Monday, 27 May 2013

Green groups attack government resistance to EU climate change goals

Green campaigners and industry experts have hit out at the government's plans to block new EU-wide renewable energy targets, which they say are essential to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and creating a green economy.

Ed Davey, the energy and climate secretary, is to set out on Monday the UK's position on energy and climate change targets within Europe. He will oppose any new goals on increasing the share of renewable energy in electricity generation, but will argue for climate change goals that would be tougher than any yet agreed in an international forum.

Targets of generating 20% of the EU's energy from renewable sources by 2020 have been credited with spurring huge growth in the sector, which accounts for tens of thousands of jobs in the UK, with more in the supply chain and wider economy.

Wind turbine manufacturers are deciding whether to build factories that will entail tens of billions of pounds of investment, but have been holding off because of uncertainty over the coalition's support for such development. Industry experts said these potential investors were likely to be further spooked by the government's announcement.

Robert Norris, of Renewable UK, which represents the green power industry, said: "If the government does not send the right signals, then major international companies deciding where to build their big wind turbine factories will go elsewhere. We can't afford to let this opportunity slip through our fingers. It's absolutely vital to set targets on emissions and renewables for 2030 as soon as possible. The wind industry urgently needs long-term clarity to attract the billions of pounds of investment to build the massive next round of offshore projects that will create tens of thousands of jobs."

Ruth Davis, political adviser at Greenpeace UK, said: "The UK has some of the best renewable energy resources in Europe, and a renewables industry with huge potential for growth. An EU target would create a new market for that industry, and in doing so attract vital investment into our economy. In opposing a renewables target, not for the first time the irrational prejudices of the Tory right seem to have trumped the interests of working people in Britain."

But a CBI spokeswoman said a renewables or low-carbon energy target was not needed, as long as the EU was forcing industry to pay for carbon emissions. However, the EU's carbon price has plunged to record lows, with little chance of picking up before the end of the decade.

Davey wants the EU to agree a target of cutting carbon by 40%, compared with 1990 levels, by 2030, and to go for a 50% cut if other countries agreed similar goals. The EU is on track for most of the emissions cuts that would entail, partly as a result of its pursuit of renewable energy, and the UK already has targets for cutting carbon to 2027, which would in themselves produce the cuts needed to meet an EU target of halving carbon by 2030.

Davey's decision to push for a new target on emissions but not on renewables, was seen as a compromise that allowed the Lib Dem secretary to declare a strong emissions target, but also as a victory for George Osborne.

The chancellor has opposed any firm new targets on renewable energy beyond 2020, when the target of generating 20% of energy from renewable sources, such as sun and wind, runs out. The renewables industry and other low carbon green industries are one of the few areas of the UK economy that have shown clear growth during the financial crisis and recession.

Written by Fiona Harvey and first published by The Guardian

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

A Referendum on UK Membership of the European Union

Well, as UKIP surge in the opinion polls and the Tory party goes into one of its perennial spasms about the European Union, and gay marriage and the fact that we don’t live in the 1950’s anymore, foreign observers must think that the British have gone completely mad. And to an extent I’d be inclined to agree with them, because there is crazy feeling about our politics at moment, but it is largely limited to only a section of the people, whilst more are worried about their economic security and many other issues before the European Union.
One of the paradoxes of the rise in support for UKIP at the expense of all of the main parties (though particularly the Tories), is that opinion polls show increasing support for staying in the EU, though all the polls do have majorities in favour of having a referendum on the issue. UKIP are the voting receptacle of protest votes in by-elections and local elections, for all sorts of reasons as written about previously. This is not a deep insight, and surely must be obvious to all involved in politics, but a section of the Tory party have decided that this is the best chance they will get to quit the EU, and they are certainly not going to waste it.
For the record you can read the Green party’s policies on the European Union here and you will note that we have a vision of a very different Europe, one which prioritises the interests of the people of Europe, over that of multi-national corporations, which is how things stand at present. That sort of change would need referendums in all nations of the EU, but that kind of choice is definitely not what we in the UK or elsewhere will be getting.
Let’s take the Prime Minister’s plan for a referendum, ‘in or out’ in 2017, after he (if he’s still Prime Minister, which looks doubtful) has renegotiated our terms of membership of the EU as our starting point. On the face of it, this looks to be a reasonable position. It is likely that there will be changes in the EU, given the problems with the Euro. And there are problems a plenty with the how the EU works. The Common Agricultural Policy is one obvious example, and unfair tariff and trading rules with developing countries, is another.
But these things are not what David Cameron wants to renegotiate. He will try and get some deal on limiting immigration from eastern Europe, though I don’t think he will be very successful. He also wants to protect the City of London financial services industry from possible EU regulation, which he might get some concessions on. Where he probably will get somewhere, is over employment regulations, like the working time directive and agency workers regulations. So, less control over the industry that precipitated our current economic crisis and fewer rights at work, as the new settlement. 
That will be the choice, ‘in’ the newly the negotiated EU without the same worker protection as the rest and a free-wheeling finance sector, or ‘out’. We probably won’t even get the option of staying in on our current terms, let alone anything better, if the Tories get away with it.

Luckily, enough Tory MP’s seem hell bent on pursuing this issue until they get their referendum, splitting the Conservative party and the Coalition with the Lib Dems in the process, which makes it much more likely that they will not get the opportunity to determine the terms of any referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, any time soon.                  

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

UKIP and the Anti-Establishment Vote

The big story of the local elections in (rural) England was the rise in the vote for UKIP, gaining 139 council seats and gaining almost a quarter of the vote, and finishing second in the South Shields by-election. Certainly, that is how the mainstream media have portrayed it, and of course it was huge stride forward for UKIP.

To place this into context though, the Green Party made on the surface of it, only a modest net gain of 5 seats, but this was in going from 17 to 22 seats, an increase of nearly a third to our representatives, which is good result for us. And even though now UKIP are now slightly ahead of the Green party in numbers of local councillors, who in the mainstream media ever made a story of us being well ahead of them before?

The media do tend to give a disproportionate amount of attention to UKIP and they have done so with the BNP in the past, although we have many more elected representatives than they have ever had. So, I think the media have played a part in the success of UKIP, almost a self-fulfilling prophesy, but I don’t think that this explains everything.

Nationalist parties are gaining ground all over Europe in this time of imposed austerity, and in some ways UKIP are more benign than other right wing nationalist parties scattered across the continent.  With the failure of the economic system in Europe (and the US) people’s living standards have been slashed and in circumstances similar to the 1930’s, simplistic, scapegoating solutions have again bubbled to the surface. 

For UKIP in Britain, there is almost the perfect storm. The UK government blames our economic woes on Europe and immigrants, the Coalition parties have failed to improve the situation and Labour is still held responsible by many for getting us into the mess, and so a desire to protest and look for politicians untainted by the present problems, becomes an attractive option. At least at local or by-elections, whether this will all carry to a general election, I have my doubts.

But we should not be complacent about the rise of UKIP, but more we should question why people vote for basically another shade of grey, rather than a truly radical party of the anti-establishment, the Green Party?

As mentioned the media and simplistic solutions play a part, and UKIP have a lot more money than we do, so the challenge for the Green party is to effectively communicate the message that the system has failed, and needs to be radically overhauled. No tinkering with immigration rules or human rights laws is going to change the fact that we have an economic system that is failing to deliver for the vast majority of people in the UK and across Europe. And all of this, with little money and not much in the way of favourable media coverage.

And this is hard message to sell anyway, even in the dire straits we find ourselves in today. To pretty much tear down the system and start again with a sustainable, socially just political agenda is a scary concept for many people, so we have our work cut out to be sure. But if we prove by our actions and deeds, where we do have democratic influence, and by campaigning hard around issues that illustrate the failures of the status quo, maybe we can ride the anti-establishment zeitgest too, which is so obviously a real feature of electoral politics today in this country.       

Friday, 3 May 2013

Benefits cap leads to eviction notices in Haringey trial area

Tenants participating in a trial of the government's controversial benefit cap are being sent eviction letters because the welfare changes mean they "may not be able to afford the rent" and they may have to leave their homes within 14 days, according to documents obtained by the Guardian.

In the first tangible proof that the cap would lead to rising levels of homelessness, one of Britain's biggest social landlords, Genesis, has issued a warning to tenants in Haringey – a London borough chosen by ministers to test plans to limit benefit payments to £26,000 a year – saying that it will now need to start legal proceedings to "terminate our lease".

The letter from Genesis says it has been forced into taking these steps because of the "significant changes being currently introduced to the welfare benefit system". The letter warns that, if the tenants do not offer a defence, a court can force eviction within 14 days.

The overall benefit cap set at £500 per week, or £350 for single people, was introduced in four London local authorities – Enfield, Bromley, Croydon and Haringey – in mid-April, and will be rolled out nationally later in the year. The Department for Work and Pensions has estimated that 56,000 households will be hit, with an average weekly loss of £93. The majority will be families with children.

Haringey council says it is "astonished by the premature threat" of eviction – which raised the possibility that scores of families may end up on the streets. It has 660 households who face an average £50-a-week loss because of the cap – and is spending £1.5m over three months to offer them homes within 1.5 miles of the borough.

Claire Kober, the Labour leader of Haringey council, said she knew of a number of social landlords using the threat of eviction since the benefit cap was introduced. "This behaviour of housing associations is completely unacceptable, especially given their stated social mission," she said. "But this underlines to me that the fears that we expressed to government about the consequences of the benefit cap are coming true. The benefit cap is not addressing the cause of the rising housing benefit bill – just the symptoms."

The government, wary of how councils would cope, deliberately slowed the implementation of the benefit cap, with councils applying the cash limits to just 60 claimants a week.
Duncan Shrubsole, policy director at the charity Crisis, said: "What's happening in Haringey is an example of how brutal it is out there. Enfield council is considering moving 330 people out to places like Birmingham and Bradford. Every council testing this benefit cap has teams of housing officers warning tenants that they face some stark choices."

In February, the Guardian revealed that Camden council in north London said 700 families faced being moved up to 200 miles away because the coalition's benefit cap would mean they would be unable to afford their current accommodation or any other home in south-east England.

A spokesperson for Genesis at first denied that letters had been sent out. When confronted with the text of the letter, the social landlord, which manages about 30,000 homes across London and south-east England, said there had been a "cack-handed attempt" to explain the situation in Haringey to "some clients". "That letter should not have been written that way. We are working with tenants in Haringey to help them out of arrears."

Last month, the government was accused of misrepresenting statistics to claim that the cap on benefits had driven 8,000 people to find work.

The Department for Work and Pensions said: "We have been working hard over the last 12 months to support claimants who might be affected by the benefit cap – with Jobcentre Plus, councils and housing associations providing practical help, such as training to get into work and advice over housing options."

The letter available for download has been altered at Genesis' request to protect the privacy of a
junior member of staff

First published at The Guardian

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Kilburn Manifesto's challenge to the neoliberal victory

The crisis in the global economic system triggered by the banking collapse of 2006-08 has precipitated a new moment in the evolution of global capitalism. But its novelty is not generally understood.

Some previous crises, most famously the great crash and depression of the 1930s, produced radical social change: the welfare state and New Deal, as well as the rise of fascism. In the past five years protest groups such as Occupy have appeared, and resistance to austerity has grown. Yet there has been no rupture in the system or its governing ideology. Indeed, elites have used the crisis in Europe and north America to advance the neoliberal project, as unrelenting attacks on living standards, the NHS and the welfare state in Britain show.

The disintegration of the British postwar settlement was the central project of one of the new right's most politically divisive figures, Margaret Thatcher. Her funeral last week was designed to install her as the emblem of a unified nation, and set the seal on three decades of work by three political regimes – Thatcherism, New Labour and the coalition – to fundamentally reshape Britain. As David Cameron told the BBC: "We are all Thatcherites now." Thatcher is dead, long live Thatcherism.

What is new about this phase of capitalism? Its global interconnectedness, driven in part by new technologies, and the dominance of a new kind of finance capitalism mean that, while a crisis of this system has effects everywhere, these effects are uneven. So far the Bric countries seem relatively unscathed, while the impact of economic devastation has spread from Asia and Africa into Europe.

The breakdown of old forms of social solidarity is accompanied by the dramatic growth of inequality and a widening gap between those who run the system or are well paid as its agents, and the working poor, unemployed, under-employed or unwell.

The crisis has revealed a new, international and ethnically diverse super-rich. The Sunday Times Rich List is topped by two Russian oligarchs and an Indian billionaire. They live a life totally divorced from and almost unimaginable by ordinary people, fuelled by an apparently unstoppable appetite for profit.

Neoliberalism's victory has depended on the boldness and ambition of global capital, on its confidence that it can now govern not just the economy but the whole of social life. On the back of a revamped liberal political and economic theory, its champions have constructed a vision and a new common sense that have permeated society. Market forces have begun to model institutional life and press deeply into our private lives, as well as dominating political discourse. They have shaped a popular culture that extols celebrity and success and promotes values of private gain and possessive individualism. They have thoroughly undermined the redistributive egalitarian consensus that underpinned the welfare state, with painful consequences for socially vulnerable groups such as women, old people, the young and ethnic minorities.

Corporate exploitation of cheap labour, natural resources and land has worsened the crisis in the developing world. Environmental degradation, poverty, disease pandemics, poor education, ethnic divisions and civil wars are paraded as inevitable postcolonial failures and provoke the old powers to intervene to safeguard the conditions for capitalist accumulation.

The neoliberal victory has reasserted the powers and position of the dominant classes. But this victory was not inevitable. No social settlement is permanent, and this one was fought for, from the coup in Chile and the defeat of the miners in Britain to current attacks on workers' rights and the benefits system. There is more than one way out of the current catastrophe. There is always an alternative.

Today – Wednesday – the founding editors of Soundings, the new left journal first published in 1995, launch a manifesto that will attempt to outline ways forward. Over the next year we and our collaborators will, in a series of monthly instalments, examine different aspects of the current crisis and try to frame a more systemic set of questions than is usually asked. We do not offer policies but alternative approaches and demands that we hope will contribute to the broader debate that is the environment in which policymakers operate.

New Labour's collusion with the neoliberal project – through an agenda of privatisation, outsourcing and the marketisation of the public sector – has left the party unable to draw a clear line with the coalition. Having driven forward many of Thatcherism's gains under Tony Blair, it is constrained by timid leadership, by a lack of clear vision and new ideas.

Outside party politics new social movements, including environmental, anti-cuts and feminist groups, have not come together sufficiently with the old, defensive organisations of the working class to produce the coalition that might make them an effective political force. Yet there are indications of how such a compromise might work, for example in the short era of Ken Livingstone's GLC and the radical experiments under way in Latin America. By contrast, turmoil in the Middle East shows us what happens when democratic demands are not met, while in Europe resistance to austerity is twinned with the revival of fascism.

This is no time for simple retreat. What is required is a renewed sense of being on the side of the future, not stuck in the dugouts of the past. We must admit that the old forms of the welfare state proved insufficient. But we must stubbornly defend the principles on which it was founded – redistribution, egalitarianism, collective provision, democratic accountability and participation, the right to education and healthcare – and find new ways in which they can be institutionalised and expressed.

All of us who oppose the current direction, whether from inside or outside party politics or other organisations, must invent. We must set about disrupting the current common sense, challenging the assumptions that organise our 21st-century political discourse. We hope our manifesto will open a dialogue with a new generation shaped by different political experiences. This is a moment for challenging, not adapting to, neoliberalism's new reality, and for making a leap.

After Neoliberalism: The Kilburn Manifesto, by Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin, is launched in London today, Wednesday 24 April, and online

First published at The Guardian