Tag Archives: Politics

A defence of ideology

A defence of ideologyOne of the many abuses of the English language in mainstream political parlance is the denigration of ideology.

Defending his government’s cuts to public spending, David Cameron wrote in 2011 that:

This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country’s problems, not by ideology.

More recently, Nick Clegg attacked Michael Gove’s education policies as ideological, reportedly saying:

Parents don’t want ideology to get in the way of their children’s education

In fact, Nick Clegg really appears to have it in for ideology because he attacks it all the time. He said a couple of weeks ago:

I don’t take an ideological approach to public spending.

But it isn’t just our dear leaders trying to avoid the whiff of ideology. You hear it all the time – the Government’s cuts are “ideological” (i.e. bad), the Green Party’s opposition to nuclear is “ideological” (i.e. invalid). Just as Cameron denied the charge, Greens sometimes protest that their opposition to nuclear power isn’t ideological.

Hang on a second, aren’t they all involved in politics?

My concise Oxford English Dictionary defines ideology as:

a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy

Surely David Cameron should be guided by a system of political and economic theories and beliefs when deciding what this country’s problems are, and how to deal with them? Surely Nick Clegg’s opposition to Michael’s Gove’s policies stems in part from his ideology, and one would hope his approach to public spending would follow his liberal ideology and not whatever “commonsense” notion struck him at each meeting?

The Green Party’s opposition to nuclear power is absolutely ideological. A core tenet of the party’s ideology is putting power, be it electrical or economic, into the hands of the people, not corporations. Corporate power tends to be unaccountable, to act in its own interests, to lie and dissemble when it has done something wrong. Nuclear power can only be run either by the state or corporations, and is largely run by the latter. Another core tenet, coming from our ecological roots, is valuing diversity and resilience. Staking a very large share of our energy future on one technology supplied by a couple of companies in a dozen or so plants that need fuel from a handful of countries doesn’t seem to fit the bill. The party aims for peace and nuclear disarmament, so any move by the UK government that would put more potential weapon material into the world, and that would legitimate nuclear weapons programmes in countries like Iran, should be opposed. So the Green Party prefers a diverse mix of renewable energy technologies that can be owned by individuals, community-led companies, councils, small enterprises and, yes, big companies who build massive offshore wind farms.

To my mind, it is our ideological objections to nuclear power that are our strongest arguments. I’ve never been able to get my head around the comparative costs, and I’ve never wanted to cobble together information about safety that I don’t understand. But I don’t trust nuclear PLC as far as I can throw them, and if we can do without nuclear then I’m ideologically opposed to it.

The most infuriating example of this ideology denial is the claim that “it’s just about supply and demand”. I see this all the time on Twitter and on blogs, whenever anybody has the cheek to write something more sophisticated than an A-level economics essay.

supplyanddemand

Apart from the fact that this is extremely simplistic economics, it is also very often used in an ideological fashion. For example, you see people saying that council housing is pointless because it is just trying to buck the market, and at the end of the day the housing problem just comes down to supply and demand. People making this argument will often claim that anyone who disagrees is both “economically illiterate” and “ideological”, as though an economic theory based on the logic of a free market that has no place for public housing isn’t ideological. A variant is that the planning system must be dismantled because it gets in the way of supply and so makes house prices high, as though there is no value to the planning system and no objective for housing policy besides affordable prices on the open market.

Of course, ideology can prevent people from finding shared ground. Many blame inflexible ideology for the state of affairs in American politics, illustrated by this neat cartoon:

ideology-is-the-source-of-political-gridlock-58326

But this is a defect of the political process and the entrenched positions of politicians who depend upon their extreme wings to win primary selection. It isn’t the fault of ideology per se.

Let’s not shy away from ideology, please. Let’s not pretend we are all pragmatists arguing over the best way to manage a one-party state. Let’s talk about our values, our beliefs, the theories that guide our decisions.

Addendum

This topic came up today in a conversation with a friend, Tom Hill. He suggested that “ideological” is often used to mean that somebody is ignoring, misrepresenting or lying about evidence to protect their own ideological position, as those who are pro or anti-nuclear are known to do from time to time! The same can be true of the reverse; somebody can try to pretend they are simply acting on evidence in order to cover their ideology, as Nick Clegg and David Cameron clearly seem to be doing in the above examples.

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My politics of ecology and justice

Following my previous blog post about the Young Greens and lots of discussion with friends and fellow party members, I want to set out clearly why ecology defines my philosophical basis rather than social and environmental justice.

To avoid misunderstandings from the outset, I think social and environmental justice are important, but they don’t define my political philosophy.

The new philosophical basis of the Green Party says:

A system based on inequality and exploitation is threatening the future of the planet on which we depend, and encouraging reckless and environmentally damaging consumerism…. The Green Party is a party of social and environmental justice, which supports a radical transformation of society for the benefit of all, and for the planet as a whole.

This sounds great! What could be wrong with that? I hope I might persuade you why I don’t think it is quite right, or at least encourage more thought and debate about political philosophy and the precise meaning of different terms. Continue reading

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Who built all that housing in England?

A couple of years ago I included a chart of house building in a blog post arguing that young people shouldn’t necessarily support the removal of planning controls. The chart covered the period from 1955 to 2010, and showed that:

The only time  that the UK has seen house building match demand, and kept housing affordable, was when councils built in huge volumes from the 1950s to 1970s. If you think price bubbles are all about supply, explain the continued volatility of house prices through the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

People who want to see a massive expansion in house building can have their spirits dampened in other ways. Christopher Buckle from Savills wrote an interesting blog post suggesting that, on that house building data from the 1950s to the present day, a major boom looks very unlikely. He wrote:

If private sector housing delivery grew by 7.5% every year until 2017, a period of 7 years unbroken expansion from 2010, output would reach 133,000 new homes per year.  This would still be 10,000 new homes per year short of the average level of delivery seen over the 50 years prior to the credit crunch.  Such a sustained period of expansion has not been seen since the 1950s.

But the charts used by me and Buckle didn’t cover the 1930s, a time when private builders erected more than two million homes, almost twice as many as they managed in the 2000s and when the population was much larger.

Back to the 1930s

Those who think we need to tear up the planning system to solve our housing crisis often refer to the 1930s as a golden age. So I’ve produced a chart that goes all the way back to 1923 for homes built in England:

Who built all that housing?

I have had to combine two slightly different data sources for this. The period from 1923-1945 comes from  BR Mitchell’s Abstract of British Historical Statistics (which start in 1923), and the period from 1946-2011 from official government statistics (table 244) which also includes figures for housing associations. This is a bit naughty, but it’s the best I can do.

This shows that there was indeed an explosion of private sector house building in the 1930s, jumping from 144,505 homes in 1932 to 210,782 in the following year.

The role that councils played

But it also shows that councils were still a big force, a point made more clearly by this chart showing the proportion of the total homes built by housing associations, councils and private builders:

housing-supply-1923-2011-proportions

During the 1930s, councils still built a quarter of the homes. That rose to a whopping 73% in the 1940s (not surprising given there was a war on), 64% in the 1950s, and around 40% in the 1960s-70s. In 1997, the year Labour came back into office councils only built 0.2% of homes. Housing associations to some extent stepped into their shoes, but in the 1990s and 2000s they only built 14% of the homes.

Based on this data, and a lot of other reasons, I think there are three arguments for councils building more homes if we are to contain housing costs:

  1. These homes will be affordable to the tenants from day one, and in perpetuity, whatever happens in the market.
  2. In the twentieth century, the only periods during which we built enough homes saw a very significant role for council homes.
  3. Councils building more will expand the construction industry so introducing greater economies of scale and potentially improving skills.

A final note of caution

However, I wouldn’t want to say this is an open and shut case, nor deny I have other reasons for supporting council housing.

It is too easy to draw very simplistic conclusions, and to then make a tenuous connection in order to propose quite radical policies. This is what I think is happening with the romanticism about the 1930s suburbs.

There is a similarity between this debate and that of rent controls, in which we often make comparisons between the UK rented sector and Germany’s. It’s interesting that Germany has a very successful and highly regulated rental sector, and relevant given that Conservative, Labour and coalition governments since the 1980s have opposed those sorts of regulations. But there are many other differences between the countries. Similarly, there are many differences between the UK today and in the 1930s.

Can we have a major private housebuilding boom, as we had in the 1930s, regardless of Buckle from Savill’s gloom about the period from the 1950s to the present day? Brian Green wrote a good blog post in 2011 arguing that a 1930s housing boom seems unlikely. He wrote:

I sense a new romantic surge of interest in the notion of a private-sector-led house-building boom driving economic recovery. But… there were huge differences…

I’d recommend reading his post for his full list of reasons, I won’t quote them at length here. The gist is that in the 1930s you had a large number of new potential home buyers, plentiful cheap credit, low land costs, little demand from landlords and investors and a housing market that was very affordable. His conclusion:

It would seem that if we want a new house-building boom we will need a far more ingenious and powerful set of market prompts than promoting a greater availability of higher loan-to-value mortgages, freeing up planning and continuing to supply mortgages at low interest rates.

You can draw your own conclusions from the data I have presented, and the links to the articles by Buckle and Green.

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Young Greens for the environment

I joked a couple of days ago that I should set-up a Young Greens for the Environment grouping in the Green Party. I wasn’t being facetious, because I think there is a lack of environmentalism (or perhaps even a current of anti-environment thought) within the Young Greens (the organisation, distinct from the many Greens who are under 30).

By all reports, Young Greens were out in force at this weekend’s party conference, along with older members who have joined in recent years in search of a left-of-Labour party with realistic electoral prospects. Their scalp was a change to the party’s philosophical basis, removing clauses like this:

Life on Earth is under immense pressure. It is human activity, more than anything else, which is threatening the well-being of the environment on which we depend. Conventional politics has failed us because its values are fundamentally flawed.

And replacing them with clauses like this:

A system based on inequality and exploitation is threatening the future of the planet on which we depend, and encouraging reckless and environmentally damaging consumerism.

Leaving side various quibbles, the new clauses contain sentiments I broadly agree with. Green politics has, for a long time, had four basic principles: ecology, social justice, peace and democracy, all equally important goals.

What’s interesting is that the preamble to this policy motion went further than saying social justice is as important as ecology. It sought to “make social justice central“, asking that we “put our struggle for equality and democratic control of resources at the centre” of our politics (my emphasis).

Keeping the environment central

I am dismayed by this change.

I joined the Green Party because I think the environmental crises we are creating are the single biggest political problem we face. I want to distinguish between goals – the world we want to see – and struggles – the issues or problems we need to tackle. I think social justice, peace and democracy are equally important goals, but the raison d’être of the Green Party is surely that no other political party in England and Wales takes the struggle for the environment seriously?

If we don’t fix our environmental problems, the other concerns might as well not matter. Social justice issues like welfare reform will pale into insignificance as runaway climate change, the exhaustion of oceans and soils, the disruption of the nitrogen cycle and other growing crises all take their toll. Unlike most social justice issues, environmental crises are stuck in feedback loops that mean late or timid action fatally undermines our ability to tackle them later on; you can always build more homes in 2015 to make good on a few years of inaction, but we can’t, yet, take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere at a scale that could undo the damage of past years.

It is possible to conceive of an environmentally sound society that is socially unjust (such as many poor countries today) and of socially just societies that are environmentally unsound (such as many Latin American lefty countries, though they are of course undermining the foundations of their future prosperity). We are in politics to bring about a society that is environmentally sound, socially just, democratic and peaceful. But of all the struggles we face to achieve those goals, we must, I believe, give the environmental problems the highest priority because we live in a country in which they are the most severely neglected, and in which they pose by far the greatest threat.

One slogan I use with confidence is, “if there isn’t a Green in the room it won’t get discussed”. On occasion this is true of pay inequality, co-operative housing and alternatives to military intervention. But it is most often, and most starkly, true of environmental issues. We can and should work across a broad range of topics, but if we fail to work on environmental topics as a central concern then nobody will work on them in a serious way.

I also feel slightly queasy at the implication that the party is moving away from a deep green, ecological philosophy. The pale Green approach asks us to fix problems like pollution and resource depletion in order to build a socially just, peaceful and democratic society; the environment is important insofar as it underpins those things we really value. The deep Green approach asks that we adopt a wholly different framework, an ecological framework that sees humanity as part of nature and all of nature as inherently valuable. We struggle against pollution and resource depletion and other problems in order to realise a world with greater ecological well-being. Our understanding of social justice, democracy and peace flows from our ecological philosophy, which is central and formative. You can read more about this “ecological philosophy” here.

When we discuss policies that can be pursued by Green councillors, people without the power to overturn the basic values of the UK political system, we must be more pragmatic. For example, I don’t think it’s right to fight against housing development in regions of the UK that have severe shortages, on the grounds that we might – if in national government – begin to rebalance the UK’s economy to other regions with more empty homes and less housing stress (something I wrote about here).

But when we discuss our philosophical basis, we needn’t make this compromise.

To my mind, this new philosophical basis throws that out, and makes us a left wing party concerned with humankind that is fixing environmental problems for humankind’s benefit.

The Young Green element, or bloc

The motion vote came about in part through the emergence of something of a ‘bloc’ of Young Greens, self-identified as more left-wing, less hippyish and less deep Green than previous generations.

This first really came to my attention in a Guardian interview with Adam Ramsay[update: I should point out Adam isn't an officer or spokesperson for the Young Greens, I mention him as a prominent 'young' Green who talks up this idea of a new approach among younger members] Here is the full quote:

There are, he explains, three elements within British green politics: the kind of veteran “ecologist liberals” represented by the Greens’ London mayoral candidate Jenny Jones; more left-leaning people who joined the party towards the end of the 1980s, like their current leader Caroline Lucas; and Ramsay’s own lot: what he calls “the Iraq war generation, which blurs into the cuts generation: people who are students now”. The middle group, he says, tends to side with his faction, and the result is an increasing emphasis on such issues as inequality and the public/private balance, as well as the Green staples of sustainability and climate change. “There’s more of us now, so we win,” he says. “And in terms of ideas and energy – we run the party.”

I know Adam from our shared time as activists in People & Planet, a fantastic student campaigning organisation he now works for. I admire Adam’s energy for direct action politics, and respect his tireless work to further Green politics. Back in the day, when I was on People & Planet’s Management Committee (a kind of democratic board) we were both pushing for the organisation to campaign on workers’ rights and to take a harder, more political stance following years of slightly fuzzy trade justice work. But his interview made me think we have subsequently departed for different planets.

My first bone to pick was his description of Jenny Jones as an “ecologist liberal”, and by implication not a lefty who would pursue issues like inequality and privatisation. That is rubbish, but not a tangent I have space for here.

My second bone was the idea that there are delimited “elements” in the party. What made it even worse was that Adam was apparently suggesting some elements have taken control of the party!

I’m not in any element or faction, thank you. I’m a Green, I follow my values and the evidence to support any proposal that I think is right. Talk of factions encourages people to switch off their brains and vote en bloc, and even to start imagining that there are other factions they should oppose or undermine. This divisive attitude put me off Green Left, despite feeling I was on the left of the party when it launched.

At conferences I have voted to remove unscientific nonsense about homeopathy that was a relic of a new age form of deep Green thinking, and I have voted to strengthen private tenants’ rights in the face of concerns from older home-owning and landlord members, but I don’t identify with young or old exclusively. I would have voted against this motion.

The emergence of the pale Green bloc

Back to Adam’s quote.

Like him, I came to the Green Party following nine years of Labour’s work to wage foreign wars, privatise public services and maintain the global trade agreements that kept corporations in the business of exploiting people and planet. I came to the Greens out of admiration for our Living Wage policy, but also for our deep commitment to ecology and the recognition that pitting the environment against the economy or society is always a false choice, always an ignorance of environmental science and economics, always a mistake, and deeply out of kilter with my philosophy. I joined following years campaigning on climate change, trade justice and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and my early years coincided with the buildup to the Copenhagen conference, during which climate change was unambiguously one of the biggest campaigning issues of the day.

I can see that people five or ten years younger than me have had a different track record. I first noticed this when drawing up our manifesto for the London Mayoral and Assembly elections in May 2012. I had extended various invitations to the London Young Greens committee to meet and discuss what they would like to see, to host workshops with new young  members, and to consider whether we should write a youth section into the manifesto. My offer wasn’t taken up, and in good time I received a polished Young Green manifesto to consider. The document had lots of good ideas, but there was nothing – and I mean, nothing – about the environment. From the Young Greens!

I was pretty astonished, until I reflected on the main issues on campuses in the preceding years – student fees, cuts, anti-austerity, pay inequality. Like weather vanes, the Young Green committee in London had followed the political winds and dropped any interest in the single biggest intergenerational injustice we have to deal with – climate change – let alone other environmental issues affecting young people or the pressures on London’s environment.

This has been repeated with the national Young Green’s innovation of  their own policy platforms. The first two concern housing and economic democracy (see Google cache while their site is down). These contain lots of  great ideas, but again the environment is almost entirely absent. The one mention of environmental issues in in relation to housing and energy use, left as a single pale Green consideration, far from the deep Green heritage of the party.

Do we need Young Greens for the Environment?

I don’t really want to propose setting up another faction, a group-within-a-group. That would only add to the problems we face.

I’d prefer to believe that we are really all on the same page, and that we can find ways to bring ecology back to the fore in the coming years.

I would like to think there are fellow Greens aged 30 and under who still think that ecology is a central concern; who think that it is, of all our core values, the one we most urgently need to struggle for given that it is the only one comprehensively ignored by the other four national parties; and who are also concerned at these signs that their peers seem to be downgrading ecology, either deliberately or by omission. Fellow Greens who recognise the need at times to present ecology in terms of social justice, and to give social justice and democracy greater prominence in our day to day work, but who still feel that ecology is paramount.

Join me! Or tell me what I’m missing…

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Ben Goldacre’s Bad Evidence

Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre’s interesting programme on evidence-based policy making went out yesterday evening. Like so much of his work, I found myself alternately agreeing vigorously and disagreeing in exasperation. The trouble is not what he does say, but what he doesn’t.

His central argument is a familiar one.

In medicine, scientists determine what works using randomised controlled trials. Give one set of patients a pill, give another set a placebo, and see what difference the pill makes. Do this lots of times, trying to control for confounding variables (like the participants’ lifestyles) and if possible make it “double blind” by ensuring neither the participants nor the researchers conducting the test know which group anyone is in.

This method gives us a high degree of certainty that some pills work while others don’t, or do so less well. It is far superior to simply acting on a hunch, monitoring a particular outcome and then assuming it was a result of your pill, without checking whether it might have been some other variable you haven’t considered and controlled.

So why can’t this method be applied to public policy? Why do we subject children to educational methods, the unemployed to work programmes, and criminals to rehabilitation methods that lack this rigorous evidence?

It’s a good question, and I completely agree with him that it would be good to do this more to weed out the “bad evidence” that informs so many policies. I’ve been supporting Jenny Jones in her scrutiny of the Mayor of London’s mandatory work experience pilot, which seems bedevilled by bad evidence, never mind whether it might be wasting the time of young people suffering in a very difficult jobs market and now feeling punished for it.

I felt sufficiently strongly about our approach to policy making to include several proposals in the Green Party’s manifesto for the 2012 London Mayoral and Assembly elections (PDF).

But there is also a danger that evidence arrived at through rigorous research could become “bad evidence” if it were applied technocratically.

For what Goldacre’s radio programme ignored, inexplicably, is the normative element of policy. He talked about “outcomes”, but how do we define a good outcome? It might seem obvious – stop a criminal reoffending, get a young person back into work. But it isn’t that simple.

It might be the case that one particular approach to criminal justice is more effective than another, but it might be considered unjust. What if we found that all forms of punishment led to higher reoffending rates? Should we drop our long-held belief in the moral right of punishment in favour of better “outcomes”? This is a normative, moral question – short of brushing it aside we cannot ignore the role of normative considerations.

Both the present and previous governments went for “workfare” schemes where unemployed people lose their benefits if they refuse to take up work placements. One of the supposed outcomes of this policy is that more people get work as a result. My reading  of the evidence for these suggests they don’t. But proponents also make a normative claim that it is right to make people work for their benefits, especially if they haven’t worked for a long time, if at all. On the other side, some (myself included) think that a compassionate and wealthy society such as ours can extend a universal right to a basic standard of living and shouldn’t impose conditions on those basic benefits.

Goldacre didn’t say that evidence should trump political philosophy. But the two can often get confused in political debate. Politicians can lose the courage of their convictions and feel compelled to assert that evidence supports their case, when they began sure only of their convictions. Opposition can often feel that a policy must be “wrong” because the evidence shows it doesn’t achieve the outcome they would think right, perhaps ignoring the different view of a “right outcome” held by the Government.

It isn’t sufficient to consider these points in isolation – to, on the one hand, ascertain the evidence about the outcomes of a particular policy, and on the other to have one’s normative beliefs entirely in parallel, and to then attempt to reconcile (or more likely confuse) them in the murky world of political debate. Normative and empirical considerations must inform each other.

Another very interesting series on Radio 4, Melvyn Bragg’s examination of “the value of culture“, included a very good programme today on the old “two cultures” debate most famously expressed by C. P. Snow. He was concerned in the 1950s that artists weren’t assimilating the advances of science, and vice versa, to the detriment of both, and to the point where both “parallel cultures” viewed each other with suspicion. Instead of seeking to bridge the gap through understanding and engagement, they preached at each other. Goldacre’s programme  would have been much improved if he had engaged with both the empirical and the normative.

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Two false hopes that won’t solve London’s housing crisis

Darren Johnson has issued a report arguing that building new homes can’t solve London’s housing crisis alone. He suggests the Mayor should consider other solutions including smart regulations for the private rented sector, taxing land values and setting up land auctions.

But there are two policies you won’t see in his list. Two policies that Greens often bring up in discussions about housing. I wanted to take some time this evening to explain why I think we should talk about them a little less, and in a very different light.

Before I launch in, I would heartily recommend this blog entry by Liz Emerson as an overview of the sources of our housing crisis, to give an idea of why we need to act. The Green Party’s policy platform is chock-full of good ideas to rectify this, but when it comes to building new homes I think Greens sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the argument, and sometimes put forward two ideas that frankly aren’t good enough.

I have to make clear – while I worked with Darren on his report I am writing this blog entry in a personal capacity, and this should in no way be taken as reflecting Darren’s views, those of my employer the GLA or of the Green Party.

I also have to make clear that this blog is about London. The national picture is bound to be quite different, but I think many of the basic points still hold.

We should use empty homes before building new ones

The claim runs as follows: there are lots of empty homes in London, we should be making better use of them before building new homes.

Thr problem: It’s true that there are lots of empty homes in London, and that it would be good if we could make use of them. But there aren’t nearly enough to make new housebuilding unnecessary. Not even close.

The latest figures from Empty Homes show that there were 74,811 empty homes in November 2011. But of those, only 29,540 were empty for more than six months. A home empty for a shorter period of time could well be in the middle of renovation or waiting for tenants. So fewer than 1% of homes in London are empty for long periods of time – not very many, is it?

Empty homes are also often quite hard to bring into use. They can be in a bad way, on housing estates awaiting demolition, or owned by some grumpy absentee landlord. Councils, the Mayor and the Government all try to solve these problems, and they could definitely try harder. Our 2012 manifesto pledged to:

Set up a clearing house to offer all publicly owned derelict land to Community Land Trusts and to make all suitable publicly-owned empty homes available to self-help co-operatives to bring them back into short-life or permanent use.

But it would be a tall order to bring every last empty home into use, and to stop any more becoming empty for more than six months.

What’s more, the experts who advised the Government and the Mayor on housing need recommended that we need between 33,100 and 44,700 homes every year for twenty years just to deal with overcrowding and stabilise house prices. So those 29,540 long-term empty homes would deliver at most one year’s supply, leaving at least another 630,000 homes to build over the following nineteen years.

We should re-balance the UK away from London

The policy claim: there are another 250,000 long-term empty homes elsewhere in the UK, and if prices in London are so overcooked because it’s where all the jobs are, then we should give other regions a big economic boost to re-balance the nation.  This way lots of people would move away to Plymouth, Preston and Perth, the market would settle down in London and the south east and we could make better use of the housing stock elsewhere.

The first problem with this argument is that there is already quite a large net flow of people out of London. This diagram from the GLA’s strategic housing market assessment neatly illustrates the point:

The need for housing isn’t coming from job-hungry Yorkshiremen, but from Londoners having lots of babies at a faster rate than people are dying, and from a large net migration from outside the UK. This has changed slightly during the recession for various interesting reasons, but the basic direction of movement remains. A lot of those people leaving are retired, or moving out to commuter towns to raise families. So in fact we would need to persuade even more people to leave London to seek work elsewhere, persuade Londoners not to have so many children, and persuade far more international migrants to settle elsewhere.

The second problem is that these very big changes are far beyond the wit of the Mayor of London and local councils. We can certainly talk about these big trends and our ideas for the national Government. But when the Conservative or Labour government continues to fail to grapple with these trends, we have to be ready to say what we would do if elected in Camden, Lewisham and Bromley. It’s not good enough to throw up our hands and complain about the Government’s economic strategy.

Sticking to the facts

We can definitely say we should do more to bring empty homes back into use, and to re-balance the UK’s economy to boost the north, west, Wales and Scotland. I don’t agree with those who tend to write these ideas off because they are so fixed on new housing supply being the silver bullet. There is no silver bullet, Darren’s work shows that in no uncertain terms. We need every good idea we can get.

But we cannot pretend that they would be sufficient to meet London’s chronic housing need and that they are therefore a reason not to build new homes. Doing so makes us as guilty as those who pretend we can solve climate change and carry on flying more and more if we just build some nuclear power stations and insulate our lofts. We know that the facts don’t support the waffly half-hearted policies of other parties on climate change, so we should be sure that the facts support our policies on housing.

There are often issues with new housing developments. They can be on unsuitable land that should be protected for farming (or they can be on useless pony fields for little princesses); they can be low density car-dependent suburbs (or smart extensions with good transport links); they can feature too little affordable housing (or at least get some built in areas that desperately need it). But we must build housing in parts of the country where the need for housing is greater than the stock available. The social and economic costs are so severe that it should be one of our highest priorities to ensure this happens.

We needn’t be slaves to the market – we can advocate building council and co-operative housing for example – but we also cannot be the party of wealthy elderly councillors blocking housing needed by younger constituents as the Integenerational Foundation has warned.

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Rothamsted: things I’ve learned, things I want to know

In the days since I wrote my first blog post on the Rothamsted GM wheat controversy I’ve spent more time reading up on GM than in the past nine years. It’s been a tortuous few days for me. As a big fan of the Bad Science movement who was loosely involved with improving the Green Party’s science policy; as the author of the 2012 London manifesto on which Jenny Jones and others stood, and somebody who has put a lot of my life in the last four years into helping her achieve great things on the London Assembly and Southwark Council; and as somebody who slightly sits on the fence on the GM debate; I’ve found myself agreeing with all quarters.

On the eve of the protest I thought I’d put down a few more thoughts following the debate.

There is a lot of nonsense from all quarters (but it’s not the end of the world)

The Sense About Science petition really took off because Take The Flour Back appeared to carry a number of misleading or false scientific statements on their web site. For example, wheat isn’t wind pollinated, as they claim. It looked like an open and shut case of Bad Science, one that many anti-GM campaigners remain unwilling to accept or engage with.

Robert Wilson sent me a particularly egregious case of mendacious attacks on GM. This report, signed by major environmental organisations and hosted by Friends of the Earth, makes repeated mention of the tragic suicide rate amongst Indian farmers and the adoption, post 2001, of GM crops. Yet when the report was published in October 2011 there appears to be plenty of research showing that hypothesis has been debunked. It’s slapdash at best, irresponsible and appallingly disrespectful at worst, to repeat this theory if it is false, and is typical of the approach that too many anti-GM campaigners seem to take.

But then the Rothamsted researchers, ably assisted by a remarkable online campaign from Sense About Science, went too far in debunking that claim. One of their researchers (I think it was Prof. John Pickett) went onto BBC news to say there was “zero” risk of contamination. This contradicts his statement to the Telegraph that it is possible but unlikely. Their claim that wheat is only “1% self-pollinating” also looks suspect when you consider that this EU-funded public information web site states the risk is up to 9.7% depending on climate and the type of what. The researchers have certainly put in place safeguards. But perhaps any risk is too great?

Too often campaigners on any issue can be their own worst enemy.

The “pro science” tweeters have also been willfully naive and amazingly one-sided on a number of issues…

Contamination

Tom Chivers of the Telegraph quoted Prof. Pickett verbatim on the risk of contamination without once asking whether he is telling the full story. Tweeters haven’t stopped for breath to examine the protestors’ concerns about a 1% chance of contamination, or their claims that it has happened elsewhere. Their “safeguard” of crops planted around the site which they’ll destroy is only 20m wide.

You don’t have to dig very far to find cases of contamination where risks were downplayed (example one, two, three) and with very serious consequences for farmers whose livelihoods were threatened.

Maybe this small chance really is too big a risk to take? I’ve not reached a firm conclusion on this, but too much of the unhesitating support given to one group of scientists never really engaged with this question.

Patents

They have also failed to engage critically with the issue of patents. Yes, the researchers say this stage of research will be openly published patent-free. But in Farmers Weekly Prof. Pickett is quoted as saying that “companies are very interested and they are keeping a watching brief as they always do in all research”, that “this is of global, great significance and it could be that we generate very good intellectual property for commercial development in the interests of the UK and European agriculture and business”. Rothamsted are in the business of licensing patents.

My objections to biopatents are so strong that I do not see the value to humanity of any scientific research that is likely to be applied in the field in the form of patent-encumbered crops controlled by multinational corporations. I am always happy for scientists to do their thing, to probe questions of interest to them without reference to anyone else. But until we can invalidate patents on plants I would not give a penny of public money to research that is clearly leading to a commercial patent-encumbered product.

The silver bullet

There is a tendency among some people who care about science to believe technology is a silver bullet. Any cursory study of the history of technology will quickly unearth a more complicated picture. Just as anti-GM campaigners can overstep evidence when they suggest there is absolutely no need for GM anywhere, so it is daft to think GM is a silver bullet and essential to our future food security.

GreenFacts have an official summary of a major 2008 World Bank study, in which over 400 experts looked at options to secure our future food supplies. The full study was called the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development. It’s a very good place to start if you want to understand the place of GM.

They concluded should be part of the solution. But they also think that dealing with problems with patents, land ownership and many other issues need to be part of the picture.

Sense About Science

I feel I should withdraw my public statement of respect for Sense About Science. I have seen them do some good work in the past on libel reform, debunking the rubbish celebrities come out with about homeopathy, and so on. But the way in which they swiftly launched this campaign on behalf of the research project did seem a bit suspect.

I was pointed to this LobbyWatch page on their background and some startling allegations made in The Ecologist. It’s difficult to make sense of this, and to pick out slander from truth, but it is clear that they launched head first into a highly biased campaign without bothering to explore the science or the wider issues. Instead they just gave a platform to the scientists involved in the research project.

It’s a shame that the material posted on their web site has been accepted at face value by many who are highly critical of materials posted by the protestors.

Anti-science?

One of the most depressing charges made against the Green Party is as follows: Jenny Jones, a prominent Green politician, is going to a demonstration that will attempt to damage a scientific research project. Therefore the Green Party is anti-science.

This is just simplistic nonsense. If you are really against all forms of non-violent direction action that involve damage to property; if you really think allegedly dangerous or unethical scientific research should be able to proceed without any interference from politicians or the public; then you may think Jenny are “anti-science” in a limited sense.

But Jenny hasn’t gone around destroying the many other GM research projects in the UK. The Green Party is fine with research, but in the case of this particular open air trial Jenny – and many others – think they have reasonable evidence that it is unsafe and so think it better to stop it going ahead than to sit back and wait to see if the disaster of contamination takes place.

Another possible charge is that in reprinting scientifically inaccurate statements, the party is anti-science. But that’s equally daft. It just shows the party hasn’t got sufficient processes to weed out these statements, and perhaps subscribes to some ideas that it needs to drop. Being wrong about the science doesn’t equate to being anti-science.

The Green Party, like any loose association of likeminded people, is bound to accommodate a wide variety of views. When journalists dug up scientifically inaccurate material in our policy documents a few years ago, we took steps to address that. No doubt this recent debate will reverberate through conferences and policy discussions for the next year or two. Like all political parties with strong principles and beliefs that overlap with areas of scientific controversy, we have a complicated relationship with scientific evidence. That isn’t going to change, not for us or any other political party.

Twitter is a blessing and a curse

There is no way the pro-Rothamsted campaign would have taken off without blogs and Twitter. It was quite startling to watch. It’s a fantastic thing that a niche group of people can mobilise and gain the attention of politicians, mainstream media and their targets online. Cyclists have fully mastered this in recent years, and scientists aren’t far behind (though in their aggressive and shouty tactics many scientists are managing to achieve very little if they want to persuade people of their case).

But just as tweeters dug up and circulated interesting evidence, so allegations and misleading representations swirled around at lightning speed. Reasoned debate became almost completely impossible as the numbers of pro-Rothamsted tweeters overwhelmed the few who joined Jenny in trying to defend the protest.

Sometimes there’s no substitute for a slower, more calm debate.

Two questions I have

In all my reading and debate, two remaining questions are going round and round in my mind:

1. Why can’t GM researchers adopt a kind of “copyleft for patents”?

Dan Olner and Susannah Bird penned a very interesting open letter on the patent issue making exactly the comparison I had in mind. In the world of software, programmers who didn’t like the way that corporations were shutting people out from sharing and modifying their software created a parallel universe. They wrote copyright licenses that said “you can do what you want with this so long as you share any derived versions under the same terms”.

Richard Stallman, the original author of such a license, is a bit of a hero of mine. I’ve exclusively used free software shared under these “copyleft” terms for over ten years.

Maybe GM researchers could try a similar trick? Rather than publishing research without patents, leaving corporations to snap it up for their own nefarious ends, how about patenting your work and releasing it under a copyleft license? This would enable fellow scientists, farmers and others to freely use the work, and it would force corporations to play under the same public good terms if they wanted to use it.

2. Can anyone resolve the contamination issue?

My problem here is again my lack of expertise and background knowledge. There are many cases of GM crop contamination from around the world. Some were clearly irrelevant to this case, for example I came across a case where a farmer failed to remove GM crops before planting a new crop in the same field. Others may be irrelevant, for example the cases of rice contamination may hinge on a biological trait that wheat doesn’t share. But maybe some of the cases are relevant, and it is possible that this GM wheat trial could contaminate nearby fields.

Oh, great lazyweb, help me out?

In conclusion

I could go on, but it’s sunny outside and I don’t want this story to swallow up my weekend.

As Sunny Hundal wrote on The Guardian web site,

Every political party has to weigh up a range of interests that sometimes conflict with each other… The challenge for scientists isn’t to merely focus on what the evidence says. It is also to convince the public that their suggested course of action is the right one, even when the public is sceptical for perfectly valid reasons.

It’s fantastic that the protest has stirred up so much debate. I only hope that everyone who took an interest really takes the time to consider all the arguments before slamming politicians as “disgusting”, tearing up their party membership in outrage, writing all GM scientists off as corporate stooges or thinking campaigners are always the good guys.

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The Rothamsted Wheat Trial (should Greens trash it?)

Genetically modified food is one of those subjects that’s not known for reasoned debate. The public and anti-campaigners are often spooked by the Frankenstein weirdness of splicing genes without really understanding the science. Scientists and proponents are often convinced of the science while hastily dismissing wider social, economic and environmental considerations.

As policy officer for the London region and author of our recent London elections manifesto it’s not a topic that I often cross paths with.

I’ve a personal interest as I spoke against GM at one of the national debate events organised in 2003. I was an undergraduate student at the time, and spoke at my university – Reading – against some eminent scientists. I’m pretty sure 99% of the science I drew on in my argument was probably junk. I remain persuaded by many of the wider arguments I deployed, but like too many campaigners I cobbled together a bunk of “science” I didn’t really understand to try and back up my point. I’m embarrassed thinking what the audience must have made of me!

The Rothamsted Wheat Trial has stirred my memory of this issue, as a group of anti-GM activists called Take the Flour Back are planning to trash (or “decontaminate”) this scientific research project.

It has also given me another personal interest, because Jenny Jones is going to join them. I greatly admire Jenny and have worked with her for years in the Green Party, both in my job and as an activist. She has taken lots of flak on Twitter from scientists and scientifically-minded people for joining in direct action to damage a scientific experiment.

So what should I think? This is my take as somebody who is very far from being an expert on the issue, in the hope that it might help fellow Greens in forming an opinion.

The experiment

What do I, somebody who never advanced past GCSE biology (with some A-Level maths and physics), know about GM research projects? Thankfully Sense About Science have done a great job in pulling together some analysis of the science, albeit with quite an obvious agenda.

The campaign group’s main worry appears to be that the plants will contaminate nearby fields. Their web site claims that “Wheat is wind-pollinated. In Canada similar experiments have leaked into the food-chain costing farmers millions in lost exports.”

But Sense About Science got the scientists involved to answer lots of questions on this issue. The campaigners’ claim appears to be junk, though it’s interesting to note that the scientists don’t say they can guarantee no seeds will be carried away by birds, nor that no wheat at all will cross-pollinate (they leave open a 1% chance, which in a field of wheat may not be negligible). So a claim by one scientists on today’s lunchtime news that there is “zero chance” of contamination is clearly wrong.

[Update: a colleague also sent me this page on an EU-funded public information web site, which suggests that - depending on the wheat's genotype and the local climate - the chance of cross-pollination could be anywhere between 1-9.7%, suggesting some of the scientists are misleading the public when they so categorically deny the chance of contamination.]

Another point is that the campaigners would presumably struggle to contain any risk of contamination from a bunch of untrained activists turning up to trash the crop, potentially carrying seeds and other plant material out from the trial area.

Green Party policy

Far from being anti-science, as some seem to think, the Green Party’s policy on science has really been quite strong for a number of years. Junk like homeopathy was excised a number of years ago, while in areas like climate change and drugs we have long been the only party to take an evidence-based approach.

On GM the policy is fairly sound. It says:

  • We accept that certain uses of genetic engineering may be benign, but are concerned about the level of research to quantify risks and about the level of corporate control over farmers and health services which this research generally feeds into;
  • We’re in favour of research going ahead;
  • The precautionary principle should be applied – basically that in the absence of consensus the burden of proof for showing it won’t be harmful falls on the researchers; without sufficient proof, nothing goes ahead because the suspected risk outweighs the suspected benefit;
  • Some points on animal welfare not relevant to wheat trials.

So the Green Party should be supporting this research project so long as the researchers can prove that the possible harms have been properly controlled.

The wider issues

Sense About Science also asked the scientists to respond to people’s wider concerns about commercialisation. The scientists also raised this at the end of the page about cross-pollination. Here, to my mind, the weaker arguments start to creep in. For example,

Question: What is the widest held misconception about GM research?

Answer: That it’s somehow all controlled by big multinational companies. Most GM research is done in universities or by independent institutes”

The thing is, while it’s important to defend the scientific method as a means of testing and falsifying hypotheses, or as a way of rigorously working through research programmes, or impartially developing a current scientific paradigm (take your pick), the scientists in the Q&A seem to take a wilfully naive view of commercial interests. Going back to my debate at Reading, their department was sponsored by Syngenta, as was Cambridge in the UK and Berkeley in the USA. Many academic scientists have patents themselves, have spun out their own companies and work closely with large agricorp like Monsanto and Syngenta.

Too often these links seem to close some scientists’ minds to the possibility that these companies might be psychopathic in their pathology, as Joel Bakan has convincingly argued (read the book). Research may not be controlled by multinational corporations, but it is definitely influenced in a way familiar to philosophers and sociologists of science who have long been aware of the bias and influence that can creep into the very human world of scientific research.

Or take this answer:

Question: Presumably GM crops will become commercially owned and create shareholder profits. What about the ethics of patenting life?

Answer: The seeds business is commercial; seed companies that are not go out of business. The patents apply not to “life” but to genes that have been discovered or changed to do something useful, or at least, something that farmers find helpful. Such genes include those for insect resistance, drought tolerance and those that facilitate weed control by herbicides.

Here the scientist totally falls to engage with the question, passing no comment on the ethics at all.

There is huge opposition to agricorp influence, particularly in the developing world (here’s one example) where patents and monocultures and driving poverty, inequality and food insecurity.

When I spoke at the national debate this was my main focus – until biopatents are made invalid by the World Intellectual Property Organisation and all signatory nations (which is Green Party policy); until farmers and governments are able to control their own agriculture free of multinational corporations; until the many other arms of corporate control are shackled, freeing peasant farmers and national governments to control their own policy agenda; and until research is primarily conducted in universities and research institutes free of any commercial influence; I will oppose the commercial applications of GM research.

Scientists can’t dodge these issues, and while scientific research is in no way to blame it would be better to see advocates of GM research engage with these concerns. It’s great that Sense About Science did, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with the scientists’ responses.

Summing up

It’s a matter of personal conscience whether it is morally right to engage in direct action to damage the research project. I’ve engaged in plenty of direct action myself and have no problem with people committing criminal damage so long as it is non-violent, they are prepared to face the legal consequences and have a genuine political or ethical reason for doing so.

Personally, subject to the contamination issues being cleared up I don’t think the action is justified. I’m not 100% convinced by the scientists’ responses to the contamination concerns, but it seems to me that if we cannot allow this research to go ahead then we really are adopting an anti-science position.

I remain a supporter of the European ban on the sale of GM foods for the reasons I gave above, but I am also a supporter of scientific research.

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Green doesn’t need to mean gentrification

Jim Gleeson has an interesting blog entry about the consequences of making a city more liveable. In short, there is a danger that making an area more liveable can price out lower income people. By reducing air pollution and generally improving the local environment in more deprived areas,  richer people will start to move in displacing the people who should have benefitted.

His prescription is more housing supply to accompany environmental improvements. But we need to think a bit more carefully about this to get the medicine right for places like London.

As he points out, the economic benefits of making an area more desirable will largely go to existing home owners and landlords as the value of the land, and therefore the rent they can charge, increases. Lower income people will be forced to move, presumably (according to Jim’s argument) to less liveable areas. Council and housing association tenants who are secure in their homes gain a nicer environment, but they have no direct stake in the increased value of the land their homes sit on.

Building more homes as Jim suggests could help to keep prices down, meaning less of a windfall gain for land owners and possibly more stable rents. But in practice, due to London’s policy of “mixed and balanced communities”, deprived areas tend to see council housing demolished and replaced overwhelmingly with housing for sale in order to “balance out” the social “mix” of people in the area. There’s no way anyone with an average income and average wealth would be able to buy a new flat in most areas of London on the open market.

The flats will be bought by wealthier-than-average people, and probably many then let on the private market, with a good number of those subsidised by housing benefit. So while more supply might dampen the economic consequences of making an area more liveable, and while it might spread the wealth a little more widely, the economic benefits will still mostly go to wealthier people.

You would need to increase house building across London to 50% higher than Boris Johnson’s aspirational target just to stabilise prices. It would be interesting to know whether there is enough spare land and available development finance to raise supply levels high enough in order to gradually reduce prices so that the benefits of new homes would be principally accrued by ordinary Londoners.

But there are other ways in which we can reduce unequal access to nice local environments while maintaining or reducing levels of economic inequality. Housing supply is undoubtedly part of the picture, but policies need to be a bit more sophisticated to achieve this aim.

One simple policy would be to try to build lots more council housing in wealthier areas that already enjoy high environmental quality. That would require a government to reinstate an adequate housing capital budget; the new budget for London in 2011-15 is two-thirds lower than than the budget for 2008-11!

Another would be to ensure all the new housing is put into the control of a Community Land Trust, which owns the land and so can keep homes permanently affordable. Members of the Trust, usually a co-operative, use any rise in land values to benefit the local community and not private individuals. To date, there is only one example of this in London – Coin Street. Despite valiant efforts and credible plans from various other communities, the HCA, GLA and government have done little to make this concept happen.

A third more radical solution – radical as in dealing with the root of the problem (from radix, Latin for ‘root’) – would be to bring back taxation on land. Winston Churchill and Lloyd George both tried, and failed, to do this at the turn of the 20th century. They were blocked by wealthy landowners in the Lords, whose ancestors got rid of them as the power of the Crown diminished.

We have a tax system that raises income off hard work and consumer goods, and that leaves people to rake in huge gains from increases in land values and capital gains with comparatively little or no tax. If we brought back “schedule A” taxes, land values wouldn’t rise so much, the benefits could be clawed back for investment in affordable housing, all local residents could therefore benefit including council tenants, and people might be encouraged to invest their savings in productive stocks and shares rather than dead bricks and mortar.

These solutions have all been applied in the not-too-distant past. But as with the debate over the National Planning Policy Framework, they seem to get overlooked in simplistic debates over false choices like “housing supply vs. conservation”.

Jim’s post is much more sophisticated, looking at the relationship between environmental improvements and the housing market. But his prescription – more supply – needs to be equally sophisticated to ensure that we deliver environmental and social justice side by side.

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Why Ed should take a leaf out of the Green book

When I read the New Political Economy Network’s excellent pamphlet called ‘Britain’s Broken Economy’, my first thought was “that sounds just like our election manifesto, like the Green New Deal”. I span that thought out into this article for Bright Green Scotland… have a read and pass on to any Labour folk you happen to know.

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