Category Archives: Society

The Party really is over

Every household in the country will be receiving around now the usual leaflets from their General Election candidates , including those delivered free of charge by the Royal Mail.  Each leaflet is normally a mix of national party policies and some words about the local candidate we are being encouraged to vote for.  It is, after all, the local candidate’s name on the ballot paper.

This morning, the post included a 4 sided A4 leaflet exhorting me to vote for a candidate called Theresa May.  Well, even if I wanted to vote for her I couldn’t, because she’s standing somewhere in the Thames Valley and I live in Devon.  The identity of my local Conservative candidate remains a mystery.

Closer examination of the leaflet reveals it doesn’t meet the requirements for a free-delivery leaflet [1].  For example, it doesn’t show the words “Election Communication” and it doesn’t mention the constituency or local candidate.  So, although this leaflet is being delivered by Royal Mail as if it were the normal free delivery leaflet, it isn’t.  Which means that Theresa May’s backers must have paid the Royal Mail a substantial sum of money to deliever them.   And, because the leaflet is a national one, it won’t count against the more restrictive local election expenses limits – just like the fake front pages in some local newspapers.

OK, so we know having lots of money gives certain electoral advantages, despite the UK’s self-satisfied delusion that we keep a tight lid on election expenses.  What this leaflet also says is that the Conservative Party has ceased to be a recognisable British political party and has become the creature of its leader.  On the second page there is An Important Message From Theresa May To You, which ends as follows:

The only way you can ensure we have the strong and stable leadership to get this [Brexit] right is by backing me, and voting for my Conservative candidate in your local area.

Get that?  It’s “my” Conservative candidate.  Not “the” Conservative candidate.  Assuming she wins, collective Cabinet decision-making is going to be a bit of a laugh, isn’t it?  Personally, I find it chilling.

NOTES

[1]  The Royal Mail rules are available in a booklet downloadable from http://www.royalmail.com/corporate/electoral-services/candidate-mailing

Is the Prime Minister fake news?

Last week the Conservative Party – rebranded nationally as “Theresa May’s Team” – bought advertising space in a dozen local papers around the country to promote the Prime Minister’s general election campaign [1].  Nothing wrong in that in principle: it’s a long-standing habit of political parties to pay for advertising.  The towns and cities in question appear to be Parliamentary seats which the Tories are targeting to win.  So far, business much as usual.

The commentariat has tended to criticise the tactic as a way of getting around spending limits for constituency election campaigns.  It’s a targeted national campaign which doesn’t mention the local candidates so it’s not local spending, and it’s all within Electoral Commission rules.

Frankly, that’s a second-order complaint.  The Conservative Party is simply doing what any advertiser would do given the opportunity.  If it’s an unintended loophole in the spending rules, it can be put right.  Much more insidious, and an example of further erosion of any semblance of standards in corporate behaviour, is the way in which the newspapers allowed the ads to be designed and placed.

What the local papers did – or, probably more accurately, what they were told to do by their corporate owners – was to accept the advertisement in the form of a wrap-around, with each paper’s normal masthead integrated into the paid-for “front page”.  In other words, a blatant attempt to mislead readers into thinking their local paper was supporting Mrs May’s election campaign.

Defenders of the scheme have argued that people would easily see that it was an advertisement.  Really?  Two points here.  First, at least on the fake front page of the Exeter Express and Echo, the words “ADVERTISER’S ANNOUNCEMENT” are set in a white font on a pale grey background.  This is invisible to anyone looking at the paper from a distance, on a newsstand for example.

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The top half of the fake front page, Express & Echo, 4 May 2017.  Can you see “Advertiser’s Announcement”?

Second, it’s not unheard of for national papers such as the Sun and the Daily Mail to trumpet their support for a political party as editorial matter on their front pages.  If they can do it, why should people be surprised that the local papers are doing the same?

The advertising impact isn’t limited to people who buy the paper: indeed, they will soon discover the real front page inside and put Mrs May in the recycling.  What the technique achieves is massive exposure of Mrs May’s slogans because the papers – typically weekly ones – are displayed on newsstands for a whole week.  These stands are often to be found in prominent places in major retailers: in Exeter, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have separate stands for the Echo in the entrance areas.

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Sainsbury’s, Alphington Road, Exeter.  Photographed after 6 days’ continuous exposure.  Note the real front page in the middle of the display.

The edition of the Exeter paper that carried the fake front page also ran a leader article entitled “Delivering facts not fake news” [2].  The irony of this was lost on the paper’s editor.  In response to my complaint to him about the fake front page, Mr Parker said:

“The material carried this week was part of a nationwide advertising initiative by the Conservative Party and the decision to publish it was made solely for business reasons as we are, after all, a business.

“It was made clear that this was an advertising arrangement with the Conservative party and is something we are at the moment exploring with other political parties.

“Again, any future decisions will be based on the commercial side of the business and will have absolutely no bearing on the way the Express and Echo covers editorially any news stories whether or not they are of a political nature.

“I cannot emphasise enough that we are a totally independent news operation and proud of that fact and will continue to be so.”

Taking advertisers’ money is one thing.  Trying to mislead your readers – who may not be interested in the distinction between the commercial and editorial sides of the business – is quite another.  And since the rules on political balance don’t apply to the press, we can assume that only those parties who can pay out hard cash for wrap-arounds will be included in the exploratory discussions Mr Parker refers to.

Up in Westmoreland, where the local paper also ran a fake front page, there is some community anger, threatening a boycott of the rag [3].  Something worth considering everywhere else, since even if local papers no longer care about their reputations, their owners do care about sales and profits.

Meanwhile Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and all other retailers giving prominence to local papers should move the newsstands carrying the fake front page to the nearest back room until normal service is resumed.

NOTES

[1] For a list of papers and constituencies, see https://www.buzzfeed.com/jimwaterson/how-the-conservatives-are-using-local-adverts-to-get-around

[2] A longer version of the article is in the online version at http://www.devonlive.com/8203-in-an-age-of-fake-stories-we-always-provide-trusted-news/story-30314208-detail/story.html

[3]  See https://eastdevonwatch.org/2017/05/09/northern-community-boycotts-local-paper-over-tory-wrap-around-ad/

A four and a half pound note?

Exeter leads the way in unconventional money.

450 years ago the Exeter Ship Canal – the first canal in England with locks – was opened.  Built to replace the unnavigable River Exe – which had been blocked by successive Earls of Devon to force goods from the sea to unload at Topsham and reach Exeter by land and so pay their exorbitant tolls – it predated the canal mania by over 200 years.  A grand scheme to link Exeter to the Bristol Channel via a canal passing near Tiverton and on to Bridgwater never materialised in full, though a Tiverton branch survives today.

So without musing too long on what might have been, the opening of the Exeter Ship Canal in 1566 remains an important moment in the city’s history [1].  And what better way to commemorate that anniversary than by an unusual embellishment to a scheme intended to benefit the local economy.

The Exeter Pound has been legal tender in the city since September 2015 [2].  Like other complementary or community currency schemes, it aims to ensure more of the wealth generated by local trade remains local, so boosting independent businesses and enhancing the range of traders available to the local community.

Yesterday (30 July), a new note was unveiled to join the £E1, £E5, £E10 and £E20 notes already in circulation.  Unusually, its value is £E4.50p.  The denomination was selected to mark the 450th anniversary of the opening of the canal, and the design of the note, shown below, reflects this.

450 note

A large-size mock-up of the note was brought up the canal to the city by boat and presented by an awesomely well-dressed replica of a Tudor merchant – in reality a director of the Exeter Pound Community Interest Company – to the city’s Lord Mayor.  The presentation was apt, because Exeter City Council provided resources to help get the scheme off the ground.

presentation

All a bit of fun, but with a serious purpose.  According to NEF [3] small shops are closing at a rate of 2,000 a year, and small and medium-sized businesses employ 58% of the private sector workforce.  Community currencies can combat this: for every £1 spent they return significantly more than £1 to the local economy.  This is the so-called multiplier effects which means the local pound is spent repeatedly in the local economy.  By contrast, spending your £1 in a national chain shop means that much less than £1 remains local.  That’s why the chains are not allowed to join the Exeter Pound scheme, and only local, independent businesses can trade in it.

There are 163 of them in Exeter– and well worth your support.  These businesses exist to serve the local community, and are the antithesis of the self-serving and greedy culture which has been so visible in the downfall of BHS.  They are an essential part of rediscovering business decency and community-oriented values, not just here in Exeter, but everywhere where a community currency is taking off [4]. If  nations can be bound together by national currencies (ie not the Euro) so can communities by their local pounds.

 

NOTES:

[1]  The Exeter Ship Canal’s future is by no means secure. A support group, the Friends of the Exeter Ship Canal – friendsofexetershipcanal.co.uk/ – has recently been established to help ensure the canal’s future as an active waterway and as a beautiful part of Exeter’s heritage landscape.  They welcome new members.

[2]   The Exeter Pound website – exeterpound.org.uk – provides all the information you need about the scheme, including the traders who accept £Es and where you can change sterling for £Es.

[3]  The New Economics Foundation (NEF) website has a wealth of information about the benefits of community currencies – see http://www.neweconomics.org/issues/entry/community-currencies

[4]  As ever, the south-west is well-represented with community currencies.  Schemes are operating or in development in Bristol, Cornwall, Plymouth, Totnes and Stroud.

History speaks

For the first 7 days in July Exeter’s Northernhay Gardens hosted a unique and very moving memorial to the 19,240 allied soldiers who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme 100 years before.

The project was conceived by Rob Heard, a Somerset artist, and East Devon-based folk singer Steve Knightley.  A website – http://www.thesomme19240.co.uk/ – includes videos and other material about the memorial which enhance understanding.

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The pictures here don’t do it justice.  Each of the tiny shrouds, one for each soldier, was hand-stitched by Rob Heard over a period of three years.  Some 50,000 people – equivalent to nearly half the city’s population – visited the memorial.

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World War One was a travesty of human endeavour.  Fought because governments and dynasties wanted territory, power and trade, and fuelled by nationalism, its principal legacy was the deaths of millions of “ordinary” people.  The flawed post-war settlement laid the ground for the rise of the Nazis and the second world war.  What became the European Union was created to prevent Europe ever going to war within itself again.

It’s a pity the EU referendum didn’t come after the Somme commemorations, rather than before them.  Had it done so, perhaps fewer people would have been prepared to throw away the structure, however imperfect, that has given us 60 years of peace and co-operation.

So I’m a Twirlie?

This morning I was sitting on a bus waiting for it to leave the terminus.  As it was after 0930, I had used my old persons’ bus pass, as it appeared had all the other passengers.  The driver, a jovial man, turned to the passengers and said:

“Do you know what we drivers call you lot?  Twirlies!   Why?  Because round about half nine you turn up at the bus and ask “Is it too early?”

Ah, the richness of the English language.

 

The trouble with this election is that the voters might think for themselves

Well, that’s clearly the view of the Rt Hon Hugo Swire MP, Conservative MP for East Devon and a Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  Mr Swire recently treated readers of the Exeter Express and Echo to an article headed “Beware of voting for chaos politics”.

The first half of his article is the usual scaremongering along the lines of a vote for anyone except a Tory will lead to a Labour-led coalition with the SNP/Greens/LibDems.  The Greens are singled out for particular venom, though Swire tops his ineffective hatchet job by the accusing the Greens of holding to what he clearly regards as the grossly irresponsible belief that “money, in the end, is less important than quality of life”.  So, there you are: the Tories are after the fat cat vote.

However, it’s not only parties that fall to the withering Swire analysis.  His next paragraph is worth quoting:

Then there are the occasional independent candidates that pop up every now and then and think they can change the world. They can’t. If by some miracle they get to Parliament, and occasionally they do, they are up against a system that does not cater for them. They rarely win a second term because once there they are powerless and ineffective.

This is probably one of the most insightful statements, from an experienced insider, of how utterly unfitted for the 21st century our parliamentary democracy has become. What sort of representative democracy is it where “the system” freezes out an elected MP just because he or she doesn’t belong to a mainstream political party?

Of course Swire doesn’t see it that way. He’s trying to frighten his East Devon constituents into believing they’ll be wasting their vote if they support his real opponent, the community-focussed, committed district and county councillor Claire Wright who is standing as an independent.

My late father was fond of saying that one of the problems with the Tories was that they thought the voters were stupid. 50 years on, that at least hasn’t changed.

Atonement: why the baby boomers should vote Green

Exeter, January 2015

It was Winter 1972. The lights started going out, thanks to the miners’ strike running rings round the Central Electricity Generating Board. As a university undergraduate I recall groups of us studying the power cut rotas and arranging to visit each others’ houses to carry on studying (and making instant coffee).

The other memorable event that winter was the publication of a paper entitled A Blueprint for Survival. It made up a special January 1972 edition of what was then a new magazine entitled The Ecologist. It argued that the planet was on a disaster course, with human behaviour disrupting ecosystems, exhausting natural resources and food supplies, and leading ultimately to social breakdown. Economic growth as we knew it was not sustainable. Radical social change was urgent.

A Blueprint for Survival was obligatory reading for anyone of even mildly progressive bent. Although some of its proposed solutions lacked conviction, the analysis was compelling.

But the mainstream world moved on as if A Blueprint for Survival had never been, with only a handful of marginalised evangelists pressing the case. The generation that reached adulthood in the 1970s – my generation – failed to respond to Blueprint’s challenges. There was some tinkering at the margins, since most environmental thinking and policy developed firmly in the mainstream: pollution controls, land use planning policies, wildlife protection and modest incentives to behavioural change, such as payments to farmers for environmental services. All important, but nowhere near enough. Even today, climate change deniers ally with big business to resist the costs of adaptation and mitigation.

Why did most of us do so little? The answers would make a fat academic tome, but my own brief take is something like this. We started to make our careers in a period of extreme (for this country) social instability. Mrs Thatcher offered an alternative, and the majority opted for it – again and again and again. That alternative was based on the perceived superiority of markets and the private sector over public provision, and the belief that those markets should be unfettered. The print media – largely owned by the rich and powerful – encouraged belief in the Thatcher prescriptions. And then we started to think that there might be better ways. New Labour offered them – or so we thought. Apart from a tendency to squander public money, it was business as before. All the while, we carried on working, having families, finding houses to live in. If we got involved in environmental issues it was by joining the RSPB or CPRE or the National Trust. Those in Greenpeace were anarchists.

It doesn’t matter whether this analysis is agreed or not: it’s a personal view. What is clear is that at the start of 2015, we have:

  • A government-led obsession with the privatisation of public services, leading to taxpayers funding profits for the few while losing control over essential services and staff either losing their jobs or working for a pittance.  This obsession pervaded the last Labour government (remember PFI?) as well as the present coalition.
  • A widespread conditioning that economic growth should take priority over everything else and that the way to achieve such growth is to loosen controls over “the market” and keep taxation to the minimum.
  • A National Health Service which is fragmented, under-funded and being cherrypicked by private contractors.  No mainstream party is prepared to increase taxation to fund it, despite the obvious benefits of a healthy population.
  • A  banking system which not only operates on the basis that we must go into debt but also skews funding towards the interests of the financial services industry [1].
  • Discrimination against small businesses who cannot afford to employ experts to keep up with (and get round) employment legislation, health and safety requirements, tax rules.
  • Increasing inequality of wealth, where those living in poverty are denied chances to climb out of it because of cost-cutting by big business [2].
  • A requirement on higher education institutions to dance to the economic growth tune, replacing the freedom to think widely with functional training – and charging students unprecedented fees for the service.
  • A feeble response to climate change, particularly on educating the wider public about the need for action.
  • A housing crisis, despite a National Planning Policy Framework which stacks the odds firmly in favour of house-builders wanting to build where they want (rather than where is most sustainable).
  • A major decline in well-being: between 1991 and 2009 prescriptions dispensed for antidepressants increased by 334 per cent in England [3].
  • A system of government which focusses not only on the short-term but also the trivial (have a look at the government’s announcements website) at the expense of confronting the challenges facing society and the planet, eg the failure of successive governments to develop a coherent energy policy.
  • Proposals for “devolution” which would do no more than hand more power to mainstream politicians at the local level.
  • The reduction of politics to a game of tactical voting ….

I could go on. There is a ferment of analysis at present of what’s wrong with our society and how we can put things right. Others explain it better than I do.

We, the baby-boomers, have had huge advantages. A world free from global conflicts; greater access to free education and knowledge; mass communications; a breaking down of deference and (almost) the old social barriers; opportunities undreamt of by our parents. We achieved much, but collectively lost sight of a moral compass. The legacy we leave to the next generations is not one we should be proud of. Just how bad it is is something I’ve only recently understood.

Putting things right must start now. The mainstream political parties and their allies (or bosses) in the media and big business have shown no interest in righting these wrongs. Only the Green Party has a progressive radical agenda – and policies to support it. That small number of people – more far-sighted than I’ve been – who have voted for them in the past have been prevented by our electoral system from making a proportionate impact.

It’s naïve to think that the 2015 General Election will see the scales fall from the eyes of enough people to elect a Green government. There’s strong evidence of substantial support among younger people for the Green Party, which is hugely encouraging.

But it’s not enough. Those of us who – by action or inaction – helped create the present mess have a moral duty to join in kick-starting change. We need to create a sustainable society – one in which there is no compromise on achieving social justice and on environmental salvation. The two are interlinked – if you feel society is giving you a bum deal, where’s the incentive to save the planet?

The Green Party stands for the common good. Now is the time.

Notes:

[1] See in particular the work of Positive Money at http://www.positivemoney.org/

[2] See for example the work of nef at http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/inequality-and-financialisation

The Equality Trust provides a vivid graphic at http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/multimedia/infographic-income-inequality-uk

[3] Quoted in the ONS publication Social Trends 41, Health chapter, at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/social-trends-rd/social-trends/social-trends-41/health.pdf