How private renters are filtered out of democracy

Campaign groups like Generation Rent have been doing a great job of pushing renters up the political agenda. They’re in the Independent today with a story showing that renters will outnumber homeowners in 107 Parliamentary constituencies by 2021.

But political parties will take figures like those with a pinch of salt. Private renters, in particular, are filtered out of the democratic process and so have much less clout than their sheer numbers might suggest.

The first filter is that almost half of private renters aren’t even registered to vote. According to the 2012-2013 English Housing Survey, only 56% of private renting households are registered, compared to 78% of social renters and 87% of homeowners.

This obviously means that political parties will be less interested in chasing their votes.

The second filter is that they won’t then be canvassed on the doorstep. Parties will use the electoral register for this, because it makes sense to prioritise your scarce time by talking to people who can actually vote.

So almost half of private renters are invisible to the party elections campaigns.

Campaigners would do well to follow the example of Waltham Forest Renters, encouraging more private tenants to register to vote. Doing this visibly at a local level may persuade local political parties to take private tenants’ concerns more seriously, and getting more people on the register will naturally mean more private tenants being spoken to by parties and potentially voting.

There’s a third filter, created by private tenants moving around much more often than social tenants and homeowners. According to the English Housing Survey, every year one third of private renting households move, compared to just 4% of homeowners and 10% of social renters.

When local parties canvass door-to-door, they keep records on people they spoke to. They might use this for follow-up visits, targeted letters, or a knock on elections day encouraging you to vote if they think you might support them. But if you move every year, you’re unlikely to be tracked by the local political parties. The two thirds of private tenants who move within three years won’t be tracked between European and General Elections, and in many places between local elections.

So only around one third of private renters are stable enough for political parties to really engage with them.

There’s very little campaigners can do about this third problem, besides change the law so private tenants are more stable and secure in their homes, which makes it a ‘chicken and egg’ problem.

Thankfully, at least three parties in the UK look likely to go into the next General Election with policies to do that, to varying extents – the Green Party, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats.

So all tenants and campaigners can ask their local candidates about renting, putting the issue on the agenda in every local scrap for a Parliamentary seat.

You could also join one of the many fantastic local tenants campaigning organisations popping up around the UK, because while voting is vitally important if you want your interests to be heard, it’s not the only way of engaging with our democracy!

Space4Cycling in Crystal Palace

I’m supporting the Space4Cycling campaign in the Crystal Palace ward, where I’m standing for the Green Party.

I often cycle up and down Anerley Hill on the way to work. It’s a steep bit of road, difficult for those of us who aren’t zipping up to Cadence every weekend on expensive road bikes. Cycling uphill without wavering a little is hard work, so providing some protected space at the expense of a little car parking makes perfect sense.

Of course some people who currently park their cars there will lose out. But I want to see streets in Crystal Palace, London, the whole of the UK transformed to serve the needs of people on foot, bike and public transport, and this can only happen at the expense of cars because we have limited road space.

The alternative is to leave almost 20,000 vehicles a day trundling along Anerley Hill, creating peak hour traffic jams. This level of traffic is responsible for illegal levels of air pollution, which will remain until at least 2020 if we don’t do something drastic. Find out more about this here. If you walk down to Anerley Road on a school day, you’ll see dozens of children buying fast food, but very few on bikes. Designing roads for cars at the expense of bikes is unhealthy and bad for the environment.

I would also like to introduce 20mph limits on far more roads in the area, particularly for rat runs like Thicket Road, introduce ‘filtered permeability’ to more roads to reduce traffic, and fix the various barriers, potholes and speed humps that make cycling through Crystal Palace Park confusing and unpleasant.

I want to make it easy, safe and pleasant for everyone to cycle in Crystal Palace, whether they’re an 8 year old going to school in the morning, or a fit 80 year old heading up the hill to the shops.

Some thoughts on the Space4Cycling campaign

I think this new campaign from the LCC and all the local cycling groups is brilliant. It is showing yet again that cyclists can be mobilised to make their voices heard in the democratic system, and I only hope it has a big an impact on local councillors as their lobbying of the London Assembly has had.

I also hope that councillors elected in May honour their promises. I do wonder at the Labour councillors signing up in Southwark, a borough I used to live in and cycle through every day. The council has spent four years doing next to nothing for cyclists, while scrapping the London Cycle Network from its Transport Plan and actually removing cycle lanes from busy roads.

As the Stop the Killing campaign found, many other councils are just as bad. Are all these candidates honestly going to push for the cyclists’ proposals having failed to do so in the past four years? One can only hope.

My one other reservation is that it is difficult for smaller parties and independent candidates to get onto the site. For those who have never fought an election, I can assure you that it’s a huge challenge for small parties dependent on volunteers with full-time jobs just to get all the paperwork in to the returning officer, let alone get a list of candidates out to anyone who asks and respond to lots of lobbying requests.

This campaign web site has been live for some time now, and while very well organised parties can get their candidate lists out nice and early, many others won’t have a final list until nominations close next week.

At the moment, the web site gives a very poor impression of the Green Party, for example, even though we have consistently been the most pro-bike party in the capital. That isn’t just my biased opinion, it was also the view of the Londoners on Bikes campaign in the 2012 elections.

So at the time of writing over 12,000 people will have contacted an incomplete set of candidates, and might think the missing candidates and parties have nothing to say about cycling. I hope you, dear reader, will bear that in mind and hold off sending your lobbying email for a couple of weeks.

A defence of ideology

A defence of ideologyOne of the many abuses of the English language in mainstream political parlance is the denigration of ideology.

Defending his government’s cuts to public spending, David Cameron wrote in 2011 that:

This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country’s problems, not by ideology.

More recently, Nick Clegg attacked Michael Gove’s education policies as ideological, reportedly saying:

Parents don’t want ideology to get in the way of their children’s education

In fact, Nick Clegg really appears to have it in for ideology because he attacks it all the time. He said a couple of weeks ago:

I don’t take an ideological approach to public spending.

But it isn’t just our dear leaders trying to avoid the whiff of ideology. You hear it all the time – the Government’s cuts are “ideological” (i.e. bad), the Green Party’s opposition to nuclear is “ideological” (i.e. invalid). Just as Cameron denied the charge, Greens sometimes protest that their opposition to nuclear power isn’t ideological.

Hang on a second, aren’t they all involved in politics?

My concise Oxford English Dictionary defines ideology as:

a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy

Surely David Cameron should be guided by a system of political and economic theories and beliefs when deciding what this country’s problems are, and how to deal with them? Surely Nick Clegg’s opposition to Michael’s Gove’s policies stems in part from his ideology, and one would hope his approach to public spending would follow his liberal ideology and not whatever “commonsense” notion struck him at each meeting?

The Green Party’s opposition to nuclear power is absolutely ideological. A core tenet of the party’s ideology is putting power, be it electrical or economic, into the hands of the people, not corporations. Corporate power tends to be unaccountable, to act in its own interests, to lie and dissemble when it has done something wrong. Nuclear power can only be run either by the state or corporations, and is largely run by the latter. Another core tenet, coming from our ecological roots, is valuing diversity and resilience. Staking a very large share of our energy future on one technology supplied by a couple of companies in a dozen or so plants that need fuel from a handful of countries doesn’t seem to fit the bill. The party aims for peace and nuclear disarmament, so any move by the UK government that would put more potential weapon material into the world, and that would legitimate nuclear weapons programmes in countries like Iran, should be opposed. So the Green Party prefers a diverse mix of renewable energy technologies that can be owned by individuals, community-led companies, councils, small enterprises and, yes, big companies who build massive offshore wind farms.

To my mind, it is our ideological objections to nuclear power that are our strongest arguments. I’ve never been able to get my head around the comparative costs, and I’ve never wanted to cobble together information about safety that I don’t understand. But I don’t trust nuclear PLC as far as I can throw them, and if we can do without nuclear then I’m ideologically opposed to it.

The most infuriating example of this ideology denial is the claim that “it’s just about supply and demand”. I see this all the time on Twitter and on blogs, whenever anybody has the cheek to write something more sophisticated than an A-level economics essay.


Apart from the fact that this is extremely simplistic economics, it is also very often used in an ideological fashion. For example, you see people saying that council housing is pointless because it is just trying to buck the market, and at the end of the day the housing problem just comes down to supply and demand. People making this argument will often claim that anyone who disagrees is both “economically illiterate” and “ideological”, as though an economic theory based on the logic of a free market that has no place for public housing isn’t ideological. A variant is that the planning system must be dismantled because it gets in the way of supply and so makes house prices high, as though there is no value to the planning system and no objective for housing policy besides affordable prices on the open market.

Of course, ideology can prevent people from finding shared ground. Many blame inflexible ideology for the state of affairs in American politics, illustrated by this neat cartoon:


But this is a defect of the political process and the entrenched positions of politicians who depend upon their extreme wings to win primary selection. It isn’t the fault of ideology per se.

Let’s not shy away from ideology, please. Let’s not pretend we are all pragmatists arguing over the best way to manage a one-party state. Let’s talk about our values, our beliefs, the theories that guide our decisions.


This topic came up today in a conversation with a friend, Tom Hill. He suggested that “ideological” is often used to mean that somebody is ignoring, misrepresenting or lying about evidence to protect their own ideological position, as those who are pro or anti-nuclear are known to do from time to time! The same can be true of the reverse; somebody can try to pretend they are simply acting on evidence in order to cover their ideology, as Nick Clegg and David Cameron clearly seem to be doing in the above examples.

What is the population question?

The population debate rumbles on. David Attenborough crashed back into the debate with a pretty crass set of remarks about not sending food aid to places struck by famine, earning lots of impassioned responses. The activist-comedian Robert Newman wrote an interesting piece pointing out that population growth is tailing off so claiming it really isn’t the issue, and so it continues, round and around.

At the Green Party autumn conference, I attended an early morning panel discussion on population. We heard from a speaker from Population Matters, who argued that our impact on the rest of nature is a function of our population, our affluence (and inequality) and our technology. I explored this “IPAT” formula a bit in my previous blog entry. Then Sebastian Power made more or less the same case as Newman – that we suffer from (in his words) “rich white men” consuming too much, not too many people. He suggested that talk of population is really a way of blaming poor, black women from the global south for problems created by rich white men from the global north, and that we should ignore population. Sebastian offered to send references for his claims, which I asked him for after the panel, but I’m waiting for him to reply so I won’t get into his arguments. But I do want to reflect on the way in which he and the speaker from Population Matters seemed to talk at cross purposes.

The problem is, what question are we discussing when we talk about population? I think Power, Newman and others look back and make it a question of blame, but I want to look to the future.

Is population growth to blame for our environmental problems?

This is an interesting area for discussion. It is pretty obvious that poor, black women in the global south aren’t to blame for climate change. I think Newman is right to argue that, to date, “the problem facing a population of 7 billion is not too many people crowding too small a piece of land, but too few people owning too much world.”

It’s a bit of a simplification – there are plenty of examples of materially poorer civilisations collapsing, and of poorer societies today harming their natural environment. But of course to make it less of a simplification, we have to talk about technology and affluence (and inequality), as per the IPAT formula, to explore whether it’s possible that better technology and a better economy and political system could avoid these problems, making population an irrelevance.

Who is then to blame is a further interesting question. Are we Brits all to blame for our excessive consumerism, or is our ethical agency diminished by marketing and social psychology that makes it difficult for us to resist? This is a big question that would require a lengthy tangent into ethics, psychology, sociology and political theory. Suffice to say, it isn’t so simple as saying that we automatically blame people when we consider their environmental impacts to be relevant.

That said, there is another question.

Can the earth support ten billion moderately wealthy people?

This is the question I explored in depth in my previous blog entry, and which I want to return to.  I’m not interested in blame. I want to look to the future and consider whether the better world I aspire to is possible. It might be possible, with current technology, for seven billion people to live within the earth’s limits if we all converged on the average global income, and the quality of life that implies. But that’s a pretty low income! If the world were really equitable, if everybody had a similar and decent quality of life, could the earth sustain ten billion of us, or indeed seven billion?

To answer this question, we need to look at our best technology, our most radical politics, our most successful behaviour change policies, and ask whether they can meet the challenges we face. In my previous blog post I looked at whether they could:

  • reduce our greenhouse gas emissions very radically in a very short space of time, such that ten billion people could attain a decent standard of living
  • reduce our overall resource consumption to a “one planet” level, when almost no developed country is anywhere near that level, even the widely admired greener countries like Sweden

I concluded that a very large population makes both tasks a good deal harder. Stephen Emmott, in his very readable but flawed book 10 billion, takes this to the conclusion that “we’re fucked”, largely because he is pessimistic about the likelihood of the right behaviour change policies ever being enacted by democratic governments, and because he sees no problem-free saviour technologies. The flaws lie in his exaggerated use of statistics, but it is still worth a read because of the range of real problems he covers and his analysis of our chances of tackling them. Newman laughs at Emmott’s “we’re fucked” conclusion in his article, but offers no rebuttal.

There are many complicated aspects to the question of whether the earth can support ten billion moderately wealthy people. We most often hear about climate change, and the bold assertion that with the right technology and politics everything will be fine. I want to briefly look at just two wider aspects – feeding ourselves, and our consumerism – to illustrate how much more complicated it is.

Feeding ten billion

One absolutely massive challenge is feeding the world. Very often, I see people point out that we already produce enough food to feed everyone, that the problem is the unfair distribution. Too much is wasted by rich people, too much land is used to produce feedstock for cattle to give rich people burgers, too much land is used to produce biofuels and luxury crops, all while too many poor people go hungry.

That’s probably all correct to a point, but it ignores all the problems this “adequate” farming system has created and that would continue if we were to move to a more equitable system of agriculture.

Half of the world’s tropical rainforests are gone, often cleared to provide agricultural land. Large areas of grassland previously home to wildlife, from our wildflower meadows in Britain to wide open prairies in the USA, are now chemical-soaked monocultures for agriculture. Can we reverse the massive loss of biodiversity, both globally (e.g. the 30 per cent decline in biodiversity in the last forty years), and nationally (e.g. in the UK the 60 per cent of species that have declined despite all our conservation efforts) while feeding the world?

To take one example, it might be possible to stop a lot of deforestation if we massively reduced our meat consumption, possibly by getting everyone to go vegetarian. But is that even remotely likely to happen on a large scae in the next few decades?

Work by the Stockholm Environment Institute offers more problems for feeding ourselves. A paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecology and Society quantified nine major ecological challenges we face, including those I have already touched on. While feeding ten billion with a good diet, the paper suggests we would also have to:

  • reduce the amount of nitrogen we fix in the soils for agriculture by about two thirds, bearing in mind that artificial means of fixing nitrogen were among the key innovations in the “green revolutions” that enabled us to feed so many people
  • no more than double our freshwater usage while expanding irrigation for agriculture, both to grow food crops and others like cotton for clothing

These are global perspectives. There are also more local issues, for example in water stressed regions like south east England we are already beyond the point of sustainable water use, and it is difficult to accommodate the growing population even with technological and behaviour changes.

With all of these challenges, population becomes an important factor. Ten billion people means twice as great a challenge as five billion. Can we feed five or ten billion people sustainably – addressing all of those concerns – even if we have a more equal world, with less food waste and damaging biofuels? I’m not sure, but I think people who want to say “population doesn’t matter” need to answer these questions.

Keeping ten billion people comfortable

The more you look at the impacts of our civilisation, the harder this all becomes.

Take mobile phones, computers, TVs and cars. Just mining the tin for current demand has devastating social and environmental consequences. Friends of the Earth are pragmatically calling for better practice, but are we likely to persuade five or ten billion people to move away from a disposable, consumerist culture?

Even if we did, providing ten billion people with durable mobile phones will necessarily mean twice the amount of tin mining as for five billion. Then there are all the other components, with all the other raw materials.

As I wrote at the start, considering the environmental consequences of the global poor becoming consumers doesn’t mean we blame them, nor that we blame them more than ourselves, or those in positions of political and economic power.

The difference between realism and utopia

Underlying many of these questions is a tension between the utopian vision – what is possible in theory if we transform behaviour, economics, politics and technology at every level – and what we might learn from the past few decades of intransigence and environmental damage.

Maybe it is theoretically possible to address all our problems, but is that likely to happen? What do we think is likely to happen in the next few decades, and how do we best shape our future and adapt to it starting with the current reality? How can we continue to give hope that a utopia is possible, while fighting for realistic steps towards it and accommodating our vision within the democratic process? Unless you are a person of rigid principle, unwilling to engage in democratic politics, can we ignore population when considering those questions?

So what?

Those questions bring me to the most compelling argument against the “let’s talk about population” position that I heard in the panel at the Green Party conference. It was, essentially, “so what?” What policies can we enact that will really change this?

A population of seven billion is locked in. Even if you take out net immigration, the population of the UK is still growing in spite of some of the best family planning services in the world. The ONS found in the 2011 census that natural change accounted for 44 per cent of our population growth. Making it harder for people to drive their car while improving public transport is one thing, but trying to stop them having a child is quite different.

At this point I stray into areas where I lack the expertise and professional experience that I feel I have brought to the discussion so far. I suspect there are ways we could improve family planning and sex education in the UK, for example, but it’s not an area I know a great deal about. So I don’t have a strong answer to the “so what?” question,

What I am convinced of is that population is relevant, as well as affluence, inequality and technology. It is wrong to close down consideration of population.

You know, people aren’t stupid. Most of the arguments I have gone through in this blog entry are pretty intuitive and widely understood. Declaring that population is simply irrelevant makes you look like you have buried your head in the sand to protect an ideological position, unmoved by facts.

It would be much better to acknowledge that population is part of the equation, and to then explore the best responses to our problems that we can press for in a democratic society and that, we hope, reflect our values of ecology and equality.

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Evidence

Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre’s interesting programme on evidence-based policy making went out yesterday evening. Like so much of his work, I found myself alternately agreeing vigorously and disagreeing in exasperation. The trouble is not what he does say, but what he doesn’t.

His central argument is a familiar one.

In medicine, scientists determine what works using randomised controlled trials. Give one set of patients a pill, give another set a placebo, and see what difference the pill makes. Do this lots of times, trying to control for confounding variables (like the participants’ lifestyles) and if possible make it “double blind” by ensuring neither the participants nor the researchers conducting the test know which group anyone is in.

This method gives us a high degree of certainty that some pills work while others don’t, or do so less well. It is far superior to simply acting on a hunch, monitoring a particular outcome and then assuming it was a result of your pill, without checking whether it might have been some other variable you haven’t considered and controlled.

So why can’t this method be applied to public policy? Why do we subject children to educational methods, the unemployed to work programmes, and criminals to rehabilitation methods that lack this rigorous evidence?

It’s a good question, and I completely agree with him that it would be good to do this more to weed out the “bad evidence” that informs so many policies. I’ve been supporting Jenny Jones in her scrutiny of the Mayor of London’s mandatory work experience pilot, which seems bedevilled by bad evidence, never mind whether it might be wasting the time of young people suffering in a very difficult jobs market and now feeling punished for it.

I felt sufficiently strongly about our approach to policy making to include several proposals in the Green Party’s manifesto for the 2012 London Mayoral and Assembly elections (PDF).

But there is also a danger that evidence arrived at through rigorous research could become “bad evidence” if it were applied technocratically.

For what Goldacre’s radio programme ignored, inexplicably, is the normative element of policy. He talked about “outcomes”, but how do we define a good outcome? It might seem obvious – stop a criminal reoffending, get a young person back into work. But it isn’t that simple.

It might be the case that one particular approach to criminal justice is more effective than another, but it might be considered unjust. What if we found that all forms of punishment led to higher reoffending rates? Should we drop our long-held belief in the moral right of punishment in favour of better “outcomes”? This is a normative, moral question – short of brushing it aside we cannot ignore the role of normative considerations.

Both the present and previous governments went for “workfare” schemes where unemployed people lose their benefits if they refuse to take up work placements. One of the supposed outcomes of this policy is that more people get work as a result. My reading  of the evidence for these suggests they don’t. But proponents also make a normative claim that it is right to make people work for their benefits, especially if they haven’t worked for a long time, if at all. On the other side, some (myself included) think that a compassionate and wealthy society such as ours can extend a universal right to a basic standard of living and shouldn’t impose conditions on those basic benefits.

Goldacre didn’t say that evidence should trump political philosophy. But the two can often get confused in political debate. Politicians can lose the courage of their convictions and feel compelled to assert that evidence supports their case, when they began sure only of their convictions. Opposition can often feel that a policy must be “wrong” because the evidence shows it doesn’t achieve the outcome they would think right, perhaps ignoring the different view of a “right outcome” held by the Government.

It isn’t sufficient to consider these points in isolation – to, on the one hand, ascertain the evidence about the outcomes of a particular policy, and on the other to have one’s normative beliefs entirely in parallel, and to then attempt to reconcile (or more likely confuse) them in the murky world of political debate. Normative and empirical considerations must inform each other.

Another very interesting series on Radio 4, Melvyn Bragg’s examination of “the value of culture“, included a very good programme today on the old “two cultures” debate most famously expressed by C. P. Snow. He was concerned in the 1950s that artists weren’t assimilating the advances of science, and vice versa, to the detriment of both, and to the point where both “parallel cultures” viewed each other with suspicion. Instead of seeking to bridge the gap through understanding and engagement, they preached at each other. Goldacre’s programme  would have been much improved if he had engaged with both the empirical and the normative.

Sitting around the data campfire

Similar to Gail Ramster, I went along to the Friday afternoon part of UK GovCamp 2012 without really knowing why. I suspect most people would say the same thing. You go because… well, you never know which useful people you might bump into, and what interesting things you might hear about. Plus a colleague Janet Hughes was going, and I’d cleared my desk of essential work for the week.

Here are a few takeaway thoughts from my afternoon.

1. I barely knew anyone

It’s years since I was a fish in a geeky pool, active in the free culture movement, the KDE community, software patent activism and other odds and sods.

For the past five years or so I’ve moved onto land, or perhaps a coral reef, to be more involved with issues around the environment, housing and pay inequality. The past two or so have been working as a local government employee at the GLA, supporting Green Party Members of the London Assembly. They have pushed for open data, but it’s not exactly a hot topic in our weekly meetings. My only remaining connection has been OpenStreetMap, my one geeky obsession.

Still, it didn’t matter, go along even if you know no-one at all.

2. It was nice to reconnect with optimistic techies

The event reminded me of one of the things I most like about these crowds: they’re all optimistic about the future and enthusiastic about the common interest.

I’m glad I managed to quickly chat to a few people I did know, sort of… Gail via Twitter, and Giles Gibson from the Herne Hill Forum, but sadly I only said as much as “hello” to people like Emer Coleman and Chris Osborne. That’s what you get for arriving late and leaving early.

3. It’s more meaty than you’d think

That’s “meatspace” as in “the real physical world”, compared to “cyberspace” online. Compared to events a few years ago on open data and technology, most of the discussion I heard was about councils and companies working on staff structures and consultation processes, and then thinking about how technology and data could help.

I used to get frustrated with discussions that started with the assumption that open data and technology was going to revolutionise the world. That seemed upside down to me. So I was pleasantly surprised at this.

4. There’s a lot of “we”

Somebody pointed this out in one session – it’s very easy to apply “we” to the wider population when you really mean “we sort of people in this room”.

Often “we” are innovators or early adopters of ideas that become more mainstream, like using a smart phone to access services. Sometimes “we” are set to be a significant minority, like journalists, bloggers and politicians who use data to enhance their investigatory work. Just as often “we” are a world unto our own.

It’s fine, innocent mostly, typical of any event with like-minded people. It just grated on me when people talked about reconfiguring public services or management around their preferences, as though the rest of the world will thank them.

I might make a badge for myself if I go again, with the slogan “we’re not normal” or similar!

5. Theres a lot going on out there

Cocooned in City Hall, working on affordable housing or the pay gap, it’s hard to keep even a toe dipped in this pool. It was great hearing from so many people in so many walks of work and life doing so many useful things.

Sometimes when I map an area for OpenStreetMap, walking down a street noting house numbers, I feel a bit bewildered by all these people living here! London feels impossibly enormous. I left UKGovCamp feeling similarly bewildered by the enormity of work going on in this field, relative that is to my own small bits and pieces in my job and my free time.

Open scrutiny in the age of open data

This is the first of perhaps two or three short essays inspired by Emer Coleman‘s masters dissertation on open data, written in a personal capacity and not as part of my job. In this post I want to look at what her proposed model of “iterative and adaptive open government” would mean for scrutiny of the Mayor of London. Her dissertation considers the difference between the New Public Management approach, characterised by public managers setting the goals and other public managers auditing their performance, and an emerging “Open Governance” approach using open data.

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The cut and thrust: how Green Party policy really works

At recent party conferences and meetings of the London Federation of Green Parties, it has struck me that many members lack any experience or understanding of how our elected politicians work with party policy. I was in the same boat until I started to work closely with our London Assembly members, Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones, so I thought I’d share my experiences from the other side of the valley.

The main misconception I want to address is that all policy advocated by elected politicians can, or should, be found in our written party policy. Another way of stating this myth is to say that the policies we debate and pass at conference provide the bulk of the detailed policy used by elected politicians.

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On ineffective venting: twitter and the cuts

I’m not really a fan of Malcolm Gladwell and his cohort of star authors who spin one vaguely interesting idea into a entire “paradigm-smashing” book. But he is spot on when he dismisses Twitter as “more of the same… not the enemy of the status quo”.

His vaguely interesting idea here is basically that really big changes come about when people with strong social ties are willing to stick it out in a nasty battle to win the day. Social networks with weak ties (e.g. just following each other on Twitter) will fall apart if they try to take on power to make a really big change because in the process they will probably have to suffer a loss of income, physical injury, etc. Twitter messaging won’t motivate them to stick out the hardship.

But by pitting Twitter against a political movement as momentous as American Civil Rights in the 1950s and 60s, he obscures a much more fundamental point. In fact, by obsessing on the tools and tactics employed by activists he fails to notice that the Twitter mythology and failures he describes are really to do with an absense of good strategy.

Ineffective online activism is better exemplified by 38 Degrees, the spam service for angry people looking for a quick fix. Their recent spat-in-a-teacup with an MP exposed the curious importance some put on being able to “send a message to the man” no matter how little impact that might have.

If you want to vent your angrer in reaction to events that piss you off – for example, to attack the Government’s agenda of cuts – then Tweeting angry messages and starting Facebook groups are a great way of satisfying your emotions. But so are marches through city centres, rain-sodden rallies outside town halls and petitions on street stalls. Being ineffective isn’t an online phenomenon.

In discussing a reaction to the Government’s cuts agenda there will be endless calls for petitions, marches, lobbies, speeches, stalls, and blogs. Policy platforms will be formulated without any regard to whether they would actually help, by for example lobbying councils to pass illegal budgets. Lessons from the past will be brushed aside or even return from the grave because the idea of venting, of making a “clear statement”, will be more appealing than the business of working out how we can actually shift the agenda.

Twitter, Facebook, blogs and the rest can be very useful tactics if put in the context of a wider strategy that convincingly describes how those tactics will bring about your aims.

Gladwell takes his vaguely interesting idea too far by suggesting that “the revolution won’t be tweeted”. What he really means is that “tweeting won’t cause a revolution.”

Some clarifications – what is wrong with Open Street Map?

Some lively debate flared up on the tail of my previous post on OpenStreetMap governance, where I made my criticism of the “Just Fucking Do It” philosophy that was labelled “do-ocracy”. Harry noted in his diary that there has been some bickering on Twitter on the question of what might be wrong with the otherwise-excellent OpenStreetMap.

My principal objection to the “do-ocratic” model is that it excludes “those who can’t” from setting the direction of the project, and that as a consequence OpenStreetMap is unlikely to meet the needs of a great many people.

Did I mean that developers are lazily or selfishly ignoring others’ needs? No, I am aware of and indebted to the efforts of many volunteers working to make OpenStreetMap more accessible and usable. Only a handful of community members refuse to engage in grown-up debate.

Do I mean to whine because I am excluded? Not at all. I consider myself to be very technically skilled and sufficiently time rich tohave contributed a lot over five years. I’ve dropped off mailing lists because I’m not that time rich and I’ve not got the skills to develop many tools I’d like, but that’s life.

So do I want developers to be subject to the force of a governing body, to dance to a top-down tune? No, I am a great fan of communities that harness the energy and enthusiasm of people who choose of their own accord to hack on things that interest them.

Do I think OpenStreetMap will fall apart if it doesn’t address my concerns? No, Tom Hughes rightly pointed out that a legitimate path for the project would be to remain a haven for the technically skilled and time rich, leaving others to step in and enable a wider community of enthusiasts or create business opportunities just as MapQuest have recently announced.

Am I suggesting that none of this is being discussed elsewhere? Not at all, I’m aware that some Foundation members are trying to tackle these sorts of issues.

My objection to the do-ocracy boils down to thinking that it’s a shame. I think OpenStreetMap could be much more, and that it stands in danger of being forked or ignored (as it already is) by a great many who would find it useful and add a great deal to the community. So long as key decisions and discussions are dominated by the technically skilled and time rich who can “just fucking do it”, the project will continue to reflect their preferences.

Giving the OpenStreetMap Foundation a wider and deeper remit, putting a corporate fundraiser at the top of the priority list and making an effort to include a variety of Board members from backgrounds other than core OSM hacking will all help. I’m glad that Mikel Maron, Thea Clay, Harry Wood and countless others are actively working to make this happen.