Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Seismic Shifts

Well. I thought my "post-election thoughts" post was going to be the last on this blog for a while. But lets face it, I was never quite going to be able to resist just a few comments on what has been happening over the last few days.

Just a few highlights of what we have gotten out of this godawful dogs dinner:

- The Lib Dems have signed up to the unworkable, draconian and xenophobic 'cap on non EU migration' policy. Well done guys.

- We have a promised referendum on Alternative Vote, which is not proportional and (whether won or lost) will probably bury the chances for a truly fair voting system to the Commons for a generation.

- Eric Pickles is in charge of the CLG, which means he is in charge of housing policy. Thousands and thousands of people are going to find it even harder to find a roof over their head which they can afford.

- There are going to be massive, "shock doctrine" style cuts to the public sector, starting almost immediately. The deadline appears to be the emergency budget, which has been declared to be 50 days away. At least £6 billion will go immediately, with a lot more to follow over the next year. That's massive cuts in public sector pay, benefits, public services - and no cuts to Trident, and no withdrawal from the £4 billion murderfest that is our occupation of Afghanistan.

All this will come to pass - if we let it. Because this governent does not represent a majority of the people. Millions of Lib Dem voters thought they were voting against the Tories, not for them. Lets not wait for years to punish these complacent, right-wing 'tighten your belts, we're all in this together' smug hypocrites at the next election. Lets punish them now. Time to organise.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Post-Election Thoughts

So, after a couple of days of blessed sleep - broken only by attending the Take Back Parliament demonstration which demanded that the Lib Dems not sell out electoral reform - I thought I would offer a few closing thoughts on this strangest of General Elections.

Clearly, I was disappointed with the Hackney North result. Both the Green Party vote share and the absolute number of votes we received went down, and we lost our deposit for the first time since 1997. In line with the honest approach I have tried to take on my prospects throughout the election, I'm not going to claim that as a triumph! However, I am also not particularly despondent. This is because the result in 2010 will have exposed two big untruths, which I hope the electorate will remember at the next General Election:

1) "The Lib Dems are poised to win Hackney North".

Oh dear. Regular readers will recall that I called several times for a bit of honesty on this from other candidates, to not much avail. Quite a few people who normally vote Green switched to the Lib Dems in this election, because they thought they were close to challenging Diane. And a few switched to Labour, for the same reason! I hope that Diane's 14,000 majority will now make them think about the argument that I was putting forward - that it is possible in Hackney North to vote for the candidate you most agree with, without having to vote tactically in any direction. If that is a Liberal Democrat, grand. But if you vote Green in every other election, there isn't any need to switch your vote in the General next time.

2) "Vote Labour or there will be a hung council/the Tories will get in".

Double oh dear. I heard both of these arguments at different times in the campaign. Labour now have 50 of 57 seats on the Council, and the Tories, as expected, came a poor third. Again. Hackney is made up of two of the safest Labour seats in the country - no one from the right of politics is going to get in. So, to repeat - you can vote for who you believe in. Don't let anyone else tell you otherwise.

Of course, the vast surge in turnout for Labour for the General Election also made the Clissold ward result rather painful reading for me. In both Clissold and Stoke Newington Central our six council candidates got more votes than any Green Party candidate ever has in Hackney. And we lost. By a lot. Frankly, there was simply nothing else we could have done. We knocked on doors every day for months, put out leaflets that spelled out our vision for the borough, ran stalls, worked with community groups - unfortunately, like almost every other Green councillor in London, the General Election and our resulting lack of media exposure did for us.

We are determined to spend the coming years continuing to organise in our community, continuing to help people with their problems, and joining with anyone else in the borough who will be working against swingeing public sector cuts. Unfortunately, they will be imposed on us by whichever of the three establishment parties gets into Government - unless we fight back, nationally, as a movement of people who refuse to allow the public sector to pay for a private financial crisis.

Thanks to all who have read and commented on this blog, and particularly to the thousands of people who cast a vote for me in the Council and General elections. If Hackney Green Party sees fit to select me again - I'll be back!

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Why You Should Vote Green

So - the election is tomorrow. I've been busy leafletting, doorknocking, husting and every other election related activity one can think of. But now, of course, it is down to you...and every other voter in Hackney North.

Why should you Vote Green tomorrow? Because we are the only party standing out against public sector cuts, and instead arguing openly and honestly for a significant increase in redistributive taxation. Because we are the only party calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Because we are the only party calling for the scrapping of all of our nuclear weapons. Because we are the only party who have a plan that can credibly put us on a path towards dealing with climate change and peak oil, rather than faffing around with the deckhairs on the Titanic as we head towards the iceberg. Because we are the only party who have based our entire campaign on the disastrous inequality that our country is mired in, and the need for a more equal and just society.

Diane Abbott is going to win Hackney North tomorrow. The only question is whether she will win with a growing and dynamic Green Party snapping at her heels, or if people end up voting for one of the three mainstream parties because "I suppose we have to".

You don't have to. If you believe in Green Party policies, and if you think I am a decent candidate - vote Green on May 6th, and help start the process of changing Hackney for the better.

All best wishes,

Matt Sellwood

P.S. If you are still undecided, the Vote For Policies tool might help you to make up your mind. You'll notice that when people vote for the policies that they like the best without knowing which party they are from, the Green Party wins....

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Hackney North Hustings

Well, the only public hustings of the campaign in Hackney North took place on Tuesday evening, organised by Hackney and Tower Hamlets Friends of the Earth - and, as this report in the Hackney Citizen confirms, it seemed to go alright for me.

Yes, I know, 'Green Party candidate does well at Friends of the Earth hustings' is probably not the headline of the century - but I was glad to have had the opportunity to debate with the other candidates, particularly as the discussion ranged much more widely than simple, 'green issues'.

Probably the most interesting debate arose from a question that was about sustainability, however - and it was around the definition of the word 'reality'. The questioner raised the point that economic commentators are always going on about the need to face fiscal reality as regards the deficit - and yet there is a thundering silence about the reality of environmental limits, and the fact that our economy is exceeding them more and more every year.

What was particularly eye-opening was the response of the other candidates. They just didn't get it. Not in a deliberately evasive way - they just didn't grasp the scope of the question. At all.

Darren, the Conservative candidate, answered as you might expect - the issue is the over regulation of business and the ingenuity of the free market will solve the problem, so no need to worry. Well, that's not an answer I agree with, but at least he answered. Diane and Keith, on the other hand, simply talked about their various programmes of green investment. Fair enough, I certainly agree that we need a short-term stimulus to start building the low-carbon infrastructure we need to transition to a sustainable economy (and, of course, the mainstream party packages on this are pitifully inadequate) - but neither of them seemed even to realise that at some point they would have to address the current driver of the economic model...economic growth.

As the excellent report from the SDC, Redefining Prosperity, accurately points out, continued economic growth in developed economies is totally unsustainable. And as Tim Jackson, the report's author, comments: "The purpose of the economy is not to grow, but to bring prosperity...the conditions in which we can flourish as human beings." The great challenge of the 21st century is going to be crafting societies which are more equal, more sustainable, and do not rely on economic growth for stability. The most eye opening part of Tuesday's hustings was that the three other candidates don't seem even to realise this - let alone have a plan about how to get there.

P.S. It would seem I won't have the opportunity to make this point at another hustings, since I haven't been invited to the one on Sunday. Apparently 23% of the vote borough wide last year isn't good enough to get in on the debate. Needless to say, I am deeply unimpressed.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Green Party Battlebus

So, occasionally the campaign powers-that-be allow me to stop doorknocking and go and do visibility raising joining the Green Party's battlebus in its tour around Hackney!

All powered by recycled chip fat, I'm glad to assure you. :)

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Afghanistan - the three party consensus

The debate between the three establishment party leaders that I have just seen was perhaps one of the most dismal televisual experiences of my life. A debate on global issues which hardly touched on climate change in an international context? A 'debate' on global issues in which all leaders agreed on our insane adventure in Afghanistan, arguing only about how brave they thought British soldiers are?

Regular readers will recall that I have posted about Afghanistan before, and my feelings remain the same. This is a war which has been dragging on for years, has killed many thousands of innocent people, and which has no clear strategy. We are still there not because of any coherent aim, but because it would embarass the Government to leave - and to admit that the near decade of slaughter in that country has been for nothing.

As this excellent article by Johann Hari in the Independent points out, the three establishment parties are in lock step on this issue. Far from promising 'change', the Lib Dems and the Tories have nothing to say about this war. They are happy to propose cuts to public services - but apparently the £4 billion per year price tag on our venture in Aghanistan is sacrosanct.

One of the many lobbying emails I have received in the last few weeks has been a list of questions from the Stop The War Coalition - and I thought, for the avoidance of doubt, that I might end this post by making my responses public. If elected, I will campaign vigorously for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan. It's the only policy that makes any sense.

1. Do you support the immediate withdrawal of British and NATO troops from Afghanistan?


2. Did you support the war in Iraq?

No - in fact, I took direct action against it, breaking into RAF Fairford and preventing B52 bombers from taking off.

3. Will you oppose any military attack on Iran by the United States or Israel?


4. Do you support the immediate closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison?


5. Are you opposed to the renewal of Trident nuclear weapons?


6. Do you oppose the attacks on Muslims and the growing Islamophobia in British society?


7. Do you agree that the use of anti-terrorist laws to restrict the right of protest is an attack on civil liberties?

Yes - particularly as someone who has been targetted in the past by blanket anti-terrorism laws, including during the DSEI Arms Fair in London.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Claiming Credit For Things

Is not a good idea, if you actually had nothing to do with them.

Following on from my slight surprise at claims in the Labour Clissold ward newsletter about 'achievements' which were actually just the delivery of basic council services, I've just been copied into this email from the Chair of the Stoke Newington Common Users Group, to Hackney Labour Party:

"Dear Hackney Labour Party

I live in Cazenove ward and got your election broadsheet the other day and am told that a similar one with the same information was delivered to people in Northwold Ward.

In it you imply /claim that the council was responsible for the creating the new play area on Stoke Newington Common.

This is simply not true. That playground was fundraised for, designed and commissioned by local residents in the Stoke Newington Common Users Group.

This makes one wonder what other mistruths you may be relying on.

Yours sincerely,

Berni Graham
Chair SNUG"

Surely with such a huge majority, Hackney Labour have enough of a record to rely on without irritating community groups in this way? It doesn't seem a particularly viable long-term strategy.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Two Confusing Labour Leaflets

In the last few days, I've had a couple of Labour leaflets through my door - both of which had slightly strange elements to them.

The first was Diane Abbott's Freepost leaflet. Most of it was perfectly solid stuff -though I was disappointed to see that she didn't mention the war in Afghanistan, preferring instead to point back to her opposition to the war in Iraq. However, the odd part was her assertion that "I am currently campaigning to make it easier for innocent people to get their name off the DNA database". This is odd because, as a potential constituent pointed out to me about a week ago, this vote on a Tory/Lib Dem amendment was the most recent opportunity for MPs to support the deletion of innocent people's DNA records as soon as they are found not guilty. Umm, Diane voted against it!

I am genuinely wondering if I have gotten the wrong end of the stick here, as it seems strange in the extreme to trumpet a policy stance in a leaflet which goes out to 70,000 voters if it is so easily disproved by one of your most recent votes. Does anyone out there fancy writing to Diane and asking what on earth that vote was all about? I'm certainly intending to ask her about it at our next hustings.

The second Labour leaflet was a capacious four sides of A3 from my opponents in Clissold ward. Again, most of it was fine - though I'm not sure claiming Hackney's recycling rate as an achievement is very wise, given that it is amongst the lowest in London - but the strange bit was the map on the inside cover. Clearly wanting to make it seem as if they had been doing things on every street, the incumbent councillors laid claim to pretty much anything that has ever happened in the ward over the last four years - including the delivery of completely basic services. Working street lights, in this leaflet, qualify as a major victory. Roads without potholes are, it seems, the height of Hackney Labour's ambitions.

I have no particular objection to this. If Labour really want to portray themselves as nothing more than competent bureaucrats, bereft of a wider vision for the borough, I'm happy for them do so! Personally, I prefer our leaflet - the one that sets out a scheme for free insulation throughout the borough, a living wage for all council employees including contract workers, a local job creation strategy, renewable energy for public buildings, disinvestment of the £10 million that the Council has invested in the arms trade, and much much more. I think that local people will respond to a party that can deliver basic services *and* look to shape a progressive future - so long may Labour continue to talk entirely about dog mess!

In other news, the Green Party's General Election manifesto was launched today, and you can find our Hackney manifesto online too. Happy reading!

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Welfare State demonstration

I took some time out from doorknocking yesterday to go along to the demonstration to defend public services and the welfare state. Below, I briefly explain why.

And here I am with some other Green Party members, just before the march set off! :)

Friday, 9 April 2010

Digital Economy Bill

Wow. Gordon Brown called the election on the date we all predicted, and suddenly my inbox had hundreds of emails in it! It's been great to hear from so many people in the constituency over the last week - but answering all my correspondence, as well as doing some media work and knocking on doors to chat to people face-to-face has meant that my blogging hasn't been too up to date. Apologies for that.

I have been doing a fair amount of connecting with people on Twitter though (@HackneyMatt for those who are interested in following what I'm up to), and the major political event for that site over the last week has without doubt been the passage of the Digital Economy Bill.

As this speech by Tom Chance - the Green Party's spokesperson on intellectual property - makes clear, this is a deeply flawed and illiberal bill. A survey of just some of its possible effects makes extremely worrying reading - but perhaps even more worrying is the way that it was passed. Despite constant and increasingly urgent warnings from thousands of concerned citizens about the gaping holes in the logic of the legislation, Parliament had a grand total of five minutes to discuss forty-two clauses of the Bill. This was excused by the fact that the law was being passed during the 'wash up' - a time at which debate is curtailed so that non-controversial legislation can be passed before the end of the Parliamentary term. Once again, Members of Parliament have shown contempt for the concerns of ordinary people - and if elected, I will fight for the repeal of the Digital Economy Bill.

I should also add that, in the interests of honesty and transparency, Diane Abbott did the right thing on this and voted against the Bill. Congratulations to her - I'm happy when we agree! Now, if only she can persuade Lord Mandelson to drop the whole thing....

In other news, readers might be interested to read a short interview with me in Red Pepper about the campaign, along with a few thoughts on the medium term prospects for the left in Hackney.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Labour's Hung Council Ploy

From what voters have been telling me on the doorstep over the last week or so, it seems that Hackney Labour Party (particularly in Clissold ward) have been claiming that a Green vote will lead to a hung council.

This is fairly silly, for two major reasons:

1) Labour have a huge majority. Labour currently hold 45 out of 57 councillors (see the graph below), the Mayoralty, both Parliamentary seats and the London Assembly seat that covers Hackney. Over the last four years, the Tory group has been an utterly ineffectual opposition - this year, they didn't even bother to put an amendment to the budget. In contrast, despite being on her own as a Green councillor, Cllr Mischa Borris put a fully costed amendment to the budget - and would have done more if she had been part of a Green Group. Hackney needs more progressive and effective opposition to Labour, not less!

2) Hackney has an Executive Mayor. One of the main arguments that the Labour Party used when pushing for the centralised system of an Executive Mayor is that it would no longer be problematic if the Council ended up in no overall control - after all, the Mayor gets to pick his own Cabinet however he wants. They can't have it both ways - selling the Mayoral system as an antidote to hung councils, and then spreading scare stories about hung councils once we have a Mayor!

As this graph of the results last time (for parties who are standing in 2010) shows, it couldn't be tighter in Clissold ward. On May 6th, voters will have a choice. Add a few more Labour councillors to a Council already run by them - or take your opportunity to elect a strong, progressive and coherent voice of opposition, who will hold Labour to account for the next four years.

Just to end, I should add that I find Labour's whole emphasis on this issue disappointing. It focuses on the 'horse race' rather than policies. The Greens are pushing Hackney Labour on social justice, sustainability and local democracy - perhaps it is no surprise that Labour councillors don't want to talk about these issues on the doorstep, but instead resort to trying to scare people into voting for the 'same old, same old' once again. I don't think it will work this time.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Older People's Pledge

I was pleased today to launch in Hackney our national Older People's Pledge - a pledge which makes us the only political party to back demands for a state pension of £170 a week, accompanied by a whole set of key national policies designed to make Britain a better place in which to grow old.

After a lifetime of hard work and contributing to society, pensioners deserve better than having to scrape by on an inadequate state pension. It's only fair that the basic state pension should be enough to live on - which is why Greens would make sure that all pensioners receive a non-means-tested £170 per week, as well as free social care for all who need it, as is currently offered in Scotland.

The figure of £170 per week is calculated as the minimum required to keep the basic state pension above the official poverty line, according to the National Pensioners' Convention, in their Pensioners' Manifesto (which you can download here).

The National Pensioners' Convention have been kind enough to acknowledge our work in this area, and one of their spokespeople commented this week:

"The NPC welcomes the Green Party's commitment to improving the basic state pension for Britain's 11m older voters and hopes that other parties will see the economic and moral sense in tackling pensioner poverty. This is something no political party should ignore."

In addition to raising pensioners above the poverty line, the Greens are pledging to end the default retirement age, so that people have the freedom to go on working and contributing to society if they wish to, free from discrimination on the basis of age.

Michelle Mitchell, Age Concern and Help the Aged’s Charity Director, said:

“We welcome the Green Party’s focus on older people and desire to address the challenges of ageing as we head towards the general election. Abolishing the default retirement age and increasing the basic state pension are absolutely key to improving the retirement prospects for millions of older people.”

We'd pay for the £170 per week pension in a variety of ways. There are roughly 12 million pensioners living in the UK and a further 1 million living abroad. Paying a single rate of £170 per week, and a couples rate of £300 per week, will cost £110bn per year. The current basic state pension, plus certain other specific pensioner benefits like Pensions Credits paid to those of pension age (which would become redundant if the basic pension rate was raised to the level we propose) costs £70bn. For the remaining £40 billion, we would abolish tax relief on pension contributions (£20 billion), and the national insurance rebate on employer and employee contributions to private pension schemes (£19 billion). The final £1 billion will come from increased income tax receipts from pensioners.

In 2009-10, the full basic State Pension is £95.25 a week. For a married couple who both qualify, it is £190.50 a week. From April 6 2010, these figures will rise by 2.5% - with a Green government, they'd almost double.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Mephedrone Idiocy

This Government seems determined to go to its probable doom still operating with the same kind of politics that have gotten us into such a mess in the first place. Right thing to do, but unpopular? Never going to happen.

And so it was with mephedrone, the latest scare drug of the moment. All the relevant legislation says, very reasonably, that the Government needs to conduct a sober, scientific and comprehensive study of any substance that it wishes to control. After all, by controlling mephedrone, the Government will at a stroke be seriously criminalising many thousands of young people.

However, this is New Labour - so imagine my complete lack of surprise at the rush to push through a ban on mephedrone before the General Election. It seems that, far from heeding scientific advice and carefully considering policy, it just takes a few scare stories in the tabloids to get this Government to jump. As far as I can tell, there has been next to no proof either way about mephedrone as yet - but hey, lets not let that stop us from creating new laws. Who needs proof when you have outrage?

I've always been incredibly proud of Green Party drugs policy, which points out that prohibition generally doesn't work. It's simply not the best way to keep people safe, and just pushes drugs underground into the control of criminal gangs who ensure that the substances used become less pure and more dangerous. In the case of mephedrone, there are scores of drugs, still legal, which give almost the same high - so all this will achieve is to push people towards other alternatives. Alternatives the effects of which, surprise surprise, we will have no idea about. And so the merry-go-round of outrage will begin again.

This is also the view of Professor David Nutt, the man whom the Government sacked for having the temerity to tell the truth on these issues only a few months ago. Like him, I certainly don't believe that mephedrone is harmless. But I do believe that making it a controlled substance is almost certainly going to make things worse, rather than better.

Political expediency 1 - 0 Rational science based politics.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Allen Road shootings

As I walked to the first hustings of the Parliamentary campaign on Thursday, I saw some 'Police Do Not Cross' tape cordoning off part of Allen Road, near the Shakespeare pub. As I soon learnt, there had been another shooting - and it involved one of the young men who had already been shot in November, on Howard Road.

I posted my thoughts on gun crime, its causes and its solutions after that tragic incident in November, and my understanding remains the same. Gun crime isn't something that we can deal with simply through tougher enforcement, or through isolated action in one community - though both of these things might help to some extent. Ultimately, violent crime amongst young people is caused in the majority of cases by deprivation and hopelessness - and until there is a wider movement in this country dedicated to reducing levels of inequality (both economic and political), we will not be able to make significant headway against this problem. Young people who behave this way are acting out and demanding respect in the only way that they can envisage - a way that is twisted and malformed because of the environment they find themselves in relative to others in society. We need to allow people the opportunity to earn and find respect in other ways.

On a related topic, this post on StokeyTalk points out an interesting aspect of this latest incident - the increasing use of social networking by residents to find out what is going on, in near real time. I wasn't too impressed by Twitter when I first started using it - but things like this show me that sometimes it can be an incredibly powerful tool. The idea of "citizen journalism in the information age" couldn't be a bigger cliche - but its potential is astonishing, for all that.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Housing and the Budget

More on the budget in a few days. For now, one brief bit of thinking on an astonishing ommission - the complete lack of a mention for affordable housing in 2010's Budget. Who needs a strategy for social housing when you can steal a policy on owner-occupying from the Tories, eh?


One of the few major, eye-catching changes in Labour's 2010 Budget was a housing measure. Unfortunately for the almost 5 million people on social housing waiting lists throughout the country, the measure had nothing to do with housing that those most in need can afford.

In providing a holiday on stamp duty for homes under £250,000, Alistair Darling is following the same tired formula of attempting to stimulate the economy through subsidies to owner-occupiers, rather than investment in homes for the millions of people who are in very serious housing need. A subsidy of only a couple of thousand pounds will not make housing ownership accessible to all, and will cost £550 million over two years.

At the same time as this giveaway, the Government is refusing to protect social housing investment from the swingeing cuts which are guaranteed to hit unprotected government departments later in the year. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that non ringfenced departments will suffer cuts of 17.98%. This would mean a drastic reduction in an already inadequate building programme. In 2007, Gordon Brown pledged to build 1 million units of social housing by 2020 - however, according to the National House Builder's Federation only 162,000 of these will have been built by 2011, and if the projected cuts take effect, the remaining 838,000 will not be built until 2029!

The direct effect of this complete neglect of social housing (momentarily ignoring the indirect effects on health, economic equality and prosperity) will be a further 1.25 million people joining the housing waiting lists, and the loss of 278,000 jobs and apprenticeships in the construction industry.

Labour had a chance, with this final Budget, to set out a route back to sane levels of social housing in this country. They have failed this test in epic fashion, and look set to condemn millions to continuing housing misery.

Matt Sellwood is the Green Party's national housing spokesperson, and the Parliamentary Candidate for Hackney North & Stoke Newington.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Ending Fuel Poverty

In one of my more recent posts, I highlighted one of the major items of expenditure in Hackney Green Party's budget proposals this year - a scheme designed to kickstart the provision of free insulation for all residents of the borough, prioritising the most vulnerable households.

A similar scheme has already been pioneered by Kirklees Green Party, who secured over £20 million for it, and it has transformed the energy efficiency situation of housing in their area.

Now, I'm aware that insulation isn't the sexiest political issue. But it should be.

It should be because nearly five million households in England cannot afford to heat and power their own homes. They need to spend more than 10% of their income on energy, and so are living in fuel poverty. The annual average household energy bill is now over £1,200 - more than double the average bill just five years ago.

And it should be because, in 2008/2009, there were more than 36,000 excess winter deaths, with many more people becoming seriously ill or going into heavy debt due to fuel poverty.


Yes, of course, excess deaths aren't just cold related, and not everyone died as a result of poor heating in their homes - but even if we are ludicrously conservative and attribute just 10% of those deaths to insufficient fuel and heating (and I suspect its actually a lot more), we are talking about thousands of preventable deaths. And that was for 2008/9. The winter we've just had was colder.

Of course, the Labour government have been on the case for a decade now, ever since they passed a Parliamentary Bill on the topic of fuel poverty in 2000. I'm sure its fixed.

Oh. Turns out, there are now nearly three times more households in fuel poverty than in 2001, when the government launched its UK Fuel Poverty Strategy. The government has already acknowledged it will miss its 2010 legal target on fuel poverty, and is on course to miss the 2016 target unless there is a radical shift in strategy. As End Fuel poverty have said of the government, "it is reluctant to set a target energy efficiency standard for private sector homes; take regulatory action to drive up standards...and make sure all the necessary funding is provided."

Frankly, this isn't rocket science. We need to stop faffing about at the edges of this problem, stop relying on the market to fix itself, and introduce minimum standards in the private sector as a matter of urgency. As Friends of the Earth point out in a recent briefing: "Strong minimum standards, which are toughened over time, should make it illegal to rent out a property below a certain energy efficiency rating...this should start immediately with properties in Energy Performance Certificate Bands F and G...there is simply no moral, practical or financial argument for allowing a landlord to continue to make money from letting a property which is in bands F or G - a standard of energy efficiency so poor that it is classified as a health hazard - when that property could be improved to Band E for less than a thousand pounds."

Absolutely right. We need the 'stick' of minimum energy standards, and the 'carrot' of easily understood and accessible free insulation. We need it because bringing the homes of the fuel poor up to the energy efficiency standards of homes built today would reduce their fuel bills by an average of 52 per cent, and cut their carbon emissions by 59 per cent. And we need it because people are dying.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Grassroots Legislator?

Those who are keen readers of the Hackney Gazette may have noticed that Diane Abbott has reacted with some irritation after I pointed out her absence from a key climate vote a couple of weeks ago.

While I've been having a bit of fun with her assertion that no-one in Hackney has ever met me (I'm fairly sure I'm not a figment of someone's imagination, though I suppose you never can tell), Diane's response actually brings up an important and interesting point of discussion - the proper balance as an elected representative between engagement in the community you serve, and attendance at the legislative body in which you sit.

In actual fact, Diane and I are not very far apart on this, I suspect. I come from a tradition of politics which believes, strongly, that the role of a politician is not to be elected every five years and then go about their Parliamentary business (a view of the function of elected representatives which has been extremely prevalent in historical British politics), but rather to interact with and dynamically serve the community groups and campaigning organisations which exist within their constituency.

The main wellspring of ideas and 'genius' for change comes from the grassroots, not from one person who happens to have been elected. One of my political heroes is the late Paul Wellstone, and I've found the organisation set up in his memory, Wellstone Action, to be a helpful guide to how an elected representative should spend much of their time empowering constituents to hold them to account. There are already many good examples of this in Hackney - the London Coalition Against Poverty springs to mind - and I would hope to work with many more if elected, either as a councillor or MP.

The only difference between Diane and I is the value that we placed on that particular amendment to that particular bill. For me, when a vote is that tight, and when it is about holding powerful corporations to account on their attempts to water down environmental standards, I'll be in Parliament. That doesn't mean that I won't be an active and energetic community MP as well - because, in the end, building community politics is the most powerful route to social change.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The Cuts Consensus

Yesterday, I was glad to see this article in The Guardian, which makes the case that the Green Party has been arguing for many months. Namely, that it is insanity to submit to a round of swingeing cuts given our economic situation - that public investment and revenue raising are the way to get out of this recession, and that slashing public spending will only hurt the poor and the vulnerable.

Caroline Lucas MEP has been speaking out against job cuts in Brighton, where she is aiming to become one of the first Green Party MPs, and as she puts it:

"The last thing we need to be doing in the current economic climate is making cuts. What is needed is investment in public services, to make sure we get out - and stay out - of recession."

Quite. It's a pity that the three establishment parties don't seem to be on the same page. For a few weeks, it seemed that Brown might be opening up a bit of clear red water between him and CameronClegg - but alas, he soon fell back into line and started competing with the two opposition parties about precisely how tough he could be. Never mind the fact that you hardly save any money in total by sacking public sector workers, because of the fact that you put them straight onto the dole. Or the fact that we could face a double dip recession if we drastically cut our spending now. No, the important thing is to look tough.

I agree entirely with David Blanchflower, who points out in the article above that "the dire state of our public finances is not due to excessive spending growth but the collapse of revenues. So the most effective way to tackle the deficit is to stimulate revenue. Private sector investment has collapsed, so what's needed are government subsidies on investment and job hires. Instead of cuts, we need to be talking about how to get the economy growing again, and how to create jobs."

Absolutely right. We've been doing our bit in Hackney Green Party, to push for one of the key foundations of the Green New Deal - namely, massive improvement and investment in our housing stock.

Over 4,600 families in Hackney currently live in fuel poverty - and in the Green Party's 2010 budget amendment, Cllr Mischa Borris proposed over £600,000 of investment to kickstart a scheme to provide free insulation for every home that needs it. That key funding from the council would help lever in large amounts of additional money from energy utilities, as part of their obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The programme would be prioritised towards vulnerable and low-income households.

The scheme, similar to the successful progamme introduced by the Green Party on Kirklees council, could reduce fuel bills for the poorest by an average of £150 a year per home and would make a significant impact on fuel poverty in the borough. And, crucially, the scheme would also help to create 'green-collar' jobs in the borough, helping to tackle Hackney's high unemployment levels.

How to fund it? Well, Mischa proposed a £16 a year increase in parking charges, for the most polluting cars. As she put it:

"A slight increase in parking charges for the most gas-guzzling cars is a fair way of funding a scheme that will benefit those without cars and living in fuel poverty. Councils should be creating ways of helping the most vulnerable residents. Using money from energy companies and those with polluting cars will benefit thousands of people who are struggling to keep their homes warm."

Makes sense to me. Of course, Hackney Labour rejected the plan and have just spent a bunch of money changing every lamppost banner in the borough into a party political broadcast about their council tax freeze. Public money, well spent...

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Housing In The UK

This is a piece which will be published in a housing journal in the next few weeks - I thought you, dear reader, might also be interested....

Green Party housing policy: fairer and more sustainable

Matt Sellwood, Green Party national spokesperson on housing and parliamentary candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The Green Party believes that for too long housing has been treated as a speculative market, rather than as a vital human right. We would focus our efforts on reversing the marketising trends of the last thirty years, and in returning to an ethos which gives primacy to affordable, sustainable and well-designed social housing.

Truly affordable housing is clearly a vital component in any equitable and sustainable society. Not only does meaningful participation in a democracy necessitate a basic level of security and prosperity, but our current housing stock too often contributes to problems as widely varied as crime, climate change and ill-health. Any sensible government must invest massively in social housing, as one of the solutions to many other difficult issues.

Despite this, the current situation of social housing is dire, as the example of London amply illustrates. Social housing waiting lists have grown by around 80% over the last decade, while stocks of affordable housing have actually shrunk. 10% of households in our capital city are now waiting for a home that fully suits their needs. This is unacceptable.

Recent changes in government policy have made some small steps towards recognising the problem, but do not go anywhere near far enough in addressing its causes. The Green Party advocates bold action, including:

- The resumption of direct investment in Council and other social housing, at a scale far in excess of the current low levels on offer from the Government. Moves to allow local authorities to use receipts from sales to fund new accommodation must be solidified and accelerated. In particular, we would provide £4bn per annum to local authorities to expand social housing, mainly through conversion and renovation, creating 80,000 jobs.

- A programme of investment to ensure better use of the over 700,000 empty properties in the UK, and an immediate end to discounts and subsidies for empty and second homes.

- Steps to ensure that development is more evenly distributed across the whole of the country, so reducing pressure on housing in London and the South East in particular.

- Support to ensure that social housing tenants experience real democratic consultation, whoever their landlord, and that the cooperative model of management and ownership of housing is encouraged and supported.

- Support for a level playing field between all social housing stakeholders, including an end to the allocation of historic council housing debt to local authorities – whether under the current system, or under the proposed system of reallocation due to HRA reform.

This is what Green MPs would fight for in Parliament, and with party leader Caroline Lucas MEP tipped by bookmakers and pollsters to win the Brighton Pavilion seat in the coming general election, this is an approach we might hope to carry into the House of Commons in the near future. An increase in the Green vote nationwide will send this same message to the establishment parties in what may be a hung parliament.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Abbott and Lib Dems - Absent on Climate

So, I've gone on record before as saying that Diane Abbott is one of the better Labour MPs. I'm interested in honesty in politics, and there's no point in pretending that she is Geoff Hoon, or Charles Clarke. However, what she does now seem to be is - well - disinterested.

A lot of people whom I've been canvassing have said that they will vote for me because "These days we seen Diane more on the telly than we do on the streets". And, it would seem from news today, more on the telly than in Parliament.

Yesterday was the scene of a rebellion in Parliament, over the crucial issue of Emissions Performance Standards for new coal-fired power stations in the UK. A vital plank of any coherent and logical plan for climate sanity. I quickly checked the list of how MPs voted - and - umm...Diane didn't bother to turn up. Having, apparently, told Friends of the Earth that she would be rebelling.

Now, I know that this is a pretty basic promise - but I can guarantee that when there is a vital, close-fought amendment, on which I have been lobbied and made promises about - I'll turn up to Parliament to vote!

Just to let you know how close it was - the amendment was defeated by 252 votes to 244 - slashing the Government's 57-strong majority to just eight. And Diane didn't bother to attend.

It's worth noting, as well, that she wasn't the only one who didn't turn up. The Lib Dems, great defenders of the environment they, saw 13 of their MPs not bothering to vote either...including Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Vince Cable. Inspiring.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Parliamentary pledges

One of the most interesting things about being a Parliamentary Candidate is all of the different campaigns, community groups and organisations who contact you to ask for your support, your interest and your opinions. I've been signing up to a number of pledges recently, including (as just a small sample!) the NUS pledge to oppose top up fees and the marketisation of education, a pledge to oppose privatisation of the NHS, a pledge to oppose cruel sports, and one to support Cancer Rearch UK's Cancer Committment. As an example, the press release from the latter is included below.

If you want to know my opinion on any matter, or would just like to let me know what you think are the most important issues in this election, don't hesitate to email me: matt.sellwood [at]


Matt Sellwood, who is the Green Party's Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hackney North & Stoke Newington, has joined hundreds of candidates across the country in signing up to Cancer Research UK's Cancer Commitment, aiming to make UK cancer outcomes among the best in Europe in the next ten years.
Matt said: "I am delighted to pledge my support for Cancer Research UK’s vital campaign. Cancer remains the public’s number one fear. With a concerted effort from the next Parliament, we can give hope to the millions of people affected by cancer and their friends and family.”

More than one in three people in Hackney North will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. In the last thirty years, the UK’s 10-year survival rates have doubled but cancer survival rates still lag behind the best performing countries in Europe such as Sweden, Norway and Finland. Cancer Research UK is calling on Parliamentary candidates to commit now that if they are elected, they will help make cancer outcomes for patients in the UK among the best in Europe in a decade.

The Cancer Commitment calls on MPs in the next Parliament to take action in five key areas:

Detecting cancer earlier
Providing world class treatment
Preventing more cancers
Tackling cancer inequalities
Protecting the UK’s research base

Jon Spiers, Head of Public Affairs and Campaigning at Cancer Research UK, said “To consign today’s cancer challenges to tomorrow’s history books, we must act now. Our thousands of scientists and our millions of supporters are hoping to see MPs in the next Parliament step up to the challenge.”

For information on Cancer Research UK’s Commit To Beat Cancer campaign, visit:

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Maximum Wage

Green Party Spring Conference was in Finchley this year, so I could hardly not make an appearance. This weekend I am busy working, leafletting, and trying to have a social life - shock! horror! - but I did manage to attend on the Thursday and Friday.

As always, there was plenty of policy being made (we are one of the few parties left with a truly democratic internal culture - any four members of the party can propose policy and have it debated), discussions being had and campaigning plans being hatched. The most interesting decision of the two days, to my mind, was one that I couldn't actually speak on - I was co-chairing the plenary session where it was discussed!

At long last, after the session on Friday, the Green Party has firm policy in favour of a maximum income differential within UK firms. I have been a fan of the idea of a maximum wage (in one form or another, there are many ways in which it can be done) for years, and it's great to see the Party adopting such a radical proposal, which sets us out way ahead of the establishment political consensus. We have set the differential that we would pursue at ten times - in other words, the highest paid worker in an organisation could not earn more than ten times as much as the lowest paid. Given that, in some big firms in the UK today, that differential is currently well over 100, this is pretty meaty stuff.

Having said that, there have been rumblings about this idea for a while in the mainstream press, with this article in The Mirror being only the latest example. NEF guru Andrew Simms, with his usual foresight, was writing about it in the Guardian way back in 2003. And, of course, there are actually operating examples of such schemes across the world - with perhaps the most famous being the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain.

The effects of inequality in our society are obvious, and there hasn't been such a prime opportunity to deal with them for decades. I hope we won't let it pass - and that policies like this will take centre stage at the next General Election.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Hackney North, Lib Dems, and numbers

Through my letterbox, this morning, popped the latest piece of Liberal Democrat literature - complete with lots of graphs and stats, claiming to prove that Keith Angus is poised to sweep to victory over Diane Abbott.

Oh dear.

I haven't met Keith in person yet, but by all accounts he's a nice and personable chap. I think, however, that he's in trouble if he thinks he is convincing anyone that he is about to deliver Hackney North for the Lib Dems.

At the risk of indulging my inner electoral geek, lets take a quick look at some figures.


Labour Diane Abbott 14,268 (48.6%)
Liberal Democrat James Blanchard 6,841 (23.3%)
Conservative Ertan Hurer 4,218 (14.4%)
Green Mischa Borris 2,907 (9.9%)
Independent (politician) David Vail 602 (2.0%)
Socialist Labour Nusrat Sen 296 (1.0%)
Monster Raving Loony Knight Knapp Barrow 248 (0.8%)

It's already obvious from the figures above that the Lib Dems are way behind Labour in Hackney North. While they achieved a decent swing in 2005, they are still 7500 votes behind Diane Abbott - it would be easier for me to overtake them then it will be for them to defeat Labour this year. And the problem is, of course, that the situation is far worse for the Lib Dems than the above figures indicate. Take a look, for example, at these results, from the local elections a year later.


Labour - 38%
Green - 24%
Tory - 20%
Lib Dem - 17%
Others - 1%

Oh dear. The Lib Dems in fourth place. Well, OK, that could be a blip. How about something more recent....perhaps the figures across Hackney in the European elections of last year?


Labour - 34%
Greens - 23%
Others - 16%
Tories - 15%
Lib Dems - 12%

Twelve percent? Umm. Hmm. Doesn't quite feed into the 'Lib Dems sweeping to victory' meme that Keith is trying to get out there.

Now, don't get me wrong. People vote differently in different elections, and I'm not claiming that the Euros (with their different turnout, choices, electoral system and so on) are a perfect match for the way that people will vote in 2010's General Election. The Lib Dems are unlikely to come fourth. But they are even more unlikely to win, with only two councillors and an unbroken record in the last four years of getting nowhere in Hackney elections.

The difference between Keith's campaign and mine is that I am being honest. I recognise that, while it can be tempting to claim that you are on the verge of victory, if you aren't it just ends up looking silly.

What I'm committed to doing is clearly setting out my principles, talking about the issues which are important to me and the Green Party, and letting people know that they have the opportunity to vote for a candidate who is radically focused on social justice and the environment.

Diane Abbott is likely to win the forthcoming election - but precisely because she is not threatened by someone to her right, the electorate in Hackney North have an opportunity to give their vote someone who is speaking out loudly and consistently against inequality, injustice, environmental destruction and war - and to make sure that Diane knows she needs to do the same over the next Parliamentary term.

With your vote in 2010, you can ensure that the main challengers to Labour in Hackney continue to be a radical and growing Green Party - rather than Nick Clegg's confused, wishy-washy and ultimately ineffective Lib Dems. The choice, of course, is yours...

Monday, 8 February 2010

Mental Illness - The Unspoken Barrier

Most people in our society still don't understand mental illness. Too often it is seen as a weakness - something that is 'put on' by those who somehow don't want to face reality and 'pull themselves together' - as opposed to a medical condition which can blight lives and which deserves understanding and compassion.

I'm fortunate not to have visited the very outer reaches of such conditions myself - but when I was younger, I suffered deeply from social anxiety and clinical depression. It made life extraordinarily difficult for almost two years, and there are few weeks when I don't thank my lucky stars that I am now in a better and more stable mental place than I was.

Perhaps the worst thing about it all was the feeling of helplessness that not being in control of one's own mood, outlook and social reactions engenders - and the knowledge that many people simply don't understand how a chronic mental condition can affect every aspect of one's being. Someone with depression is not being 'lazy' or malingering - they are sapped of their energy, their drive, and their passions. It's not a good place to be, and when combined with anxiety attacks, it's even worse. Millions of people suffer, in one way or another, from such illnesses - often in silence.

It doesn't have to be this way - and it shouldn't be. That is one of the reasons that I am supporting ReThink's campaign to overturn the blanket ban on anyone receiving treatment for a mental illness being able to serve on a jury in the UK. Rather than being based on the capacity to make sound judgements, the ban applies to anyone receiving treatment - even if their condition is being effectively self managed, or simply monitored by their GP to ensure against a relapse. This is just one example (there are many others, including election to Parliament, in fact) of the stigma that is still attached to mental illness.

Mental illness doesn't have to destroy lives - it can be managed, survived, and worked through. Winston Churchill's 'Black Dog' depressions didn't stop his career, and neither did Abraham Lincoln's frequent bouts of intense melancholy. Marcus Trescothick has bravely spoken out about his own anxiety disorder, and has found happiness back at Somerset, having defied the expectations being laid on his shoulders by others. In contrast, the recent suicide of Robert Enke shows just what can happen when mental illness is viewed as weakness, and when those suffering feel that they can't speak out.

Politicians hardly ever talk about this issue.

They should.

I will.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Recession, Exclusion, and Community Finance

The recession continues to bite, and there are few places it is hitting harder than in Hackney. We already suffer from a historically high unemployment rate, and many people in the borough don't have the backing of strong community links or a financial safety net to fall back on.

From my own experience, I can attest to the impact of the recession on provision for the homeless, particularly in Hackney, as a result of the redeployment of significant council grant funding. The most vulnerable people in the borough are being hit hardest, and have the least ability to survive extended periods of financial difficulty. A recent report showed, for example, the impact on those who turned to Christmas loan sharks to buy presents for their family or travel to be with their loved ones over the festive season.

According to the Financial Inclusion Centre, over 5 million vulnerable households in the UK are seriously affected in some way by financial exclusion, and it is estimated that vulnerable consumers could be paying between £800-£1,000 a year in higher costs because they are excluded from mainstream financial services. Rejected by big banks, and unable to get decent loans, they are too often thrust into the hands of criminal gangs or predatory lenders - where in other places and times they might have had the support of strong family networks, community centres, cooperatives and mutual societies to rely on. Not to mention, of course, the welfare state - now increasingly set at such a level as to make it extremely difficult to live without employment.

There are efforts being made to reinvigorate and enhance those community networks of finance, however. The Hackney Credit Union continues to do good work in this area, and various TimeBank and LETs schemes in London are attempting to value people's time, rather than their earning power. FairFinance is operating in Dalston, trying to offer loans more reasonable than those from predatory lenders, to people whom the mainstream banks often won't touch. And reports such as Towards a Royal Bank of Sustainability remind us of the importance of a national approach to all of this, now that so many of our major banking players are propped up by the public purse.

Green MPs would make it a priority to diversify and mutualise much of our system of finance. It makes no sense for the majority of our money to be tied up with increasingly complex and unrealistic derivatives trading, when there are real, sustainable, socially and communally cohesive projects just waiting to be invested in throughout the country. While they might not make the return of a South Sea Bubble, they also stand much less chance of bursting. Our system of finance needs to be based on the needs of real people, and of the planet - not on the needs of the richest few.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Housing and Equality

Given my previous posts on the disastrous effects of wealth and income gaps on our society, I can hardly let the publication of the latest major report on inequality go by without a mention. Its headline finding is that the top 10% of wealth-owners in the UK are 100 times richer than the bottom 10%. While this is perhaps unsurprising, it should not be anything less than shocking. A society with such levels of inequality cannot avoid dysfunction. That is why I have become one of the first Parliamentary candidates to sign the Equality Pledge, the opening initiative by OneSociety and the Equality Trust to influence the forthcoming General Election. I hope many more sign in the coming days and weeks!

One of the major inequalities in our society is, of course, in the housing sector. With some people owning copious and expensive amounts of property, and most others unable to get anywhere near a secure tenancy in an affordable home, the playing field is painfully skewed. It's an area that I've always felt strongly about - and for that reason, I'm glad to be able to announce that I have recently been named as the Green Party's new national spokesperson on housing.

Those who are interested in lots of detail can always look at the full list of Green Party Housing Policies - but for those who want some reasons why we desperately need new and progressive thinking in this area, perhaps a few facts might help.

- There are still 2.5 million Council tenants throughout the UK.

- However, there are around 5 million people currently on council housing waiting lists.

- There are still almost 100,000 people in temporary accomodation, which is often totally unsuitable for their needs.

- 485,000 social homes have been sold over the past 10 years through Right To Buy.

- £141 million is being spent on new council housing this year. Sounds good - but it equates to only 2,000 homes.

- There are approximately 750,000 empty properties in the UK.

The Green Party is already doing a lot of work on housing issues - both in terms of ensuring that new and retrofitted properties meet stringent energy efficiency and fuel poverty standards, and in ensuring that ordinary people can afford to live in excellent properties in the first place. As this report on London's affordable housing crisis from the office of Jenny Jones AM illustrates, there is a very very long way to go on these issues. As the report explains, referring particularly to London but applying more generally to the country as a whole:

1. There has been a massive loss of social rented homes. Right to buy sales have far outstripped the building of new social rented homes, despite growing demand and a slightly improved delivery of social homes in recent years. This has led to the waiting list in London almost doubling within a decade.

2. The cost of buying a home has risen twice as fast as incomes. It now costs eleven times the average income to buy a home in London, putting home ownership far beyond the means of most households.

3. New housing delivery hasn’t met housing needs. House building has completely failed to slow the rising affordability gap in housing. In 2009 London only managed to build a little over half of the housing we needed.

I would say that with the financial crisis and recession, the delivery mechanism for affordable housing (building private sector housing for sale at market rates and subsidising social housing with the profits) has broken down. I would say that, except it is difficult for something that didn't work in the first place to break down. 'Affordable' housing has rarely been anything of the sort over the last decade. It is crucial that, in the next ten years, we ensure a great deal more housing that is affordable, well-built, and democratically controlled.

More on this subject anon. For now, if you are interested in getting involved, you could do a lot worse than to check out the Defend Council Housing website, or the London Coalition Against Poverty.

Friday, 22 January 2010

You Can't Incentivise Love

Admittedly there is always stiff competition, but a strong contender for 'idiotic policy of the month' has got to be the Tory plan for tax breaks for married couples.

Now clearly this is actually just an attempt to get a few 'family values' headlines and appease the social reactionary right - it can't be anything else, because it is so patently and transparently not going to have any positive real world effect. It will reduce tax income somewhat (brilliant plan in a financial crisis, that), and it might lead to a few more people who don't care about each other getting married for convenience - but that is about it.

And the reason is - you can't incentivise love. You can't reduce a committed and caring relationship, or family values, or community, or anything else that matters in this world, to a financial transaction. Nor should the state be judging what love is between consenting adults, or when it is acceptable and when it is not. How is it possibly right to extend tax breaks to married heterosexual couples, but not to LGBT people, or those in a long term relationship who do not feel that they want to marry? In Cameronland, is it really the case that there are no unhappy, problematic and destructive marriages....and no healthy, committed and positive relationships outside of the bonds of wedlock?

I'm glad to see that, in this at least, there is still a difference between the Conservatives and the other two largest parties. To their credit, Labour and the Lib Dems have both come out against these ridiculous plans, which would penalise anyone who chooses to relate to their partner in a way other than heterosexual marriage. I am deadset against any such policy, and will campaign against it in any way I can.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Faith in Action

Religion, and faith, have gotten a bad rap over the last few years. Too often, the popular understanding of religion has become synonymous with fundamentalism - the inability to see another point of view. Whether it is the popular media boiling the immense richness and diversity of the Islamic tradition down into 'mad mullahs', or Richard Dawkins continuing his reductionist and single-minded quest to insist that the worst aspects of some religious factions are intrinsic parts of all faith, we have been exposed to many reasons for thinking that religious belief is nothing but an irrational and destructive artifact of the past.

As a person of faith myself, I've never viewed religion through that lens - but if I needed reminders of the immense good that can and is being done by faith communities, I got two over the last week.

For a number of years, the Hackney Winter Night Shelter has been organised by a coalition of Christian churches in Hackney, all of them giving over their community spaces and organising volunteers for one night a week during the winter, to ensure that those who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets have a safe and warm place to stay. Some of my acquaintances might scoff at this - after all, they would assert, ameliorating current injustices doesn't change the system that causes them - but having done my first 2010 overnight shift this week, I couldn't disagree more. Not only are the churches doing incredibly valuable work in providing comfort and solace to some of the most vulnerable people in our society (in the particular case that I experienced, the church in question is St Paul's on Evering Road, under the wonderful direction of Rev Niall Weir) - but they are providing the foundational structures that any community needs to survive. The kind of mutual aid and voluntary compassion, unmediated by money or desire for profit, in which lie the seeds of a new world. I certainly look forward to doing more shifts over the coming months, and would encourage anyone living in Hackney to think about volunteering too.

Of course, there is never enough being done in this area - and while the Winter Night Shelter does great work, North London Action For The Homeless has seen its advice funding from the Council completely cut for the forthcoming financial year. Over £11,000 for advising homeless and vulnerably housed people has gone - putting at risk one of the very few, and vitally important, independent advice services for the people whom NLAH serves. I volunteer with NLAH on Monday lunchtimes and am part of the Management Committee, and have seen first hand the good work that they do - also hosted by the St Paul's Church Community Hall, without which the provision of good meals, compassionate company and independent advice would be so much more difficult. As I understand it, NLAH was originally founded on the initiative of the Jewish community in Hackney - another idea catalysed by religious faith.

And then, this Saturday, I was lucky enough to attend the induction of Andy Pakula as the new Minister of the Newington Green Unitarian Church, one of the oldest 'dissenting' churches in London, with a 300 year old tradition of feminism, anti-slavery, advocacy for economic justice and concern for ecological sustainability. The service was wonderful, and left me with an abiding sense of what a liberal, non-judgemental, all-embracing and life affirming religious belief can look like. It didn't hurt that I also found out that Andy and the congregation have refused to carry out any weddings at the Church until LGBT people have exactly the same rights as heterosexual couples in this country!

Religious faith can be an enormously powerful catalyst and foundation for social change. It can bring people together across boundaries, helping to create the kind of communities of compassion and voluntary service that we so desperately need. Yes, it can also create intolerance and rigidity and fundamentalism - but it doesn't have to. People of progressive beliefs, whether religious or secular in their origin, must work together to bring on a world where "Justice will flow like a river - and righteousness like a never failing stream."

Use of the photo above does not of course imply any endorsement of my campaign - it just made me smile and I thought might illustrate my point!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Society and Centralisation

Catchy title, eh?

The reason for it is all of this snow, which you may have noticed about the place over the last week or two. You see, there's nothing like a bit of extreme weather to reveal just how rickety and shaky our systems of transportation, energy and food production really are. Honest, I was going to post something positive and upbeat this time - but there's been evidence all around that our society really can't deal with anything that disrupts business as usual. Given the increasing reality of climate change (bringing with it more extreme weather events), peak oil and the financial crisis, it wouldn't be responsible to just gloss over the inability of our economic and logistical systems to cope.

Which, of course, is what most politicians have been busy doing. According to Labour, everything is fine, rosy, and will be back to normal soon. Meanwhile, the Tories and Lib Dems criticise Labour for not responding quickly enough or ordering enough grit - failing to see that the collapse of our transport network, not to mention the panic buying of basic supplies, reveal a far deeper issue with our logistical systems than just a failure of Government competence.

Centralised systems, particularly ones that rely on large-scale and complex distribution networks (such as supermarkets, or fossil fuel energy, or even salt and grit laying), don't tend to cope well with shocks or sudden disruption. Because everyone is reliant on only one or two methods of distribution, there is little redundancy or back-up to call on. Shops which are reliant on a relatively predictable pattern of purchasing and supply, on uninterrupted energy for refrigeration, and so on, can't meet crises with any kind of Plan B.

In contrast, of course, communities which rely on a diverse range of different food sources, which generate at least some of their energy locally and from renewable sources, and which have a sense of solidarity and togetherness, tend to do much better in such situations. It's the old triumph of variety over monoculture, and shouldn't be surprising. What should alarm us is how far we have allowed many crucial aspects of our lives and communities fall under the sway of gigantic near monopoly businesses, rather than controlling them locally.

Greens have recognised the importance of relocalisation for many years, and more recently a spate of community based initiatives have begun to emerge, making much the same point and attempting to relocalise control of vital services. Transition Town Stoke Newington is just one of many of these kinds of initiatives across the borough - their work couldn't be more important. Greens on Hackney Council, and in Parliament, will be striving to give them all the policy support and back-up that is required for such a wide-scale programme of community reinvigoration.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Pessimism, Honesty, and Politics

In progressive politics, it is customary to try to cast everything in a positive light. As we saw in the USA's last Presidential election, people respond to hope - and the politics of fear and dismay tend to be the domain of those who want society to stay exactly as it is, and are opposed to change. It makes sense for those who seek change to portray the future as inevitably better, brighter, easier than the present.

Unfortunately, of course, it's not that easy or simple. When we are being honest, Greens need to admit that society will change over the next few decades, and not inevitably for the better. As John Michael Greer eloquently sets out in his book, The Long Descent, climate change is not the only crisis that our society currently faces - the peak of oil production is also approaching, and will have massive and far-reaching effects on our economy and way of life.

Following the textbook of political presentation, it would be most sensible to emphasise the positive aspects of a low-carbon transition - and these certainly exist. The problem is, the benefits of transition begin to recede the longer you leave them - while the negative impacts of transition increase for every month we fiddle and fail to prepare for adaptation of the way we run our economy and society. We currently rely on massive injections of fossil fuels - and they won't last forever. As this brief primer on peak oil facts illustrates, they probably won't even last for decades.

With that being the case, and with the obvious and complete lack of government awareness that currently rules policy-making, it is imperative for Greens and other radicals to sound the alarm - not panicking, not hectoring - but being in no doubt about the seriousness of the situation we face. The decisions we make in the next few years may well condition the conflicts, problems and quality of life which we experience for the next hundred. We owe it to future generations, and to ourselves, to get it right.