Marching on Labour

Today was another hectic day at conference. Aren’t they all?

Caroline Lucas gave a superb keynote speech this morning. Always brilliant when she talks about the Labour government’s disgraceful and immoral foreign policy, she demanded that the whole Labour Party be called to account for the war - not just Blair.

Conference was slightly depleted today because lots of Greens have travelled to Manchester to join the huge anti-war march. They are picketing the Labour party conference, which is starting as our’s winds down. Earlier on, in her speech, Caroline had rightly pointed out that Greens are not that interested in the Labour leadership fuss. It drives us mad that people think Brown might be any different to Blair - as believable as Cameron creating an entire new Tory Party with a flick of his fringe.

The rest of my day has really been all about energy. Not expecting an immediate switch to a Green government we are spending a lot of time this year campaigning to change the government’s cosy relationship with nuclear power - whether it’s being wielded through dangerous weapons or used as an excuse not to get serious about saving energy and developing green technologies. The likely renewal of Trident is a particularly urgent problem.

This afternoon we had our first proper rehearsal for Faslane365 (the Greens are joining the Scottish Greens for a 2-day blockade of the nuclear submarine base later this year). Weeks of work fiddling around with props, and detailed planning worthy of the kind of military operation we’re totally opposed to, came off smoothly as a big gang of Greens came down to the sea front and did rather a good job of looking like a nuclear submarine. Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie came along to join us. He has already been arrested in 2004 for taking part in a blockade at Faslane, but says the Scottish police were very nice – interesting because I’m used to dealing with the Met.

My final event of the day, and the last formal event I’ll be involved in this conference has just finished: a fringe event about how we can change energy policy from the ground up by working with local councils to bring in small-scale renewable and combined heat and power (CHP) generation plants.

CHP can use a range of fuels, including fossil fuels, but saves a huge amount of energy by using both the heat and electricity generated in the plant in local buildings. Tom Tibbits our energy spokesperson pointed out that this is actually an old idea that is well worth revisiting and that Battersea Power Station in South London was originally built to both generate electricity and provide cheap heat to thousands of local residents.

Nowadays, CHP can be done without seriously affecting air quality and on a much smaller scale and (for now) the government is also providing grants to help councils and developers put it in. The money committed is pathetic (just £80 million compared with potentially £25 billion to be spent renewing Trident) so a key feature of our energy campaign is for our activists to help get as many grants taken up by local projects as possible, so that the funds are used up and the government has to admit that its energy policy is out of touch with what ordinary people want. We’ll see. There are also householder grants for renewable energy so apply now.

Well, that’s it from the Green conference. I think the coherence of this blog has declined in direct proportion to the amount of sleep I’ve had and the number of events I’ve been organising each day, so congratulations if you have managed to read this far in less than total confusion. Next week back to ‘normal’ life as a 4×4 campaigner.

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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To win power, Labour needs to start talking about giving it away

From the House of Lords to First Past the Post, the Labour Party must seek reforms to return power to the people.

The signs were there in 2010. The British electorate failed to give any single party a majority in the Commons, delivering what amounted to a vote of no confidence in Westminster. Since then, voters have taken every opportunity to inform to those sitting on the green benches that they are not content.

The independence referendum in Scotland was closer than many had predicted. The Labour leadership election [in 2015] brought another rejection of the Westminster way of doing things when hundreds of thousands joined the party to elect a leader who opposed the New Labour platform. But David Cameron assumed that the Conservative Party was immune to this spirit of insurgency. Confident that he and his chums could convince the electorate of the wisdom of EU membership, despite decades of anti-Brussels headlines, he rashly called a referendum without considering the implications of defeat.

As with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, those who felt that their voice was no longer heard at Westminster saw the referendum as an opportunity to have their say. Driven by a dispiriting sense that they had lost control of their fate, to the extent that they felt this was no longer their country, they voted to make the rest of us feel the same.

The urge to dismiss this as nothing more than spite should be resisted. These voters feel vulnerable. If we are to believe the majority of them when they say they are not racists – and I do – then we must accept that their complaints about immigration mask other concerns. My hunch is that if they were asked to rank security of employment, of housing and of health care in order of importance, each of these would be a higher priority than security of our borders. And the terrible irony is that a Brexit driven by free-market libertarians is likely to create an economy that is even less secure for low-paid workers and those who rely on support from the state.

If the Labour Party hopes to engage with those vulnerable voters, it needs to win back trust by first showing that it trusts the people. Labour should make accountability its watchword, giving all employees statutory rights, especially those kept on precarious terms by profiteering corporations. A reformed voting system would stop parties listening only to the voices of those living in key marginals. A democratic upper house would offer another opportunity for engaging with people from beyond the Westminster bubble. Devolving power to the English regions, giving them the final say over housing, employment and health care, would allow voters to take back control over their lives and also create a better balance between London and the rest of the country.

To win power, Labour first needs to start talking about giving it away.

Billy Bragg is a musician and campaigner

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition