Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Interview: Anne Gray - Green Party Candidate for Tottenham Parliamentary Constituency

How long have you been a Green Party member and what is your political background?

I joined just in time to do election work for the Euro elections in 2004. I was a member of the Labour Party briefly in 1984-5, and the Communist Party in the 1970s, but I have had a lifetime of activity in various non-party movements, starting with CND as a teenager. In recent years I've mainly been involved with campaigning about benefits for unemployed people which linked with my academic research work, and campaigning against the anti-terrorism laws which are really a disaster for civil liberties. I've also been working with the Sustainable Haringey Network, mainly on food policy issues, and we have started a food coop to give people a chance to reduce 'food miles' and buy organic at affordable prices . And I've also been working with the local campaign to preserve the Health Service, because the 'polyclinics' proposal is really privatisation by stealth, and the American multi-nationals could take over quite a lot of our doctors.

Can we avoid climate change disaster?

Only if we try pretty hard. The scientific predictions get worse every time they hit the Guardian. But we just have to try - otherwise the consequences are unthinkable - with the ice caps melting and rising sea levels, Bangladesh and the Netherlands would drown, and many coastal cities across the world, including London and particularly parts of the Lee Valley up to Tottenham, would go the way of New Orleans. And as someone who feels the cold a lot, I dread the end of the Gulf Stream which keeps our country warm in winter - but it could happen as the Arctic ice shrinks. To avoid disaster, as books like Monbiot's 'Heat' have warned us, we need a very drastic cut in transport-related emissions, particularly in flying and private car use, but also in lorry traffic and shipping, and we need to stop using fossil fuels for heat and power. Britain is said to be the Saudi Arabia of wind power, and manufacturing both of turbines and of solar power gear would be something the government could invest in right now as a way of beating the recession. The predictions about what happens to the climate if we do nothing are dire, but the scenarios for cutting back CO2 emissions if we do the right things actually make saving the planet sound quite feasible - we could get it right if we take all the steps that people like Zero Carbon Britain or the transition towns movement are advocating.

What individual things have you done to reduce your carbon footprint?

I haven't had a car since 1989. I cycle where I can, though the roads aren't that friendly. I have solar power on my roof, lots of roof insulation and double glazing. I try not to put the central heating on till November unless it's really cold - having been brought up with 1950s heating systems, I'm used to wearing big jumpers at home. And I try not to fly - overnight train and boat journeys can be fun and more relaxed than all that boring airport security. Though I did get stuck in the French railway strike whilst trying to go to a conference in Italy last year, which wasn't that clever.

What is your view on the current financial crisis?

The gut reaction is shoot the bankers, but I don't believe in the death penalty and anyway a couple of my friends work in the City. We do need strong powers against economic sabotage and whilst some journalists had a go at the government for using anti-terrorism powers to seize the assets of the Icelandic bank which holds Haringey's (and other councils') payroll funds, to me it seemed the only sensible use of these seizure powers to date. I call it economic sabotage when greed has led banks, which means the people who work in them , to take unreasonable risks with other people's money. We need to understand what's at the bottom of the crisis, how to deal with it, and how to make sure it doesn't happen again. The root of the problem is a capitalist system in which markets are somehow sacred and people are allowed to pursue their own financial interest in thoroughly unproductive ways. So much of the British - and especially the London - economy is about making money from money, which actually creates nothing useful, just a transfer from borrower (often poor) to lenders (that's shareholders and big-bonus bank staff - often wealthy). The banks made lots of money in recent years by lending to borrowers who were 'bad risks' so that those people and companies could drive up the price of homes, in the process giving a bonus to the 'haves' and making life more difficult for 'have nots' who couldn't afford to buy a home. The banks abandoned the old practice of rationing mortages to one home per household, which if you think about it must have helped to keep house prices down a bit. 'Buy to let' is basically more risky than 'buy to live in' because the lettings market or the tenant's ability to pay can go wrong, as well as the borrower's solvency. The regulators - especially in the USA, where the rot started - didn't stop the banks being greedy and lending too widely. But the regulators here turned a blind eye too, even when it became apparent that some banks, like Northern Rock, were taking too big a risk both about who they lent to and where they got the money to lend out - Northern Rock had only 27% of its funds from savers and the rest from short-term money markets where the price of funds could go up suddenly.

Now the system is in a real mess. Billions of taxpayers' money has been handed out to banks in rescue loans and share purchases. What happens to public finances if it doesn't get paid back ? However this has shown up the government's attitudes on a lot of important things it might have borrowed for in the recent past - it's as though it's ok to provide welfare for the bankers but the unemployed, the sick, decent elder care, the inner city schools are apparently 'unaffordable'. The government could have got much tougher about the conditions of the rescues, demanding much more long term control and a limitation of pay, pensions and bonuses, in some cases big fines I would say, for the senior bank staff who took bad decisions.

Clearly the recession has begun, and so has the slide in the value of people's savings and pension funds, which is going to be especially bad for a lot of older people. As the economy goes down, we shall need to struggle hard to preserve public services and the value of benefits and pensions, and demand that the rich pay up in terms of taxes and special levies of various kinds. Some of this could come from new taxes on real estate - not capital gains, because those are done for, but the actual capital values of homes and other buildings which are still huge in posh parts of London. Despite the recent fall-back of the oil price, we should still call for a windfall tax on energy profits.

Green economic policies will really score in a recession. Caroline Lucas already helped to launch the Green New Deal, a great programme for creating jobs in sensible ways which will help against climate change. But if we get a serious recession (or even if we don't), there are many ideas in the green economics tradition which are helpful. LETS schemes, based on bartering each others' labour, can help local people make do if there are no jobs. Credit unions are a way of creating our own cooperative mini-banks, under depositors' control, and providing low or no-interest loans to individuals or businesses. They're rather like the original British building societies or the cooperative credit schemes which are familiar to Caribbean, African and Pakistani traditions. For example we could set up credit clubs to finance solar power, or home repairs, or build greenhouses - all of which would help create jobs. Local food production, which is what we are working for in Sustainable Haringey, could provide food security if imported food becomes unaffordable or even unavailable because of high transport costs or credit problems.

What are the issues you plan to stand on at the 2010 Haringey council and General Elections?

We live in a time of crisis and it partly depends on the next two years' events. But amongst my priorities would be peace (if we are still, heaven help us, shamed by our government's share in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan), opposing privatisation of public services especially health, and getting decent wages and benefits. Tottenham is one of the worst places in the country for child poverty and we need to work hard on that whether or not we get elected. I've just been writing a Green Party response to the government's consultation on welfare reform, criticising their workfare proposals which are pretty much the opposite of our approach to benefits - the Green ideal is a basic income for everyone whether they work or not, rather like a child benefit for adults. The whole benefits system needs re-vamping to make it easier for people to work a bit when they can, not lose all their benefits or be prosecuted for fraud because they do two weeks work when something like decorating for a friend is all they can get. A lot of unwaged people could benefit from going to college for a year, or two or three, but the JSA rules don't permit them. At least we could push to make Tottenham a pilot area for some special schemes, because of its extreme situation.

What kind of result do you expect in these elections?

We stand a reasonable chance in Stroud Green and Haringay wards if we can get to talk to enough voters.

It would be a miracle if the Green Party won either Haringey constituency in the general election. But I think that's not the point, or not all of the point. We know the other parties feel threatened by the Green Party's arguments on climate change, and so they start to take up our policies. It would be a victory if they did the same about privatisation and about getting out of Iraq. And the larger the vote for the Greens - though the same would apply to any small party - the stronger the argument for proportional representation. It's when we have that key change in the voting system that British politics will become much more democratic and then Greens will really surge forward.

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