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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Book recommendation: "Stalin's Legacy: The Soviet War on Nature" Struan Stevenson

In 2014  Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was reported as suggesting  that only Communism is capable of successfully fighting global warming and that communist China should be viewed as a role model in the fight against environmental damage:

“[China] actually wants to breathe air that they don’t have to look at,” she said. “They’re not doing this because they want to save the planet. They’re doing it because it’s in their national interest.”

Clearly Christiana Figueres is ignoring the fact that China continues to expand its number of coal-fired power stations at an alarming rate, however there is a more fundamental mistake being made here ie that Communism as an ideology is somehow green or that its concern for, 'the national interest' (odd considering that Communism is in theory if not practice internationalist) is more likely to favour green approaches to the economy. As an antidote to this kind of guff I'd recommend the grimly fascinating book, "Stalin's Legacy: The Soviet War on Nature", by Struan Stevenson.

Some people may be thinking that, given the massive human cost of Stalin's economic policies (estimated by most historians as around 20 million deaths), that therefore attacking his regime for its ecological impact is somehow missing the main point. However Stevenson's book does not try to ignore the horrific human consequences,  the gulag system, mass starvation and slave labour, but rather to show how a blind indifference to individual human life and a blind indifference to the environment went hand in hand together. Communism as an ideology is purely materialistic and it promised a better material standard of living than Capitalism. It was never mean't to be an alternative to massive growth and mass consumption, rather it was supposed to do it better than Capitalism and produce more and faster economic growth, admittedly with less inequality in the 'workers state' that it promised. Obviously it failed but the point is that Communism was never supposed to end up like North Korea with a dead-end economy but rather to produce mass industrialism on a huge scale.
Clearly what I am talking about here, and the theme of Stevenson's book, is not Socialism in its broader sense but Marxism-Leninism as practiced in the USSR and those countries which adopted the Soviet model. In Russia itself prior to the Civil War (1918-1921) there were many socialists who favoured an approach to economics based on the peasants (82% of the population in 1900 and therefore the majority of 'the people'). For example the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) the heirs of the Narodnik (Populist) movement in the 19th century. The SRs actually won the November 1917 Constituent Assembly election, however Lenin closed the Assembly down by force because he didn't like the result and went on to eradicate all opposition to his own group, the Bolsheviks, in a Civil War which cost 10 million lives. There then followed, under Stalin in the 1930s, an attempt to industrialise the USSR in 10 years based on the mass use of forced labour. In the name of 'the people' the peasants (who were the people, at least most of them) were condemned as petite-bourgeois and branded as 'Kulaks' (private farmers) if they opposed the creation of huge collective farms run as industries, the communist equivalent of massive agribusinesses. Most of course were not Kulaks but members of their local Mir or village commune ie localised, socialist inclined small scale production units. However as Lenin once said, "telling the truth is a bourgeois prejudice", and so the peasants were sent on mass to the gulag system.
As far as the ecological impact of Stalin in concerned, Stevenson's book is a catalogue of grimness. Much of the book is concerned with the plight of the victims of nuclear testing in East Kazakhstan. Also there is the destruction of the Aral Sea, the desiccation of which reduced what was the world's fourth largest inland body of water to half its size in just 50 years. It is a searing indictment of Stalin's environmental impact and the Marxist-Leninist worldview which spawned his regime.

Why We Still Need to Support LGBT Charities Such as Colchester's Outhouse East

Given that we now live in an age of same sex marriages and gay characters featuring regularly on Coronation Street it may be tempting to think that LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) charities such as Colchester's 'Outhouse East' are no longer needed or irrelevant. While it is true that an awful lot has changed in the last 25 years, it would be naive to think that LGBT people all exist in the same situations and face no problems or barriers as a result of their sexual orientation or gender. In particular there are still major issues faced by young LGBT people and all family and domestic situations are not cozy ones typified by 'gay-friendly' parents and siblings. While attitudes are changing this does not mean that there are no longer homophobic parents or hostile family environments where young people are bombarded with anti-gay comments well before any coming-out process starts. Add to this the pernicious problem of homophobic bullying and language in secondary schools and you still have a huge reason why Outhouse East and similar organisations which provide advice and support need to exist. Stonewall, the leading UK gay, lesbian and bisexual charity, ( website: www.stonewall.org.uk) estimates that in the next year around 75,000 young people will be bullied because they are gay and around 21,000 will attempt suicide.
Furthermore there are people of all age groups that still need the services of Outhouse East. The organisation offers a free counselling service which is much in demand and attracts clients of all age groups. There are many people who grew up in less favorable times who still have never felt able to come out or deal with the situations in which they are in. There remains much ignorance out there regarding issues of sexuality and gender, particularly transgender issues.
As well as counselling, Outhouse East provides regular socials and has an extensive library. The address is 19 East Hill Colchester (halfway down the hill on the right-hand side, nearly opposite the Curve Bar). The socials are open to all and you just drop-in. For counselling services see the contact details on the Outhouse East website. The website address is:

http://www.outhouseeast.org.uk/

Below are some pictures of the Outhouse and its facilities:












Sunday, 21 December 2014

Military Road to be Resurfaced!

I understand that Military Road will now be resurfaced from 05/01/15. Thanks to blog readers who reported the potholes and to people from all political parties, particularly Councillor Sue Lissimore, who pushed for this to happen.

Support the Campaign To Save Salary Brook Valley



Some of you may have seen the article in the Gazette (Thursday December 18) regarding the campaign by residents to have Salary Brook made into a country park to save it from development. Around 200 residents have backed this idea and I would invite all Green Party members and supporters to get behind this initiative to save this valuable countryside from the concrete.
Currently the Colchester East Community Association are campaigning to have Salary Brook named as an asset of community value due to its ecological value and the fact that it is a beauty spot. They state:

"It is a beauty spot with views of the valley from its ridges that are arguably, the best valley hillside views in the whole area (see the sample photographs).    There is easy footpath access to ancient woodlands, links to other well used footpaths through to Wivenhoe's natural amenities including its beautiful 'Colne river walk'.   Our valley has an air of tranquility, and an important wildlife population.   It provides a wonderful, easily accessible outdoor exercise amenity for all local people and their pets.   All of these aspects are irreplaceable and support our community's health and quality of life."

We simply have to defend our countryside from the unprecedented assault that it currently faces due to the government's reforms of the planning system creating a, 'presumption in favour of development' (ie a developers' charter) combined with the unacceptable targets for new housing being imposed on local councils by central government (the current draft local plan suggests building 21,000 houses on greenfield sites near Marks Tey and Greenstead).  We won't win every battle but it seems to me that Salary Brook is a prime example of an area of countryside with real ecological and social value that should be saved. 

Please cut & paste and circulate the 'Request for Support' email below. Then email the campaign team:

Colchester East Community Association (CECA)- ‘Save Salary Brook Valley’ Initiative.

We need to build our support (member) numbers to give extra leverage to achieving our future vision for this beautiful Valley. If you live near or come farther away to enjoy this lovely Valley, we want your support. Perhaps you could get sympathetic friends, neighbours, or other electors in your household, to send a simple email ASAP to :   ceca.countmein@gmail.com      and simply give it ‘Subject’ of ‘Count me in’ and ‘only if you wish’ add any thoughts you have on the issue.  
Thank you in advance the CECA team.

Below are some photos of what could be lost:









Sunday, 14 December 2014

The State of Colchester's Military Road : Potholes Galore

The current state of Military Road is completely unacceptable, yet despite it having been in this condition for a very long time nothing has been done bar a bit of bodging. The potholes in the stretch nearest to the St Botolphs roundabout are massive and on both sides of the road. It is a very busy road at certain times in the day and its a wonder that cars haven't been damaged. I've taken a series of photographs as evidence and will send them to Essex County Council Highways Dept. Lets hope something gets done. See below:












Saturday, 13 December 2014

Book recommendation: "Farmageddon" Philip Lymbery & Isabel Oakeshott

This is an excellent book and very topical given the recent horsemeat scandal. However despite the title it covers more than just the meat industry, it being an examination of the whole intensive farming industry and its impact on our countryside, health and wildlife.
The first few chapters cover topics that are fairly familiar, battery hens , pesticides and the decline in our wildlife. There is a whole section on the decline in bees with Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) being linked to a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids. These are not sprayed on the plants but on the soil so that the soil itself becomes toxic and the whole plant gets to absorb the chemicals, becoming 'poison factories' to insects. In 2013 the EU voted to ban the use of neonicotinoids on crops deemed attractive to bees however the UK voted against the measure. Indeed a common thread throughout the book is the role that the EU plays in regulating food production and the fact that UK governments are often seeking to remove or prevent positive EU regulation in the interests of big business vested interests. Should a laissez faire , neo-liberal party ever lead the UK out of the EU then expect a round of deregulation of pesticides, sprays and animal care regulation.
However it is when the book moved on to animal care other than hens and then food hygene issues that it became a real eye opener. Battery style farming of cows on an industrial scale means that they have to be injected with umpteen antibiotics as their crammed in living conditions make disease rife. All of which leads to overuse and the result is super bugs and animals whose natural disease resistance declines. Cows and pigs stand all day in pens where they cannot turn round and are stuffed full of artificially enhanced food as grass grazing cannot produce the level of milk to 'maximise efficiency' or fatten them up for the kill quickly enough.
We then get full descriptions of unhygienic slaughterhouses, meat contaminated with faeces entering the food chain and the devastating effect on the basic nutritional quality of meat of factory production with the fat content going through the roof at the expense of protein. By 2030 annual obesity-related health costs in the UK are expected to soar by £1.25 billion. Meanwhile meat production is deliberately being 'outsourced' from the UK to those parts of the world where animal welfare rules are lax (thus maximising profits) and where they are less fussy about what gets bunged into the grinder, hence the horse meat scandal . The only surprising thing about the latter is that it was only horse meat they found and not a wider range of animal matter.
All in all this is a frightening book which I've only briefly summarised. Carcinogenic pesticides, GM cows producing 'human milk', But the best parts of the book are where they explode the myth that industrial farming is some kind of driver of equality, that it provides cheap food for all and that it is somehow immoral for people to oppose it. This is nonsense because factory farming of meat drives up overall food prices because of the vast quantities of grain and soya required to feed the animals. Factory farms deliver low cost (and lower quality) meat to people in the developed countries at the expense of cereal prices rising in the poorest parts of the world. As the 'Hundred-Dollar Hamburger' chapter makes clear, this then eventually does impact negatively on the price of an average bag of shopping in the UK as well.

Green Cats

It is quite clear which way my cats will be voting in the election.....




Friday, 12 December 2014

BBC Question Time Last Night : Brand vs Farage vs the Audience

Last night's BBC Question Time from Canterbury was certainly very entertaining. However it was also the kind of deliberately contrived sensationalist slanging match that demeans the issues being discussed and probably puts lots of people off politics. Which puts me in a bit of a moral dilemma since I did enjoy it, while at the same time thinking to myself whether or not I should switch it off.
Clearly the producers has decided that this was the big one; a chance to up the ratings and draw in viewers who'd normally rather drink a cup of cold bleach than watch a political discussion programme. Russell Brand vs Nigel Farage, the clash of the panto clown and the panto villain with the baying mob providing the extra fun. The rest of the panel were a collection of very sensible female politicians and columnists who wisely resisted joining in the insult trading and made some very good points from their various perspectives, all of which however were buried beneath the fun and games. Once again the Green Party was not represented on the panel, although neither were the Lib Dems.
The first question was all about whether adversarial politics puts people off. Oh the irony, given that the show was deliberately designed to be a slanging match. Hence the second question about immigration, a topic almost guaranteed to produce an emotional response from both sides. Off went Nigel Farage with his over-the-top claims about immigrants causing motorway traffic jams and in came the personal insults from Russell Brand and the best quote of the show when he described Mr Farage as, "a pound shop Enoch Powell". It was funny but does this kind of thing really achieve anything in terms of challenging UKIP's arguments... of course not. But then the show was about entertainment rather than serious discussion.
Russell Brand's worst moment came when an angry man in the audience, who looked like he could handle himself in a punch up, suggested that Brand should stand for election himself if he was serious. A very good point and all Brand could manage in response was a feeble: "I'd be scared that I'd end up like the others". It didn't work and Brand looked wrongfooted. As the audience started shouting at each other David Dimbleby sat back and let events take their natural course, presumably on the advice of the gleeful producers. Then came the woman with the blue hair, reputedly a Socialist Workers Party activist, who stood up and fired her invective at Farage, "You're a scumbag racist...." she screamed and stole the show. Acceptable political discourse it certainly wasnt.
The problem with all of this is that it reduces serious and complex issues to who can shout the loudest and who has the best one-line put down. Both sides in these debates tend to be equally ill informed. Having said that there were sensible points being made in the programme by both the people on the panel and the more restrained members of the audience. Its a shame that these sensible points, on both sides of the debate, were completely lost amid the pantomime.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Colchester's Transport Chaos

Although I don't myself drive, I am well aware of the constant traffic congestion at peak times in Colchester. I recently caught a taxi home from the main railway station during the evening rush hour which took far longer than it should due to constant jams on Balkerne Hill, Southway and beyond. I'm constantly hearing about what should be relatively short journeys taking an inordinate amount of time because of this. Students unable to get to college on time because the bus is stuck in stationary traffic, which often consists of cars with only one person in them, is common as is the problem of half-empty buses just driving past the people waiting at the bus stops for no obvious reason. One person recently informed me that the bus regularly, "turns round before it gets to our stop in order to save time", despite the fact that said stop is on the driver's allotted route.Clearly instances such as the latter prompt complaints, yet the problems go on, and on and on.... Rude drivers are undoubtedly a minority however this minority can tar the majority with their grumpy brush. When I once paid some of my fare with a build up of coppers in my wallet, the comment was something along the lines of:
"Huh, getting rid of your rubbish are you mate? You've got a nerve", before the coins were flung angrily into a greasy looking sack.

And don't expect the railways to be much better. The trains to London are often standing room only during the commuter run in the morning, as I have found myself on my infrequent trips to exam board meetings in the smoke.And this is then followed by the impossible challenge of fitting into the jammed full tube trains on the central line.... but that's another matter. All of this with another huge hike in railway fares on the horizon.

Unfortunately the root causes of the problems are over development, lack of investment in public transport and bus deregulation. Colchester has grown massively in the last 15 years with hundreds of new residents and cars. Yet since the 1980s bus services have been deregulated and have become unreliable and unattractive. It is clearly the case that we need to be encouraging car sharing in order to reverse the volume of traffic on our roads however we also need to strive to make public transport a viable alternative to using the car, rather than something people avoid like the plague.
The grey political parties have completely failed Colchester on this issue.I read a lot about awful suggestions in the Gazette & Standard, such as building massive relief roads through Highwoods Country Park, however this is a fallacy. The new roads would just quickly fill up with the same congestion. What is needed is the kind of radical green change that can only stem from national policy.

1) All bus services should be re-regulated on a national level. The Green Party would spend £1.5 billion on subsidising existing public transport to make fares 10% cheaper. Bus companies who continue to fail to deliver an adequate service should face financial penalties and the bringing back of inspectors should be encouraged.

2) The Green Party is currently engaged in a national campaign against rail fare increases. We would take the railways back into public ownership to prevent arbitrary price hikes and random cuts to services.

3) Green Party policy states that the £30 billion that the government has allocated to road building schemes over the next ten years should be diverted and invested in public transport expansion over the next parliament. That way we use existing funds and avoid concreting over the countryside.

4) Green Party policy is that least 10% of transport spending should be on expanding cycle lanes and making cycling a safer option.

5) We need to reform the planning regulations so that housing development proposals cannot go ahead without any regard to the impact on transport congestion.







Chris Packham & Animal Cruelty on "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here"

BBC wildlife presenter Chris Packham has written an official letter of complaint to the presenters of, "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here" (Ant & Dec) complaining about the use of animals on the show. While I would question why the letter went to Ant & Dec rather than the shows' producers, I would totally support the sentiments behind Chris' letter. This awful programme regularly features maggot eating, chewing kangaroo genitals, rolling around in dug outs with live rats and so on all served up as entertainment. Its the modern equivalent of lobbing brickbats and faeces at the man in the stocks or going to the bear baiting ring. It is entertainment by humiliation all 'justified' by the knowledge that the Z list celebrities on it are desperate enough to do anything to revive their sagging careers. Together with the 'lets laugh at the village idiot' appeal of the early episodes of the X Factor it represents the sheer nastiness to which reality TV has sunk over the last decade in the drive for ratings. You can hear more of what I think about reality TV in my video below:





As far as wildlife is concerned, Chris states:

“It spoils the show because it’s simply out of date, some would say barbaric and actually it’s often pretty silly too, because many viewers recognise that the species used are not dangerous, or significantly toxic or venomous in the first place. I’m afraid I can guarantee that some animals are harmed during production, because they are fragile or easily stressed. Or simply killed, as they are in your ‘Bushtucker Trials’.”

Chris explains this further in an article in the latest BBC Wildlife magazine (see below).


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Why vote Green? Answering the difficult questions.

According to today's Colchester Daily Gazette, a recent poll by Lord Ashcroft polls suggests that I stand to get 6% of the vote in Colchester. Clearly its early days however I'm certainly well aware that we've got plenty of work to do in terms of getting the message across to the people of Colchester that voting Green is the best option in May 2015. However I honestly believe that the more most people find out about the Green Party the more they like us, while in the case of the other parties it tends to work the opposite way round. There are difficult questions to answer however, so having had a fair few of them pitched at me already in the last few days, I'll answer some of them on here.

Question 1: I do like the Green Party, however surely you've no chance of winning so voting Green is just a wasted vote isn't it?

Answer: Not at all. There is widespread disillusionment with politicians in general at the moment with the belief that they are all 'in it for themselves' or all the same. Many people are angry because they believe that the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour are just not listening to their concerns. Well there is only one way that you can make them listen and that is to stop voting for them. It is the only weapon you have. There is simply no point in complaining that they are all the same if you don't vote for anything different. In addition, even if the Green candidate does not win, increasing the Green vote share will have the effect of making the other parties sit up and take notice. You can see this happening at the moment with UKIP and the effect that fear of them is having on Conservative Party policy announcements. Clearly we would like to influence our rival parties in a different way however the point is the same in the sense that it shows that change doesn't have to result just from an outright win. No Green vote is a wasted vote. That said, winning will result in the most significant change and the only way for Green candidates to win is to vote for them .One thing is certain above all else and that is keep voting for the other parties and they will keep letting you down.

Question 2: But if I vote for you it might split the Lib Dem vote and let the Tories win.

Answer: The Tories won in the 2010 election because of the Lib Dems. As a result the Lib Dems were strong enough to hold the balance of power and to enter into coalition with the Conservative Party and therefore prop up Mr Cameron's government and all of its resulting policies. The Lib Dems are not the opposition party and the Conservatives the government. Both of them are the current government and the only reason that we have the bedroom tax, the tuition fee hike, further NHS privatisation, falling real wages and a cost of living crisis is because the Lib Dem MPs have lined up to vote for the policies which have led to these outcomes. They could have stopped them. They didn't.

Question 3: You Greens would just put our taxes up wouldn't you?

Answer: A common myth. No we wouldn't. What a Green Party government would do is to reform the taxation to make it fairer and certainly not hike up the overall tax burden for the average person. In general political parties hike up VAT on goods as a stealth tax in order to disguise tax increases. Because this hits everyone, including the very poorest, the Green Party would generally avoid this and instead concentrate on cracking down of tax avoidance by large corporations and wealthy people who hire clever accountants to worm out of their responsibilities while the 'squeezed middle' get to foot the resulting bill.

Question 4: Aren't the Greens just a bunch of hippies who are soft on crime?

Answer: Well I suppose we all think in stereotypes to some extent, but the answer is no to both questions. The Green Party is the fastest growing UK party among 16-24 year olds and is certainly not the preserve of any one generation or social demographic. Furthermore if by 'hippies' the questioner means people who care about the environment, want to make a difference, believe in what they do rather than just talk from a script to get elected, care about social justice and believe that our countryside is worth protecting then I'd simply say, what is wrong with that?
As far as crime is concerned, the Green Party is not soft. I can't help but notice that tax avoidance, which the Green Party would crack down on, is seldom highlighted  by those columnists who like to present the UK as awash with rising criminality. It may not always be via criminal methods but its certainly unethical. The coalition government will not invest in police resources to the extent that is needed to cut low level crime such as burglary and car crime. As a Green MP I would campaign for better police funding. Moreover only the Green Party has a serious approach to alleviating the social causes of crime as well as dealing with the consequences. Its very easy to take the 'hang 'em and flog 'em' approach which is basically shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted. Also the very politicians who do this the most they won't put the money in to expand prison places and end up having to cut the number of people being locked up. The Green Party will tackle crime by tackling its causes as the first priority; by initiating a £2 billion job creation programme, by introducing a guaranteed citizens' income in order to remove the need to thieve or beg to survive at the very bottom and we would concentrate police resources into crushing the big drug traders rather than wasting taxpayers' money by landing someone with a criminal record just for having a small amount of cannabis on him/her.

Question 5: All very well, but we like Bob Russell. What could you do better?

I'm not going to pretend that Mr Russell is a bad constituency MP. We need to be honest with people. He has done some excellent constituency work, helped a lot of people and does stand up against some inappropriate developments in Colchester. I would aim to continue with this and would see these qualities as something to aspire to rather than to disrespect. However there are local issues that I would prioritise which are still a massive problem such as transport, with regular traffic jams and inadequate bus services. Moreover the simple fact is that you cannot just divorce all connection between national politics and local politics. It can't be done. The former impacts on everyone locally. Mr Russell is a Liberal Democrat and largely (not always) votes for Lib Dem/Conservative coalition policies. For example, the coalition government has slashed the planning rules, removing most of the protection for the environment, and created a developers charter which has a presumption in favour of development. Mr Russell may oppose the planned dumping of a 2000 house estate near the A120 by Tendring Council, yet is is the government to which his party belongs which is responsible for the policies which have created the situation in the first place.
Its back to my answer to question 1; the only way to achieve change is to vote differently. I would aim to work hard within the constituency but also make a difference in parliament by not voting for the policies which I then have to shoot back to Colchester to deal with the consequences of.