Tesco, hurricanes and Chernobyl

I’ve left Chelsea tractor country this week for Hove and the Green Party’s autumn conference.

This is a huge one for me: as Campaigns Co-ordinator I’m running a stand promoting this year’s big green energy and local shops campaigns; I have a big policy motion on the agenda to bring together our policies to help small businesses; and on Saturday I have two fringe meetings to chair and a rehearsal on the beach for activists who are coming to Scotland next month as part of a 100-day blockade of the Faslane nuclear weapons base. (The weather forecast is for a hurricane so I’m a little worried we will all be swept out to sea.)

And on top of all that I am standing as a candidate for female Principal Speaker on next year’s executive so I’ll be making my hustings speech on Saturday to try to convince the Party that I would be a worthy successor to the great Caroline Lucas MEP as one of our main public faces.

It took ages just to write all that down, never mind fitting it all in over the next few days, and of course I’m also aiming to blog all this here, so we’ll see how that fits in – please excuse me if my grammar goes all John Prescott in the rush.

It is fitting to have our conference in Brighton and Hove this year – along with Norwich this is the Greenest city in the country. For the last two general elections, Brighton Pavillion has been our best parliamentary constituency and we have twice as many councillors here as the Liberal Democrats. So, imagine my dismay on emerging from Brighton station this morning to find the place thick with the ‘yellow menace’.

I try not to get too frustrated with the LibDems, I really do, but their lack of principle does get to me. Most of them, particularly on local councils, seem to have joined simply to get elected. In contrast most Greens are first and foremost interested in ‘the cause’ and can’t wait to tell you the gory details of their conversion.

This will sounds like a joke, but one of the major sponsors of their conference is actually Tesco. Yes, you read that correctly. Tesco is of course sugaring the pill - using the conference to promote their new ‘Community Plan’ and boast about their aim to be a ‘good neighbour’. But if the LibDems are prepared to let Tesco propagandise to their members in exchange for a few quid, then you have to wonder where else they will be prepared to compromise.

I could go on about this for a dozen pages, but I think the real problem with the LibDems was put best by the Green Party protestors who this morning picketed their conference to expose their record on local councils, supporting road-building and airport expansion virtually across the board. Given they were holding a ‘Climate Crazy Ming’ banner, I’ll have to admit we’re not above a bit of name-calling when it’s deserved!

Almost the whole of the conference today is taken up with education issues. We’ll be updating our education policy over the next six months, so have invited a very wide range of interesting groups and individuals to Hove to tell us what they think we should be doing.

This agenda was set up months ago, but it’s a stroke of luck that there has been so much noise on the subject of ‘the purpose of education’ and ‘the state of childhood’ lately. There are definite signs that many influential figures are moving towards the Greens’ point of view in this area.

As well as the recent open letter to the Daily Telegraph, signed by everyone from psychology professors to poets, the Children’s Society and the Archbishop of Canterbury have also chipped in during the last week to launch a two-year inquiry that will look at the effects of recent changes in education on children’s wellbeing.

The sessions today made it obvious that most Greens are once again way ahead of the agenda on an important issue. We have always insisted education practice should be about developing human beings not economic units, and negotiated between the young and their teachers - not a quantified ‘service contract’ to help employers and parents mould young people in their image.

At a packed fringe run by the Young Greens today, our student rep at the London School of Economics described it as ‘a production line for the City of London’ and criticised current education practice - starting in schools – for turning kids into corporate clones at younger and younger ages. The other main speaker was keen to see the student voice given real power in schools, sitting on governing bodies as well as helping to design government policies and the curriculum. She was right – how can we expect young people to begin turning up to vote at 18 when they have had no power over their lives at all before then?

But while our philosophy on education is bang on target, it is true that many of the specifics of our education policy do need updating. This is not our fault but simply thanks to the vast number of new initiatives and ‘reforms’ brought in lately by New Labour (many of which we wouldn’t even have suspected of Thatcher at her height).

In fact, in contrast to most criticisms we hear about Green policies, the policies we have on education are packed full of things we are in favour of, but doesn’t cover half of what we’re against (these include student loans, tuition fees, SATs, trust schools, and selection - in case you were wondering).

This evening I’m off to see a film about Chernobyl. I’ll post more tomorrow when we’ll be talking mainly about social enterprise (and no that does not include Tesco’s ‘Community Plan’).

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 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.