The season to be silly? Or start preparing for a general election?

We have entered that period of the political season that is often referred to as the silly season. Silly because in the absence of hard political news from Westminster the papers often resort to other news to fill their pages, news that is often less than serious – and occasionally outright daft. Yes, after all the excitement of the installation of a new Head Boy the school term has ended and all the boys and girls have returned to their constituencies to pack their bags and go on their holidays. Or are they? As several political commentators have pointed out, the antics of our new Head Boy appear to be very much like those you would expect to see at the start of a general election campaign. So, despite the denials, should we expect one in the Autumn?

I ask this because, as the Green Party prospective parliamentary candidate for West Dorset, this will affect me directly. I will, for example, become very busy for several weeks, and will need to have answers prepared on a whole range of policy issues – some of which are impossible to answer without greatly offending someone. I have caught myself starting to construct considered responses to questions being asked of other politicians in the media. Psychologically, I think I’m starting to prepare myself.

I also expect some heated debate about the possibility of our local ‘progressive parties’ working together to defeat the Tory candidate (whoever that may be) and oppose our leaving the EU. In 2017, there was pressure on me to stand aside in favour of the Lib Dem candidate. Most of it, it must be said, from that candidate himself. In principle I’m against this, and for a number of reasons. Green Party supporters deserve to have a candidate of their own to vote for. We have been working hard locally to build our profile and support base. Not standing gives the impression that we are not serious, whilst standing gives us a great opportunity to further extend our message. Additionally, not standing, particularly if repeated in a number of constituencies, distorts the measurement of our national level of support, measurement that is then used against us.

However, I would be prepared to stand down provided this was formally agreed at the national level. This would require any party entering into such an agreement to commit, if in power, to a second referendum (and campaigning to remain) and to introducing some form of proportional representation. It would also require each party to agree in which constituencies they would stand down to provide a clear path for a ‘progressive candidate’ with a good chance of winning. I would expect this agreement to take a balanced approach; that if, for example, it was agreed that a number of Green Party candidates stood down in favour of Lib Dem candidates, that reciprocal arrangements were agreed elsewhere.

I have also suggested the idea of an ‘open primary’ for West Dorset. This would allow each of the ‘progressive parties’ to put forward their own candidate well in advance of an election. These candidates would then appear at a number of public debates across the constituency followed by a local election to select the one that would stand as the opposition candidate. Voters who want to take part in this process could register in advance and pay a small fee that would cover the administration costs of the primary. I accept that there are many fine details that need to be worked through to make this work, but I do think it worth some serious consideration.

So, just as my diary starts to ease of Dorset Council meetings and training sessions, just as I finally have time to do some reading (and perhaps even go away for a few days), I find myself starting to mentally prepare for a general election. Or should I just allow the silly season to wash over me?

Some reflections on political strategy, anarchism and responsibility

Dorset Council have started to create a number of Executive Advisory Panels focusing on specific areas of strategic development. These cross-party groups of about eight to ten elected members will listen to reports and assess the evidence from relevant council officers and other experts, and then advise the Cabinet on ways forward. Even accepting that these panels are only advisory, i.e. that the Cabinet is free to ignore their advice, I think that they are positive development – in principle at least. However, in some areas, and the Council’s response to the climate emergency in particular, I am fearful that this process will be overly cautious and too respectful of received opinion. Rather than research and consider what is possible on existing evidence, we need to commit to the necessary radical action and then work out how to bring these commitments about. Our response to the impending climate and environmental breakdown needs to be bold and brave, not considered and measured!

I am sitting on three of these panels. Apart from the one considering the climate emergency, I am also sitting on one looking at economic development – and this poses its own dilemma. It’s probably fair to say that my own understanding of the economy and the strategy we should be developing is somewhat at odds with other members of the panel. I would, for example, fully endorse Paul Mason’s comment in this week’s New Statesman that “Few people are yet prepared to accept that, to save the planet, we have to end capitalism – and on a timescale that even an ardent Leninist might find optimistic.” Which leaves me with a problem. If I simply express such an opinion I am more than likely to be simply side-lined by other panel members, regarded as some radical pest who’s intent on disrupting the process, and not even given a chance to explain my reasoning. However, if the need for change is as urgent as I believe it to be how can I simply sit back patiently waiting for the tide to turn? Any advice on this would be gratefully received.

Talking of the climate crisis (as I inevitably am), Richard Walton, of Policy Exchange, was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme earlier in the week, claiming that Extinction Rebellion were planning an anarchist revolution. In case you are not familiarwith Policy Exchange, it’s a right-wing think-tank that supports free-market solutions to political issues. I suppose that I should thank him. Apart from giving me a good laugh, he made me aware of a potential paradox regarding anarchism. Anarchists are usually regarded as being somewhat left of centre in the political spectrum, and whilst its proponents vary quite widely in what they actually believe they generally affirm the importance of individual freedom as a basic principle, view the state as being inconsistent with individual freedom, and propose various ways of building a better society without the state (description lifted from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy). Now, if I removed the reference to anarchists and being left of centre, to what extent would that description apply to neo-liberalism?

And talking of neo-liberalism (you have to admire the sequencing here, don’t you?), a comment by Will Storr, in his book Selfie, has sent my thinking about ‘responsibility’ (the discussion topic of this week’s Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group) into a state of confusion. I have generally approached this topic from the direction of Sartre’s ‘atheistic existentialism’ which declares “that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence”. The upshot of this is that humanity is first thrown into the world, and only attempts to define itself afterwards; that there is no human nature; that “Man [sic] is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” As there is no predetermined right action there is a great responsibility on individual human beings to consider what to do in any given situation – the responsibility for acting is theirs and theirs alone. To be honest, I have never given a huge amount of time to thinking through ‘responsibility’ in this context, but I have long since regarded myself as an ‘existentialist’. However, as Storr points out in relation to neo-liberalism, the ‘gig economy’ and ‘zero-hour contracts are “arrangements in which the responsibility of the employer is minimised, and that of the individual maximised”, and that there is a general sense in which workers are taking on personal responsibility for becoming better employees and better persons. I suspect that Sartre would not have approved of such an analysis, but I wonder how he would have responded?

The self, complexity, and coming to terms with being a councillor

I am currently reading, and greatly enjoying, Will Storr’s Selfie, his account of our obsession with the self and self-interest. One of the key ideas to emerge from this very well written and engaging book is that many neuro-scientists are now dismissing the idea of a core self, some intrinsic principle which is the true and authentic us, and instead talking about the multiple self. This ‘I’ is not one, but many; a number of different versions of who we are collected and formed from different social environments. I say all this not to get into a discussion about the ‘self’, but simply to point out that when armed with a fresh ‘interpretive framework’ our personal experiences can be brought into a much sharper focus.

For example, one of the long running narratives of my life has been not just an interest in philosophy, but to ask quite fundamental questions about my experiences. This has led me to explore various philosophical approaches, and formulate a certain understanding of the ‘human condition’. This ‘personal project’ forms a key narrative of who I am, but it is by no means the only one. Another key narrative of my life, one that is new and quite dominant at the moment, is that of local politician. Being newly elected to Dorset Council I find myself engaged in the process of establishing a role within what at times feels like an environment that everyone seems to understand except me. Absorbing and internalising the subtleties of a new social environment can be exhausting at the best of times, but when political game playing is added to the mix it can be quite overwhelming.

However, whilst participating in a councillor event this week, one focussing on the development of a Dorset industrial strategy, my philosophical narrative, or at least an element of it, managed to overcome the defences of my political narrative and offer some much needed assistance. We were being asked to rank certain elements of a possible industrial strategy in priority order when, out of the blue, work I had done years ago related to systems theory and complexity science, came charging to my assistance.

Social systems, which includes economic systems, can be (in fact should be) understood through the science of complex systems. This approach sees all the elements that come together to form the socio-economic system as a highly connected network, a network in which no element can be understood in isolation of any other element, and a network in which the flows of energy or information are highly non-linear. This means that our basic understanding of cause and effect does not apply; that because of various features such as feedback loops, very small inputs can have massive and unpredictable outputs and effects on other parts of the system. The only way to manage such systems is to try and grasp their dynamic complexity.

Which leads me to wonder whether its possible to so grasp perhaps the most dynamic and complex system of all – the human mind? Yes, I agree with the emerging evidence cited by Storr that there is no authentic self, and that we have a multiplicity of selves, but I’m wondering whether it’s possible to view ourselves not as a single unit, but as a single dynamic system, albeit one that is connected to other such systems in highly complex ways? I suppose I’m simply suggesting that it would be beneficial for all of us to develop an understanding of complexity; that developing our ‘interpretive frameworks’ to incorporate complexity may help us come to terms with ourselves and our place in the world.

The sun is shining, but Brazil sends a dark cloud

This last week has been one of the busiest, yet most stimulating weeks I have had for some time. Yesterday was Demand Democracy Day, a national campaign day calling for proportion representation, organised by Make Votes Matter. And here in Bridport, in glorious June weather, on one of those market days when the town centre is bustling with residents and holiday makers, we had a stall – talking to people about our unfair voting system and urging them to sign the MVM petition. As one person pointed out to me, this is probably the only issue on which I would agree with the Brexit Party.

In this week’s YouGov opinion poll, the Green Party was shown as having about 9% support. However, if a General Election were to be called (and I would not rule one out at any time following the crowning of the new Conservative Party leader) we would probably return just one MP. This is grossly unfair to this 9% of the electorate. No matter how good Caroline Lucas is (and she is good), her solitary voice in Parliament cannot do justice, cannot give a voice, to that degree of support. Fifty eight MPs, however…now that’s a different matter entirely! We could have some real influence with that number.

This week also saw the first meetings of Dorset Council’s cross party Climate Emergency Advisory Panel, and a small group set up by Bridport Town Council to produce a Climate Emergency Action Plan for the town. I sit on both of these. And I have to admit that I left both feeling far more positive that I had expected to. Regarding our Town Council, I suppose this should not have been a surprise, after all we have an excellent team of officers who are truly committed to rising to the challenge of our climate and ecological breakdown, and Bridport, particularly through the local Transition Town group, has long been active in this area. But even so, the energy and the ideas being generated is impressive, and I feel confident that we will have a comprehensive Action Plan to present to Council in October.

The Dorset Council panel however, being Tory dominated, was a bit more of a surprise, and for two reasons. First, because a list of thirty three actions that a council like Dorset can take to address this emergency, compiled by Friends of the Earth, is being taken seriously and was totally incorporated into our initial presentation. And second, because Extinction Rebellion, whose campaign has really impressed me, are also being taken seriously – so seriously that I think they are being invited to give a presentation to our next meeting in September. This, I really hope, bodes well, even though I was a little frustrated that, despite this being an emergency, we have to wait two months for our next meeting.

A day devoted to planning issues supplied some balance to my rising optimism. This was partly because I’m such a novice to this area of local government, and am therefore going through a very steep learning curve. But also because of the need to be far more prescriptive with regards to planning issues and our climate and ecological emergency than we are currently being. As a planning authority we need to work to a local development plan that has been approved by government and reflects their policies. Dorset, following the merger of several small planning authorities, is just starting the process of developing its own joint development plan. Until then we have to work with, and interpret, the old local plans the best we can

The production of this new development plan is a golden opportunity to ensure that all planning decisions reflect this emergency, but one that may also require a change of government policy. For example, the development of any greenfield site should be the exception, and should only be permitted when there is clear evidence that no brownfield site is available – even if this means relaxing certain areas of building control in towns. And, being a little more radical, permission to make extensions to already excessively large single-family domestic houses, or build such property in the first place, should be refused as a matter of principle. Not only are such projects a complete waste of valuable resources, resources with a carbon footprint, but are unethical when so many families are desperate for a home of their own.

But the story that really sobered me up was that reported by the BBC over several nights regarding the Brazilian rain-forest. This forest is being destroyed for purely commercial reasons, to create grazing space for cattle to produce beef. This action is simply beyond belief. These rain-forests are the lungs of the Earth. They supply 20% of our oxygen, and are the single biggest absorbers of carbon. And humans are destroying them…on purpose…for profit. And what is the UN doing? What is our government doing? National governments need to organise and say no to Brazil. They need to ban all imports of Brazilian goods until this practice is not only stopped, but reversed by a programme of re-forestation.