Will we send solidarity to Palestine – or just bombs?

I joined the demonstration in support of Brighton Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s latest campaign today. The group is calling for Brighton & Hove City council to join the international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions, to put pressure on Israel to cease its illegal siege, occupation and military attacks on Palestinian areas.

I’ve written to my ward councillors, to let them know why I’d like them to support this campaign. If you agree, please write to your councillors too. Here’s my letter:

Dear Liz, Bill and Emma,

I’m writing to ask you to support Cllr. Ben Duncan’s motion at the next Brighton & Hove City Council meeting, which calls on the council to join the international boycott of Israel, in support of the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, made in 2005 by Palestinian civil society organisations.

I’m sure you have been as horrified as I have by the images of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza this summer. Over 2000 people have been killed, over 70% of them civilians, including over 500 children. Although it has disappeared from BBC news bulletins, the attack continues, with 20 more air strikes yesterday, including the destruction of an apartment building that was home to 60 families.

The facts are pretty clear. The siege of Gaza is a shocking example of collective punishment. The attacks on the civilian population are massively disproportionate. Israel has ignored numerous UN resolutions and reports and continued to break international law with impunity for decades.

I’m sure you’ve heard all these facts and figures before. I have too. They have become part of the background for us – another faraway war we can switch off when the pictures on the television are too upsetting.

But for some Brighton & Hove residents, these facts represent the heartbreaking reality of knowing that their relatives and friends are losing their homes and living every day in fear of their lives – or worse. This afternoon I heard a woman talk about a friend she met on a visit to Palestine. Her friend’s sister had been killed before her eyes, as they were fleeing their home together.

Last month I heard a member of the local Palestinian community talk about the warning issued to his relatives in Gaza – they had five minutes to get out of their home before it was destroyed, leaving behind all their possessions, family photos, everything.

What’s happening in Gaza is connected to us in Brighton another way too. The EDO-MBM factory in Moulsecoomb, a subsidiary of Exelis Ltd, manufactures weapons suspension and release systems used in Gaza, among other places.

Weapons made in Brighton are among those destroying the homes of Palestinian civilians. This is not a faraway conflict that has nothing to do with us.

Joining the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is the clearest way we can express our solidarity with the people of Gaza and the occupied territories, and our support for the Palestinian community in our city.

Please support the motion on October 23rd.

Yours sincerely,

 

Dani Ahrens


We all live downstream

I went to Balcombe today, to join day 1 of the Great Gas Gala.

Thanks to people who got there a lot earlier than me, the first truck delivering drilling equipment to the site was stopped in its tracks.

blockaded truck at Balcombe fracking site

I was there in time to hear the announcement at around 2.30pm that it was to be driven away and no further attempts to bring equipment onto the site would be made for the rest of the day.

It’s always heartening when peaceful, human-scale resistance scores a point against the big, faceless, intangible forces of industrial capitalism. But despite the carnival atmosphere at Balcombe today, everyone was aware of the power of those we were challenging.

The site was guarded by Gurkhas.

Gurkhas guarding the gate

Sign warning: firearms in use

Behind the chatty police liaison officers, there were two police vans parked just down the road. This is not a little local difficulty. The government has taken the extraordinary decision to offer tax breaks to the fracking industry, preparing to sacrifice even the rural Sussex Tory heartland to keep the multinational energy companies happy.

This morning, there was some discussion on my Twitter feed about the way the campaign against fracking in Balcombe has resonated with people in the Hanover neighbourhood in Brighton, where I live. There were at least six Hanover residents supporting the protest in Balcombe this afternoon, and two streets in the neighbourhood have already declared majority support for a frack-free Sussex.

A local Labour Party activist on Twitter expressed irritation at fracking having been mentioned on Green Party literature in the recent local byelection. Labour Party commentators have also recently criticised Caroline Lucas for raising “non local” issues in Parliament.

I find this line of attack very curious. If you want to have a go at environmental campaigners, it’s easy – they are either NIMBYs or they are not concentrating enough on local issues. But that misses the point – and fracking at Balcombe is a very stark example of this – that there are no purely local issues in a world in which we all depend on a single fragile ecosystem, and we all live under a single global economic system.

All of Brighton’s drinking water comes from under the ground, where it has been filtered through the porous chalk of our downland landscape. This is the same ground into which Cuadrilla have a licence to drill for shale oil, over an area of 270 square miles. Where similar rock formations are being exploited in the USA, the density of wells is now reaching four wells per square mile.

Gas and oil wells all over the world have been found to leak, contaminating the surrounding soil and water. Why would we risk the safety of our water and food by allowing this destructive industry to get a foothold here?

The Labour Party’s national position on fracking, apparently, is that more research needs to be done into the safety concerns.

But even if the exploitation process were completely clean and safe, extracting gas and oil from the shale under the ground would still be a phenomenally stupid thing to do. It’s not difficult to understand why. This infographic makes it clear:

There’s no such thing as safe exploitation of additional fossil fuel reserves. Campaigning on environmental issues is not a luxury – in fact we don’t have the luxury of ignoring them for a moment longer. The same politicians, companies and media organisations who have been trying to sell us benefit cuts and the privatisation of the NHS are now trying to sell us fracking for shale gas and oil as a serious proposal for future energy policy. That’s no coincidence. Both policies serve only the interests of the 1%, at the expense of the health and wellbeing of the rest of us.

There’s no need to pursue extreme energy sources. Putting a stop to this suicidal plan means taking on a global issue, right in our back yard. Like ordinary people in Poland, Australia and the USA, the residents of Balcombe are defending the land they love and depend on. Our government has shown which side they are on. The official opposition have forgotten how to oppose. It’s down to us to do something about this.

crochet flowers at the gate


Not a byelection issue: parking

Parking is certainly an issue in Hanover. Put two or more Hanover residents in a room together and you can lay odds they will be talking about parking within the hour. Everyone has an opinion on it, except our potential councillors.

All the election literature I’ve seen so far (except the TUSC leaflet, which avoids mention of anything specific to the ward at all) follows the time-honoured formula when approaching a divisive issue – say something that reassures voters you will listen to them, without expressing any opinion of your own.

Thus we have almost identical statements from David Gibson: “We will work together on solving long-standing issues like parking, recycling and waste disposal” and Emma Daniel: “Problems like rubbish and parking are difficult to resolve, but if I am elected, I will consult the community properly and do everything I can to ensure that your views are heard”.

Even Robert Knight, the Conservative candidate – who has nothing to lose, since he has no chance of winning – manages to come up with a forthright sounding statement on parking which actually says nothing: “Parking is a big problem with parts of the area now the City’s unofficial free car park, whilst other areas fear the encroachment of controlled parking. A solution that suits all local residents is urgently needed.”

Of course, I understand why the candidates are reluctant to commit themselves to any particular position on this issue. It is a difficult problem to solve, and there is a history of highly emotive campaigning by some residents against pretty much any initiative from the council that includes a hint of restriction on parking.

My view on this, I freely acknowledge, is a pretty extreme one. If I were in charge of the council I would:

  • turn over a small patch in the middle of every north-south street in Hanover to grass, so that children (and everyone) could safely and easily use the streets for play and socialising, and travel around the neighbourhood on foot from an early age
  • introduce a residents’ parking scheme, with hefty charges for parking private cars on the street
  • reduce the number of car parking spaces available to a safe and legal level
  • massively increase on street bike parking
  • add more car club cars with dedicated bays
  • lay on free shuttle buses to the London road and the station
  • do anything else I could think of with the aim of transforming Hanover into a predominantly car-free neighbourhood

I don’t suppose I would get elected standing on that platform, but I think it’s worth pointing out that doing nothing about parking in Hanover is also a pretty extreme position. All the while we continue to do nothing, we are living with a situation in which:

  • parked cars line both sides of most streets in Hanover, impeding access for emergency vehicles
  • in some streets, cars routinely park on the pavement, forcing pedestrians out into the road, especially people with buggies, wheelchairs or small children
  • in Elm Grove, in particular, it is common practice for people to drive along the pavement to access “parking spaces” on the hardened verge
  • cars are often parked right up to and around the corners of streets, obstructing sight lines for pedestrians (especially children), cyclists and drivers
  • our area is used as a free car park by visitors to the town, people doing their shopping in the town centre, staff at American Express and people from other areas of town trying to avoid paying for parking permits
  • 62% of car journeys made by Hanover drivers are within Brighton

To widen the issue out slightly, all the while we accommodate the domination of our city’s streets by private cars, we are living with:

  • unacceptably high levels of air pollution
  • traffic queues through the town every weekend in the summer
  • bus passengers being prevented from accessing open spaces because too many people have travelled there by car

Everyone agrees that parking is an issue for Hanover & Elm Grove, but nobody can agree on what to do about it. Last time the council proposed to control parking, in 2010, it was met with a vigorous campaign from the do nothing faction, and the proposal failed to attract majority support. Though I supported the CPZ proposal, its design left a lot to be desired. A few of us produced a detailed response, with a range of ideas for the future, but spaces in which such ideas can be discussed are few and far between.

Since then we have tried to make our own spaces for that discussion – in Grove Street and the Hanover Centre last September, and in Southampton Street, Coleman Street and Scotland Street this May. There’s recently been a very encouraging survey in Scotland Street, resulting in clear majority support for more bike parking. We also now have the interesting example of a few streets in the neighbouring Queens Park ward which have been transformed by controlled parking from the cluttered environment we are used to in Hanover, to much more open and pleasant places to be.

I know the candidates won’t venture an opinion of their own on this issue, so my third question to them is: What are your proposals for enabling residents to help design parking changes in Hanover?

As ever, feel free to supply your own answers and views in the comments box.


Byelection issues 2 (continued): what the candidates say on cuts

I asked the two leading candidates in the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection this question:

Emma Daniel replied the next day with a series of three tweets:

I invited her to say more, and she said she would, but has since changed her mind.

In the meantime, David Gibson sent me the following statement by email on June 20th:

“Firstly, I believe that councillors should play an active part in the coalitions of resistance, such as the People’s Assembly. Along with 400 others, I was heartened by the strength of opposition. Personally I was also proud of the part played by the Green Party in helping to organise this event. I was reminded of the mass movement of non-payment and resistance against the Poll Tax. The success of that campaign demonstrates that it is wrong for councillors to think purely in terms of operating within mainstream political institutions.

Secondly, I believe that councillors should use their position to publicly highlight the injustice of the way that ordinary people are being made to pay for the mistakes of those at the top through cuts and austerity. I will continue to be vocal about on this.

Finally, at a local level councillors should explore imaginative ways of generating revenue and getting round the constraints caused by austerity. I recall in the 1980s how local council housing departments found ways to drive a coach and horses through the restrictions on capital spending, thereby protecting investment in council housing for many years. We should also consult with residents to identify what is truly needed for our city and base campaigning on the difference between this and the imposition of cuts by central government.

The Green administration of Brighton & Hove has worked hard to protect vital services for the most vulnerable and avoid compulsory redundancies. If elected, I would work hard with my colleagues in the minority administration not only to protect services for the most vulnerable and to highlight injustices, but also to take take practical steps, such as radically accelerating the building of new council houses – something that is entirely realistic within the current constraints.”

I had been hoping to compare Emma’s longer response with David’s, but even without that we can see some clear differences between the candidates on this issue. Emma thinks the council can’t really resist the cuts, beyond lobbying, while David thinks the council can play a part, alongside residents, in mass campaigning for more resources from the government. Emma thinks the way to create jobs in the city is by supporting small businesses, while David favours direct investment in council housing. Emma sees the desperate need of local people as a concern, while David identifies it as an injustice.

These differences may be more about presentation than actual policy, but I suspect not. There has been little difference in practice between what the minority Green administration has done so far in Brighton & Hove and the behaviour of Labour councils around the country. But the deeper the cuts bite – we have not yet seen the devastating impact on local residents of the benefit cap and universal credit, nor of the planned £30 million budget cuts at the Royal Sussex County Hospital – the more our politicians will be forced to put their principles into action. In circumstances like these, what we desperately need are politicians with a clear grasp of what those principles are.

I have been asked why I’m not including Phil Clarke in this discussion. Phil is the candidate for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, and a member of the Socialist Party. His line on cuts is solid and strong, like a brick wall, and includes the inevitable call for a 24 hour general strike. He can’t possibly win – the TUSC candidate in Hanover & Elm Grove attracted a grand total of 156 votes in 2011. However, thanks to the stupidity of our electoral system and the peculiarities of this particular contest, an increased vote for TUSC could result in a gain for Labour against a clearly anti-cuts Green candidate.

I can absolutely understand the temptation to put forward and vote for an uncompromising stand against the cuts and in support of workers driven to strike by an administration which claimed to be on their side.

I also see the value of using an election campaign as a platform for views that are not represented by any political party with a chance of being elected. That’s part of what I’m also trying to do with this series of blog posts.

But I think voting for Phil Clarke would be a mistake in this particular byelection. I think David Gibson would be as effective as a voice against cuts and for radical action in defence of working class people as anyone elected to the council can be. His voice would be more effective because it would be added to those of others within the Green group who have shown solidarity with the Cityclean strikers, despite the damage to their party’s electoral chances.

As I’ve said before, I think the Green administration missed a good opportunity to stand up for the people of Brighton & Hove against the cuts, and that is part of the story that has brought them to a damaging conflict with their most militant workers. But those of us campaigning outside the council chamber missed a trick too. We failed to engage the Greens in a real dialogue, preferring instead to shout the “correct” answer at them and berate them as traitors when they didn’t adopt the tactics of Liverpool council in the 1980s.

I think we won’t win like that. Instead, what we need is a bit of the imagination and creativity shown by the students and workers at Sussex University, still campaigning in an exemplary way against privatisation. We need to acknowledge that these are new circumstances, requiring new tactics. And we need to allow ourselves space to debate those, without drawing up battle lines between us before we start. Please feel free to continue the debate in the comments below.


Byelection issues 1: the pay dispute

Four days ago I put this question to the two leading candidates in the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection:

Emma Daniel‘s response was pretty swift. She is (not surprisingly) using Twitter well to engage with people on a range of issues in her election campaign. She replied with two tweets:

I offered her the chance to send me a longer response by email, but she didn’t take this up.

While commendably swift, I must say this doesn’t actually answer my question.

I’ve had to wait much longer for a response from David Gibson. Others on Twitter also noted his silence, as the dispute became more intense over the past few days.

However, last night, David published a lengthy statement on his campaign blog.

I’d urge people to read and comment on this statement. It makes several things very clear about where David stands on the issue and how his election would affect the balance of forces within the Green group on the council.

The key points, in my view, are:

“The city council must leave no stone unturned and show leadership in achieving this difficult task. For cityclean workers at the council refuse collection department my red line, if elected as a councillor, is that the council must agree a settlement and not impose one on its own workers.” (emphasis in original)

“as a Green Party activist, I believe fairness is worth fighting for. That means:

[…]

Fairness in industrial relations, including fair negotiating practices and no use of agency or contract workers to break a legitimate and legally organised trade union strike.

[…]”

and

“I believe that anyone taking home less than £21,000 is low paid and Greens should be exploring strenuously every avenue to avoid any outcome that lowers the income of low-paid workers. That the local Green Party has found ways of achieving a Living Wage for council workers demonstrates its commitment to achieve things in difficult circumstances.  We need to show the same commitment to find ways of protecting the take home pay of low paid workers. Where there is a will, there is usually a way. I supported the resolution on this passed by local Green Party members earlier this year.

If elected, I will support any settlement that is negotiated with the unions, but not the imposition of a deal that reduces the pay of low paid workers.” (emphasis in original)

The debate on this pay dispute has been plagued by secrecy, with all participants emphasising only the aspects of the issue which suit their particular interest. However (as both Emma and David rightly recognise) it will only be properly resolved by talking.

I agree with David – we urgently need leadership from the Green council, and a commitment to reach a settlement the unions can support. If Jason Kitcat is not prepared to meet that challenge, he should step aside and let someone else take it on.


Elections: a wasted democratic opportunity

The byelection campaign in Hanover & Elm Grove has begun in earnest with today’s selection of Emma Daniel as the Labour candidate.

It could be an interesting contest. Both Emma and David Gibson, the Green candidate, are people of integrity, who are interested in engaging  and empowering people to make real change. Maybe the byelection will be a rare opportunity for ordinary voters to set the agenda and influence the direction of the city by electing a candidate who will truly represent us.

On the other hand, it could be a hard-fought, too-close-to-call, brutal campaign, with both candidates dragged along behind the tribal juggernauts of their party machines.

All too often, what should be the quintessential democratic moment turns out to be a period in which real debate is drowned out by bickering, point-scoring and phoney statistics – the party organiser’s favourite tool in the battle for tactical votes.

There are three reasons why election campaigns are so awful:

1. First past the post – canvassing

In addition to all the other (very important) reasons why FPTP is a rubbish electoral system, it also makes for terrible election campaigns because it means parties must concentrate all their energies on identifying “their” voters in order to get them out to vote on the day.

That is the only purpose of canvassing. They are not trying to find out what we are interested in or present their policies to us for consideration. They just want to know how we are planning to vote.

If we say we will vote for them, they mark us on a list and make sure to check whether we turn up at the polling station. If we haven’t shown up by the evening, they will come round to remind us. All parties do this, it’s how you run an election campaign in the UK.

With over a month until polling day, both Labour and Greens will be aiming to do a full canvass of the ward. It’s doable, but it’s a big job. The canvassers will be in a hurry – they won’t have time to debate issues or learn something from you, in order to help develop their policies. As soon as they have found out your intentions, they will want to be on their way.

2. First past the post – tactical voting

Political parties are so used to relying on tactical voting that they do it even when there is no real need (such as in a two horse race like Hanover & Elm Grove).

So all parties spend much more time talking about how many people are promising to vote for them than about why anybody should want to do that. The idea is that people want to be on the winning side, and that if you vote for a candidate who doesn’t get elected, your vote is “wasted”.

Social media enables parties to do this to a nauseating degree. As a local wit recently pointed out, if you believed everything you saw on Twitter, you would think everyone in Hanover & Elm Grove was intending to vote Labour, and everyone was intending to vote Green!

Watch out for the misleading and/or irrelevant graphs on election literature too. Both Labour and Greens have been much too fond of these in recent elections.

3. Personality politics and negative campaigning

I think this may also partly be a consequence of first past the post. If you can’t persuade voters to support you because they agree with your policies, it’s just as effective to persuade them to vote for you because they don’t like the other lot, or because you have made some mud stick to their candidate.

I think individual people can make a difference in politics – look at the way Caroline Lucas has used her seat in Parliament to raise a much-needed voice against austerity and for a progressive and sustainable alternative. And look at how Jason Kitcat’s managerial style has led the Green group on Brighton & Hove council into a catastrophic confrontation with the workers at Cityclean.

But I think policies and ideas are more important. If you are asking to be elected, you need to be able to put forward your own policies clearly, not just slag off the other lot.

Let’s try something different

During the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection campaign, I will be asking all candidates to give me their views on some key issues for the ward and the city. I’ll publish any replies here, so everyone can see them, and courteous debate will be encouraged in the comments section. Maybe we can use this byelection campaign as an opportunity to learn something from each other.


Why is my car dressed as a ladybird?

Over the last month I’ve been spending my Sundays in various Hanover streets, sitting in a drawing of a living room, littering planets around town and dressing cars up as hills and ladybirds. It was lovely – have a look at this Facebook page, this note and (especially) this blog post to find out more about what we did.

Creating the open house made me think about…

Scale

I crocheted most of a ladybird costume for a parked car, and roped in friends and family to make the rest of it. It took about two months to make, bringing home to me very directly just how big the cars parked all over our streets are. Each ordinary car occupies around 5 square metres of land.

car dressed up as a ladybird

As well as making big things into small ones, another art work I contributed was a scale model of the solar system. The sun, represented by a balloon, was tied to the top of the open house. The planets, to scale, were ridiculously small and scattered. When our open house was in Scotland Street, the solar system extended as far as North Street towards the south, London Road towards the north-west, and West Drive to the east.

In this model, the Earth is a peppercorn. We are floating through space on a tiny fragment of rock. All the air and water on which life on this planet depends is held within a thin skin on the very surface.

London Road and West Drive sometimes seem to be worlds apart. Making this model reminded me that we all breathe the same air, we are all part of the same ecosystem.

Private property and public space

We didn’t ask permission to set up our open house in the street, nor to make temporary use of the parked cars that form part of the landscape around here.

We were respectful of people’s need to travel, and always removed our decorations from cars if they were needed. If people needed to drive through the streets where we were (a very rare occurrence), we made space for them to do so.

However, our installations did effectively close the streets to traffic for a few hours, thereby opening them up as social, creative and playful spaces.

100_1504

It made a change from the normal run of things, in which private individuals take control of the public street space, without permission, by lining the streets with parked cars.

What streets are for

I think that in a neighbourhood like Hanover, streets could easily be more than storage spaces for the private vehicles of just over half the residents.

They could be spaces for people to meet, talk, cycle, play, walk, scoot, skate and create. To a large extent, they already are. Whenever something like the Zocalo or the open house project comes along, people in Hanover embrace it.

But whenever a proposal is made to reallocate street space permanently for something other than car parking – for communal bins, for example – there is fierce resistance. Why is this?

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that we can’t carry on filling up our streets, our city and our planet with cars forever.

Somehow, we have to find a way to work out this knotty issue about private choices which intrude on our fragile shared environment.

It’s not just cars, of course. There is a threat to begin fracking in the Sussex countryside – an idea so breathtakingly foolish that it’s difficult to take seriously. But the energy companies truly seem determined to extract more and more fossil fuels from the Earth, in the face of all the evidence that this is the worst thing we can do. I am pleased to see Hanover residents supporting the resistance to this horrific idea.

But part of shifting towards a low carbon economy will have to be a change in the demand for energy – including for travel.

Our open house was a bit of fun in the May sunshine, but it was also about looking at things differently. How we choose to travel affects our neighbours, not only in Hanover, but all over our tiny peppercorn planet.