK's uncertain future. Certainly not a rampant Labour opposition.

But were she to suggest that they give up their adventures in the black economy and focus on the job their constituents pay them for, she would face a revolt too bloody to contemplate.

Fifteen years ago, I introduced the short-lived Members of Parliament (Employment Disqualification) Bill. My argument was simply that being an MP is a full-time job for which MPs are paid a full-time salary. If they can find time to augment an income already three times the national average, they can’t be taking it seriously or doing it properly.

Imagine the scandal if other public servants - teachers perhaps or firefighters – were to clock off whenever they fancied to attend to their nice little earners on the side. What would become of Britain’s economy if employers were unable to prevent their workers from taking home full pay packets but turning up to work only when they felt inclined?

But that’s what happens in the House of Commons. Back in 2002, my research showed that a quarter of MPs, most of them Conservatives, were in the boardroom or the courtroom or pursuing lucrative consultancies when they should have been serving their communities. And it was clear that their extra-curricular activities were keeping them from their Parliamentary duties. For example, in the six month period I analysed, MPs with paid outside interests participated on average in only 65 per cent of Commons votes while MPs without second jobs took part in 91 per cent.

I doubt that much has changed since then. If anything, it’s likely that the proportion of moonlighting Members has risen as the number of Tory MPs has increased with successive elections.

Their defence has always been that outside interests make for better politicians, more in touch with the "real world". That’s entirely bogus. Listening to people in their surgeries or in their local schools, hospitals and workplaces provides all the insight and inspiration a conscientious MP could need. The argument would be stronger were absentee MPs supplementing their experience and income in the menial, insecure and underpaid jobs so many of their constituents are forced to do. But, they aren’t: they’re only where the money is.

It’s always been this way. The Parliamentary timetable was designed centuries ago to allow MPs to pursue a gentleman’s interests. Until relatively recently, the Commons never sat until after noon so that its Members could attend their board meetings – or edit the Evening Standard - and enjoy a good lunch before legislating. The long summer recess allowed them to make the most of the season, indulge in a few country sports and oversee the harvest on their estates.

The world has changed since Parliamentary precedent was established and so has the now overwhelming workload of a diligent MP. There are many of them in all parties. But there are also still plenty like George Osborne whose enduring sense of entitlement encourages them to treat Parliament as a hobby or an inheritance and their duty to their constituents as only a minor obstacle to its enjoyment.

Thanks to Osborne’s arrogance, the Committee on Standards in Public Life now has the unflunkable opportunity to insist on significant, modernising reforms which remind both MPs and their electors that public service should always take precedence over private interest. And if sitting MPs can’t accept that principle or subsist on their current salary, they must make way for those who can. Parliament and their constituents would be better off without them.

Peter Bradley was the Labour MP for The Wrekin between 1997 and 2005.