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Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Dangers of TTIP


The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a comprehensive free trade and investment treaty currently being negotiated – in secret – between the European Union and the USA. As officials from both sides acknowledge, the main goal of TTIP is to remove regulatory ‘barriers’ which restrict the potential profits to be made by transnational corporations on both sides of the Atlantic. Firstly I'd urge everyone to watch the Youtube video below:



The ‘barriers’ that TTIP is being designed to reduce are in reality some of our most prized social standards and environmental regulations, such as labour rights, food safety rules (including restrictions on GMOs), regulations on the use of toxic chemicals, digital privacy laws and even new banking safeguards introduced to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.
As far as the Green Party and wider green movement is concerned, we need to join those groups such as 38 degrees who are shouting loudly and lobbying about the dangers of TTIP. For one thing, there is much talk amid the green movement at present about whether to emphasise our 'environmental agenda' or our 'social justice' agenda. To me such talk is misleading as it carries an implication that the two approaches are divergent or distinct. In fact they are convergent and inter meshed and no current issue illustrates this more clearly than that of TTIP. This deal has the potential to remove both environmental and social protection in one shot. Some voters may be non too bothered about the UK losing the ability to block fracking companies, but may be very bothered about  NHS privatisation. Others may be more concerned about deregulation of animal welfare than inability to easily raise the minimum wage. Obviously I'd like to think that voters were equally concerned about all these issues, but that misses the main point which is that the threat posed by TTIP unites our core concerns as a movement and as such is something we can all rally round to oppose.

Supporters of TTIP, such as the Liberal Democrats, claim it will create jobs and wealth on both sides of the Atlantic. However, in reality it will simply place more power in the hands of the corporate sector. One of the key concerns here is the future of the NHS. The danger is that the NHS and other public services could be sold off to US investors and that if the NHS is not open to investors, they may be able to sue the government, using the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause which could be included in the free trade agreement.

At the moment, ISDS is off the agenda, after the EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht temporarily removed it in January, pending the results of a public consultation, which are currently being analysed. However, he has since told this publication that he wishes the clause to return to the discussions. Obviously the government has issued certain reassurances about this issue. However I think people need to ask themselves whether or not reassurances from this government are of any real value. The government told IBTimes UK earlier in August that the NHS is not an area that is up for discussion during TTIP negotiations.
A Department of Health spokesperson said:
"We have no intention of allowing the TTIP to dictate the opening up of NHS services to further competition; and it will not do so. The NHS will always be free at the point of use for everyone who needs it."
However the problem with this is that David Cameron has so far refused to confirm that the government's veto will be used to remove public services from the agenda. Given the position of the Conservative and Lib Dem Parties on privatisation, which boils down to 'the more of it the better' , I rather suspect that believing that the government would stand up for our public sector against both the USA and EU is rather like believing that the moon is made of cream cheese and Santa Claus will be climbing down your chimney on Christmas Eve.

Despite these government claims that public services will be protected from the EU's free trade agreement with the US, 42% of British people don't trust them to protect the NHS from privatisation.
A new survey, conducted by YouGov on behalf of 38 Degrees, found that a further 39% think the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) "would be bad for the UK", with just 13% saying it would have a positive effect.
When asked specifically about the NHS, 24% said their trust in the government to shield the NHS from privatisation has fallen over the course of a year, with just 4% saying it has risen.

Unfortunately, the negotiations leading to TTIP are taking place with hardly any publicity, you could almost say in secret. Partly this is due to the media believing that a news item about a complicated EU trade treaty is about as interesting to the public as watching a kettle boil, however it is also because government politicians are keeping deliberately quiet about it. The less the public know about a deal that threatens our countryside, our NHS and our wage levels the better, in the eyes of the coalition. Therefore the green movement needs to both help to publicise this deal and also to get those voters who the above poll suggests are worried about the implications to vote for the Green Party.

... AND UKIP?

Some voters may be tempted by UKIP and see the whole TTIP issue as an EU one. However a UKIP government, with their pro-privatisation, neo-Thatcherite economic position, would simply pull out of the EU then sign their own UK-USA bilateral version of TTIP as quick as lightening. We need to shout this loudly.


Sunday, 10 August 2014

Phil Ochs: "Love Me I'm A Liberal"

What's the definition of a liberal? 
"Ten degrees to the left of centre in good times, ten degrees to the right of centre if it affects them personally"
- Phil Ochs


The Myth of Green Consumerism

I have a confession to make, well several in fact. I have never in my life bought Ecover washing up liquid or any other Ecover product for that matter. I pay no regard to how many toxic chemicals are in the washing powder I buy or the shampoo I use. I don't make the effort to buy food that has minimum packaging and most of the time I visit a supermarket I don't take a 'bag for life' with me but get new plastic bags in store. 'Green' liberals may already be tutting away reading this and wondering how I could be so irresponsible, sitting here gloating at my thoughtless consumerism. However lets think for a minute about the wider context of 'green consumerism', 'ethical shopping', 'moral purchasing' or whatever you want to call it.
The thinking behind all of this is that individual consumers, by making a 'positive lifestyle choice' and buying the likes of Ecover products over standard washing up products can effect a positive change in society. If enough people make this choice, so the thinking goes, then the market will respond. More Ecover type companies will spring up and the old ones will either have to change their products or decline and go bust. The underlying assumption behind all of this is that the free market knows best and that empowered consumers imposing their moral boycotts and making ethically informed choices can change society. Well this is just plain guff.
For a start, for any real effect to result, a large proportion of consumers would need to switch product, not just a small number of niche greens. This is virtually impossible to achieve once a brand product is already established and a pattern of consumption is established. Yes consumer pressure can work when its something new that is on offer such as GM food and there is massive consumer resistance and suspicion. However once a product is established and people have been buying it for years, then its almost impossible to persuade a large enough chunk of its purchasers to stop or to switch. Obviously I'd rather people did just stop buying the really dangerous and damaging stuff such as garden pesticides and insecticides, however I am realistic enough to know that my efforts to persuade will fall on deaf ears apart from a few green-minded people.
Secondly, the danger with green consumerism is that greens themselves think that they have 'made a difference' by buying their packaging free carrots or ethical chocolate and so that is that. Job done. Feel good about yourself. In fact nothing has been achieved at all as the products which you are boycotting will still sell in droves and most likely be increasing their sales as the economy recovers.
Thirdly, the system itself is designed so that you won't make a difference. Green products are almost always more expensive than the standard ones for example and as a result the majority of cash-strapped purchasers are unlikely to switch in a free market. Also the system panders to our inherent weaknesses and laziness. It offers me new plastic bags whenever I go shopping so that I don't have to bother taking one with me, after all pandering to the lowest common denominator tends to work in maximising profits. It is completely idealistic to expect the majority of the population to operate at all times by the best ethical standards and green concerns. Supporters of the system do not want green consumerism to ever achieve something, it is the last thing they want. They want people to buy masses of pesticides, herbicides, plastic food packaging, products made in sweatshops because it increases profits. If everyone stopped then it might threaten the great god growth. Liberal supporters of the system will of course often fully support green consumerism; this is because as long as it remains a niche market within the system then it is safe. The last thing these people want is for ethical purchasing to actually work and for sections of the economy which are unethical, such as those based on live animal exports or sweatshop labour to collapse.

So if green consumerism is unlikely to stop unethical trade or environmentally damaging retail practices, then what will? Well as I can see the only thing that can work is government intervention or intervention from some other authority such as the institutions of the EU. If you want to stop people buying childrens' toys manufactured in sweatshops then campaign to get the importing of them banned. If you don't like the chemicals in your washing up liquid then campaign to get them banned. If you disagree with live animal exports then protest about it and demand that it be declared illegal. Campaign for supermarkets to be forced to only issue reusable plastic bags and for food companies to have to reduce packaging by law.
Of course the liberals will whine and wail that this is the 'nanny state' interfering with consumer choice. Exactly. It works, which is what the supporters of the system don't want.


Saturday, 9 August 2014

Phil Ochs from Amchitka 1970 : The Concert that Launched Greenpeace

One of the greatest songwriters ever performing "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" & "Chords of Fame" at Amchitka, the concert that launched Greenpeace, October 16th 1970.



Towards a Green Approach To Education

"Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil."
- C.S. Lewis

I do think its time for the Green Party to be speaking louder and more frequently about education. The current education system is under unprecedented attack from the coalition government and I'm not convinced that the departure of Mr Gove will change the general direction of policy. Moreover it is a cliche because it is true that youth are the future and the values and attitudes imbued into them from school and college matter and make a difference. Therefore in this piece I'm going to address two key themes: a Green approach to general education policy and the system and secondly a green approach to educational values and the curriculum.

Firstly the system. The key change that the coalition have made is to prevent local councils from having the power to open new schools. All new schools must be free schools or academies. Moreover the government is encouraging as many existing schools as possible to convert into academies, which means that local councils will no longer have any control over them. Free schools are set up and run  by 'interest groups' independent of local government while academies are still run by their existing management and governors. Both are free to set their own curricula and overall educational ethos.
Some people in the Green movement may be wondering what the problem is with this direction of travel, regarding free schools and academies as giving more choice to parents and greater freedom to teachers in terms of teaching radical ideas. However in reality neither of these is the case. For a free school to be given the go ahead there has to be a 'proven local demand' demonstrated, which in practice means a vocal and well organised 'interest group' with lobbying experience and organisational skills. The vast majority are set up be either religious interests, business people or organised groups of middle class parents who don't want their children mixing  with the "riff raff" at the local comprehensive. The dangers in this are massive. Firstly there has been much reporting in the media recently about the alleged 'Islamic Trojan-horse plot' in Birmingham, involving schools supposedly pushing segregation of the genders and so forth. All I seemed to be reading was about Islamic extremists this and Muslims that as if the problem was an ethnic one and not a systemic one. The simple fact is that if you rip schools away from local authority control and let local interest groups set the agenda with limited accountability then more of this will happen. Christian fundamentalists pushing creationism, businesses using the school to push their products and all manner of twisting and turning of the curriculum becomes easier. In addition, the changes fuel greater inequality as whenever a free school or academy opens up then it sucks funding in that area away from other schools. Free schools get thousands more per sixth form student than do ordinary school sixth forms for example. However don't expect the quality of teaching to be better in the free school as part of their 'freedom' is the ability to pay their staff less and recruit less well qualified teachers.
It is hardly compatible with Green ideas to see a system emerge which creates a fragmented education system where the curricula can be heavily influenced by big business or religious fundamentalists and where more and more 'sink schools' emerge as a result of losing funding , thus increasing inequality.
Furthermore, the more fragmented the system becomes and the greater the role that business plays in schools, the easier it becomes to increase the level of privatisation. Clearly it would be virtually impossible to just privatise all of the compulsory sector however the introduction of fees for sixth form provision is already being talked about in right-wing think tanks. Add to that schools obtaining a major sponsor and that major sponsor (a major corporation) then gets to influence the curriculum and ethos of the school in the direction of their values and interests. You may think I'm scaremongering if I ask you to envisage the 'McDonalds  Academy Colchester' with a big yellow M over the entrance or the 'Simon Cowell Academy of the Performing Arts'. However the direction of travel that the government is taking the system is in the direction of greater corporate sponsorship. The Green movement needs to oppose this loudly.

Regarding values, it seems to me that we live in a time where it has never been more the case that schools need to make the effort to encourage concern for the environment and wider social concerns rather than just becoming exam factories. There is so much testing in the system now and so much cramming for tests and exams that there is a danger that an arid utilitarianism will reign free, where young people are prepared for the 'world of work' with all their exam qualifications and IT skills and the wider enrichment and social and environmental values provision gets squeezed out. Or worse, the corporate business interests and religious fundamentalists determine that enrichment.
Schools can make a difference to social values. One of the big successes has been with E&D (Equality and Diversity) with regard to racial diversity in particular. Thirty years ago racist language was far more common both in schools and in wider society and yet today its very unlikely that you'd hear a pupil using the 'N' or 'P' words in school and where it happened it would be very rapidly dealt with. I'm not suggesting that there are no problems at all anymore and certainly there remains a massive issue with E&D as regards homophobic bullying and language in schools. However compared to thirty years ago much has changed and this is because it has been taken seriously in schools and colleges.
Therefore social enrichment in schools matters because it can make a difference. What should Green social enrichment be like? I'd say the following would be a start:

1) Young people need to be given the opportunity to see and appreciate the natural world not just turned into IT experts. If they spend all of their lives cooped up in front of a computer screen all day then how on earth should they be expected to gain any environmental sense or concern for nature? Schools have a duty to provide opportunities for engagement with the countryside and to instill an interest in wildlife and the state of the planet.

2) Education should be varied and different paths encouraged and equally valued. Trying to force everyone down the academic route is like hammering square pegs into round holes. The system of league tables and constant testing just encourages this barmy attitude that all young people must succeed academically or else they are something lesser. Nowadays this attitude is disguised beneath a veneer of political correctness such as banning the word 'fail' etc but this is just silly. Its the attitude behind it that needs to change. The talented carpenter needs to be seen as just as important as the grade A mathematician. Young people should be encouraged to follow their dreams or learn a trade , whatever, but neither should be seen as lesser than passing academic exams. Schools should not just be judged on exam passes in some crass utilitarian way.

3) Schools should be about learning about social issues, the wider world and about gaining a political sense. In my day there were CND groups in the school and all kinds of political stuff went on. They should be centers of debate not centers of sitting in front of a computer all day. I'd allow all pupils/students up to five days off per year to attend demonstrations of their choice. Imagine the reaction to that one from the Daily Mail.