Is it time to prepare for a General Election?

The war in Ukraine has certainly taken the pressure off Boris Johnson with regards to the so called ‘partygate’ affair, with some commentators now regarding him as ‘safe’. But is he? Instead, I get the feeling that there will simply be a series of gaffs, some minor, some serious, until the majority of Tory MPs have simply had enough. This weekend, for example, in a speech at the Conservative Party Spring Conference, he compared the struggle of the Ukrainian people for freedom to the instincts of voters in the UK who supported Brexit. This comparison was not only bizarre, but deeply offensive to those people in Ukraine literally fighting for their lives – a feeling openly shared by several MPs at the conference. The question is, how close are we to a General Election? And how should we be preparing for it?

Chris Bowers, the Liberal Democrat advocate for a closer working relationship between Labour, Lib Dems and the Greens, has argued that whenever this election is called it is unlikely that Labour can win by itself. Gaining the 120 seats it would need to have a working majority, he said in a recent Guardian article, “is a near impossibility in the current electoral landscape”. I agree that the three parties need to work together in the run up to the next General Election, but on three conditions.

First, that there is a national agreement between the three parties. I think it important that there is a quid pro quo attitude to any coordinated approach to defeating the Tories, with no bullying of small parties at the local level by parties who feel they have a right to fight the seat. Any agreement should be done strategically and as objectively as possible. During the 2017 election, for example, as the Green Party candidate for West Dorset, I came under a lot of pressure from the Lib Dem candidate who gave the impression that he thought that both the Labour candidate and myself were simply obstacles to his victory. In one sense he may have had a point, but the situation in the West Dorset constituency needs to be balanced against those in constituencies in Bristol, Norwich and Brighton.

Second, that this is a one off deal. Whilst such an agreement would secure decent press coverage for the Green Party at the national level, thus ensuring that the Green Party are not side-lined, this would not necessarily be the case locally. If a local Green Party agreed to stand aside in a particular constituency on a regular basis this could quickly affect its support base and popularity. A General Election is a much higher profile event than local elections where interest and turn-out is relatively low. For most people local elections are about local issues, so it’s only at national elections that the big issues get talked about. And as important as local issues are, it’s how we respond to these national issues that will determine our future wellbeing.

Third, it should be an agreement to achieve an agreed objective. Over and above the removal of a party with a large working majority after gaining just 43.6% of the vote, we need to ensure that such unfairness does not occur again. All three parties need to agree, therefore, that reform of our voting system through the introduction of some version of proportional representation will be a priority for any new coalition government. This should not be a promise of a referendum on the issue, but an absolute pledge for reform prominent in all three election manifestos. A major obstacle to this, however, will be the Trade Union wing of the Labour Party. At their last conference the majority of Constituency Labour Parties supported a motion calling for PR, but the vote was lost due to trade union opposition.

The next General Election may seem a distant event with all that is going on at the moment. The general consensus is it will be in May 2024, to coincide with the local elections, but it could be as late as December of that year. Two years in not long, however, to reach such agreement. We need to start having a public discussion about the unfairness of our ‘first past the post’ system. We need to start imagining how coalition governments could be so much more representative of public opinion. We need start talking about what democracy means. And we need to start doing this now. The political landscape could change quickly if the May local elections do not go well for the Tories, or if the police report into ‘partygate’ results in possible criminal charges be brought. And who knows what scandal is lurking around the next corner? Any of these could force an early vote.

How to respond to Russian aggression?

No doubt the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been dominating your thinking this last week or so – it certainly has mine. Such events seem to provoke everyone into having strong views as to what is happening and what should happen next. Well, I certainly have a view, but I’m not sure how strong it is. It’s at times like this that I realise just how quickly a situation can escalate out of control, and just how irrational we humans actually are.

The most expedient response from this (and every other) country requires a good understanding of Putin’s motives, but the complexity of the situation resists any simple analysis. It is too easy to simply dismiss Putin as mad, as many of the tabloids have done. We need to try to understand the how Putin views the place of Russia in the world and how he sees its ‘sphere of influence’. We may well disagree with this world view, but we also need to realise that we all have a world view that is not strictly true. We all tell ourselves a story, both individually and collectively, a fiction that allows us to make sense of the world as we experience it. We need to understand that none of our stories are objectively true. In order to resolve conflicts resulting from a clash of world views we need to try and understand the story from the other side.

Having said that, this invasion must be understood and responded to as a major global threat. For me the three most serious of these threats are nuclear, financial and a massive refugee crisis – threats that will affect us all. We need global solutions to global problems. We need to work together to resolve them. I have a real fear that Putin’s ‘story’ is one of extreme Russian nationalism, one in which he is looking for excuses to exhibit Russian strength on the world stage, an exhibition that could potentially involve the use of nuclear weapons. To prevent this, other countries need to be very cautious in their military response. They need to show a united front and effectively isolate Russia from the world stage. I am cautiously optimistic that this is happening.

However, a major refugee crisis has already begun. With reports of well over 1.3 million people fleeing Ukraine this is already becoming the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Again, such a global crisis needs a global response. All countries need to play their part in offering a safe home to those fleeing war, but the European countries (including the UK) have an obviously greater role to play. So far the UK government’s response has been dysfunctional, to say the least, with different ministers saying different, often contradictory, things, all against our own nationalistic background that seems to take a very negative view of refugees. We really do need to get over this. People do not flee war for the fun of it. They are our fellow human beings that need our help and our sanctuary.

With the obvious exception that this conflict escalates into a nuclear exchange, a major threat to the UK arises from a global energy shortage resulting from Russia shutting down its gas and oil supplies to Europe. This should be a wake-up call to us. As a matter of priority we need to become self-sufficient in energy. We need to do this, however, without resorting to the exploitation of any gas and oil reserves we may have – these need to remain firmly in the ground. We need to rapidly develop our use of off-shore wind and on-shore solar such that we become far more resilient against global threats. To repeat a well-used phrase from the green movement, we need think globally but act locally.

There needs to be an investigation and public debate about the extent to which the UK has encouraged the situation in Russia. A recent article in The Economist reported a “strong connection between Russian money and illicit finance”, whilst in 2020 Parliament’s intelligence committee concluded that London was a “laundromat” for tainted Russian money. We need to ask ourselves whether the development of London as a ‘global financial centre’, with all the associated sweeteners that attract the money of the global rich without asking too many questions about how the money has been acquired, has promoted government by oligarchs in many countries where democracy is fragile. Of even greater concern, perhaps, is the accusation that since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister the Conservative Party has accepted more than £2million from donors linked to Russia. We need to know what influence these donors have had on government decision making.

As I’ve said, the best way to deal with leaders like Putin is through strong international collaboration. All governments must resist any urge to ‘go it alone’, and we must do all we can to avoid escalation. However difficult this may be for some governments, this is not the time to demonstrate individual strength. The only way is to show global solidarity and effectively isolate such regimes, a response that requires us to prioritise international cooperation over competition.

And finally, at the local level…

The final part of a personal political manifesto

I have talked in earlier posts of the need for leadership from national government, and most importantly (particularly with regard to measures to tackle our climate and ecological emergency) for the development and implementation of top-down policies that take the pressure off individuals ‘doing the right thing’. Well leadership needs to be shown at the local government level as well. Whilst I fully appreciate that what Dorset Council can achieve is severely limited by national government policy, and in particular by national government funding, until we have achieved a good balance between the powers and responsibilities of national and local government, Dorset needs to show ambition. It needs to show leadership by proclaiming what it would like to achieve and be prepared to publicly challenge Westminster if it is prevented from delivering.

This challenging of Westminster is particularly relevant to planning issues. Dorset is currently in the process of developing its new Local Plan – a local planning policy that, alongside national policies like the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), will form the main reference point for all planning decisions for the next five years or so. One of the most contentious areas of the plan is the number of new homes that will be built – a number that is calculated according to the methodology of Westminster’s housing needs assessment. But it’s not just the number of new houses that is the issue, it’s also the type of houses. Most in need are smaller homes that local people can afford, not larger homes that attract people to move down from London. To be fair, Spencer Flower, the current Leader of the Council, in response to the campaign group Dorset Deserves Better, has raised these concerns with Michael Gove, the minister responsible.

Back in 2018, the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and the Royal Town Planning Institution (RTPI) published a joint report, ‘Rising to the Climate Crisis’, which was “a call to arms to put climate change at the heart of the planning process.” I see very little evidence of this happening in Dorset. Planning is arguably the front line in the local government battle against the climate crisis, so climate must be at its heart. This report calls for Local Plans to “set a carbon dioxide emissions reduction target and lay out clear ways of measuring progress.” Whilst it admits that there is a lack of clarity as to the extent the Local Plan can set ambitious targets on the energy efficiency of new developments (an example of where Westminster needs to show leadership) it does say that there is “nothing to stop local plans adopting requirements for on site renewable energy generation.” Dorset’s new Local Plan needs to take these recommendations seriously and push at the boundaries of what it is allowed to do regarding the energy efficiency of all new developments.

Closely linked (if not inseparable) with planning is transport. The RTPI recently published a research paper ‘Net Zero Transport’ which argues that the “planning system often appears to deliver the wrong type of development in the wrong place”. We need to take this report seriously. We need to maximise “the potential for local living by ensuring that most people can access a wide range of services, facilities and public spaces by walking and cycling.” This means creating what the report terms ‘the 15 minute neighbourhood’, communities where most residents need to travel no more than 15 minutes by foot or bicycle to meet their needs. Through the planning system we need to transfer travel demand from private vehicles to active travel and public transport. This will also require the development of local mobility hubs; transport hubs that connect, for example, the surrounding villages of a town like Bridport to the town centre (through e-bike hire and charging for example) and the town centre with other towns and the rail network (through a cheap and efficient bus network).

An issue that has been growing in my thinking is the need for local governments to develop their ability to engage with local residents. By this I don’t mean simply ‘going out to consultation’ to get their views on any new council proposal, I mean finding ways, new ways, of actually engaging with residents to both find out what matters to them, what are the issues that most concern them, and explaining to them why certain decisions are being proposed. Leadership has two directions. One is the challenging of national government policy, the other getting local residents ‘on board’. Whether we like it or not, how we live will need to change a great deal in the coming years. Many local residents may not fully understand these changes, and will quite understandably react against them unless they feel involved in the decision making.

Meanwhile, on the home front…

In my previous post I focussed on the need for global solutions to global problems. In this post I return to domestic policies. On the home front I have already talked about the need to change our economic model and the need to enhance our democracy with PR – my two ‘headline’ areas of domestic policy. I now want to very briefly outline some other important areas.

The first of these is education, and particularly the need to enhance the national curriculum in order to make it fit for the 21st century. A political colleague of mine, an ecologist by training, has long called for ecology to be taught to all young people as part of their statutory education. Young people need to be taught the science of the relationships between all living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment. For far too long humans have considered ourselves to somehow be separate from the rest of nature. To be in position to fully appreciate and deal with the fast approaching climate and ecological crisis we need to understand the interconnectedness of all life and its intimate relationship with its environment. Related to this is the need to understand the science of complex systems, but I’ll go into detail on this on another occasion.

I also would also call for philosophy and critical thinking to be added to the national curriculum. As I argued in the first of this series of blogs, the toxic state of public discourse needs addressing as a matter priority. And this requires us learning how to think! Yes, I’m sure that we all think we can think – but how good at it are we really? How well do we understand the roll of emotions in decision making? To what extent do we appreciate the importance of being able to ask penetrating questions rather than repeat blind statements of ‘fact’? To what extent do we truly listen to people we disagree with and consider their arguments?

If we are going to make a serious attempt to address our climate and ecological emergency we will also need make serious reforms to our National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Local planning authorities need to be given the powers to demand that all new developments are built to the highest standards of energy efficiency. We need to make a general ban on any new greenfield development and only consider brownfield sites – even if this involves building up rather than out and creating much higher levels of population density. Further, all new developments need to factor out car use. As a recent report has argued, any new development which will make the new occupants dependent on privately owned vehicles (whether they be fossil fuel or electric) needs rejecting.

These planning reforms will need a completely new approach to public transport. Whilst, on the one hand, we need to start redesigning towns and cities such that as many services as possible are accessible via active travel (walking and cycling), on the other we need to make public transport an easier and cheaper option than travelling by car. The bottom line here is that this will require massive subsidies from national government. In fact it will require public transport to be considered a public service under the direct control of national and local government. All the time that our bus and rail services are operated by companies whose main purpose is to make profit, people who do not live in areas of high population density will be denied efficient public transport – for the simple reason that there is insufficient use to make sufficient profit for the operators.

I haven’t got a magic solution to the problems facing the NHS, and if I’m honest I don’t feel that I have sufficient knowledge of how it works to make strong statements about what needs to happen, but creeping privatisation needs to be firmly resisted. We need to re-establish a public service ethos, not permit private companies to deliver services and extract profits even if those services remain free ‘at the point of delivery’. But not all services do remain free at the point of delivery. Assuming that you are able to register with an NHS dentist (or to be more accurate, a dentist employed by a private company delivering dentistry on behalf of the NHS) most people still have to pay for treatment. And I know that the recent pandemic has severely affected the delivery of all local health services but I really do believe it should be easier to get an opportunity to discuss your health concerns, including mental health issues, with your local GP.

And finally, the Royal Family! I’m sorry, but their time has ended. It’s time for them to go. Not only is there something fundamentally wrong with a modern democracy having an unelected Head of State, a person there simply by virtue of their birth, but it occurred to me this last week that perhaps something far more insidious is going on. Could it be that having a privileged person from a privileged family as Head of State makes us far too tolerant of privilege itself? The French, for example, who rejected such privilege back in 1789, are quick to get onto the streets in protest when they feel they are being taken for granted. Yet what do we do when taken for granted by a Prime Minister from a privileged background who thinks that the rules his government created don’t apply to himself? Nothing. Absolutely nothing!

Global problems require global solutions

Part 5 of a personal political manifesto

Many of the most serious problems confronting national governments are global in their nature. Because these problems transcend national borders they need cross border agreement, and many require global agreement. Despite this need, nationalism thrives in many countries. Even governments that are not overtly nationalistic talk about their own country as being ‘world beating’, and put forward policies focussed on successful international competition rather than cooperation. Whilst I understand why this brand of politics is popular, for the sake of future generations it needs resisting. We have evolved to be loyal to our tribe. It is far easier to identify with our national heritage (even if it often paints an overly positive picture of our history) than it is with people from different cultures. However, evolution is not static. Our future requires that we identify with global humanity more than we do the nation state.

Our climate and ecological crisis is arguably the most serious of these global problems. The carbon emitted into the atmosphere by any nation state does not stay within the borders of that state. The resulting rise in greenhouse gases affects the global temperatures. Climate patterns are global phenomena that are no respecter of borders. The tragic (or criminal) felling of large areas of the Amazon Rainforest for cattle grazing may have a positive effect on the economy of Brazil, but the loss of so much natural carbon sequestration has a serious negative effect on us all. The rise in sea levels that will result from the melting of glaciers and the polar ice caps will affect coastal communities, often cities with large populations, across the world.

If the causes of our climate and ecological crisis are global, so too are the actions we need to take to first halt the rise in carbon emissions, and then start reversing them. Individual national governments need to take international agreements far more serious than they do. Attempts like that of the USA, under the Trump presidency, to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, for example, should be both condemned on the world stage and by citizens of the home nation. Simply thinking in terms of the national economy needs rejecting, in fact many of the worlds more wealthy countries may need to take a financial hit in order to help the poorer ones. And we need to become far more collaborative in our development of technology like renewable energy. We will produce technological solutions quicker and easier on an international platform rather than a national one.

There are global problems other than those related to our climate that also require global solutions. For example we are increasingly dependent on infotech for our day to day living. Ever increasing numbers of public services are accessed via the internet – an international telecoms network of networks that is theoretically under the control of no one, but in practice is largely in the control of a few global companies. These large infotech companies probably have more power than individual nation states yet are answerable to no one except their shareholders. Of even greater concern, however, is the threat from tech savvy rogue nations, terrorist groups or criminal gangs to hold countries to ransom through taking control of energy distribution or telecommunication. Such cyber attacks could bring an entire country to its knees. We need international collaboration and trust to prevent such attacks.

There is also, of course, the continued threat from nuclear weapons. Whilst the tension of the 1960’s and 70’s has faded, the existence of these weapons of mass destruction have not. In fact it would appear that the USA and Russia have embarked on a new arms race. This, together with strongly nationalistic heads of state (not to mention the possible election of another Trump) and an increasingly volatile world brought about by climate collapse may make their use seem practical. There is also the possibility of course that some form of nuclear device could fall into the hands of a terrorist group. We need, therefore, renewed international agreement on their control and limitation, and ideally their eradication.

Finally, I feel strongly that former colonial powers like the UK have a greater weight of responsibility to act on these global threats than other countries. The UK is often heralded for its role in driving the industrial revolution, a revolution that, whilst producing many benefits, has also led directly to our climate and ecological crisis. And let’s be honest here, the UK did this by imposing its authority on other nations and stealing their resources. The UK, and similar countries, should therefore carry an increased responsibility when it comes to responding to this crisis. We need to resist the urge to portray ourselves on the international stage as ‘great’ and ‘the best’ and start collaborating with other nations to produce meaningful international agreements that start addressing these global threats.

The need for an enhanced democracy

As I have argued previously, in order to tackle the major issues we face, issues like the climate and ecological crisis, we need both an increase in ‘top down’ decision making and an increase in political leadership. As important as all those actions we take on an individual basis are in reducing our carbon footprint, for example, they are insignificant in comparison to what is needed and will be far too slow to deliver. But there is a problem with this. As I have also argued, I do not believe that definitive answers or solutions to the problems we face exist. How then should politicians and political leaders make those important decisions? If we become sceptical of anyone who claims to have all the answers who should we give our political allegiance to?

The most important first move in resolving this problem is the rejection of our outdated ‘first past the post’ method of electing our political representatives. We need to encourage not only a variety of views, but as many views as possible round the political table. Moreover, the voting public needs to be able to vote for politicians who closely represent their perspective of the problems we face, perspectives that need to be represented around the decision making table in roughly the proportion that they are held by the electorate. At the national level, and increasingly at the local level (certainly on Dorset Council) most important decisions are made at the cabinet level by a small group of politicians of the majority political party. This ensures that minority views are neither argued nor taken into account. This is not only undemocratic, it produces poor, and very blinkered, decisions. It prevents creative discussion and problem solving. Political decisions need to be made by a committee of elected politicians selected to represent all, or as near to all as possible, perspectives. To achieve this we need to adopt, as a matter of urgency, some form of proportional representation (PR).

But adopting PR is only the start of the changes we need to make to our decision making process. We also need to reflect on how politicians make decisions. Politicians round the table need to first of all accept that no matter how strongly they hold the opinion they do it is just not possible for that view to be the definitive position on the issue. No one person can have an all-round perspective. They can only see things from where they are. This means two things. First, that they need to attempt to see the issue from other perspectives. These other perspectives will include not only those others round the table, but most importantly those of the experts, particularly scientists. Second, that most decisions will need to be negotiated. They will involve a compromise. I would like to think that with the right frame of mind, and with the exposure to a wider range of viewpoints, politicians will slowly develop a much more comprehensive set of decision making skills.

But making the decision is only the starting point. Next, that decision needs explaining to the public. And as that decision may not, initially at least, always be popular with the electorate it may well need ‘selling’. This will require strong political leadership. Our political leaders need to not only listen to public opinion, but they need to be able to shape public opinion. They need to shrug off the allure of popularism, particularly when all the evidence suggests actions which will be far from popular. They need to explain this evidence to a naturally sceptical public. They need to be able to explain how they made their decisions in such a way that most people will give them the ‘benefit of the doubt’. These leadership skills are sadly lacking at the moment.

However, this leadership process will be made significantly easier if politicians also make it clear that all decisions will be reviewed in the light of evidence about their effectiveness.
We need to discard our belief that it is a mark of weak leadership to change our mind. Because there is no definitively right or correct decision, there is also to definitively wrong decision. If our decisions do not produce the effects we wanted it doesn’t mean that we ‘got it wrong’. It simply means that, at the time, the best decision was made, but that evidence now suggests that a different decision is needed. Political leadership, therefore, will involve an openness to the review of decisions made.

Do we need to change our economic model?

In the first part of this personal political manifesto I referred to what I termed our world view: a way of understanding the way we experience the world and our position in it; a way of making sense of what we do on a daily basis; and a way justifying, to ourselves and others, our actions and behaviour. Whether we are aware of it or not we all have such a world view. It is what we use to supply meaning and purpose to our lives, and is usually so embedded in our being that we just regard it as common sense. Traditionally this world view was provided by religion. For some of us it is derived from a political ideology. For most people, however, those who have not got strong religious or ideological adherences, this world view is provided by our economic model. In saying this I’m not suggesting that we are all familiar with economics, far from it. Merely that our dominant economic model, some version of capitalism, has so invaded our view of life as to provide this life with meaning and purpose. We measure the success of our lives according to the amount of wealth we have acquired; earning money is our primary goal in life.

“So what?” you ask. Well, in short, this dominant economic model is not only deeply flawed, it is unsustainable. It is driving to us exploit our natural environment through our relentless consumption of natural resources and to poison this environment through our relentless disposal of waste. On a national scale we measure the success of our economy through the GDP (gross domestic product) figure. This figure, which by a long way is the main measure of our national success, is the sum total of everything produced in a country. Or, to be more precise, every item or service produced that has a monetary value attached. It does not take into account unpaid work (looking after our children or an elderly relative at home for example) and it does not take into account money given for no work (through state benefits for example), though it does include work done to clear up after an environmental disaster. So, rather bizarrely, clearing up after a major oil spill contributes to our ‘national success’ whilst parents devoting time bringing up their children does not.

But even worse, this measure of success demands constant growth. And constant growth requires, in some form or another, the constant supply of raw materials – whether this is carbon-based fuel to drive industry, the raw materials to produce clothes and food, or the rare minerals and metals required for modern ICT equipment. However, no form of growth can continue ad infinitum. There is a limit to the resources we can extract from our natural environment, and there is a limit to the amount of waste we can dump into our atmosphere, oceans and land. For these reasons alone we need to think about economics in a completely different way. We need a different way to model our economy and a different way to model our individual success in life.

In a way I think that the main problem with the capitalist economic model is that it puts the cart before the horse. We are constantly told that we need to produce wealth in order to spend that wealth achieving what we need and want. We are constantly told that it’s good that a small minority people, through their financial expertise and entrepreneurship, appear to be accumulating most of this wealth because this wealth will ‘trickle down’ to all of us. This ‘trickle-down effect’ is one of the biggest fallacies of our current economic model. It simply doesn’t happen. The rich continue to get richer and the poor, in relative terms, get poorer. Inequality in most countries, the relative gap between those who are at the top of the financial hierarchy and those who are at the bottom, continues to grow – causing major social and health related problems (for an excellent explanation of this problem read the classic The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett). Moreover, in a very obvious sense, wealth, in itself, cannot sustain human life. You cannot eat it, drink it or breath it. You cannot take shelter in it. You can use to buy those things, but those things only require money because of the economic system. Wealth is the means to an end, not the end in itself.

So how about reversing this situation by placing the horse in its correct, and most effective position? How about measuring the end rather than the means as an indicator of our economic success? How about the transition to a ‘wellbeing economy’? I strongly believe that we need to redesign our economic model and that the first task should be to agree what are the measures of human wellbeing. The degree to which any economy meets these measures should be the measure of its success. Wealth or money, as a straight forward means of exchange, should simply be the means to achieve this end, not the end in itself. And to start off the debate, could I suggest that we could do an awful lot worse than adopt Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics as a model. This has a number of social foundations (such as water, food, health, education, work, housing, social and gender equality, energy, a political voice, peace and justice) and an ecological ceiling composed of a range of environmental factors. The aim of this model is to steer the economy such that it delivers the social foundations without exceeding the ecological ceiling.

For most of us this would not be an easy transition. But just try and imagine what life would be like if each national government, supported by some form of international structure, focussed on delivering these social foundations whilst avoiding the potentially devastating ecological ceilings. Imagine what the world would be like if the dominant world view, the way each of us gave our lives meaning and purpose, was based on such a model rather than the pursuit of wealth? You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

The need for political leadership on climate issues

In the second part of my personal political manifesto I want to focus on climate issues, and in particular on the need for far greater political leadership than we are seeing at the moment. As the eminent climate scientist Michael E. Mann points out, seventy-one per cent of global carbon emissions come from the same hundred companies. These companies are not run by evil CEOs who are on a mission to render the Earth uninhabitable to humans, far from it. But because the raison d’être of the bosses and shareholders of these companies is so firmly embedded in free-market economics, because their ontological security (their whole reason or justification for existence) is so entangled in the dominant economic model, they can easily become blind to what scientists are saying. Because they believe that their operations are a force for good they are naturally inclined to dismiss any evidence that says the contrary. At worst they will find ways of discrediting the science (much like the tobacco industry did several decades ago), at best they will put their faith in market solutions to climate problems.

My greatest concern, however, is the extent to which our current response to the climate crisis is so well and truly focused on personal behaviour and individual action. This focus has the effect of deflecting attention away from the need to regulate bad industry behaviour. For example, we are being encouraged to eat less meat and dairy, in fact some media channels are currently being saturated with adverts for vegan food, but there has been no discussion about the regulation of farming and the food production industry. There is pressure on us to fly less, but not the slightest hint of greater regulation of aviation and the package holiday industry. And we are told that using active travel (walking and cycling) and public transport is much preferable to using the car, but because of the woeful shortcomings of our transport infrastructure this is next to impossible on many occasions, particularly in rural locations. What all this means is that it is far too easy for those of us concerned about the climate crisis to feel guilt at not doing enough, whilst those responsible for the vast majority of the problem are either guilt free or not being encouraged to ‘pull their weight’. This needs to change.

I am not saying that individual action is unimportant – far from it. But I am saying that there needs to be a far greater ‘top down’ response. There needs to be much greater control and regulation of big business and industry. One way to achieve this could be through ‘the market’. At the moment there is little or no cost to industry for the harmful effects of their operations. For example, there is no direct cost to the aviation, or marine, industries for the carbon their operations deposit into the atmosphere. In economic terms, these ‘costs’ are referred to as ‘externalities’. Rather than this cost being picked up by us all it would make far more sense to use market mechanisms and impose a carbon tax on their operations. This way the cost of package holidays and cheap clothing imported from the other side of the world greater reflect the true cost of these items. Governments do not even need to abandon ‘market economics’, they just need to regulate these markets such that they take into account the harm they cause. Governments need to stop cowering to big business and take more control of the economy. In a democracy, governments should be the vehicle for collective control. They should exert leadership. Though for this to be truly effective we will need to make some changes to our democratic decision making process. I will discuss this further in a couple of weeks.

Because so many of us simply do not fully understand science, governments also need to demonstrate leadership by having faith in science. Their decisions need to reflect the latest scientific evidence. Whilst, most importantly, this applies to climate science, it also applies to many other areas, particularly health and medicine. Next week’s post will focus on the economy, and the way our current economic model is no longer fit for purpose. For now, though, I want to simply point to a particular concern – the way that many governments prostrate themselves in front of the alter of free market economics. I argued above that some loss of market freedom is needed to allow the true cost of many items to be reflected in the cost consumers pay. I would also argue that belief in scientific evidence should carry far greater weight than belief in the invisible hand of markets to achieve the greater public good. For this to happen governments will need to display strong political leadership. They will need to follow the science and explain the science.

The toxic state of public discourse

Having had a break of several weeks from writing these weekly blogs I’ve decided to start the new year with a series of posts in which I sketch out a personal political manifesto. In doing so I must stress that I have no issue with the Green Party manifesto nor their policies, but I do like to think for myself and be as true to these thoughts as I can. This series of posts, therefore, will hopefully explain to anyone who is interested ‘where I’m coming from’. It will also allow me the opportunity to work through various thoughts I’ve had. I find writing a creative process, a process that allows me to organise my thoughts and unearth inconsistencies in them.

Most people, no doubt, will expect our climate and ecological emergency to be my main priority. As important as this issue is, however, I’m fast coming to the conclusion that there is an issue of equal importance – what the author James Hoggan calls “the toxic state of public discourse”. Particularly since the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the USA, there seems to be not just a growing polarisation of political ‘thought’ but an escalating intolerance, bordering on hatred, of the ‘other side’. Whilst the popular press do not help in this process, the worst culprit by far must be social media. It’s become far too common to resort to hatred and abuse as methods of dismissing what someone has to say rather than rationally explaining why you disagree. Until this changes I think it unlikely that the actions necessary to resolve our climate crisis will be taken. In fact I would go as far as to suggest that the need to resolve the health of our public discourse affects all other area of policy. It will certainly inform my other posts in this series.

Part of the problem is that we are nowhere near as rational as we like to believe. Humans have evolved to make decisions mostly on emotional grounds, in response to fear, hunger or sexual desire for example. Our ability to reason, and in particular the emergence of science, are very recent developments. Most people, most of the time, do not fully understand science and much prefer to go with their ‘gut feeling’, adding a ‘reason’ why they have made a particular decision afterwards. The Brexit ‘debate’, with chants from certain politicians that “we’ve had enough of experts” only endorsed such decision making. When we follow this overly emotional path it becomes far too easy to feel threatened by anyone who disagrees with us and to respond aggressively.

Another dimension to this problem concerns what the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls our ontological security. Each of us has developed a world view: a way of understanding the way we experience the world and our position in it; a way of making sense of what we do on a daily basis; and a way justifying, to ourselves and others, our actions and behaviour. Providing most of our experiences can be explained by this world view we feel secure as a person. However, if something happens that threatens this world view, something like a radically changing climate for example, we feel deeply threatened. Our initial response to such challenges is to find a way from within our world view of explaining them away, thus preventing the emergence of deep feelings of insecurity. Rather than accept the science of climate change, for example, an acceptance that may involve a radical change to how we live, we tell ourselves that the scientists have ulterior motives and that what we are experiencing are just natural fluctuations in climate. Or we find a way to relabel the offending fossil fuel as ‘green coal’ and carry on as normal.

One way to steer our public discourse onto a healthy track would be to accept that there is no absolutely definitive position, answer or solution to any problem or issue. There cannot be, and science, properly understood, does not claim that there is. Scientific theories are working hypotheses, only valid until they fail to make accurate predictions or until the development of another theory that makes more comprehensive predictions. Through the scientific method all claims are peer reviewed and challenged. Socially we need to start developing a similar response to public discourse. If someone challenges our opinion it should be incumbent upon us to listen to those challenges. If we disagree we need to learn to respond politely, to explain why we disagree, and to not insult the other person for having the audacity to disagree with us. And perhaps, more importantly, we need to be prepared to admit that we may have been wrong and change our opinion accordingly.

It would also help if we started to develop a greater understanding of science in general, and of complexity science in particular. Complexity science is the science of complex, dynamic systems. Human bodies, social systems, and our natural environment are all complex systems, but the important thing to realise is that all such systems are always embedded within a larger system, or systems, which they interact with and are dependent upon. This means that everything interacts with the world it inhabits. As this world will always change to some degree the embedded system will also need to change to some degree. Nothing, absolutely nothing, remains the same for ever. Moreover, due to the dynamic nature of such systems, novelty, new phenomena, will emerge at some point. Whilst it is quite natural for the embedded system to resist change (homeostasis) it also vital that if necessary it does change. If it doesn’t it may well collapse.

Ideology or common sense?

It has been several weeks since my last blog. This lack of writing has had nothing to do with a lack of will or interest, and everything to do with a lack of time: It’s been a particularly busy few weeks. This is a shame because I genuinely like writing these blogs. I find the act of trying to write something coherent a great way to not only clarify and structure my own thinking, but often to actually creates ideas. I wish I could say the same about my relationship social media. I’m really struggling to find the motivation to become engaged with Twitter at the moment, let alone Facebook.

To be honest I really only ‘do’ Twitter and Facebook because I’ve been persuaded that, as a politician, I need to. Most of the time I’m happy tweeting, and sometimes even enjoy it. But at the moment, for some reason, I’m struggling. Facebook, on the other hand, is always a chore, and I doubt that even at the best of times I use it effectively. Perhaps I need some training on how to.

One of the local groups that I’ve joined on Facebook is ‘Bridport Political Banter’. A week or so ago I posted a link to George Monbiot’s article on Capitalism and climate change. I knew, of course, that there would be a reaction from what come across as the right wing police of the group, and I knew that there would be no discussion or debate about Monbiot’s argument. In this respect I was not disappointed. But what I found so frustrating on this particular occasion was the simple dismissal of his argument as left wing ideology. For some reason ‘ideology’ always seems to be the go to demon that condemns the views of people we disagree with, whilst our own views (being the right ones) are assumed to be ideologically free. I would suggest otherwise – that everyone’s views are derived from their own ideology.

Ideology is, of course, a heavily debated term in political philosophy. My own take on it is to see it as that background ‘world-view’ that we all possess, as that general mental structure that we use to bring various thoughts, feelings and experiences together into a coherent whole, that allows us to make sense of our world. My point is simply that all of us have an ideology or world-view. We need it in order to give our lives meaning. But we only ever seem be critical of other people’s world-view. We rarely, if ever, analyse or question our own. Why? Why are we always so certain that our own views are spot on, and that anyone holding different views is wrong? Why do we often regard our own thinking as just plain common sense, whilst those of our political opponents as misguided?

I like Antonio Gramsci’s take on this. In the words of Kate Crehan, in his Prison Notebooks the Italian Marxist views common sense as “that comforting set of certainties in which we feel at home, and that we absorb, often unconsciously, from the world we inhabit. These are the basic realities we use to explain that world.” And this, in a nutshell, describes the problem we are all up against. We all grow up in a particular social context, and tend to absorb the views of those people who are part of our particular social context. Most of us need to feel part of this context, of our particular community, because most of us need to feel that we belong to something bigger than us. But particular social contexts vary. A young person growing up in a community where most parents have been to university and where there is an expectation that they will do the same will have a different common sense view of the world to a young person growing up on an inner city estate controlled by rival gangs and to parents who place little value in education, who in turn will have a different common sense view of the world to those young people born to rich parents and educated through the public school system. Each young person will have a different common sense take on the world. Who’s right?

Which brings me to the elephant in the room. COP26, the United Nations conference on the climate that has just closed in Glasgow. Why isn’t this the main topic of this blog you may well ask. After all, I am a Green Party politician. Well, the truth is I never had a great deal of hope that the necessary national powers would agree to take the necessary action, let alone to go away and take those actions. It would take an unrealistic level of optimism, for example, to expect global politicians to agree to end the use of fossil fuels by a particular date when the fossil fuel industry had a larger representation at the conference than any individual country. The problem is again one of common sense or ideology. For the vast majority of the politicians at the conference the basic tenants of capitalism form their basic background world view. The need to grow their national (and personal) wealth is the basic starting point for all decisions. Until we start discussing alternative measures of national (and personal) success I genuinely fear for the future of humans on this planet.