Wednesday, January 24, 2007

BNP's Beacon track

With the Beacon & Bents ward in their sights, BNP activists are trying to draw in more voters. BNP top man Nick Griffin goose-stepped into South Shields and was seen leafleting along with local BNP stormtroopers, among them Regional Secretary and former National Front member Ken Booth. In an apparent attempt to move into 'respectable' politics, the party having allegedly "undergone major changes in the last few years to improve its image", the BNP is eager for portrayal as both anodyne and proactive, attempting to annexe the 'working class' as it's own heartland. But this soothing image is all a lie.

Possibly Griffin would like us all to forget his previous ode to democracy: "The electors of Millwall did not back a Post-Modernist Rightist Party, but what they perceived to be a strong, disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan 'Defend Rights for Whites' with well-directed boots and fists. When the crunch comes, power is the product of force and will, not of rational debate."

However, I'm sure that many of the BNP's coprophilic supporters will claim that was in all the past and point out to us that Things Are Different Now. Okay then. To get a real feel of this new image of the BNP, we should look closely at what they've been up to lately, and shockingly, it includes a remarkable diversity of assault, fraud and general dishonesty. A peruse of 'white power' website Stormfront fills in the gaps to give enough flavour of what the BNP is all about.

So no real change in BNP attitudes there then, a kind of 'BNP's not Working'.

Nevertheless, on his jackboot tour of Beacon & Bents 'Commandant' Griffin was quite positive, saying, "We are getting a great deal of support on the doorsteps in the area, so we're hoping for a breakthrough at the next election."

But apparently the breakthrough doesn't include the honesty and openness of it's own members though, as one BNP volunteer didn't want to be identified 'because he was a social worker'. Whether the BNP volunteer was ashamed of being a BNP canvasser or a social worker is hard to tell, but if the BNP's own foot soldiers can't bring themselves to be publicly associated with the party, then why should voters?

Monday, January 15, 2007

A Little Haven for the environment

South Shields MP David Miliband chaired Friday's climate change conference, which was kindly sponsored by Nexus, and Mr M has promised another conference in a year's time. Mr Miliband, who described doing nothing about climate change as "playing Russian Roulette with the Earth", proved an excellent chairman, and gamely took snipes about government inaction over climate change and Tony Blair's addiction to air travel. He started with the ethical high ground, accepting that the UK had an obligation to lead the way in climate change as "the richer you are, the more you contribute to the problem."

After Mr Miliband's introduction first up was Bernard Garner, the Director General of Tyne and Wear transport organiser Nexus. His main thrust was that to meet the challenges of not just global warming, but also congestion and sustainability. Public transport needed more investment and more regulation, and he pointed to the success of London's regulated public transport system as an example.

Then Tony Juniper, Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth gave an impassioned and inspiring talk, putting climate change in the context of people. Global warming wasn't just about temperatures and hockey stick graphs or economic reports on the cost/benefit of combating climate change. It was people's lives - massive food shortages due to environmental degradation and climatic instability. Mass migration and the inevitable social impacts.

He built upon Mr Miliband's suggestion of the UK's moral obligation to lead the way, as "we enjoy the benefits of a society which is built upon fossil fuels, the impacts of which being reason we are here today. It's not fair to expect developing nations not to want that, and as a nation we are rich enough to help these countries enjoy their own industrial revolutions, but built upon clean renewable energy. At the same time the UK will be reaping the economic benefits and advantages of being innovators in sustainable development."

In a nod to Tyneside's industrial heritage, Mr Juniper said that we could harness local shipbuilding skills (what's left of them anyway) to form the basis of "a massive development in our marine renewable energy resources".

I have a correction to make. In my previous post I stated that Woking council had achieved a 77 per cent cut in CO2 emissions. When Woking council's Chief Executive Ray Morgan got up to speak next, he announced that during his time at Woking:

- CO2 emissions have been cut by 82 percent
- energy consumption have been cut by 52 percent
- sustainable energy generation has increased by 82 per ent
- self generated energy (heat and power) has increased by 11 percent

All of these changes have not had a negative impact on local council tax bills.

We know that South Tyneside Council is doing very little (a target of only 5 percent reduction over five years) but Woking's achievements illustrate that, as Ray Morgan put it, "climate change is not just a challenge - it's an opportunity". Sadly, no officer from South Tyneside council raised any comments during the Q&A sessions.

Finally, Chris Bywell, Head of Innovation & Integration at One North East got up to speak. Despite his apparent enthusiasm for sustainable business and decoupling growth from emissions (straight from the green handbook), no one was convinced with his assertion that North East business was environmentally sustainable. He failed to solve the contradiction between North East business demands for more road space and the inevitable additional emissions that more cars filling that space would bring.

One of the main themes of comments from the floor (and Mr Morgan) was that government wasn't taking enough action, failing to provide councils and business with an adequate framework and objectives. The planning system will go to pot under the Barker Report (Mr Morgan's point) and the government was ignoring the warnings of the Stern Report. Fortunately the over-used 'hot air' analogy wasn't used too much.

The final question of the conference took us back to the moral and ethical theme, but not quite as I suspect as Mr Miliband expected. The question, from a young woman from Apna Ghar, hung in the air, unanswered. It was deceptively simple and naive but was full of power, because it brought us back to the most human part of the debate. Why does the government "sponsor an arms industry which brings so much death and misery, and contributes so much to environmental destruction."

The same could be said for the government's support for road building, airport expansion and it's failure so far to reduce the UK's emissions. Why?

Hopefully next year we won't need to ask these questions.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Time to stop drifting like a cork on the river

The location of the conference on climate change in South Shields on Friday 12th January reminded me of something that Edward de Bono said about feeling powerless. That feeling of pointlessness that leads to apathy and inaction. At South Shields riverside's Little Haven Hotel, the conference will hopefully not just be a talking shop for 'people of note', but will provide some motivation for South Tyneside Council.

The conference will feature a very special speaker. Not Friends of the Earth gaffer Tony Juniper; not mild mannered MP Mr Miliband (but they'll be there too); but Woking council's chief executive Ray Morgan. He was one of the drivers behind Woking council's 77 per cent cut in CO2 emissions, and his council's achievement is proof that major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can be made, even by councils working on their own initiative. Other councils have also done really well, such as Kirklees and Aberdeen, showing that with the right combination of ambition, initiative and urgency, councils can have an important role not just in reducing emissions, but as champions of sustainability.

South Tyneside Council, with it's feeble emission reduction target of only 5 per cent over 5 years, could gain a lot from Mr Morgan's advice, even if it's just to learn to say 'It can be done!' and be more ambitious in challenging climate change.

However, it's not just our council that should take something positive from what councils like Woking have achieved. Mr Miliband regularly reminds us that everyone has a role in reducing CO2 emissions. He's right.

As Edward de Bono said,"Everyone can be constructive in tiny ways".

Monday, January 08, 2007

Fish 'n' Chips, Miliband slips?

In South Shields MP David Miliband's dismissal of organic food as a"lifestyle choice" is he really missing the point about organic farming?

The Sunday Times covered Mr M's interview in South Shields fish and chip shop Colman's, which apparently uses "wild fish from sustainable fishing grounds". He was quoted as saying that for organic food, in health terms "there isn’t any evidence either way that’s conclusive." That doesn't mean there's no positive health benefit, just that there hasn't been enough research in this area. It would take a brave government to fund such research. It would no doubt cause consternation to the agri-chemical industry and giant farming concerns who do well out of unsustainable farming practices. There's no worry for them though, as Mr Miliband's DEFRA has been cutting it's agricultural research budget.

However, considering the regular discoveries of pesticide residues on supermarket fruit and veg, his claim is reminiscent of views held by climate change deniers poo-pooing man's effect on the environment and tobacco companies rubbishing the links between smoking and cancer. Or indeed those who denied the links between BSE and CJD.

His comments paint environmental issues as a consumer choice. This is only partly right. Many people view choosing organic as a serious concern and an obligation to ensure safety for farmers and themselves by mostly eliminating the chemical element in their food, and try to instill some kind of respect for the livestock which provides them with their meat and dairy products.

The alternative to organic, the current "conventional" is a food industry which has brought us salmonella, BSE and foot and mouth. The same industry is also responsible for the pollution of water supplies, the destruction of farmland biodiversity, the regular poisoning of farmworkers and the 'blooms' of lung diseases at spraying time.

The cynic in me asks, could it simply be an attempt by Mr M to target his response to the Time's traditionally environmentally sceptic audience? Possibly; every ministerial statement is carefully judged for effect and he would have known his opinion on organic farming would be closely scrutinised, at least by green groups, hence the essentially ambiguous phrasing. He could always fall back on his nod to sustainable farming at last year's Royal Show when he asked farmers to develop "one planet farming which minimises the impact on the environment".

There's a certain whiff of irony in Mr Miliband's choice of a 'sustainable fish and chip shop' as a venue for his comments about sustainable farming. Mr Miliband will be speaking at a climate conference this Friday at the Littlehaven Hotel. It will be interesting to see if anyone asks him if he enjoys the organic food on offer.

However, his statement sounds most like the cautious business-friendly noises you would expect from a DTI or Treasury minister rather than an environment minister. Perhaps Mr Miliband's comments could be saying more about positioning for a future ministerial seat in a Brown government than his understanding of organic farming?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A drowning man will catch a straw

South Tyneside's loosely formed coalition group of independent councillors and hopefuls are watching the start of the slow wind up to the forthcoming May local elections, heralded by the growth in touchy feely council "we're listening" consultations and positive press pieces. Traditionally it's difficult for non Labour parties to get their voices in the local press, which is exacerbated by many council press releases heavily featuring Labour councillors. Added to this the Labour Party gets free party political advertising in the Shields Gazette in the form of regular opinion pieces by South Tyneside Labour MPs David Miliband and Stephen Hepburn, with Councillor Paul Waggott, the Leader of the Council, telling us we ain't had it so good. I've yet to read an opinion piece by an opposition councillor (or opposition anything) in the Shields Gazette.

However, it seems that press bias is becoming the least of the independent worries. Some of the independents councillors and hopefuls are concerned that the local Labour Party will stand a notional 'independent' straw man (or woman) in several of the wards, particularly those where an independent councillor already stands, or where Labour consider a seat loss to be likely. If true, it means that the local Labour party is cynically attempting to dilute the independent vote, hoping that voters will mistake their chap for the real independent. This tactic has been used since the time of the Ancient Greeks, so who said democracy is dead?

The local BNP is planning a big push this year, having already targeted leafleting in several local areas and nationally the BNP is in the middle of an initiative to canvass and encourage expired party members to rejoin. It's anyone's guess where the votes will come from - protest from former Labour voters, traditional right wingers or even those wanting anything but Labour - but chances are it will also erode the independent vote.

Another addition to the opposition brew is the recently formed South Tyneside Green Party, which is planning to field candidates for wards in Jarrow and Hebburn, and in South Shields the wards of Cleadon, Harton, Horsley Hill and Beacon and Bents.

Sure, it's no surprise that politics is dirty, but are Labour really that worried that they'll lose their dominant position in South Tyneside that they'll go to the bother of fielding straw men whilst there's so many opposition vehicles out there? It'll be an interesting game to try and spot the true affiliations of some of the independent candidates.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Warm resolve

In a heart-warming 'New Year resolution' piece in the Shields Gazette on New Year's Day we had our MP David Miliband reassuring us all that South Shields remains his number one priority. And hoping the Gunners do well. On a bit of a down note, Mr Miliband, who is currently keeping the seat warm as Secretary of State for the Environment, failed to use the 'E' word, or even mention global warming/heating. Despite Mr M's woeful omission on emissions, let's hope the Government can start to actually do something to reduce greenhouse emissions, instead of just solemnly talking about 'the greatest challenge we face' whilst enthusiastically supporting road building and airport expansion.

At least South Tyneside's green champion, Council Leader Paul Waggott, managed to get the environment into his resolution by wanting to make "South Tyneside a cleaner, greener and safer place". Then again, perhaps he's hoping people have forgotten about his council's plans to build on greenbelt, it's support for more road building at the Tyne tunnel and on the A19, and his council's pathetic CO2 emissions reduction target of only 5 per cent over 5 years. It would be cynical to suggest that such political amnesia signals that we're winding up to May's local elections already.