Some reflections on politics and democracy

My experience of last Thursday’s meeting of Dorset Council was more positive than the one four weeks before, but not to massively so. The main area of contention was a Conservative motion that condemned the actions of the two women protesters who disrupted the previous one. The meeting was accompanied by a demonstration taking place outside the council chamber, an occurrence that seemed to further inflame many Conservative councillors – causing one to describe the protesters as “a rabble” and say “I’m disgusted at some of the people we represent.” An amendment to this motion, one which softened the language to “regret” but which was additionally critical of how the Council leadership handled the previous disruption, was proposed by the Lib Dems. I was prepared to support this amendment, even though I wasn’t sure that I did regret the disruption. What had made me angry was being denied an opportunity to speak at the previous meeting by the Chair’s decision to go straight to a vote when the meeting reconvened.

The outcome of the voting was predictable, with the Conservative’s voting en bloc: The amendment was defeated and the main motion was passed. What I found so hard to swallow, apart from the obviously inappropriate condemnation of a peaceful protest, was the seemingly inability of many Conservative councillors to understand the purpose of such protests. Many of these councillors made a point of saying that none of the people they represent had contacted them to raise concerns related to the climate emergency, thereby implying that it wasn’t an issue for them – which is exactly the point! For the many residents of Dorset (and many Conservative councillors) it is not an issue – at least not an urgent, in-your-face issue. The point of the demonstrations was to make it an issue; to try and inject some urgency into the climate emergency.

The main issue for me, however, was not addressed. As I said at the meeting, in reference to the previous reconvened meeting which, on the Chair’s direction, went straight to a vote: “I utterly fail to understand how a motion can be voted on without those who oppose it being given an opportunity to speak. This was a flagrant erosion of democracy.” The closest we got to an answer was the Chair saying she did it in the best interests of the councillors, presumably to get the meeting over with, and allow councillors to go home, as soon as possible. But if she didn’t think that there was time for a proper debate she should have deferred the debate to a later meeting, not deny councillors the right to speak against the motion. In many respects I am becoming increasing concerned about the gradual erosion of democracy on Dorset Council.

The following day I had an entirely different political experience. I have recently joined Bridport’s University of the Third Age (u3a), and Friday morning saw a meeting of their Political Discussion group. This meeting, actually about the results of the recent local elections, sparked a number of thoughts. How, for example, do you get people interested in local politics? Many people, possibly the majority, whilst very quick to complain about a whole range of things that directly inconvenience them, have very little idea about what local councils and local councillors do. In fact many would probably tar all politicians (both local and national) with the same ‘only in it for their own benefit’ brush. This is probably why the turnout for local elections is usually so low. Which is a shame. So how do you get people to become actively involved in democracy? To want to understand the issues?

Part of the problem, I think, may be the blatant bias of many national newspapers. Whilst I’m sure that many people to the right of the political spectrum would claim that The Guardian, for example, has a definite left wing bias, they at least carry headlines that appear to be objective statements. Papers like the Express and Daily Mail, however, usually carry headlines that openly support the Conservatives and condemn Labour politicians. My concern here is that many of their readers, particularly those with only a limited interest in politics, will simply accept the messages being sent. And even if they venture beyond the headlines they will probably read the article uncritically. They will not ask questions of it. They will not try and find alternative accounts. They will not ask what hasn’t been reported.
I know that I’m being unrealistic, but don’t you think that our democracy would become so much healthier if people were better able to think critically?

Critical thinking used to be taught in some schools, but nearly always only as a ‘fill-in’ GCSE or A-level course. I think that we would be helping our future generations no end if we started teaching them critical thinking as a integral and core part of their general education. We should be teaching our future voting public to not accept at face value what they are told and hear. We should be teaching them to ask questions, of their own thoughts as much as those of others. We should be teaching them to try and understand an issue from multiple perspectives. We should be teaching them a healthy scepticism. And it wouldn’t only have a positive effect on those who vote for politicians of course – it would also help provide far more effective politicians. Perhaps such politicians would even be better able to understand the motives of protesters who disrupt their meetings.

Some reflections on the local council elections

Didn’t we do well? In April 2019, the Green Party had 175 councillors across England and Wales. Following Thursday’s local elections this has grown to 542 on 164 local authorities. These elections produced some phenomenal results for Greens across England and Wales. We made a net gain of 75, taking seats from both Labour and the Conservatives, and becoming the official opposition on several councils. My heartiest congratulations to all those successful candidates and the hard working local parties that got them there!

Looking through various news websites this morning (the Saturday following Thursday’s local council elections) one thing that strikes me is the wide range of interpretations of the results on the national newspaper front pages. These range from The Financial Times’ headline “Johnson faces renewed threat as Tories hit hard in local elections” to that of “Bullish Boris back on track as ‘red wall’ keeps faith” in the Daily Express. What are we supposed to make of this? I suppose my biggest fear (other than, or course, the Tories somehow getting their act together and managing to retain power at the next General Election) stems from a generally unthinking electorate who only ever go to one source of news and generally accept whatever they are fed. How can we raise the general level of political scepticism across the country? Note – I do not mean cynicism. I mean trying to avoid confirmation bias. I mean asking critical questions and not reading only the news that supports what you already believe.

One headline that did strike me as being of particular relevance to my situation as a councillor on Dorset Council was that of The Times: “Tories punished in south”. Dorset, of course, did not have any local elections this time round – Dorset Council elections will be in May 2024. But the Tories on the council are already rattled, as evidenced by their aggressive attitude at our last full Council meeting. Their agitation seems to have stemmed from last month’s by-election in the Lyme and Charmouth ward which they lost to us (The Green Party). The results from numerous local elections across the south of England now seem to confirm what we experienced on the doorstep whilst out canvassing for our candidate locally – that voters are so fed up with the Tory Government that they cannot support them locally. In Dorset the Conservatives only have an overall majority of four. This means that it would only take two further by-election losses for them to lose overall control. Will these results rattle them even further?

One other thing that really struck me about this week’s results was the number of new young Green councillors elected. Now I don’t want this to come as a shock, but the average age of councillors on Dorset Council isn’t particularly young. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that it is not easy being a councillor on a principle council if you have a full-time job. Many committee meetings are during the day, and the allowance paid to councillors is no where near that of even a modest wage. Whilst Dorset has a few councillors that manage to maintain some form of employment, I don’t think that they find it easy. This means that in practice most councillors are either retired or can afford to work on a very part-time basis. Despite these obstacles, it would be so refreshing to have some young people with a different take on life involved in local decision making.

But it’s not just difficult to find young people to stand as councillors, in my experience it is difficult to find candidates full stop! In regards to the Green Party situation in Dorset, this is a real shame. My feeling is that there are many wards that would be eager to elect a Green councillor if only one would stand. But to do this well we need candidates who are not only prepared to stand for election, but who are prepared to get themselves known in their potential wards in advance of any election. This means that for the 2024 elections we need to start finding potential candidates now! So how about it folks? Anyone out there fancy putting themselves forward? I’m not claiming that it’s easy being a councillor in a minor party, in fact at times it can be damn frustrating at times, but as one councillor from a different party said to me a short while ago – “you Greens punch far above your weight”! We do. And could be even more effective if there were more of us.

If you fancy discuss discussing what it’s like being a councillor, please contact me. In fact if there are any other issues playing on your mind about local issues, get in touch. You can either message me via this website, or email me direct – my contact details can be found on either the Dorset Council or Bridport Town Council websites under ‘councillors’. Alternatively you can drop in to see me at me regular weekly surgery. I’m to be found every Wednesday morning in the front of Soulshine, South Street, Bridport between 09.30 and 10.30. Come and have a chat and a coffee. Soulshine’s coffee is very good!

Not the finest day for democracy!

My how my political mood can change! Just two weeks ago I was celebrating our Green Party success at the recent Dorset Council by-election in the Lyme and Charmouth ward. This was not just a victory for our excellent candidate, Belinda Bawden, and our green policies, but a rejection of the negative Conservative campaign. The local Conservatives threw a lot into their campaign, and had both our MP, Chris Loder, and the Conservative leader of Dorset Council out campaigning. They even made an indirect reference to me (the only Green councillor in West Dorset) as someone who prioritises the abolition of the monarchy over dealing with the harm caused by the misuse of drugs – based simply on the national Green Party policy on drugs and my open desire to replace an inherited monarch with a directly elected head of state. I have never made any comment on the relative priority of these two issues.

One of the consequences of this victory is that our Green Group of councillors on Dorset Council is now up to five, and the overall Conservative majority down to four. This majority would have been down to two had it not been for a recent Liberal Democrat defection to the Conservatives. The first test of this reduced Conservative majority came the following Thursday evening at a full meeting of Dorset Council, and the debate of two rival motions about fossil fuels and the energy crisis. The first motion, proposed by the leader of our Green Group, Clare Sutton, called upon the Council to lobby Westminster to change planning guidelines to allow local authorities to refuse planning applications for energy generation “on the grounds of climate impact alone”. The second motion, proposed by the leader of the Conservative Group, called for permission to utilise any form “of energy generation sourced from within the UK”, and thus ease the path for fracking and local oil exploration. After a discussion with other group members I decided to save my comments for the second debate. Well, that was the plan.

The first debate, though fairly bad natured at times, proceeded without incident and went to the vote – which was won by the Conservatives with a comfortable majority. The debate then moved to the second motion. First the leader of the Conservative group proposed the motion, then a fellow Conservative spoke as seconder – and in doing so spoke in favour of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. It was at this point that two supporters of Extinction Rebellion entered the council chamber and glued themselves to a table at the front. The Chair immediately suspended the meeting and ordered an evacuation of the chamber. Whilst I have always been a supporter of the aims of XR I don’t understand how stopping the debate furthered their ends. Yes, the act attracted publicity, but not as much as I had hoped the now interrupted debate would have attracted.

However, things went from bad to worse. After a period of time those councillors that had not gone home were led into a committee room and told that we would finish the meeting there. Except that there was to be no debate. The Chairman of the Council announce that we would go straight to the vote and that she would take no speakers. Many, including me, were furious at being denied the right to speak, and at least one councillor walked out in disgust. Again the vote was won by the Conservatives.

My political mood, in the space of a week, had swung from a celebratory high to a disillusioned low. This was not the finest day for democracy. Although I’m still angry at this event, I’m also angry at myself for not being familiar enough with the Council’s Constitution and it’s ‘Rules of Procedure’. These rules, which I’ve now read, state that “If a motion that the question be now asked is seconded and the Chairman thinks the item has been sufficiently discussed” the debate can proceed straight to a vote. Now, as I remember events, the Chairman simply announced that we were going straight to a vote and that she would take no further speakers. I do not recall a motion to do this being either proposed or seconded. And if it was, it must surely have gone to a vote itself. Moreover, I absolutely fail to see how anyone could consider the item ‘sufficiently discussed’ when the only speakers had been its proposer and seconder. No one had been allowed to speak against the motion. How can this possibly be considered democratic?

The need for local renewable energy

Last Monday saw the publication of the third and final report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This one focussed on the actions we need to take. In short it said that if we want to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees we need to make drastic changes at once. There is no time to lose. The fossil fuel infrastructure already in operation, planned or under construction is more than enough to bust the available carbon budget comprehensively, the IPCC found, so we must stop building more and start retiring what is already in use.

Now I know that many people believe, as I do, that the current energy crisis demonstrates a compelling reason for the UK to become self-sufficient in energy production as quickly as possible. But this self-sufficiency must not be through the use of either fossil fuels or nuclear energy. It doesn’t even make economic sense to do so. The cost of solar and wind energy has plummeted by up to 85% over the past decade, making them cheaper than nuclear, gas and coal. Renewables, combined with better insulation and energy efficiency measures, provide the only way out of the current energy crisis and the only way to prevent climate breakdown.

There is though, a further dimension to this need for a drastic change to our energy generation strategy. To my mind our energy needs to not only be derived from 100% renewable sources (chiefly wind and solar) but also be generated locally.

It is really sad that the application to construct the Navitus Bay windfarm off the coast of Dorset was not approved. Had this windfarm been built is would have been able to supply up to 80% of Dorset’s electricity. I really fail to see how the sight of wind turbines out at sea could have distracted from anyone’s enjoyment of our wonderful world heritage coastline. As we urgently need to make full use of the wind available to us I really hope another application comes forward in the next round of licensing.

One of the advantages of the local generation of electricity is that it limits the energy lost through transmission. An even more local idea is through the establishment of Energy Local schemes like the one in Bridport. This scheme, the first of its kind in England, enables 55 households to form a club and buy their electricity directly from the Salway Ash wind turbine at around 12 pence per kWh. There are plans through the building of a 1 acre community-funded solar farm to supply an additional 250 households in Bridport. Just imagine what could be achieved if turbines were sited on the hills surrounding the town. Evidence shows that objections to onshore wind quickly fall away if local people directly benefit from the power generated. I would love to hear your views on this.

A combination of a large windfarm off the coast of Dorset together with Energy Local clubs established in as many towns and communities like Bridport as possible would ensure that our energy would not only be secure from world events, but it would be lower cost, low carbon and support the local economy. Our local economy could be further enriched by a massive project to ensure that all our homes were retrofitted to the highest energy efficiency standards possible. Whilst the free energy efficiency advice and promotion of ‘energy champions’ by Bridport Town Council is a great start, this needs to be expanded and greatly enhanced by Dorset Council, who need to start showing leadership.

One aspect of this need for leadership should be through the development of a policy regarding planning applications for double glazing in listed buildings and the siting of solar panels on buildings in conservation areas and on land in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Their current approach relies far too heavily on the opinions of conservation officers who, in my opinion, seem to prioritise the conservation of the past at the expense of adapting to the future needs of citizens. This is a topic that I will be returning to – probably quite soon.

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.