Sunday, 17 April 2011

Go Green … For a Change

On Thursday 5th May, I will be standing for the first time as the Green Party candidate for Malvern Link. Elected, I will campaign for the following:
        More spending on services for people and less on council management
        Keeping our local government local
        Improving community transport
        Preserving waste collection services and improving recycling
        More local housing options
        Regular consultation on the issues that matter to you

More spending on services for people and less on council management
Under this council, you are getting less for your money. While the council has been required by national government to hold the level of council tax at its current rate, the council is now offering far fewer services for that money. It has shed responsibility for a range of services (customer services, revenues and benefits, regulatory services, building control, IT, personnel, licensing), started to charge for services that once were free (e.g. planning advice and pest control), and has spent on services that were not required (CCTV cameras, which were installed at great expense and have now been removed, when the money could have been spent on bobbies on the beat).  Yet at a time of low frontline investment, the council continues to pay high salaries to its senior managerial team and is withholding a significant proportion of council tax revenue – more than £1.5m of your money – ‘for a rainy day’! I will campaign against further erosion of local services and ensure that council tax money is spent on the people of Malvern – amenities and services for the young, the old, families, those in work, those on benefit – rather than on layers of wasteful council bureaucracy.

Keeping our local government local
The people of Malvern best understand how Malvern should be governed, yet this council has been negotiating with Stratford on Avon to share its officers and services. Council staff travelling backwards and forwards would waste money, energy and time – as well as being environmentally damaging.  Malvern should not be governed part-time from a council almost 40 miles away. We should resist more sharing of council services and management with other local authorities because it involves loss of control and undermining of local government. The Green Party wants to revive local government, with the introduction of proportional representation and with grassroots democracy spreading through the use of smaller community and district councils. Such authorities should have enhanced powers, and in due course new tax-raising powers. There should be referenda on local government decisions if called for by 20% of the local electorate.

Improving community transport
Our roads and footpaths have fallen into disrepair, every day becoming more congested and dangerous. This council has dispensed with its transport officer and handed control of transport to Worcester. There is no longer any locally co-ordinated strategy. We need fresh impetus to develop community transport schemes to provide more reliable and timely access to vital facilities such as shops, railway stations, surgeries. People need community transport services to get to doctors’ surgeries, the hospital, town centre shops, the retail park, the Theatres, children’s parks, and so on.  The council must once again take responsibility for local transport, and seek green transport solutions – easing congestion and parking problems by reducing the number of vehicles on our roads.  For example we should promote community transport through low or zero fares, the use of electric vehicles, dial-a-ride and pooled car schemes. Ultimately, we need to make streets safe; make them public spaces again. We need to plan for mixed-use developments where shops, housing and businesses are closely located and connected by pavements and cycleways.

Preserving waste collection services and improving recycling
Recycling has certainly improved, but there is a long way to go to achieve international levels and to get everyone participating fully. People want to recycle, but it has to be made as easy as possible. Therefore, I will campaign to increase the range of materials (e.g. glass) that can be collected at the kerbside and recycled.  I will work to set up more localised recycling centres to allow people to minimise waste and reduce the number of car journeys to Newland Recycling Depot. We should do the simple things, like providing a free compost bin and composting advice for anyone who wants them. And we must allow councils to integrate locally the domestic and commercial waste systems.

More local housing options
The council is preparing a new local plan and I will work to ensure that the current policy of tacking more estates around the fringes of Malvern is replaced by one of building new ‘low carbon’ self-sufficient communities, with higher standards of thermal insulation and greater use of renewable energy sources. The emphasis must be on more affordable starter homes for young people and on smaller properties for older people who want to retain their independence but wish to down-size.  Homes should be built on the basis of need, not profit, and in areas that can sustain such development – with schools, shops, surgeries and green spaces. We must minimise encroachment onto undeveloped ‘greenfield sites’ wherever possible by reusing previously developed sites that have fallen into disuse. We should introduce a free home insulation programme for all homes that need it, with priority for pensioners and those living in fuel poverty. And we must introduce incentives to encourage homes to become more energy self-sufficient. We should also set building regulations to require excellent energy standards on a points-based system, which will cover embodied energy of building materials, energy used in construction, energy consumption in use, on-site energy generation

Regular consultation on the issues that matter to you
Councillors are your local representatives and should be seen and heard all year round, not just at election time. I would consider it a privilege, not a right, to represent you and, if elected, I will consult you regularly on the issues that matter to you. I intend to hold fortnightly surgeries, held at times convenient to you – weekdays, evenings and weekends. It is the very least that we can expect of the councillors in whom we put our trust that they consult us on the issues that matter, and I aim to redress this if elected.

But how can we afford any of this?
We are living in extremely difficult economic times. In an effort to tackle the national debt – whether it was caused by the last Labour administration or by global economic factors– we are daily being told that we must tighten our belts. As a consequence the government has made drastic cuts to public services on which we all rely, including cuts to our police and armed forces, is intending a root and branch reform of the NHS that no-one wants, has tripled tuition fees that will lead to a brain-drain from this country of our finest young people, has increased VAT and national insurance, which has had a crippling effect on small and medium sized enterprises. These and other measures that the Coalition has taken have seen unemployment increase, tax revenues fall while the welfare bill has increased, people’s spending power decrease and confidence hit an all-time low. But, these are tough times, and they require tough measures, right? We are ‘all in it together’. But how true is that? 

The fact is that the level of national debt as a proportion of gross domestic product is lower today than it was under the Major Government – and lower than many other countries in the developed world. The level of interest on that debt is lower than it was under Mrs Thatcher. But while the Coalition Government seeks to reduce the national debt by shifting it to every man, woman and child, the banks that were largely responsible for the crisis – banks that the taxpayer had to bail out costing each one of us tens of thousands of pounds – have returned to such a level of profitability that they are able to offer their staff £7bn in bonuses. Before repaying the British taxpayer, they have chosen to reward staff who would not have had jobs had we not saved them. And the Coalition’s response to this – David Cameron telling us it was time to stop ‘bashing the banks’, and proposed reforms that will do nothing to stop the crisis of three years ago recurring.

The truth is that the cut backs in the public sector are ideologically driven – a desire to roll back the state – and would have happened had we been in recession or not. The hope that the Liberal Democrats would temper the very worst excesses of the Tory Right have, sadly, proved groundless.

The debt does need to be tackled – but far more gradually and in a measured way that will not see public services slashed to pay for the excesses of the banks. It is time that we got tough with the financial sector which has got out of control. Among other measures, the Green Party supports the idea of a Robin Hood Tax, sometimes called a Financial Transactions Tax. It would involve a very small tax (maybe 0.05%) on the value of every financial transaction between financial institutions worldwide. Globally this tax has the potential to raise as much as £250 billion, as well as help stabilise the financial markets. We would crack down on tax havens and other methods of tax evasion and avoidance. And the Green Party wants to rehabilitate progressive taxation. This requires two things: raising taxes fairly and explaining them honestly. The Green Party is open about what we would cut, what we would defend, and about the fact that we need to raise taxation from 36 per cent of GDP in 2009–10 to around 45 per cent in 2013 (by among other things introducing a new higher rate of income tax of 50% for the most well off). This would halve the gap between Government expenditure and revenues by 2013–14 and progressively close the gap thereafter. 

There is an alternative to the Coalition’s austerity drive. There is an alternative to the cuts in the services on which you rely. And it is only the Green Party that has had the courage to stand up and say so. If you want to defend public services, then do not vote for the Coalition parties that are driving home the cuts. If you believe that people should have a say in how their lives are run, then do not stay at home on polling day. Instead, Go Green … for a change.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Why The Tories Fear AV

In recent weeks, the No to AV campaign has launched a series of extrordianry attacks on AV that smack somewhat of desperation. One is forced to wonder why they are going to such extremes (eg, if we adopt AV specialist baby units will have to close - something the Government seems perfectly capable of doing without AV) to defend an outmoded electoral system.

I do not want here to rehearse all the arguments in favour of ditching first past the post - the current system that allows a small minority of voters in a small minority of seats to decide the result of election after election. The corollary between the existence of so many safe seats and so much corruption (duck house, moats and chandeliers), and the disengagement of the electorate - why so many voters just choose to stay at home - is not a difficult one to draw.

No, what I want to focus on here is the argument put forward by the No campaign that AV will allow minority extremist parties to gain representation, that they will be given a disproportionate amount of power, that a vote for AV is tantamount to welcoming the BNP to the House of Commons. On so many levels, this is completely absurd.

Many countries that use PR (let's leave aside for now whether AV is PR) employ a quota system to ensure that such an eventuality does not occur - unless a party receives, say, 5% of the national vote, then it is not entitled to national representation. As many minority parties stand in only a small proportion of the seats that they could stand in, then they are likely to be unable to clear this hurdle. This is a crude mechanism for keeping out the extremists - but an effective one.

I would not employ such a quota, because, as with first past the post, it is fundamentally dishonest. To take the BNP as an example. If they are able to persuade 15% of the people of Bury, Blackburn, Burnley, Bradford etc to support them - then there is a reason for that. Most members of the electorate will rightly find the views of such parties repugnant and distasteful - but if they have managed to persuade a significant minority to support them, then this is something that we all have to deal with. It is puerile to do so by rigging the electoral system - first past the post or quotas - to ensure that these parties are not represented. We need to grow up and confront them head on and make the absurdities of their policies plain for all to see. More than that, we need to deal with the root causes - whatever it is that has lead to a proportion of the electorate - albeit a small one - voting the way they have. First past the post allows us to bury our heads in the sand. AV will force us to address the issues. It is grown-up politics.

This is an indication of a wider problem with first past the post - it is a fundamentally dishonest voting system. The Tory No campaigners are wrapping themselves a cloak of respectability by justifying their opposition to change by a need to silence the extremists. Yet the electoral system that we have hides the extent to which they may draw support from those same extremists. They are either hiding their heads in the sand, or else they are glad to accept that support - so long as it is not obvious where that support is coming from. At present, the electoral system is rigged so that no-one who supports a minority/extremist party can hope to gain representation in parliament; they know that a vote for their candidate in a general election will be ‘wasted’ - their man or woman will lose come what may. They can chose to vote for that candidate anyway, or else they can choose to stay at home, or else they can choose to vote for a candidate that has a chance of winning that most nearly reflects their views. And it is the degree of support that winning candidates receive from extremist voters that is perhaps key to why the Tory No campaigners are so vociferous. Let me give you an example from the last election, from my own seat, West Worcestershire.

West Worcs is a traditionally Tory seat, but one where the Lib Dems have recently run the Tories close. Labour usually pick up a few thousand votes - but are never in contention - and UKIP are a little way behind them.  In the 2010 election, there was every possibility that the result would be a close one - that it would go right down to the wire - but in the end the Tories won by nearly 6000 votes. Both Labour and UKIP performed rather more poorly than might have been expected. So what happened?

On the morning of the general election, a trailer sponsored by UKIP toured the constituency with a poster suggesting that if the LibDems were elected, the floodgates to immigration would be flung open. This was a scurrilous attack, but in the week leading up to the election, immigration had become a ‘hot’ topic. So, what effect would this message – vote LibDem and let in the immigrants – have had on those who had been intending to vote for UKIP? Given that the result was expected to be a close on, anyone voting UKIP in West Worcs would have had to accept that voting for their woman may have allowed the Lib Dem candidate to inch past his Tory opponent and win the seat. How could they stop something that they so obviously did not want? By switching their support to the Tory candidate, to ensure that she beat the LibDem.

So, how many of them voted tactically in this way - voting not for their woman but for the Tory, to deny the Lib Dems victory? Well, of course we have no way of telling, because to stop the LibDems they had no choice but to cast their vote for the Tory candidate. And the Tory candidate and now MP is able to claim a disproportionate level of support - even though she must know that some of those who voted for her would rather have voted for their own party – an extremist one at that. In other words the vote was fundamentally dishonest - and tells us nothing about the sort of support that secured the winning MP her seat.

Under AV, it is quite possible that the final result would have been the same - the Tory would have won. But it would have been a more transparent result. In the first round of voting, the natural UKIP supporters could still have ‘done the honest thing’ and voted for their candidate, knowing that in common with just about every seat in the country no candidate would achieve an outright victory in the first round. They would then, perhaps, have expressed a second preference for the Tory candidate - and it is those votes that would see the Tory candidate home and dry.

The upshot of using AV is that the electorate are able - in the first instance - to vote for the candidate who best represents their interests, and should that candidate not be elected, then express their preference for the candidate who best represents their interests from those who remain in the race. And we as an electorate are able to see the exact make-up of the vote secured by the winning candidate - from where they have drawn their support in the first and subsequent rounds.

It is this sort of transparency that I suspect the Tory party fears. I suspect too that the old Labour opponents of AV are also averse to such openness with the electorate. If they wish to remain the passive beneficiaries of extremism, they will have to accept that that will be a matter of public record. If they do not wish to be such a recipient, then they will have to make it clear to the extremists that they do not welcome their support. This will lead to honest campaigning and honest voting. Who could possibly object?