Natalie Bennett: We need a Massive Transformation

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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

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