No time to think

Speeches, TV appearances, canvassing, photocalls - Sian's had a busy week!

It’s been one of those weeks where I’ve had no time to muse about anything. Combine a busy week in the by-election campaign with the Queen’s speech, a crucial local planning committee and a couple of long-standing appointments for media interviews, and all I seem to have done is rush from place to place with my phone glued to my ear.

There’s no obvious way to link all this together. So for once, here’s my contribution for the week in the highly original form of a diary.

Sunday?

Out canvassing in Kentish Town, I get a call from a recently retired Labour councilor in Camden, who lives in the ward and says he wants to help our campaign. He has written a letter to voters explaining why he left Labour, why he is dismayed with the new LibDem/Tory council, and urging people to vote Green instead. He thinks it might be useful for one of our leaflets. This is the best news I could have had to start the week. Urgent revision of leaflet plans for the weekend ensues.

Monday?

A normal day of work (I’m learning to make Flash animations for a new project, much to the disgust of my programmer friends) followed by a telephone conference of the Green Party’s Political Committee. We’re discussing our response to what is likely to be both a disappointing (climate change) and frightening (law and order) Queen’s Speech the following day.

Tuesday?

Before work, I meet up with Jenny Jones, one of our London Assembly members, for a photocall in Kentish Town, where we are highlighting problems with air quality on the high street. Figures we obtained from the council show nitrogen dioxide levels are 50% above EU legal limits, and we have an action plan to bring them down (see my previous blog ‘Ken vs the black snot’ for more about air quality in London).

The photographers have me literally climbing over Jenny’s shoulders to fit the two of us holding our noses, the traffic and the Kentish Town sign all into the shot. Jenny is very good about this, considering I’m about double her size.

At lunchtime I pop down to LSE to join a ‘Living Wage for Cleaners’ demonstration. Aled Fisher, the Green ‘Environment and Ethics’ officer on the student union there has organised this campaign to get a living wage for the cleaners at LSE and, complete with mops and buckets, dozens of us are picketing a meeting of the University grandees.

I spend all the rest of the day on the phone being briefed on the Queen’s speech and carbon dioxide targets, as well as discussing the fact that the consultation on the increased Congestion Charge for gas-guzzlers is beginning. Do a short radio interview for IRN about the Climate Bill, and decide to do an ITV interview on the same subject rather than BBC London on the Congestion Charge, which our London Assembly members will cover. At the last minute, ITV cancel because they have decided to concentrate on the scary law and order parts of the Queen’s Speech instead - typical.

Wednesday?

Very little madness today, thank goodness. I spend the evening preparing parts of a speech to be given on Thursday at Camden’s planning committee by the head of the Kings Cross ‘Think Again’ campaign.

I’ve been working for several years trying to get a greener development on the site behind Kings Cross station, which is the biggest brownfield site in the UK at the moment. The Think Again campaign is a collaboration between local groups including the conservation area committees, who want to see more old buildings retained (there are also sound ecological reasons for this); the Kings Cross Railwaylands Group, which has been working for twenty years to get a decent number of family homes on the site; plus a whole range of others, including the Regent’s Network, who want to the canal used for transport again (another very eco-friendly initiative).

The committee rules say that all the objectors wanting to speak have to share 10 minutes, so we’ve all donated our time to the pool and are contributing our brief points to one speech to save time.

Thursday?

The planning committee this evening was a thoroughly depressing experience. We are able to make our short presentation, but the developers Argent get much longer and use it to make emotive speeches about it being their wedding anniversary (!) and giving vague assurances that they are nice people who mean only the best for us all.

They of course don’t give an inch on any of the improvements we want to see. Far from feeling bad at someone missing an anniversary dinner, my heart goes out to all the overcrowded families living in the area who have already spent years trying to get a bigger place, and who will have to wait much longer now for a suitable home.

At least on the environment side the developers know that we’ll be watching them like community-minded hawks, and I think we can get more concessions as the development progresses and regulations change. But the housing provision is now fixed forever, unless we go for the ‘nuclear option’ of taking the whole case to the High Court. We’ll be making plans for that soon, and I hope we decide we can do it, despite all the time and money involved.

Friday?

It’s a media day. I no longer work on Fridays so the press office knows to organise most of my interviews for today. In the morning I’m at the GMTV studios on the South Bank for an interview about being Principal Speaker (yes I have to explain all that again – sigh!), and about the Climate Bill. All that briefing seems to have paid off as what seems like thousands of facts and figures come pouring out of my mouth. It seems to go quite well, but as it’s being shown before 7am on Sunday I’m not sure who will notice.

The afternoon is very surreal: a photo shoot in a rainy back garden for Grazia magazine with Lucy Siegle, the Observer’s ethical living columnist and Safia Minney, founder of the People Tree fair trade clothing company. It’s a piece about “Three Green Queens,” as Lucy describes it. We’re being dressed in ethical clothes for the photos, a funky mixture of designers like Katherine Hamnett and eclectic vintage pieces. Everything’s gone terribly eighties lately, and I end up in two very ‘new romantic’ outfits, including a green beret, which is almost too literal given the title of my blog here. Grazia does treat current affairs quite seriously compared with most glossy magazines, so I’m hoping some of my politics as well as my radical downsizing lifestyle ideas come across in the interview to go with the pics.

Saturday?

Back on the campaign trail in Kentish Town, which you may have noticed I have been neglecting for a few days. This weekend we’re delivering consultation letters about a noisy nightclub in part of the ward and a leaflet containing the letter from the former councillor to the whole ward, as well as canvassing an entire polling district by the end of Sunday.

We get an amazing turnout today. So many people turn up that all the leaflets get taken for delivery straight away, and we don’t have any left for the people coming on Sunday. At home again, I print out canvass sheets for the morning and then email round the volunteers to warn them they’ll be sent canvassing if they come along to help. I then get an unfamiliar early n... zzzzzz

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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Labour can be populist and English without copying Donald Trump

There's nothing deplorable about discussing the common interests of the people.

As Labour’s new populism gears up for Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent, it will be tested on voters who are, by a significant measure, more likely to see themselves as English. In the 2011 census, both constituencies scored "English" identity nearly 10 per cent higher than the English average and still 5 per cent higher than England outside of London.

It’s no surprise that both Ukip and the Tories have polled well in these places. In the 2015 general election there was strong correlation between feeling "English", or feeling "more English than British", and voting Ukip and Conservative. Indeed, amongst the "English not British" Ukip took about a third of the votes across England, and the Tories a fifth. Labour lagged below 15 per cent.

Labour’s problems may be getting worse. A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, showed "Englishness" gaining at the expense of "Britishness" in the year of Brexit. At the extremes, "English not British" rose by 5 per cent (from 14 per cent to 19 per cent), with ‘British not English’ falling by a similar amount. If past relationships hold, these voters will become harder for Labour to reach.

Although most people in England would favour an English Parliament, or English MPs alone voting on English issues, these have not yet become the political demands of an explicit nationalism as we might find in Wales, Scotland or Catalonia. Indeed, there’s no actual evidence of a direct link between feeling English and the way people vote. It well be that the underlying factors that make someone feel English are also those that incline them, overwhelmingly, to vote Brexit or to support Ukip.

We may identify the drivers of English identity - the declining power of the idea of Britain, the assertiveness of devolution, rapid migration and the EU - but we know little about the idea of England than lies behind these polls. There’s almost certainly more than one: the England of Stoke Central imaginations may not be identical to the Twickenham RFU car park on international day.

One of the most persistent and perceptive observers of alienated working class voters sheds some light on why these voters are turning towards their English roots. According to The Guardian’s John Harris:

"When a lot of people said ‘I’m English’, they often meant something like, ‘I’m not middle class, and I don’t want to be…. I’m also white, and coupled with the fact that I’m working class, I feel that somehow that puts me at the bottom of the heap, not least in the context of immigration. But I am who I am, and I’m not apologising for it.'" People who said "I’m English" seemed to be saying, 'I’m from somewhere' in a ways that politicians and the media did not."

Given Labour’s history in seats where support is ebbing away, it’s reasonable to think that the party’s target must be the voters who Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus describes as "left-wing nationalists". In this definition, "left-wing" attitudes tend to be be anti-capitalist, hostile to business, generous on benefits, support the welfare state and redistributive taxation. "Nationalist" attitudes are seen as isolationist, against immigration, disliking EU freedom of movement, thinking British means "born here" and that Britons should be put first.

For many in Labour, those nationalist attitudes might bring "a basket of deplorables" to mind.  In recent days both the Corbyn left, and centrist MPs like Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting, have warned against meeting these voters’ concerns. Progressive Labour populists must also calm those fears. But Labour will be doomed as a party of government it it can’t reach these voters (even if it does hang on in the forthcoming by-elections). The obstacles are formidable, but with the right language and framing, Labour may find an appeal that could cut through without alienating the party's more liberal support.

Just acknowledging that England, and the English, exist would be a start. The reaction to Birmingham mayoral candidate Sion Simon’s appeal to England in a campaign tweet simply emphasised how much of Labour prefers to say Britain, even when they mean England. We don’t need a swirl of St George crosses at every event; we just need to use the word in normal everyday conversation. At least we would sound like we live in the same country.

The defiant cry to be recognised and heard should trigger another Labour instinct. The demand that the nation should be run in the common interests of the people runs deep through radical history. Jeremy Corbyn reached for this with his talk of "elites rigging the system". But no ordinary English conversation ever talks about elites. Instead of "mini-me Trumpism", English Labour populism needs careful framing in the language of day-to-day talk. Labour's target should be not be the wealthy per se, but those powerful people whose behaviour undermines the national interest and by doing so undermines the rest of us.

This language of national interest, both conservatively patriotic and politically radical, meets the mood of the moment. The select committee challenges to Amazon, Google, Philip Green and Mike Ashley struck a chord precisely because they revealed something deeply true and unpleasant about this land. We can defend the national interest without invoking a racist response. Why are our railways sold to other governments, and our companies sold abroad for quick profit? Why should it be easier for a foreign gangster to buy a house in Surrey, and hide their ownership overseas, than for an English family to get their own home?

By asking what any change means to the people of England, we might bridge the divide on immigration. If the impact of migration is exacerbated by the pressure on housing and service, let Labour make it clear that the rate of immigration should not exceed the pace we can build homes for those already here, as well as any newcomers. The government must be able to expand services to meet additional needs. If every policy should work in the interests of the people of England, migration which improves our services, creates jobs and grows the economy is to be welcomed. It is hard to see a genuine liberal objection to posing the migration challenge in that way. With the exception of refugees, immigration policy cannot be designed to benefit the migrant more than the resident.

Let the test of every policy be whether it works in the interests of the people of England, or works only for a few. That’s a simple test that would appeal to widely shared values. It could be the foundation of a genuine Labour populism that speaks to England.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University