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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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.