The Inquest begins – what next for progressive politics?

Chew Valley Ridge (35)

By Jon Crooks

You’ve got to hand it to the Tories and the right-wing press who fought a very negative but successful campaign of fear. They managed to convince the nation not that The Conservatives were the best choice, but that they were the safe choice when faced with the threat of a Labour government propped up by the SNP. Congratulations on your shallow victory.

The corporate press in particular played a crucial role. I never thought I’d agree with Nigel Farage on something, but he’s right to congratulate the editors of the Sun and the Mail. They were hugely influential in staging this Tory election victory.

So what went wrong for Labour? Well first of all, as David Blunkett pointed out in the immediate aftermath, the big mistake might have been the failure to dispel the impression that Gordon Brown’s government had been responsible for the financial crisis. But perhaps also because they failed to dispel the deficit myth.

What worries me now is the assumption that Labour moved too far to the left after the financial crisis and this proved to be the wrong decision. That they now need to become more ‘centrist’ – a return to Blairism. When in fact many believe Labour didn’t move far enough to the left to offer a credible alternative to The Tories, hence many former Labour voters switching to the Greens and the SNP, or just voting Tory because they were safe and “they’re all the same anyway”.

We’ll have to wait and see what Labour does next, but they won’t be in any rush. If last time is anything to go by, they’ll go underground for the next few years, licking their wounds and squabbling with each other over a new direction and a new leader. In the meantime, there needs to be opposition to this newly endorsed government who will continue to cut spending and services, continue to privatize the NHS and our schools, and continue to slash the support for vulnerable people in this country. Somebody has to step up and fight them.

The struggle must continue. Now more than ever. Maybe too many people don’t care enough outside their own little worlds, but plenty do. People who have been denied a voice in our corrupt and twisted system.

Let’s not give up. Let’s quickly decide where to take the fight. Should we campaign for a fair voting system such as Proportional Representation and put an end to all the tactical voting and wasted votes before the next General Election? Should we campaign on party funding and the influence of the corporate media who mounted a vicious campaign against Cameron’s opponents to protect their own vested interests? Having considered and discussed these issues over the last few days, I’m not so sure either of these are now worthy pursuits.

What are the chances of The Tories introducing a bill to the House of Commons to reform the First Past the Post electoral system that so benefits them? What chance is there that they will reform party funding when it is their party that benefits most from rich donors? It’s just not going to happen. Maybe if Labour had won, but not now.

So what then? One thought is that we campaign for devolution from Westminster. Here’s 3 reasons why:

  • This is already on the Tory agenda, we just need to hijack it. George Osbourne announced his plans for Manchester last November and he’ll now try and implement them, but there is a problem. Manchester doesn’t want an elected mayor. We’ve said so in a referendum before.
  • Scotland will get more devolution now; probably Devo-max, with all tax raising other than VAT and all spending other than defense handed over to the Scottish Parliament. We should demand the same in the North of England – not the pathetic handing out of a few quid that Manchester is to be granted under Devo-Manc, but genuine devolution to the regions with real political accountability and democracy at a local level.
  • In the North of England, Labour still have the upper hand and if we can convince our MPs to support us on this issue we can build strong support in Westminster

There is no point trying to force political reform onto the agenda at Westminster. The Establishment won. The Tories won with a majority (albeit a slim one) and there’s no chance of them introducing any legislation that will be detrimental to their hold on power in the future. Of course we can fight them on each and every bit of damaging legislation they try to introduce and highlight the damage they’re doing every day, but at the same time we could bring about real change from within our local communities if we can wrestle power from then by ambushing the Tory devolution plans.

Manchester could well be the key battleground. What if we were to fight Osborne’s Devo-Manc deal with everything we’ve got? Demand a referendum in which we reject his deal and demand devolution on our own terms. There are a great number of local political and environment organisations now and if they work together we could mobilize.

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Manchester’s pat on the head

George-Osbourne

At the end of last year I wrote an article about the growing number of cities and regions (and even countries) that are committing to a transition to 100% clean energy by 2050.

I’m a member of the campaigning group, Avaaz. So when they asked for members to start their own petitions to try and convince their cities to commit to 100% clean, I jumped at the chance. I thought it made sense for Manchester, where I live. I thought Greater Manchester looked perfectly placed for this with a new DevoManc deal announced in November and a new mayor on the cards. At first I was quite enthusiastic about this devolution deal that had come from out of the blue.

Devolution is good right?

Sure it is. The UK is now far more centralised than other countries of a similar size, but it wasn’t always this way. As Steady State Manchester have pointed out, since the Thatcher era, local government has been “hollowed out” with “limited autonomy and ever reducing responsibilities”. Remember the Manchester Corporation? Before my time, but apparently it was local government that established our water, sewage, power and telecommunications, as well as part of the health service!

The Green Party believe that power should flow from the most local levels of Government to the higher levels. Their policy states “The highest form of democracy is direct participation. This is best achieved through the decentralisation of society, so that decisions can be made through face to face discussion.” This is undoubtably true. Making decisions more locally should lead to policies that are more aligned to the needs and interests of people locally.

So what’s the problem?

Well first of all, we didn’t ask for this DevoManc deal. It’s been conceived through secret negotiations between Howard Bernstein and George Osbourne and then announced as a fait acompli. The whole process has been totally undemocratic and let’s face it, condecending! Why can’t we decide how we should be governed, rather than have George Osbourne tell us?  As The Green Party Public Administration Policy states: Power should flow “upwards from the people”. The people of Greater Manchester are not being given any say in these arrangements – although there is now a campaign and a growing number of protests for a proper consultation and referendum.

Secondly, the deal doesn’t go far enough. Most of the city’s new powers will be regulatory. They won’t include some big budget items such as secondary education or welfare payments, although will now include the NHS (thanks for that poison chalice, George!). But crucially, we won’t be given any power to raise taxes. Scope to raise and account for taxes is the touchstone of local democracy. A New York mayor has discretion over seven local revenue streams (including income tax). Central grants cover just a third of local spending in New York, a quarter in Berlin and 17% in Paris. The equivalent figure for English cities is a humiliating 95%. Local government is a mere agency of the centre. All these new powers will give us is the power to distribute some of the crumbs from the Westminster table and then get the blame that the funds were insufficient. Did somebody mention the NHS?

Further devolution would be required before Manchester could take full control of tax raising alongside significant public spending in Greater Manchester and George Osbourne isn’t going to grant these kind of freedoms lightly.

Furthermore, the new arrangement does not provide any proper democratic accountability. There would be no assembly, with too much power in the hands of the mayor and their posse of nine council leaders. As pointed out by Steady State Manchester in their excellent recent blog on the subject, “as any systems scientist can tell you, it takes diversity to represent, interpret and act in an environment characterised by diversity but what we are getting is a technocratic-managerial fix, poorly suited (if sharp-suited) to heal the legitimation crisis of our failing democracy.”

The 1974 defined boundary of Greater Manchester may work well in terms of a joined up transport system for the city and its surrounding areas, but as Steady State Manchester and Campaign for the North have argued, it doesn’t work in terms of being a self-sufficient region. Going back to The Green Party policy on Public Administration: “A community cannot be self-determining unless it is to a large extent self-reliant. Self-reliance is the ability to satisfy needs without being excessively or unequally dependent upon anyone; self- sufficiency is one way to achieve self-reliance, but is by no means the only way.”

This takes us back to my original subject of climate change and the need to achieve 100% clean energy. We can install solar panels on all our houses and other urban buildings like schools, offices, factories, hospitals etc., but that won’t be enough. Much of the energy that Greater Manchester needs would need to be generated in the wider areas around the north west of England; from wind turbines on the hills of Lancashire to hydro-electricity along our rivers to potential sources of tidal power on the coast. We rely on farming in our rural areas in the north, even if we are currently far from self-sufficient. We should also consider positive policies to capture carbon dioxide by using our upland and wetland areas for reforestation instead of our obsession with covering our bare hillsides with sheep!.

In other words, rather than a Norther Powerhouse, we need an eco-region!