The perils of being a Green politician

I was supposed to have a quiet day today at the Green Party conference – fat chance. Most of the eve

I was supposed to have a quiet day today at the Green Party conference – fat chance. Most of the events I am organising won’t be happening until Saturday, but a lot of people are just now finding out that I’m standing for Principal Speaker and I am finding it hard to move around the conference centre here at Hove town hall.

Every few steps someone will stop to brief me on their specialist subject so that I can help promote it in the future. This may be frustrating when you’re on the way to the loo, but is really fascinating stuff.

Among other things, I’ve had a great talk with the architect of our ‘citizen’s income’ policy and one of the founder members of the party 33 years ago (longer than I have been alive!), a chat about ethical pensions and a heated debate on 4×4 campaign tactics with a councillor while he helped me put together the props for our Trident demonstration tomorrow.

All this has meant I have neglected the main conference programme, which is a bit of a shame as I had marked off tons of fringes and debates I didn’t want to miss, including a debate on social enterprises: organisations that link trade with a social mission. Half a million people in the UK already work in this sector, which just goes to show that having priorities other than profit can be good business sense. Never mind – I will just have to catch up on the news in the bar later on.

This morning I did speak in the main hall to propose my big local shops motion. Contrary to what many people think, we aren’t an ‘anti-business’ party, but restrict our support to enterprises that are ecologically sound and socially responsible. This translates in practice to liking local and small businesses but not big multinational companies that have terrible records on workers rights, massive carbon footprints and huge numbers of air and truck miles associated with their products. All fair enough, wouldn’t you agree?

We already had some good policies to support small businesses, but these were dotted about the various sections of our policy documents. I felt that we needed a dedicated chapter and some extra measures on the list, particularly because many local Green activists are running campaigns to help high streets and town centres that are in crisis thanks to out-of-town developers, greedy landlords and the predatory tactics of big supermarkets.

The motion was almost unanimously passed – a great relief - so we now officially support the introduction of ‘business conservation areas’, will insist new developments contain affordable space for small firms, will ban all new out-of-town developments, and will empower local authorities to bring in rent controls to prevent private landlords from driving up rents and forcing out independent retailers in favour of chain store ‘clones’.

Tomorrow promises to be even busier than today. Will I survive? Watch this space.

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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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