Archive for September, 2014

Hand Democracy to the People

September 26, 2014

Our democracy is broken. Only the people can fix it. We, the citizens of the whole of the United Kingdom, can thank the Scots, for finally putting constitutional reform at the forefront of public debate.

And in their passionate, deep-rooted engagement in the referendum debate – which looks likely to continue, they helped to make it clear who should carry out the reform: the people.

The fallout from the referendum vote – with the collapse of the supposed “devo-max” deal almost before the last weary, hard-worked counting official had laid down their pen – makes it clear that the Westminster elite cannot be trusted, and are simply not capable of leading on constitutional reform.

The row over the English Parliament “solution” to the West Lothian problem – with its clear self-interest on both sides – is a further demonstration of that.

The Tories’ “solution” of “English votes for English laws” within all of the existing frameworks is no answer at all – two separate governments in the one parliament and one building, quite likely of different political hues, continually at each other’s throats, with many of the same officials trying to serve both, and seeking always to blame the other for its difficulties and failures – would simply be untenable. When you consider that the “English” vote on tuition fees had implications for Scottish education funding – through the much debated Barnett formula – then it’s clear that no simple division is possible.

And an “English parliament” within Westminster, with the same members as before, carrying on otherwise much as before would, to much of England, look like a very minor variation of the London-centric, finance sector-dominated disaster that we’ve endured for decades.

I happened to be in Carlisle at the weekend, talking to Green Party members – and the topic of demonstrations against the Iraq War arose. I was quickly set straight in talking about the one million people in London; everyone at the meeting had been in Glasgow on February 15 2003 – and could remember the 60,000 count there. For many parts of England, London is a very long way away, a distant place, both geographically and, they feel, politically – it isn’t their centre.

From Cornwall to Newcastle, Birmingham to Blackpool, stopping at many points in between, no London-centric, centralised, business-much-as-usual system is going to satisfy voters.

That’s why the Green Party, along with civil society groups such as the Electoral Reform Society, is calling for a people’s convention to draw up a new constitution.

We’ve got ideas about what that should include: greater powers for local and regional government, “total recall” rights for citizens over their representatives, proportional representation, votes at 16 and everything codified, written down, so everyone can read and understand it.

And we have a suggested principle that should underlie it: that power flows up from the people, not down from the top.

But those are simply our suggestions, which we would put to the people making up a constitutional convention – to consider along with others.

And we’d also say it’s important that flexibility is built into the system; the possibility of change. For it is worth contemplating for a second how the “Mother of All Parliaments” got into such a parlous state.

The fact is, we have a Westminster that hasn’t seen significant reform in nearly a century – women getting the vote in 1918 was the last truly significant change.

Tinkering with this early 20th-century, now hopelessly out-dated and untrusted system (a recent survey found 15% of Britons have no trust at all in it, and 68% put their trust at rank five out of 10 or lower), is no kind of answer at all.

But the massive reform we need certainly shouldn’t be rushed, as David Cameron’s old Oxford tutor has been saying.

We’ve muddled through for a century with a constitutional settlement that may not have been too bad by world standards in 1918, but looks like a right undemocratic, confused mess that’s failing to produce functional, representative governments now.

Had we made reforms along the way – like proportional representation and an elected House of Lords – we might not be in this situation, but now we are, there’s simply no alternative but to start with an almost blank sheet. (The “devo-max” promises on which the Scots thought they were voting need to be kept to maintain at least a thread of democratic trust, and they need to live up to the promise of that name: giving Scots true control over their economic destiny, leaving only defence and foreign affairs at Westminster).

Hand democracy to the people – and implement their decisions. That’s a 21st-century model – the only model that’s going to get us out of this constitutional and political tangle.

By Natalie Bennett

Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales

Greens push for leader Natalie Bennett to feature in TV election debates

September 26, 2014

Green party leader Natalie Bennett takes part in the global day of climate change protestsThe Green party is pressing broadcasters to ensure its leader, Natalie Bennett, is included in any TV election debate alongside David Cameron, Ed Miliband and others .

The move comes amid a surge of new popular support, particularly in Scotland, where a previously tiny membership has more than trebled since last week’s vote on independence. Being at the top TV table is seen as a way of cementing the electoral status it feels it deserves. It would also give the party a major platform to tap prospective votes from legions of people alienated from Westminster politics.

“We think we should be there. We think that it would be absolutely transformative,” Bennett said on Wednesday. “There’s a significant chance the debates won’t happen at all. But if they do, the Tories are going to push hard for us to be on at least one of them. Cameron wants us to be there as well as Ukip. Cameron is basically not going to let [Nigel] Farage on without me.”

The Greens have complained that they has been polling the same level of support as the Lib Dems, 7%, and yet struggle to obtain extensive media coverage beyond anti-fracking or climate change protests.

That only reinforces the idea that this is a single-issue party with little interest beyond the environment, unlike some counterparts in Europe, notably the German Greens.

In particular, Bennett and the party’s lone MP but best-known figure, Caroline Lucas, are keen to further increase membership, which has already surged by 40% since 1 January and is expected to hit 20,000 in England and Wales in the next month. Membership in Scotland, where the party is organised independently, has increased by 4,000 to 5,600 over the past week alone. Interest in the Scottish referendum has given the Greens renewed hope about voters’ desire for wider and widespread political change.

Bennett believes party policies to introduce an annual wealth tax on people with assets of more than £3m, a £10 minimum wage by 2020, rail nationalisation alongside opposition to free schools and academies will strike a chord with the public.

On schools, Bennett said: “We want a different sort of education system that educates children and does not think of them as future workers. We start education too soon.

“We call for formal education to start at least one year later. It is to get away from this idea that we have a sausage machine that we are just shoving children through and turning them into this identikit person.”

She added: “We have to get away from the idea that schools can somehow make up for the incredible levels of child poverty. We have one of the most unequal societies and some of the highest levels of child poverty. The test results just reflect that. Saying to schools that you have got to solve this problem is just unrealistic.”

Bennett is happy to position the party to the left of Labour, saying: “I think there’s a huge political space that’s vacant apart from us”, but is less keen to charge into quick changes on constitutional reform. “English votes for English laws would result in absolute chaos,” she said, adding that the Greens wanted a people’s constitutional convention to consider a range of issues including the future of the House of Lords.

North of the border the party believes it is on a roll and wants to ensure that promises of devolving power from Westminister result in a different and better country. Alison Johnstone, a Green member of the Scottish parliament for Lothian said: “Scotland has become a participative democracy. I feel encouraged and optimistic.”

Source The Guardian

Natalie Bennett: We need a Massive Transformation

September 24, 2014

natben2015Green Party leader Natalie Bennett writes that Ed Miliband’s speech did not signal a break with the past and that his focus on green technology is too narrow.

Increasingly, when you talk to people around Britain about the lives of their children and grandchildren, their outlook is negative. They might not always have worked out an explanation of what’s wrong, but they’re sensing, entirely correctly, that we’ve got a society headed in all of the wrong directions: economically, socially, and environmentally.

They’re reflecting the still enormous levels of youth under-employment: young people employed on zero-hours contracts, graduates working as bar-tenders and shelf-stackers. And that the 1% keep getting richer while more and more of the rest of us struggle; even the formerly comfortable are no longer certain that they won’t end up in the food bank queue. And, as tens of thousands showed in marches around the country last weekend, they understand that climate change – and other environmental damage, to our seas and rivers, our lost biodiversity, the degradation of our soils – is a clear and present danger.

We need a massive transformation.

But there’s no sign that the Labour Party, on the evidence of its conference so far, understands that. Real change isn’t on its agenda; a bit of tinkering is about as far as it stretches.

Take the example of the £8 an hour minimum wage by 2020 promise. That’s a 25 pence per year increase over the course of the next parliament, starting from the grossly inadequate base of our current minimum wage, the value of which the former Labour government allowed to slide, a trend the Tory-Lib Dem coalition has continued and enhanced.

Contrast that to the Green Party policy I announced a couple of weeks ago: making the minimum wage a Living Wage immediately and increasing it above inflation after that so that it reaches £10 an hour by 2020.

This isn’t a bidding war: it’s an argument about a principle that there’s strong evidence the British public supports – work should pay enough money to live on.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said yesterday: “when the economy grows, the wages of everyday working people should grow at the same rate”. That seems to mean he’s content to maintain the current deeply unequal, historically extreme, division between the few high-paid workers and the rest of us. Contrast that to the Green Party, which says the top paid worker in an organisation shouldn’t be paid more than 10 times the lowest paid.

There’s grave concern about our National Health Service – I saw that when I walked for a day on the People’s March for the NHS. We know we need more medical staff, more support staff, more resources in general for the NHS. The offer from Miliband of an extra £2.5 billion is therefore welcome.

But this is from the party that, when last in government, ran wild with the disastrous Private Finance Initiative that will over its lifetime cost you and I billions, that raced ahead with the disastrous Tory model of competition. The Green Party, by contrast, says that the profit motive has no place in healthcare, and backs the transformatory principles of proposed NHS Reinstatement Bill.

And that mansion tax that’s to raise some of the cash for the NHS under Labour’s plans? Well once again it’s a pale imitation of our far more broad-reaching wealth tax – which recognises that rich individuals gain their wealth from our society, benefit from its services, and should make a fair contribution to their maintenance.

Then look at the cut in child benefit. It was, observers generally considered, an attempt to demonstrate Labour’s “fiscal probity”. Or alternatively, you could consider it, as many did, as a continuation of the Tory-Lib Dem policy of making the poor and disadvantaged, particularly women and children, pay for the errors, the fraud and the recklessness of the financial sector. No real change here – in fact no change at all, but a further bowing to the Conservative narrative that blames government spending for the debt and the deficit, when in fact we should be blaming the bankers.

And where were the words from Miliband about reining in the still out-of-control banking system, of tackling what even insiders are calling the continuing extreme fragility of the financial sector?

There were some positives in Miliband’s speech, and the broader conference, in terms of somewhat more substantial environmental changes. The focus on energy conservation, particularly home insulation, is welcome – the Green Party has long been saying that reducing demand is central to resolving the energy conundrum. Although this isn’t “new” money – it’s been taken from other areas of infrastructure spending, where much is needed. The backing for the one million climate jobs agenda is also welcome.

But the focus remains narrow – on “green technology”. Focusing on conservation, on renewable energy and a smart grid are essential steps, but they are only a fraction of the environmental essentials. What is needed is a modal shift in transport towards walking and cycling that would improve our health, and clean up our air and cut congestion. We need a return of food production and manufacturing to Britain to create jobs and dramatically reduce supply lines. These are the kind of changes that have to be a key part of the mix.

That limited approach to the environment reflects the broader problem, identified by many observers, with the overall tone of this Labour conference. There’s been no break with the past, no signs of a search for a new model that takes us forward from our current economy that has clearly failed