Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What I did, heard, thought and said during the Green Party Conference in Liverpool

I was last in Liverpool some 7 years ago. Lime street has been given the universal glass and steel facelift and a square created which I hope serves some kind of function in terms of public space and location for simply “hanging out”.
If you avoid the square and slip out from the side exit then you are just road width away from the Liverpool of old all be if modernised with free wi-fi available in some rough looking places.
Its strange how no one seems to make the connection with all this “make over” urban development that is a characteristic of just about anywhere of a decent size and the financial crash. After all we know that this was a property led crash and urban development and re-development has been part and parcel of the financial investment merry go round that surplus capital created when it seemed like the “only way is up”.

Venue’s for conference tend be iconic hotels or universities. We are in a Liverpool icon, the Adelphi Hotel. An imposing hunk of stone which in its heyday must have made quite an impression. If you look at the place on the web it still seems to have retained its splendour, but sadly it’s a now a run down place with some nice features but decaying. I imagine that energy efficiency is not one of the criteria used in selecting hotels as the place has a heating system that looks out of the 60’s. I must admit I like its decaying decadence. Its Friday night ,so along side GP members its full of “locals” out for a good Friday night from the middle class voices of our reception I can slip into the Wave bar and find myself in another world of people going hell for leather in order to have a good time.

Of course I didn’t just come just for the sociological anthropology..the programme is a marathon and yet many I feel who are here (including myself) are not able to do a marathon. However, I give it my best shot.

I go to workshop on energy policy. This is in fact an enabling motion in order to get approval to rewrite our energy policy which it turns out has not been revised since 1990.It has nothing about carbon emission trading schemes or carbon capture and storage technology . There is nothing about fuel poverty which now effects 6 million households in the UK. So of course everyone agreed that we need to rewrite our energy policy. For me I was left wondering how it was possible that our energy policy had been untouched since 1990? We are the party that has put “energy” onto the agenda and yet it seems we simply left it. The explanation maybe to do with the relationship between policy and campaigning , or rather lack of relationship. A new meaningful policy will need to have some concrete actions and timelines and that will focus more attention of action and not just words. It’s about praxis.

Straight on to another policy discussion about “fair internships”. There is no work for over 1 million young people. Over 30% of young people who have “entered “the labour market since 2000 have never really worked. We have structural youth unemployment but no one seems to want to say it. In place of work its now internships and this motion was about seeking to ensure that interns are treated properly and paid a minimum wage. Again unanimous approval but we left the room without really confronting the elephant in the room, namely that internships are for those with family financial resources. We are creating a new form of socio-economic segmentation in the routes for advancement out of unemployment. For the majority of young people internships are simply not available. Its workfare for them or dead-end, low paid jobs

Caroline Lucas is of course our star and her speech really was so good; She finds angles that re-positions key issues. So instead of focussing on cuts (which she did forcefully reject as immoral)) she also spun the issue round to look at what do we spend our public money on. The list is depressing, upgrading nuclear weapons, building two aircraft carriers, bailing out the banks, more prisons, more roads. This is the real reality of what is taking place. We are destroying a system of social and family welfare and replacing it with a system of corporate welfare. She was scathing in her contempt for the labour leadership and likened Ed Milliband to a “ hamster in a wheel” in terms of his leadership style.

By now my stomach was rumbling but disappointingly the menu on offer at the venue had as much appeal as school dinners and outside the hotel it was simply awash with junk food outlets. Luckily I had bought a banana with me so I wolfed that and went into a session on the membership system. The new system will create a much more sophisticated and useful tool not just for membership monitoring but also mailing and identifying supporters . However, what is clear is that the party membership officers are a very mixed bunch and somehow all the new tricks will take some time to learn and for some they may actually be past learning new tricks at all. What is clear is that role of local party membership officer and regional party membership officer will get very more demanding . Local parties will have to find tech savvy membership officers if they want to take advantage of the new system.

Crisis in the Eurozone and crisis in the UK was the theme of a plenary session run by CoR. There was nothing new here in this session apart from the fact that we should be supporting a debtor led Greek default. This is currently not party policy or indeed the policy of the European Greens , which is the subject of the fringe I will run tomorrow.
I am more and more of the view that if there is debtor led Greek default then we actually will see the depth of the financial crisis we are in. In the casino capitalism that we have allowed to reign through deregulation of the financial sector, the shadow banking world of hedge funds has been active in relation to the Greek debt. They now in fact own 25% of the Greek debt. They however are seeking a default as they stand to make millions on the Credit Default Swaps (insurance against non repayment) they have taken out. My guess is that if these CDS’s had to be paid then the financial system would unravel in just the same way that it did in 2007/2008 and this time there will not be the money to plug the problem. The only solution will be to make banks in effect public utilities, which is what they should be. Credit like energy is the lifeblood of our economy, we should not allow private capital to leech away our lifeblood as we have done to date.

From crisis, to a reception offered by Liverpool Green Party, where I down a pint of excellent of excellent organic bitter and talk to a party member from Stroud who reminds me that the “Green local revolution” started there, surely it merits some kind of reflection . I suspect the sights of the party are raised higher so Stroud has fallen off the radar, its now Brighton, Oxford, Lancaster and Norwich which are the targets. As I drain my glass, I feel tired.

Day Two

For reasons I simply cannot remember, I went along to a session at 09:00 on the theme “Do you suit Green”. What ever the reason, I found myself in a surreal session where two image consultants (one from inside the GP and the other her friend) , held a session about how to “ dress to impress” or not. “Power is about giving a cohesive message “ was one of the gems of advice given. This does not mean integrity or consistency its about being colour co-ordinated to suit your “seasonal colour”. Not to mix walking shoes with “working” shoes. Where do trainers fit in, I wondered? I wear some of my trainer style shoes with suits and also with jeans. According to the image consultants I should not. This was all about telling us to fit in with situations. What ever happened to wearing what you feel comfortable in?
I left to go and have some breakfast only to find that breakfast stopped at 10:00 in the hotel. This must be the only hotel in the world that has such a ridiculous shut off time for breakfast and especially on a Saturday. Still what I saw on the plates left we feeling that it was blessing as it looked bad.

I buy a couple of bananas from just outside the hotel and head back to listen to Jenny Jones. Jenny has nice speaking style which is sort of self deprecating and at the same time sharply attacking. So you laugh with her and sometimes at her which is great. She however, does sometimes try to be all pleasing and in the process drop some messages which sound off key. So, she says that “greens will make streets safe to cycle, walk and shop in”. Do we want to be the party that promises “safe consumption”?
She then declares that “London is tough to live in if you don’t earn more than £20,000.” It seems that she has not been informed that that the London average wage is less than that. It seems that her benchmark is “middle class” and simply is unaware of the reality facing the majority of Londoners. The pay as you drive policy is announced as a radical policy which will replace congestion charging and make public transport cheaper. Yes it is radical, yes we should explore such an option but it’s simply unreal to present it as viable policy in the immediate future and especially in outer London.

Adrian Ramsey, our deputy leader, is a career politician. It oozes out of him . His speech was a machine like re-iteration of what Caroline and Jenny had already said. “Greens cut bills not jobs” he declared. What does that mean? We make savings without cutting jobs? The answer is that even if we make no job cuts we stop recruiting and thus add to the unemployment problem. His machine like presentation left delegates sometimes wondering when to clap, even though this year there was a teleprompter which indicated “clapping” moments.

Onto a policy session on the Jewish National Fund. The JNF is a organisation masquerading as charity which in effect annexes land belonging to Israeli citizens who happen to be Arabs/Palestinians. The evidence is overwhelming, but getting a charity struck off the charity register is not so easy. The underlying tension is simply the red herring that continues to be trawled out in relation to any matter relating to Israel..namely that of alleged anti-Semitism. For me the issue is simple, anti Zionism is not anti-Semitism. JNF is a vehicle for Zionism.

I then move onto a session called “meet your leader”. This is a kind of Q&A with Caroline. It’s well attended and the questions come thick and fast. The Brighton and Hove Council “debate” is skirted around . This issue has been a running element of the conference. Green Left members consider their decision as “crossing a line” as it will still mean cuts. I think that the Brighton and Hove party has come up with a very effective way to address the budget cuts issue. They have demonstrated that greens are also about a different way of doing politics. The problem now is that have they made a tactical error in agreeing to proceed with a budget after the Labour and Tory parties joined forces to stop the 3.5% council tax increase? Without this increase in revenue, their budget looses its “green elements” and becomes simply an Eric Pickles determined budget. Word is that Caroline has said that an error has been made. She however, in this session makes no reference to this and indeed praises the thinking of B&H.

Candidly she declares that she has sleepless nights about whether we are moving fast enough to address the massive global challenges we face . This is the old problem about are we just going to invest our energies in getting incremental change when we already know that it’s a paradigm shift we need. The answer has to be that we need to invest in both.

I take break from Conference and head to the hotel gym where I run 8k and feel rejuvenated. I then head to run my fringe session which is about the European Greens who last year in a statement called the “Paris declaration” came out with the need to defend the euro and also calling for greater European political and economic integration. I actually feel that to equate the euro with Europe is fundamentally mistaken. Moreover, being in Liverpool, I have to say that I love John Lennon’s song “Imagine” but we are not at this moment in time in apposition to be pushing for greater EU integration when the project itself has lost its way and lacks any connection with people on the ground. For more read my blog on this issue.

After my first healthy meal in an excellent but inaccessible veggie café, I find myself in the Quiz night. Its being held in the main hall its more like a school quiz atmosphere than a pub quiz.

Q1 Car in Turkish, Lumi in Swedish what does it mean in English
Q2 what %age of languages will disappear in the next 100 year.

I am not part of a team and find myself with an “observer” delegate. He tells me that he had been in the green party for some 12 years but then for a variety of reasons “dropped out”. This is his first re-acquaintance with the party after a 8 year break.

Q3. What is the origin of the word tornado
Q4.What is the origin of the word ombudsman?

So I quiz him about what if anything he finds different. Its not so inclusive he tells me. He feels invisible. I am the first person, it turns out who has talked to him. He likes quiz’s and would have liked to be in a team but finds the process closed. He leaves to catch his last bus home and I sense he will not be coming to Bristol.

Q5 what is the metal or plastic at the end of a shoelace called?
Q6 what is the only word in the English language, that when capitalised is changed from a noun to a nationality

I myself am not a big quiz fan but do enjoy the atmosphere that a good pub quiz can generate. Its not just the questions its also about the banter that the quiz master generates and the banter from the punters. Sadly, we have a wooden question master who sound more like a trainee teacher so the atmosphere is far from lively. I stay for the end of the quiz

Q7 Name one of the only two words that begins and ends with “und”
Q8What is the chemical formula for copper?
Q9.How many bones in a human hand
Q10 When was Origin of the species originally published ?
Q11 The formula f= ma is popularly associated with what popular known scientist?

I tally up my score, 7 out of 11 and I head for the wave bar.

Day Three
I go to a session run by our Caroline (Allen) on supporting healthy and sustainable food choices. The rooms overlooks a major junction in the heart of Liverpool and all you can see is just junk and fast food outlets alongside pubs which serve up the same. We are the 3rd in the global obesity stakes so this issue is clearly important but at the same time simply not connecting with the majority of people. A nice story emerges from two Manchester students about how they have set up a student union food coop which now has 200 members and links up to fair-trade and organic local suppliers. We also have an organic farmer who wants to encourage schools to make more farm visits so that people can make the connection between agriculture and the food on their plate.
Infact we know that 40% of personal C02 emissions are generated by what we choose to put onto our plates. Maybe choice or lack of it is the real problem. Our food ,industry is dominated by the interests of quick profit seeking agri -businesses and supermarkets. Food is about lifestyle and we have generated a lifestyle that is about eating on the go, that explains the proliferation of fast food places and processed foods. I leave wondering if on this issue we really are too late. I look out of the window and see a group of young overweight guys shoving burgers and chips down their throats . What’s more, what happening here is just the tip of the iceberg. Global urbanisation is driving similar styles of eating across the globe. 20 million Chinese leave the land each year to end up living in the newly created cities of China and this just feeds the MacDough food culture we have.

The inedible hotel food should have really been something we should have talked about in the workshop and perhaps even tried to come up with some kind of solution..a pop up food stall maybe . Anyway, I eventually find a Nero’s café and eat a veggie wrap with a large coffee to keep me going and head for a session called “Are young people turning left”?
Three young speakers all saying yes BUT also in two cases questioning what this actually meant. Will Case, trainee labour party politician, came out with an analysis that felt more like a party line than something he himself experienced. In contrast the other two speakers spoke from their own experience and as such their analysis was more “messy” as they themselves were reflecting on their direct experience and not speaking from a party line. Despite this their analysis had more depth as it drew out the contradictions .
Yes the conditions for young people becoming radicalised are there. Youth unemployment, tuition fees, abolition of EMA, housing benefit regulations, impact of welfare to work and issues such as climate change are all impacting on young people. BUT, is this translating into a shift to the left? From Occupy London and UK Uncut, the message was clear, its about rejecting political parties owing to their narrow base and links with corporate interests. Is it possible to change mainstream parties like Labour and Tory from within? The consensus was no. More depressing also was the rejection of voting as a useful tool for bringing about change. I disagreed with this, we cannot simply ignore the one tool for change we have . Our system is flawed but because of this it also means that you only need 1in 5 voters to switch in order to make a huge impact.
Paul Mason in his book “Why its kicking off everywhere” argues that the “unemployed graduate “ is a key element in the youth lead movements for change that are taking place. None of the young people I spoke to are as yet unemployed graduates , indeed all those who had graduated were well catered for through internships . We need to connect with unemployed graduates but at the same time we need to connect with the NEET group, both of whom were missing from the debate.

“Is politics fit for our times and for our planet” was the title of the next session I attended. Clearly delegates were flagging as there was only 7 of us and all men I have to sadly say. The overwhelming consensus was yes, our political system is no longer “fit for purpose”. Accepting that , then the issue for us is what sort of political party does GPEW need to be. I feel we maybe at this point simply putting too much emphasise on gaining “power” rather than being a party that seeks to influence the agenda. Yes we do require more MP’s and MEP’s etc, but we should not be getting sucked into a strategy that seems to be based on simply maximising electoral success. It results in too much of our energy and resources being directed to electioneering rather than campaigning. Our role needs to be that seeks to demystify the issues and challenges we face. We also need to promote a different kind of democracy based on co-operation and connectivity. It is fundamentally about changing mindsets and requires more than just electioneering.

I head with some delegates for a meal and we find ourselves talking about the format of conference. It is really an old style way of engaging: presentations, followed by Q&A. There needs to be more space for “open space” style discussions which also create more opportunities for networking and finding out what people are doing. There is a conference twitter group but I do not see much activity on this when I look a couple of times. Why cannot we have a virtual element to our discussions? One of the members of our eating group turns out to be on the conference committee so I hope some of what we shared around the table becomes visible in Bristol.

Day Four

There are no more fish in the sea was the last session I attended. The ocean covers 71% of the planet and it remarkable what we let happen there. The North Atlantic fish stock is already depleted outlines Terry Dawson, from Dundee University. Infact its in a spiral of terminal decline. Short-term production gains are creating eco-system unsustainability in nearly two thirds of our ocean regions.We have lost 90% of large predatory fish. We are ineffect moving down the marine food chain. Technology and science is helping us get to places which before could not be reached. This is having devastating effects. Ian Campbell from Ocean 2012 reels off the evidence:
•80% decline in biomass of predatory fish we now catch
•93% of cod is caught before it reaches sexual maturity
•60% of fish is discarded. Simply thrown back overboard or as he showed dumped in a field in Ireland
•50% of the fish we eat now is imported
•Japan, USA and the EU account for 75% of global fish consumption

Willie Mackenzie from Greenpeace hammered home the news:
•One EU (subsidized) trawler catches more fish in one day than 56 African fishermen catch in one year.We are the real pirates of the ocean, pillaging fish stocks with no regard for the impact on sustainable life styles of the people who are dependent on the same source.
•Tuna fishing is allowing the destruction of other marine species by the huge by-catch it generates. The same through shrimping.
•Fish finger no come from the pacific(the fish that is, its still Captain Birdeye on the packet).
•Technology now is allowing us to start fishing for plankton thus really endangering the whole ecosystem
The problem he said is that it’s all out at sea and out of sight.

Faced with this evidence base it was so difficult for Melissa Moore from Marine Conservation Zones to sound very convincing about the current policy response and its likelihood to bring about any major change. As she said, the policy is simply about maintaining the current state NOT for creating the recovery that is needed. Furthermore, the policy means that only 0.03% of our coastal areas are protected from fishing. Why are we as Greens giving such actions a high profile in our policy?
We need to be arguing for nothing less than recovery as policy. Rebuilding stocks makes economic sense in the mid and long term, that should be our objective. As usual we need an end to short termism, we need transparency in how current policy at national and EU level is allowing a public resource to be incrementally privatised for short term profit.
The message couldn’t be clearer, eat chips without fish. In short we need system change.

1 comment:

  1. Of course, there just had to something having a go at Israel.

    The only reason I won't vote Green.