Power to the People – And, Let’s Build a Railway Along the M3.

I have just returned, delighted and excited, from the bubble of Brighton where the Labour Party Conference was held this year. I am now well versed in the new Green Economic Revolution which involves a complete change of mind set. No more consumerism, no more private profiteering, no more isolation, no more feeling powerless.  Under a Labour government, people will live in a green and pleasant land of community-based initiatives, running enterprises where power lies with people. People will take back control.

I know this sounds off the wall, and I talk slightly tongue in cheek, but talking and discussing the range of initiatives involved in a green revolution was exhilarating. I went to fringe meetings that discussed basic income, the green economy, discussed digital power, new ways of democracy, and new structures of engagement. Five days later, I emerged from the Brighton bubble feeling like there are alternatives to the insecure, vulnerable, exploitative society that we currently live in.

However, my problem is what to do with it all now I’m back at home in Ireland. I don’t feel that there is any forum to channel this new-found energy and knowledge. There are only three political parties that operate in Cavan, and none of them appeal or appear to be promoting any kind of change from the status quo. So, I will write about the experience of being at Labour Party Conference which really inspired hope, an emotion I had despaired of ever feeling again. But, let me start at the beginning.

We flew into sunshine, and went straight to our Airbnb in Kemptown which was light, airy, very comfortable. I immediately felt very at home which was a good thing because every morning I needed to potter about in my PJs and make lots of tea to get myself over the night before. The first evening we went to a Unite Rally. The wine and beer literally flowed. I happened to be standing near the bar, and spent most of the evening, acting as bar maid as I responded to endless requests to pass a bottle, pour more wine, hand over a fresh glass. Meanwhile, the speakers boomed. There were few specifics, hardly any detail on policy, and I was skeptical until Danielle Rowley talked passionately about £500 billion that would be spent on wind farms, retro fitting, solar programmes and free bus travel for the under 25s.  Then John McDonnell talked of a new architecture of systematic change. It sounded good, but, after four glasses of wine, everything had a rosy tint, and I wouldn’t have been clear what anything meant.  However, over the next few days. I was to find out.

I got up early the next morning to explore Brighton before my first fringe meeting on Basic Income. Brighton is higgle piggle of apartments, hotels, beautiful regency squares and stunning Edwardian and Victorian splendour. Everywhere there is fabulous stuccoed, classical styled exterior mouldings, and gorgeous bay windows. The beautiful facades of Victorian and Georgian hotels stretch out along the prom, apparently to infinity. The streets are full of delis, cafes and posh restaurants where you can sit outside and watch the world (and an endless stream of homeless people) go by. There are beautiful cast iron balconies full of colourful geraniums. In the lanes, you can shop to your heart’s content. There is the ancient pavilion with its classic columns, porticos and curlicues. The 150 year old Brighton Pier is a wonderful old fashioned den of inequity, full of slot machines, shove penny, fortune telling, do nuts, popcorn, rock sticks, and amusement rides. The beach is the colour of burnished copper and sea-side bars beckon you to enjoy a beer or a cocktails while the sun sets and the homeless settle into doorways and sleeping bags to endure the cold east wind.

My explorations were complemented at lunchtime by the best sort of tour one can have from my niece, Alice (“that’s the pavilion, that’s a really popular shop that sells everything, that’s the best pizza place, that’s an excellent pub). Although a Northern lassie, Alice loves Brighton, and I could see why. It hums. Alice said she suffered from FOMO (fear of missing out). Yes, I understand, Brighton has that buzz. The place reminds me a  giant Galway; an image that actually gives me the shivers, but it has the same atmosphere.

Looking back from the comfort of my armchair at home, it seems that my days passed between effervescent and fervently enthusiastic fringe meetings and alcohol fuelled rallies. But, what more could you ask for from a party conference?  Every day, passing the Brighton centre, to get to my different venues, I walked past columns of tall, young police (mainly men) marching in front of me in columns of six, (why, I wondered) or they would be standing upright, in line,  along the wall, rifles abreast their chests, getting in the way of Socialist Alliance or Labour Briefing activists dishing out leaflets and tote bags. At night, in the ornate glory and plush of the Grand Hotel, people were huddled in cabals, meeting, briefing, plotting, hale and hearty, back slapping and air kissing. Everywhere I went, people were talking of change. The air was filled with conviction that soon our world was to be transformed. I found it strange to hear snippets of conversation such as “the green transition”, “the new common wealth”, “the coming national investment bank” blowing about in gusts of wind when I sat on a bench and watched the world go by.

There wasn’t too much of watching the world go by though. I had too many fringe meetings to go to. My first was on Basic Income (a proposal which would provide every British resident with a decent basic income – clawing it back from the rich through the tax system). I wanted to get a handle on this and how it would work. The fringe was to launch a report by Guy Standing written for John McDonnell. Guy Standing justified Basic Income on the ethical grounds of social justice, security, and providing a basic opportunity for all. Basic Income would slay the eight modern giants of

  • inequality,
  • insecurity,
  • debt,
  • stress,
  • the precariousness of life (termed precarity),
  • the fear of AI and robots,
  • extinction
  • right wing populism.

These eight giants were spawned from the five giants identified by Beveridge in his much heralded social policy report of 1942. They were: Disease, Illness, Ignorance, Squalor and Want. I say no more.

The argument against Basic Income has always been that people are inherently lazy and won’t work if they don’t have to. I don’t accept that. In my experience, people who don’t work usually find other interests and outlets to occupy their time – they mess on computers, take up sports, start to write, volunteer and out of this, new pastures and ideas emerge. I like the idea of not having to work all the hours God sends, of feeling financially secure enough to look after the children once a week, or see my parents, of not living hand to mouth, of training in new fields. Our new leisure time, which will only be increased with AI, is served well by Basic Income. Anyway, the report identifies various pilots taking place around the world, and it seems that John McD has agreed to pilot ten such projects, should labour be elected.

The eight giants mentioned above reared their ugly heads time and time again in Brighton. Austerity: The cuts in local services, the USC, the increased costs of housing, the need for foodbanks across both cities and rural areas, the working poor and the threat of homelessness and poverty seem to be rife in the UK. They are in Ireland too, but the Tories seems to have wielded the whip of austerity with a blind ignorance and unyielding harshness that the Irish didn’t. The precariousness of zero hour contracts, cut benefits have introduced fear, isolation, insecurity and individual vulnerability. People are scared. Everyone is living on their individual wits, battling alone. 

According to the Greening the Economy fringe I went to next, we need to stop the growth, stop consuming as much as we do, repair rather than renew, mend, recycle, adopt different co-operative economies and enterprises, share our common resources equitably, invest in communities and not in private individuals nor private corporations.  We need to reduce energy levels, shorten the working week, improve public transport, stop exploitative mining practices which abuse labour rights. We need to stop the arms production which serves the wars in Yemen and Africa elsewhere the world. We need to end the link between oil and the military and we need to stop giving our power and the public resources we own to the rich.

Yes, I think, if this happened, everyone’s stress levels would ease. My fears for the world would subside, ad if we reduced our energy production, we could start to offset climate change.  Working together to harness local resources, would increase my sense of community. I wouldn’t feel so alone and powerless. All my life, I have worked at local level, in local government or in community development. I strongly believe that we should be able to control our own lives, our own environment and share our own resources. The growth of consumerism and profit in the last forty years, alongside the reduction in the security people feel, particularly because of the failure of the corrupt banking system, once again serves only those people who have inherited wealth.

Municipal Socialism was the title of another Fringe meeting. Interestingly, it again raised the spectre of the eight giants – inequality, insecurity, fear, debt, stress, precarity, fear, extinction, nationalism. We heard from an Armenian local mayor in Turkey who worked with local Kurds, Christians, women, disability groups on a range of initiatives all of which were physically torn down by the Government who took over the running of the council and imprisoned and/or exiled its members. We heard from a black activist in Jackson, Mississippi who talked about the importance of learning how to implement action/policy in alliance with each other, without permission of the State.  In Jackson, every time the local authority introduced an initiative, the government legislated against it.  He called it ‘protagonistic governance’ and it was what they had to do to protect their community from the auuthorities.

Yes, there is new language. Some may call it jargon. Indeed, it sounds very like jargon, and it was hard to get my head around. But, I guess, new thinking requires new language. Precarity was new – but, now I see it all the time. Another such term for me was Commonwealth. I associated it with the countries colonised by Great Britain who come together to …not sure what they do. Common is an abusive term I associated with the upper classes – one they would use with their noses in the air. Wealth, I associated with the landed gentry and the corporate sector. However, ‘commonwealth’ is a term which Labour and the Green economy is taking back to refer to the common resources of the people – the land, the energy sources, the social capital of community that is ours by right. Yes, there was a lot of jargon – radical democratisation, circuits of solidarity, activist solidarity,– and I wouldn’t use these terms, but I think they refer to the importance of local people controlling their own lives by working together to ensure safety, quality of life for everyone.

I also went to a round table where we discussed digital democracy and new social enterprises. I learned a lot from the participants. There were so many ideas, so much hope and energy flowed. But, if I continue, you will all think I have gone mad. Anyway, I came out of that last Fringe into the World Transformed Tent set up by momentum just in time to listen to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech. I don’t usually bother listening to Leader’s speeches but this time, I did, and it was music to my ears.

On the way home, Jerry and I were discussing our week’s experiences (he spent more time in the conference hall). We picked up the car at the airport and drove up the M3.

“The M3 makes the journey so much easier,” he said, settling in for a snooze.

“Yes, but I think we should put a railway track on it, “ I replied. “They say they can’t build a railway because the land is private and they can’t CPO it. I don’t know why they can’t CPO it. They did to build a road which is now privately tolled. But, if they can’t, a railway track would be better. In fact, why don’t we turn all our roads into railway tracks?”

As you can see, I was inspired!

Brighton Pier
John McDonnell
Brighton Pavillion

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