Saturday, February 16, 2008

Mark Steel wows Green Left fringe

Campaign Against Censorship: for press freedom fringe

Tim Gopsill led off the session. He's a member of the NUJ executive and co-chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

Beginning his speech well he pointed out that whilst it might be the case in China the main source of censorship in the UK (and US) was not the government but the big businesses that actually own the media. It was less a case of the government interference in the press as media interference in democracy.

In fact there was living proof on the platform in the shape of Mark Steel who'd been sacked for his political views from the Guardian, although luckily for us he'd been able to get work at the Independent instead, continuing his excellent weekly column.

Having said that he then went into gory detail as to how the government had brought the BBC to heel over the Hutton report, suppressing its ability to pursue high quality journalism and cowing it into little more than a propaganda outfit for the government. I even laughed out loud when he said “It's a disgrace... even Campbell doesn't slag them off any more.”

Tim's main concern was around the undermining of “high quality journalism” and the ability of big business to provide a free and fair media – he argued it simply “can't be left to the free market.”

Tim was good but I'm guessing most people there had come to see Mark Steel who was on top form. He immediately launched into his story about how Johnny Ball, much loved kids TV presenter from the old days, had once grabbed him in a vice like grip and told him that carbon emissions were down to spiders. For a change it isn't the left who are the crazy ones who people just write off, at last it is the right, in this case climate change deniers, that come across as total oddities.

In fact this is true for a whole range of areas, for instance where even traditional conservatives are angry about the privatisation of the rail network system. Steel was at his angriest when discussing transport – I sensed the years of accumulated wasted time in utter discomfort that he'd obviously had to suffer on London's grime ridden public transport.

But when it came to laying blame he was determined not to say the failure to get our views across in the press was all the fault of the right and the owners of the media – that when it comes to getting across our message we have to take this on as our responsibility rather than pretend its always someone else's problem. No easy task at a time when the left is “weaker than it has been for a hundred years”.

He stated the Labour Party couldn't be regarded as socialist by any stretch of the imagination any more and the left inside of the Labour Party was at its weakest it ever had been in historical terms. He named organisations like the Communist Party who, whilst we may have had many major problems with them, it also contained good individuals who'd managed fantastic achievements, and it's effectively no longer on the scene.

He even mentioned that “I was, until very recently, a member of a hard left organisation that just hasn't got anywhere” and that “if you look at the debacle of Respect is it any wonder we haven't been able to attract any more than a handful of peculiar people.”

He said it was a tragedy at a time when the right is on the defensive among the general population that the left had been unable to tap into this in the way it could have. “All organisations need to get together and discuss, without slagging each other off,” about how to present an effective united movement that doesn't allow Tesco to pose as green because it has a new eco-logo.

I don't know if this is a first, but a non-Green Party member got a standing ovation. Thanks to the Green Left for organising such an energising event.

Polyclinics and The Green Party

From 5pm to 7pm today, in the Main Hall, there was a Policy Fair (30 minutes sitting as part of a group with a policy specialist, whistle blows, move to next table, insert speed dating joke here).

I attended from 6pm to 630pm, and I had Stuart Jeffrey, the health policy fellow, all to myself.

After some chit chat about physios at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Toronto, I picked his brain on polyclinics.

Lord Darzi's vision is chained to the idea of privatisation (US health corporations being invited in) and the continuation of the internal market of the NHS. His 25-doctor polyclinics would be for every 50 000 citizens.

We favour polyclinics as "an additional layer of care, rather than as a centralisation of services." They would be publically-run, under local control.

I firmly believe that we need to tackle things like blood services (try saying phlebotomy 3 times in a row after 3 pints), mental health, sexual health, and physiotherapy at the community level.

At, say, 20 000 citizens per Green Party polyclinic, that would be 18 polyclinics as an "additional layer of care" in a city the size of Coventry or Leicester, 60 in a city the size of Brum. Other services (e.g. out of hours casts for broken arms) might be at a level of 40 000 citizens, and in an average city of 250 000 people, we'd have a district hospital with all the operating theatres and CAT scanners.

A progressive abortion policy

Declaring an interest at the beginning, I was the mover of the motion, which I'm pleased to say was overwhelming passed, to back three important reforms to the existing law on abortion.

Green Party policy was already pretty solid, saying the party would not back any change in the law to reduce women's access to abortion, but it now also backs three changes to recognise medical developments and social changes: to remove the requirement to obtain two doctors' signatures, to allow nurses and midwives to perform abortions, and to loosen restrictions on where abortions can be performed.

The BBC reported the policy change.

So is the Green Party anti-capitalist?

In short – no – that was the conclusion of a fascinating fringe held yesterday, as nearly 100 people crammed into a windowless basement dressing room, with mirrored walls and weirdly glowing makeup lights. The setting was psychedelic, but the debate was sober and considered.

Jim Jepps, organiser of this blog, was the chair and organiser, and he’d organised two speakers from different perspectives.

First up was Matt Sellwood, city councillor from Oxford

His answer to the topic statement could I think have been fairly classed as a qualified “yes”. He said: “I don’t mean should change fundamentally at the moment. I am an anti-capitalist in a sensible way. I don’t tend to talk about the need for a worker’s dreadnought. We need to be smart about way we get there. Michael Albert talks about non-reformist reforms, open sphere community power, people power, to make it easier to get to the society we want.”

Matt stressed that he was not saying “we won’t do anything until capitalism has been abolished”. We have to know that the end of capitalism it is the end of the line and if don’t get there aren’t going to solve environmental and abolishing poverty. That was because capitalism was fundamentally dependent on growth, and growth is not what sustains environment.

“Sometimes think because we are Greens everything will be nice – it will all happen.”

Darren Johnson, GLA and Lewisham, spoke next.

He said he thought that everyone in the room accepted that the current economic model was unsustainable -- the neoliberal economic agenda, the globalised economy, the power of big business, disparities in wealth, overriding emphasis on growth. “But the labels capitalism/anti are unhelpful.”

What Greens wanted as a healthy mixed economy. “We believe in a much stronger role for the public sector, protecting public services, making sure natural monopolies such as rail and water in public hands and see a much bigger role for the third sector, for smaller not-for-profit enterprises, co-operatives etc. We also do though see a role for private enterprise – want better regulated, more localised, economic welfare and happiness as dominant drivers of policy.

Discussion was wide-ranging, a selection:

• Capitalism is just a four-letter word. If a little bloke gets £5K redundancy and invests in fish van, does quite well, that’s one thing, enormous multinational another – we need more words. We need a regulated economy, mixed economy. The problem is consumerism has been the dominant, since 17th century at least.

• Beware of romanticising small business – are often the people who most brutally antiunion, brutally antisustainability, something that might arise from competition.

• What needs to be tackled are the rights that capital has gathered over 100 or more years: right to limited liability, privacy, rights to legal personhood.

• The party to be inclusive as possible needs to approach people like shareholders – in sorrow rather than in anger – we want these people to vote Green even though we are pooping in their party.

• A major cultural shift needs to be made to see producers competing on quality rather than price – as did medieval guilds

• A potential slogan – what we want are are quality services, quality of goods, quality of life.

Derek Wall: key note speech

Fresh from his eco-socialism fringe last night this morning it was Derek's turn to make his keynote speech as Male Principal Speaker.

He started with the economics. The worrying fact is that all the signs point towards the possibility of a recession and our system simply does not have the mechanisms to dig us out of the whole. Take Northern Rock who've recieved more government money than any private company in history from the British government and how, via the esoteric financial web that is woven across the globe its connected to weird and dodgy mortgages in Florida - that somehow we have ended up propping up.

Or take how a single trader was able to "lose" billions of pounds all in one go - could he have simply given it away to pay off all the credit card debts?

Derek compared capitalism to a drug addiction, where the solution to the pain today was to feed the addiction, getting us into deeper debt, building our house on sand. It may give us some temporary release but there will come a day when there simply is nothing that can be done. Their solutions are more privatisation, more free market globalisation and to make the interests of the city pre-eminent. That is not a solution to the current financial situation.

I include what he next said in the hope that someone might be able to clarify what on Earth he meant - I'm sure it's true (probably) - but it threw me, coming in the midst of some rather sensible remarks. "Every time you eat margarine you risk killing a monkey." Ummm.... do I? It has a ring to it and I'm considering adopting it as my unofficial slogan (you knowe printing it up on T-shirts and badges) but I should really seek clarification first. Anyway, that's an aside.

Derek rightly said that this increase spiral is increasingly no fun at all. Where is the push to have decently funded, ecologically friendly council homes? Why are we letting the arms industry constantly test its products out on live human beings?

Derek raised Venezuela and said that there they are trying to create a model where people control the economy. We need to be doing the same here, creating green plans for "people orientated production". It's no use doing what Thatcher did, making us "technically richer whilst simultaneously making us socially poorer."

In concluding Dr Derek Wall weild out a very big word. Socialism. In explaining what his socialism was about he said that we needed to shift a world that was there simply for the benefit of the super rich but not in the direction of centralised state planning but in human centred localised democracy. We have to tackle property rights which are the "long DNA of the system".

That means we need to work with the trade unions, with direct actionists like at climate camp and all those who want a real change in the way we organise society.

(Thoughts on Derek's 2007 keynote speech)