Monzo (née Mondo)

I checked out my energy supplier and bank through https://www.earthdayswitch.org/ to see if they supported fossil fuel industries.

First up, energy. Scottish Power come out with a ‘terrible’ score and the site provides evidence for this. Only 30% of the energy comes from renewables. A few options for 100% renewables are suggested and I chose Good Energy. I will be paying a little bit more for my energy, but I’m reducing my use (removing gas appliance, no longer using tumble dryer etc.) so it should balance out, and it’s divesting from fossil fuels.

Scottish Power get a score of 'Terrible' on https://www.earthdayswitch.org/

Scottish Power get a score of ‘Terrible’ on https://www.earthdayswitch.org/

Next up, banking. Monzo get a score of ‘below our standard’ due to not having a public-facing climate policy. They do have a very short ethics statement and an old blog post on ethics. They say good things on accessibility and supporting vulnerable people to have accounts (and I like that you can have an account without putting any salary into it), but what about how they invest customers money? From current account funds, about 25% is lent back out to customers, and around 75% is held with the Bank of England. This seems fine. But it’s a bit more complicated from a climate perspective with their saving pot partners. If you want to use these (you don’t have to) then your money will be in one or more of the following (you get to choose):

  • Investec
  • Paragon
  • OakNorth
  • Shawbrook Bank

Monzo get a score of 'Below our standard' on https://www.earthdayswitch.org/

Investec claim to be carbon neutral. They reference the climate emergency and present themselves as heading in the right direction. They do however offer off-shore savings accounts to ‘maximise returns on your savings‘. And they do still invest in fossil fuel (fossil fuel policy Mar-2020) and use corporate-speak such as:

We have limited exposure to thermal coal… We will consider metallurgical coal projects on a case-by-case basis.

Paragon don’t think they have much of an impact on the environment (what is the money they lend out used for?) and focus instead on meeting the minium monitoring and reporting requirements set out by the UK government. They are more concerned that the environment might create financial risk to them, rather than their activities might cause risk to the environment:

Paragon is mainly engaged in mortgage, consumer and commercial finance. As a result, its overall environmental impact is considered to be low… climate change and other environmental factors may increase financial risk.

Oaknorth claim to also be carbon neutral, partly by reductions in air travel and the electricity used by IT infrastructure providers. Like all the providers claiming carbon neutrality here, there will be some element of carbon offsetting. This is not neccessarily a bad thing, but it can be a get-out-jail-free card for wealthy organisations to more easily get the badge and headline their PR desires (offsetting controversies). Searching their site for environment and climate brings up little of substance (just a values statement) and searching fossil fuels brings up no results.

Shawbrook bank don’t think the climate is important enough to mention on their about page. Gender equality and not getting into trouble from HMRC is the key focus there.

…so the issue of not having a climate statement is more important than I initially thought. If Monzo were fully committed to tackling the climate emergency they would have one and would be clear that they would not partner with financial providers who don’t have one and/or who invest in fossil fuels and other damaging activities. None of their savings partners are good enough in this respect and I wouldn’t put my money into them independently, so why would I do so through the shop-front of Monzo?

The switch site suggests 3 alternatives: Co-operative Bank, Nationwide and Tridos. I haven’t look at these in much detail yet, but Monzo might want to take inspiration from https://www.triodos.co.uk/about-us.


 

To Monzo

Hi there,

I messaged you about Monzo getting a bad rating on https://www.earthdayswitch.org/ and you helpfully sent me some info about what you do with customer assets. I don’t think there’s much of an issue with current account related money, but I think there are some serious concerns from a climate perspective on the companies you partner with for savings. I.e. Investec invest in fossil fuels and they also facilitate tax avoidance via offshore account provision. Paragon, in their own words, only see the climate as a risk to their financial operations, not the other way around. Oaknorth claim to be carbon neutral but have no actual statements on environment/climate. Shawbrook also say nothing about climate/environment.

I’ve been with you guys for a while now, I like the app and the customer service is 10/10, and I know you’re doing good stuff on accessibility, so I’m hoping that you’re open to taking some urgent steps forward on this issue? It would be great to see a climate policy statement online and for a commitment to only deal with similarly principled partners in future.

Many thanks

The Last Postscript

The impact of accurate war reporting on the prevalence of war has been overstated by some. It is more important to address how we have been conditioned to perceive all information – including information about war – through cultural filters which promote a violent response to problems; and how we tend to adopt a current-timeframe specific understanding of the experience of war rather than the eternal and universal experience of war.

After hearing Philip Gibbs recount his experiences of the Western Front in WW1, Prime Minister David Lloyd George said, “If people really knew [the reality], the war would be stopped tomorrow, but of course they don’t know and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds.”[1] But was Lloyd George’s hypothesis correct?

The effect of accurate reporting on the political decision-making process leading up to the launch of a new war is highly debatable. Leonard Downie Jr., Executive Editor of the Washington Post when the 2003- Iraq War began: “People who were opposed to the [2003- Iraq] war from the beginning and have been critical of the media’s coverage in the period before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded against the war. They have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media’s coverage had been different, there wouldn’t have been a war.“[2]

Accurate reporting of war does not guarantee any sort of public outcry – “information by itself has neither meaning nor consequences – both are created only through the active reception and through the scope of action of the audience.” Some people might respond emotionally to the information, but “compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. And when action does occur, it is not necessarily action which supports the ending of war.

For accurate reporting of war to lead to less war a number of factors would need to be present:

  1. accurate reporting (‘accurate’ needs defining) from current war-zones would need to be generated
  2. the reports would need to be transmitted to a ‘large enough’ audience
  3. the form and framing of the reporting and information would need to be conducive to the audience taking useful action
  4. the audience would need to actively receive the information with an open mind
  5. the audience would need to have scope for action which reduces, even by a small theoretical amount, the continuation of the war and/or the likelihood of future wars

Some thoughts on these factors follow with the conclusion that items 1 to 3 are not the prime concern of the average person, whereas items 4 and 5 are. The suggestion is that an educational response is perhaps the most effective response, while being the most often overlooked.

  1. Generating accurate reports from war-zones

The commercialisation of the media, particularly since the 1980s, has changed the balance of power strongly in favour of governments and their agencies, especially when it comes to war reporting which is expensive and requires access to be granted by the government to reporting locations. Carne Ross, Foreign Office diplomat at the time of the 2003- Iraq War: We would control access to the foreign secretary as a form of reward to journalists. If they were critical, we would not give them the goodies of trips around the world. We would feed them factoids of sanitised intelligence, or we’d freeze them out.” 

Embedding journalists in military units began for mostly positive reasons. The 1991 coalition war against Iraq had very little media coverage, so embedding journalists was a way to secure footage while affording journalists protection. But as research shows, where journalists become “embedded” and are allowed privileged access to the frontline they tend to reciprocate by adopting the government’s line. It prevents reporting on the war from all angles, and the biases of the limited sources are inherited by the reporters. The physical protection afforded to the journalist creates a social transaction in which the reciprocation is a favourable write-up [ref].

Non-compliant journalists are not just frozen out. Rageh Omaar: I happen to be the only journalist in the world that has seen the bombing of Al Jazeera Arabic’s bureaus in both Kabul in 2001 and in Baghdad in 2003. The case of the bombing of the Al Jazeera office in Kabul was without doubt and categorically a direct targeting of those journalists to shut them up and possibly kill them…that was a clear targeting of a journalistic organisation and personnel to get them off the air”. The US Government admitted the Kabul attack was deliberate. It has denied deliberately targeting Al Jazeera’s office in Baghdad in 2003 but there is evidence that George Bush and Tony Blair discussed a plan to bomb Al-Jazeera prior to the 2003 attack. Aidan White of the International Federation of Journalists: “The evidence is stacking up to suggest that the US decided to take out Al-Jazeera in Baghdad, as a warning not only to them but to other media about their coverage. If true, it is an absolute scandal that the US administration can regard the staff of Al-Jazeera as a bunch of terrorists and a legitimate target“. Whilst the coalition governments silence non-conforming journalists, the U.S. State Department claimsOn Iraq, they [Al Jazeera] have established a pattern of false reporting.

The extreme violence and the destruction of social networks and public and media services within Iraq kept many civilian stories hidden from the world. We saw the images the coalition government wanted us to see – the fireworks, the shock and awe, the arrests of enemy combatants, the toppling of statues, the corpse of Saddam Hussain. To see more of the picture we have to seek out material captured by the likes of documentary maker Mark Manning, the work of photojournalists like Anja Niedringhaus, the stories of families trying to find the bodies of their dead relatives, and the writings from Operation Homecoming:

March 29. The old Navy jargon “belay my last,” meaning disregard my last statement, applies to my commentary from yesterday. We got creamed with fresh casualties last night, thirty new patients, both sides, all needing immediate and significant intervention. The injuries are horrifying. Ruptured eyeballs. Children missing limbs. Large burns. Genitals and buttocks blown off. Grotesque fractures. Gunshot wounds to the head. Faces blown apart. Paraplegics from spine injuries. The number of X-ray studies performed last night in a short period of time is so great that it causes the entire system to crash under the burden of electronic data it is being fed.

Iraqi civilian girl covers her ears. Coalition soldier walking by.

Image from leaked MoD document: Stability Operations in Iraq, (OP TELIC 2-5), An Analysis from a Land Perspecitve

To the traditional crafts of reporting and documentary making we can add the leaking of information by whistle-blowers. The leaked war logs of the coalition troops provide brutal written vignettes – which the public were never supposed to see – of the reality of the war. They also document 66,081 civilian deaths between 2004 and 2009 (as a result of inaccurate reporting in the media and the refusal of governments to acknowledge specific death toll data, 59% of people in the UK think that less than 10,000 Iraqis were killed in the 2003- war) [3].

Perhaps surprisingly, the war logs are rarely about coalition troops killing insurgents. More often it is children and babies killed in collisions with coalition vehicles, described in economic sentences punctuated with military acronyms:

253RD TRANS CONVOY STRUCK AN IZ (Iraqi) CHILD ON Route GINGER (MC4128550637). THE CHILD HAD NO PULSE. AWAITING DISPOSITION OF REMAINS.” [ref]

AT 1600C, A MSG (Equipment: 8) WAS DRIVING THE LEAD NTV IN A TWO-VEHICLE CONVOY RETURNING FROM A SCHOOL OPENING. HE WAS TRAVELING ON THE MAIN HIGHWAY SOUTH OF SHAQLAWA WITH THREE OTHER PERSONNEL. THE MSG ATTEMPTED TO PASS A VEHICLE ON THE LEFT SIDE. HE MISJUDGED A VEHICLE APPROACHING FROM THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION. HE SWERVED LEFT TO AVOID THE VEHICLE BUT HIT THE FRONT LEFT BUMPER AREA OF THE ONCOMING CIVILIAN VEHICLE HEAD ON. THE IMPACT TOTALED THE CIVILIAN VEHICLE AND SUBSTANTIALLY DAMAGED 426CAS NTV. 5X ADULTS AND 1X 6 MONTH OLD CHILD WERE IN THE CIVILIAN VEHICLE. THEY WERE ALL EXTRACTED FROM THE VEHICLE AND TRANSPORTED IN CIVILIAN VEHICLES TO IRBIL EMERGENCY HOSPITAL WITH SERIOUS INJURIES. THE 4X INDIVIDUALS IN THE 426CA NTV WERE ALSO EVACUATED TO THE HOSPITAL. AT 1819, THE UNIT LEARNED THROUGH A SECONDARY SOURCE THAT THE CHILD DIED FROM INJURIES. THE REMAINING ADULTS WERE TREATED FOR INJURIES AND WERE KEPT OVER NIGHT AT THE HOSPITAL.” [ref]

Or it is innocent Iraqi citizens killed or injured by return fire…

AT 2108C, A/1-32 WAS CONDUCTING A DISMOUNTED PATROL ALONG ASR JACKSON (vicinity 38S MB 4128 4459) WHEN THEY OBSERVED A TEENAGE MALE WITH AN Assault rifle. THE PATROL DECLARED THAT THEY WERE A Coalition Forces PATROL IN ENGLISH AND AGAIN IN ARABIC. THE YOUNG MAN THEN OPENED FIRE ON THE PATROL. THE PATROL RETURNED FIRE WOUNDING THE YOUNG MAN. AFTER THE CONTACT, THE PATROL DISCOVERED THEY HAD ALSO WOUNDED A PREGNANT FEMALE AND HAD KILLED A SMALL CHILD. THE PATROL TREATED THE WOUNDED AND GROUND Evacuation’D THEM TO Forward Operating Base CHOSIN. THE TWO WOUNDED WERE SUBSEQUENTLY Evacuation’D TO THE 31ST Combat Support Hospital AT 2225. AWATING THE Serious Incident Report FROM 3BCT. 1XAK47 WAS CONFISCATED FROM IZ MALE. NO FRIENDLY CASUALTIES OR DAMAGE TO EQUIPMENT RESULTED” [ref]

It is children maimed and killed when picking up unexploded Coalition munitions (a common occurrence)…[4]

An IZ [Iraqi] child picked up a unexploded ordnance [or unfired] and lost his left hand, also suffering facial and abdominal injuries. Coalition Forces Call Sign and ambulance were requested. Iraqi Police took the child to hospital, whilst waiting arrival of Coalition Forces. 9/12 L Call Sign and ATO tasked to check area. ATO arrived on scene at 1026hrs and gave all clear. Call Sign went to check on child and found that it had died from the injury.” [ref]

But while the soldier’s war logs are an enlightening part of the picture of war, they do not represent a revolution in accurate reporting. Although a different perspective, they are actually more of the same. Like mainstream media reports they focus on the physical effects of war in the now. While the day-to-day horrors seem temporarily profound, there is no wider context, no information on the aftermath – the psychological damage. What happened to those civilians and soldiers next? What led them to be in that situation? The information does not spur critical thinking by the public in the Coalition countries who started the war. The warn-out horror button hit so many times it barely creates a spark.

Definitions of peace and war oriented journalism

Peace/War journalism model, Johan Galtung (1998), https://targetaquiredmissionaborted.wordpress.com/tag/peace-journalism-2/

The definition of accuracy in war reporting must be fundamentally expanded to include: reporting of non-physical (often non-visual) effects; reporting over a much wider timeframe to explore the causes and outcomes of war, including that people and communities can heal; the reporting of myriad non-violent (often non-visual) efforts by individuals and organisations to resolve the conflict before and during the war; the reporting of similarities in the conflicting parties positions and histories of previous reconciliations; the reporting of official government lines only as one part of a much wider, often-conflicting dialogue of voices; and the detailed reporting of all sides perspectives and experiences (many peace journalism resources can be found here). Giving air-time priority to violence seems likely to encourage violence. It makes non-violent people feel as if they cannot contribute to resolutions. 

  1. Transmitting accurate information and reporting to a large enough audience

Getting accurate (see definition above) information to a large enough audience about current war is a technical, financial and political matter of exploiting media and social media channels, marketing techniques, and consumer psychology phenomena. In reality, accurate reporting and truth mostly comes to the wider audience a significant time after the conflict has ended. The audience constantly forgets that the truth is has learnt about war in previous timeframes applies in more or less equal measure to the current war which is being presented to it through a filter of government influence on a media which can no longer deliver its purpose due to the crippling effect of commercialisation and subversion by corporate power. The holocaust was in the past. It happened. It cannot happen again and it is not happening now.

  1. The form and framing of the reporting and information needs to be conducive to the audience taking useful action.

Does tweeting images of children murdered in war bring the end of the conflict nearer? Does it lessen the likelihood of future war? It will shock people for a while – make them angry, feel disgust – it can also make them turn away. It can emphasise that those things do not, could not, happen here. There is a feeling of disbelief. A sense of hopelessness – what can I do about that?

Shock is the mainstream media’s strategy – if it bleeds it leads – fed by government agencies and their movie titled conflicts – operation desert storm; shock and awe. “The appetite for pictures showing a body in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked”. We are fucking desensitised.

A still from The Road to Fallujah, 2009

A still from The Road to Fallujah, 2009

The video of the child scared out of her wits trying to hold back tears, terrified for her family and searching for someone to comfort them is perhaps more powerful. It is closer to home. The horror of war on the ground, the enduring nightmares, the post-traumatic stress. No way out. But then again, perhaps still a sense of hopelessness – what can I do about that? I’m not there.

  1. The audience actively receiving the information with an open mind

Our cultural belief systems influence how we interpret the information we receive and therefore shape our emotional responses. We are taught on one level that violence is wrong, but at the same time we carry it out on a daily basis and we are able to justify this in our minds. Governments and those with financial interests in war are very adept at helping us to do this through their influence on culture. Toy manufacturers, filmmakers and advertisers are proficient at reinforcing and amplifying these values.

We’re conditioned to see international problems as military problems and to discount the likelihood of finding a solution other than a military one. Peace is only attainable through military power. Backing down is shameful. A strong politician is one who takes us to war. Human beings are by nature violent, aggressive and competitive. Strength is yelling and being right. We are conditioned to compete – beating others is the goal, not self-development. We fear losing control and not maintaining dominance. We fear. We have a special right to exert power in the world. Beacons of liberty must keep a finger on the trigger. There are enemies everywhere and we must subjugate them – this means prioritising spend on weapons even though our people are hungry and illiterate (but offer them the military as a way out of their condition). The battlefield is where heroes are made. Objection is treason. Democracy and law are negotiable. Declare war on social problems.

A strategy based solely on making war reporting more accurate will not be successful at reducing war. Whatever the information generated, it will be received by a critical majority of the audience through the dominant cultural filters. With a certain mind-set any horror can be justified.

  1. The audience needs to have some scope for action which reduces, even by a small theoretical amount, the continuation of the war and/or the likelihood of future war.

An educational response which counters the militaristic (and paternalistic) cultural values which enable and encourage a military response to problems is perhaps the most accessible and effective response for the majority of people to the question what can I do about it?

Trying to make war reporting more accurate by becoming a war reporter, going into the field, then trying to navigate constricted and restricted mass media platforms to get your reports to the public in real or near real time in a form you control requires a particular set of skills, resources and luck. However, working through a media studies syllabus with your children and exploring how the media works, its limitations, biases, its prioritisation of visual news, asking who owns the news, why some news is unreported, the principle of newsworthiness and so on, is a response accessible to most parents.

Inaccurate war reporting in the present timeframe is not a barrier to fostering a deeper understanding of war in general. Technologies and tactics may change over time, but the underlying ritual of war and its effect on people and the environment is universal through time and space: death, pain, injury, hunger, fear, loss of family, loss of home, resentment, humiliation, a desire to avenge. This has already been documented. It has happened therefore it can happen again. It is happening now.

steele_reconciling_cycle_of_violence

Cycles of Victimhood and Transformation model, David Steele (http://www.humiliationstudies.org/whoweare/annualmeeting/NYparticipants.php)

There are many resources and lesson plans available (such as book 2 of Learning to Abolish War on the Global Campaign for Peace Education site) to challenge the military and paternalistic mind-set ingrained in our current culture and instead foster a peace mind-set. They focus on the origins of violence and its effects on victim and perpetrator; they sharpen the awareness of un-peaceful personal and national relationships; they consider human versus national measures of security; they build empathy and understanding with other people and their cultures, and create a sense of place within the environment; they equip people with conflict resolution skills and create awareness of restorative practice; they build good citizenship skills; and they build a commitment to social justice and non-violence, while exploring practical ways in which change can be achieved in peaceful ways.

Gender studies are also a part of this, as is the development of critical media evaluation skills (see media studies syllabus above) which question why there is inaccurate reporting of peace and nonviolent actions for change, as well as inaccurate reporting of war.   

The End: thou vs it

From Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell [5]:

BILL MOYERS: What happened a hundred years ago when the white man came and slaughtered the animal of reverence [the buffalo]?

JOSPEH CAMPBELL: That was a sacramental violation. You can see in many of the early nineteenth-century paintings by George Catlin of the Great Western Plains in his day literally hundreds of thousands of buffalo all over the place. And then, through the next half century, the frontiersmen, equipped with repeating rifles, shot down whole herds, taking only the skins to sell and leaving the bodies there to rot. This was a sacrilege.

MOYERS: It turned the buffalo from a “thou” –

CAMPBELL: – to an “it.”

MOYERS: The Indians addressed the buffalo as “thou”, an object of reverence.

CAMPBELL: The Indians addressed all of life as “thou” – the trees, the stones, everything. You can address anything as “thou”, and if you do it you can feel the change in your own psychology. The ego that sees a “thou” is not the same ego that sees an “it.” And when you go to war with people, the problem of the newspapers is to turn those people into “its”.


Footnotes:

[1]  C. P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, recorded in his diary comments made by David Lloyd George at a private meeting on 27th December, 1917. “I listened last night, at a dinner given to Philip Gibbs on his return from the front, to the most impressive and moving description from him of what the war (on the Western Front) really means, that I have heard. Even an audience of hardened politicians and journalists were strongly affected. If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds. The thing is horrible and beyond human nature to bear and I feel I can’t go on with this bloody business.” http://spartacus-educational.com/PRgeorge.htm

[2]  The fact the Iraq 2003- war was illegal did not prevent the war. The West was not being attacked (the US 9/11 Commission stated there was no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated in the World Trade Centre attacks) nor was it imminently about to be attacked (unless you believe Alastair Campbell’s “45 minutes” spin); there was no justification for “humanitarian intervention” – many of the pre-war humanitarian issues were caused by the UNSC’s sanctions on Iraq; the UN Security Council did not approve an invasion; and there was an alternative because Saddam Hussain offered Bush and Blair everything they wanted to avoid an invasion. [NB this post was written before the Chilcott report came out]

[3] 59% of people in the UK think that less than 10,000 Iraqis were killed in the US/UK Coalition led 2003 Iraq War, whereas actual estimates for the number of deaths range from 100,000 to over 1,000,000. The leaked coalition troop war logs alone document 66,081 civilian deaths between 2004 and 2009. Coalition leaders refuse to acknowledge any specific figure. General Tommy Franks: “we don’t do body counts”. The UK Ministry of Defence claim not to hold or recognise any figures for civilian deaths, but this is not true. In response to a FOI request they said they investigate and report internally where any UK troop action is suspected to have caused civilian casualties. A leaked MOD report charts a number of civilian deaths and references the Oxford Research Group’s “Iraq body Count dossier of civilian casualties 2003 – 2005” project which in the timeframe of the MOD report identifies 24,865 civilians killed. 1,332 of these were children who were most frequently affected by explosive devices, in particular air strikes and unexploded ordnance. Most adults killed left behind orphans and widows. 42,500 civilians were injured. The latest civilian death toll in Iraq is in the range of 162,754 – 181,851 (as at March 2016: https://www.iraqbodycount.org/). Upwards of 400,000 children have been orphaned by the fighting, not to mention the horror of cancers and birth defects caused by contamination from depleted uranium munitions and other military-related pollution.

[4] From leaked MOD report (page 72)  “the failure to clear the large numbers of munitions has allowed an arsenal to become available to insurgents, and the civilian population has suffered casualties both from battlefield UXOs (unexploded  ordnance) and from IEDs (improvised explosive device) made from munitions taken from unguarded sites.”

[5] The Power of Myth, 1988

Blogging is passé. Even cats have blogs now. And theirs are more popular than yours. Go and do something else instead.

I had this blog once. It was pretty good, but not many people read it… ah yes, it’s time to reflect (briefly) on the great project that was this blog.

The point of this blog was to explore answers to the question ‘what can I do about it?’ As in, what can I – a normal person with normal powers and influence – do about the issues affecting society and the people stuck in it. At the beginning it was partly a response to the Savile scandal, but not wholly about that.

While I might have had some aspirations at the start about influencing other people through this blog, what I came to realise was that the real (possibly only) impact was on me.

Sure, you can contribute to ongoing campaigns, and you can put things ‘out there’ which are counter-cultural, but mostly you’re just sending stuff into a social media bubble of people who already agree with you.

Every guide to increasing your blogs readership tells you to post regularly. But the world is already far too full with information and commentary on information and commentary on the commentary – why put more stuff out there (is that dilution or radiation?) There’s a lot to be said for just shutting up.

What sometimes happens is that a blogger’s work fuels a story in the mainstream media. This is generally on the MSM’s terms – the bloggers work fitted their agenda at that time. The MSM drops them as soon as they have stopped being useful and the blogger goes back to their social media bubble, albeit with a few more followers, but most of them will drift away over time.

I contacted the Yorkshire Evening Post after I’d published my first post about West Yorkshire Police’s treatment of sex workers. The journalist said it was an interesting post but I’d only have a story for the YEP if one of the sex worker support agencies I was setting up interviews with criticised the police. As it happened there was some very forthright criticism of WYP. But at the same time I also picked up on how much the YEP was in WYP’s pocket. They rely on them for their sensationalist, usually crime-focused headlines (and don’t forget the videos on their website). That’s the mainstream media – especially local media for you. The YEP had been very much part of the problem here – whilst failing to cast any sort of critical eye over WYP they’ve also demonised sex workers, perpetuated myths and spurred on unhelpful reactions from the community. As if they were going to pick up this story.

There’s probably an analogy between the ineffectiveness of consumer activism – the idea you can change things by joining a few other well-meaning but misguided people in saying (it is mostly words) you’re going to boycott Amazon and believing that it will make any difference, and the idea that the way to challenge a biased and hate-filled media is to throw a few words of love onto the lower-slopes of its odious mountain.

Citizen journalism, or more specifically doing the journalism that all journalists should be doing but only a small percentage do is a real challenge. You have no training, no credentials, some people (the BBC) refuse to acknowledge you exist, and you have lots of other things to do at the same time, like keep your paid job. But actually doing it teaches you a lot about yourself. You can blag it by phoning the press office (be courteous, don’t forget you probably know more about the story than the guy from the YEP); your persistence will take you through any barrier; you can get West Yorkshire Police to talk to you even though they don’t normally talk to anyone outside the circle; you can get your MP to give you a straight answer (sometimes); you can get the Police Crime Commissioner to respond to you (eventually); you can research well enough and be courteous and professional enough to get people to give you candid interviews that no one else has done. A pat on the back, well done. Now apply this to the other areas of your life! Don’t forget though that only a few hundred people read that stuff. And you have no idea of any impact it might or might not have had on anyone except you.

Going out into the world and doing actual stuff has to be more effective than blogging, and that’s what I’ve been doing a lot more of over the last couple of years.

Probably the greatest letter anyone has ever written was the one Kurt Vonnegut wrote to some high school students who’d written to ask if he would visit their school. Mr. Vonnegut urges them to practice their art – any art – not to become rich and famous, but to become and find out more about themselves as humans. I think blogging can be that, but if it ceases to be that then it is probably time to stop.

Thanks for reading.

John

🙂

A letter from Kurt Vonnegut

Why does no-one want to be an MP?

Emma Spriggs:  Leeds Central Liberal Democrat candidate (and superwoman)

Emma Spriggs: Leeds Central Liberal Democrat candidate (and superwoman)

I recently published an article asking if Leeds Central Liberal Democrat candidate, Emma Spriggs, was some kind of superwoman. I asked this question because I’d spotted that Emma was simultaneously running for MP in Leeds Central and running to be a local councillor 300 miles away in Bucklebury, Reading. I eventually caught up with Emma to discuss her dual campaigning. What she told me came as a surprise and highlighted the difficulties ‘ordinary’ people have in making it into politics.

Emma will not be visiting Leeds to campaign for this general election despite being the candidate for the party who came second here in the 2010 General Election. Instead she is putting all her resources into standing against the Conservative seat-holders in Reading where she lives.

Emma has no connection to Leeds and acknowledges she is not the ideal candidate to stand in Leeds Central, but she is doing so because the Liberal Democrat party asked her to at short notice and she wanted to make sure that everyone in the area had the chance to vote Liberal Democrat (so for local Lib Dem voters – and there were nearly 8,000 in 2010 – Emma probably is a superwoman.)

Emma says the Lib Dems are not a wealthy party and so have to carefully identify their priorities. Even though they came second with 23% of the vote in Leeds Central in the 2010 General Election it is still a Labour safe seat and, under First Past The Post, they have less to gain from prioritising this seat. Emma was keen to stress that this was not ideal – her party would like to contest every seat with candidates who are able to run a strong campaign locally. Emma says other parties make these kinds of decisions too, but because of their resources it isn’t as noticeable when Labour or the Conservatives do it.

The Yorkshire & Humber Liberal Democrats were the ones who asked Emma to stand here. They won’t talk to me about the reasons, but one thing seems certain – there are not enough people in the area willing and able to go through the process of becoming an approved candidate and then taking on an election campaign.

I asked Emma why there weren’t enough people wanting to become MPs. She thinks it is because the process to become an approved candidate is long and arduous, and then when you are approved it takes many months of canvassing, night after night, to fight an election. This puts a lot of people off, but many people with a family and a full time job simply cannot do it. It can be different for Labour or Conservative Party candidates because they have safe-seats. If you’re high up in those parties you can be put into one of those seats and you’re practically guaranteed to win (Boris Johnson is a current example of a Conservative MP dropped into a safe-seat) – the amount of canvassing you’ll have to do is much lower compared to the minority party candidates who have to put their lives on hold to campaign.

Emma wants to see the processes change to help more people who have had lives outside politics get into politics. She thinks she is the sort of person that the public would like to see as an MP. She’s not a career politician, instead she has run her own business for 20 years and has brought up two children. She has worked to support her community and says she knows what can make a difference to people’s lives.

The First Past The Post system is another big factor according to Emma (I discussed the current voting system with all the Leeds Central candidates in this article). It stops the smaller parties developing and building up their base, and it discourages people from a safe-seat area from campaigning because they know the votes they’ll win will count for little.

The Conservative candidate for Leeds Central, Nicola Wilson (also a business woman with two children) told me she had also found it a difficult journey into politics. She wants to see more ‘ordinary’ people like herself becoming MPs but thinks people are put off by the stigma associated with being a ‘politician’, the difficulties of combining campaigning with family and work, and the situation where you cannot win if you run against a safe-seat candidate.

What’s the point in voting when Hilary Benn is bound to win?

Leeds Central MP candidates for the 2015 General Election. L to R: Michael Hayton (Green), Hilary Benn (Labour), Luke Senior (UKIP), Liz Kitching (TUSC), Emma Spriggs (Lib Dem), Nicola Wilson (Conservative)

Leeds Central MP candidates for the 2015 General Election. L to R: Michael Hayton (Green), Hilary Benn (Labour), Luke Senior (UKIP), Liz Kitching (TUSC), Emma Spriggs (Lib Dem), Nicola Wilson (Conservative)

Bookmaker William Hill is so confident of Hilary Benn winning the Leeds Central seat again that they are only offering odds of 1/100 on his victory – you would have to wager £1,000 just to win a tenner.

Where does that leave me on Election Day? Is it a choice between throwing one more voting slip onto Hilary’s safe-seat mountain, or sending a message of consolation someone else’s way in the hope they don’t lose their deposit? Or perhaps it would be better not to vote at all – a record low turnout (which is on the cards thanks to single voter registration) could be the catalyst for electoral reform.

To help me with this conundrum I asked the electoral candidates for Parliament in Leeds Central what they thought the result would be, why they were standing, their thoughts on electoral reform, and what they see as the main issues in Beeston where I live…

First up was Michael Hayton from the Green Party. Michael is the first Green Party candidate to stand in the constituency since David Blackburn in the 1999 by-election.

Michael feels it’s a stretch to say the Green Party might win here, but with big support from the student population and dissatisfaction among traditional Labour voters, he predicts the result could  be a shock to Hilary Benn. His hope is that the Labour party will change their policies when they realise people are looking for real reform in politics – a vote for his party would help achieve this. Michael says people are telling him they want a change and don’t think they’ll get it by voting Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem – so it’s a choice between Green and UKIP (Michael feels that a lot of people are thinking of voting UKIP as a protest rather than out of genuine identification with the UKIP manifesto).

Michael believes that Beeston and Holbeck is one of the areas hardest hit by the financial crisis and austerity. He says marginalisation spurred on by benefits changes and target-driven job centres has made life really difficult for many people and that the quality of some of the rental properties in Beeston is among the lowest in Leeds. He’d love to see more investment in the area because “it’s so vibrant and there are some amazing communities here”.

To Michael and the Green party, the current First Past The Post electoral system is not truly representative or democratic – he says we live in a 21st century society, ruled by a 19th century institution using 15th century procedures. Instead we ought to  have fully proportional representation – we have the technology to deliver this. He also believes that young people are far more engaged and knowledgeable than most people realise and, in line with Green policy, the voting age should be lowered to 16.

Labour’s Hilary Benn doesn’t want to make any predictions about the election, but he hopes everyone will exercise their right to vote. In fact he says we have a moral duty to vote.

Hilary voted for the Alternative Vote system in the 2011 referendum and was sorry that it did not pass (AV is not to be confused with proportional representation – an explanation here) – he confirms that Labour have no plans for another referendum on the voting system, but they do pledge to lower the voting age to 16.

Luke Senior from UKIP isn’t under any illusions about being able to defeat Hilary Benn but hopes to exceed the vote share achieved in the 2014 local election.

He believes all elections should be contested, and that UKIP are doing their best to present themselves as a viable alternative – something the Conservatives haven’t been able to achieve here.

Luke thinks a lot of voter apathy is due to people not feeling they can make a difference, or not having found a party they believe can represent them. He says his party have great support in areas such as Beeston and senses an appetite for real change.

Luke identifies housing as a key issue in Beeston and believes current provision of social/affordable housing is inadequate – he would like to see empty properties put to use to ease the demand.

With regard to the ongoing debates about the Aspiring Communities development on Barkly Road and Asda on Old Lane, Luke feels that strong local opposition is not being listened to and issues are dragging on longer than they should. He wants to work with local people and councillors to implement the wishes of local people – if UKIP fail to deliver then they should be removed from office. Luke says UKIP want to stop the complacency of sitting councillors and MPs – if the electorate are dissatisfied, they should have the right to force a by-election.

Luke says that UKIP’s long-term strategy is to gain representation on Leeds City Council, providing a springboard to success in the general elections of 2020 and beyond. UKIP lost by just 600 votes in the Heywood & Middleton (Greater Manchester) by-election last October, which, according to Luke, proves UKIP can succeed in Labour heartland.

UKIP support the introduction of proportional representation. They have no manifesto pledge to lower the voting age.

Liz Kitching of the Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition (TUSC) thinks Hilary Benn is certain to win, but believes he will face a strong challenge from the Greens and TUSC. Liz is concerned that UKIP will gain, but is confident that the student population will not give them much support.

The main objective for TUSC in Leeds Central is to let people know there is an alternative to austerity and a world which continues to be at war. Liz says TUSC are supporting the fight of oppressed people, including those experiencing racism, on zero-hours contracts, or facing redundancy.

TUSC is an anti-war, anti-racist (Liz says the movement ‘finished off’ the BNP and weakened the EDL) and anti-austerity movement. Liz believes ‘austerity’ is a political choice, not an economic necessity, with the objective of taking wealth out of society and giving it to what is commonly referred to as ‘the 1%’.

Liz sees the election as an opportunity to publicise the successes, such as equal pay, maternity leave and  sick leave, of the trade union movement – these changes are made law in Parliament, but they came from the movement first.

Liz understands the position of people who say they support TUSC’s policies but plan to  vote Labour to get the Conservatives out, but says a vote for TUSC is especially important here because in her view Hilary Benn is a career politician and not a campaigner (TUSC are not opposing Labour MPs they see as supportive of their cause such as John McDonnell and Dianne Abbott).

Liz highlights that Hilary Benn voted in favour of the Iraq war and to say there is no more money for local services – she says he has a very different philosophy to his father (Tony Benn). She concedes Hilary Benn has been of help to some constituents, but argues there are many others he has failed to help. If TUSC were to win here they would open a dedicated office in the constituency offering support and legal advice to anyone who needs it.

On electoral reform, TUSC endorse a reduction in the voting age to 16, but Liz believes other reforms need more thought – she sees proportional representation as being good for left-wing politicians, but it can also let in the far-right (as has happened in Greece, Hungary and France).

Liz says TUSC’s priority is “building confidence among communities to stand up for themselves” and sees the key issues in Beeston as housing and schooling. While new houses are being built, they are PFI houses and the ‘affordable’ rents are not affordable to all. Liz thinks we need a mass council house building programme on brown field sites and says TUSC would bring back the Fair Rent Act. On schooling, TUSC will campaign for local authority provided schooling for all, with no privatisation, and no testing of younger children.

Emma Spriggs of the Liberal Democrats says that although the party received 23% of the constituency vote in the 2010 general election,  they have no realistic chance of beating Labour here, but like Hilary Benn, she feels it’s vital for people to exercise their right to vote and participate in democracy – many people around the world don’t have this choice.

Emma believes this year’s election is all about the party who comes third, as they will likely make up the coalition – this further highlights the need for electoral reform. People end up voting tactically rather than for the party they really believe in.

Emma and the Lib Dems are passionate about changing the voting system, and despite their previous attempts at reform being thwarted, they want to renew this fight in the next Parliament – this includes lowering the voting age to 16.

The final candidate I spoke to was Nicola Wilson of the Conservative Party. Nicola is realistic about her chances of winning but, in common with her Labour and Lib Dem rivals,  she firmly believes that everybody should vote. She thinks everyone should have the chance to vote for whichever party they want. She says her experiences growing up in Northern Ireland had helped her appreciate the importance of politics and democracy.

Nicola wants to see what happens in this election before seriously considering reform – neither electoral reform or lowering the voting age are in the Conservative manifesto. But she does think that we need to look at the political system because a lot of people don’t feel politicians represent them and they want more ‘ordinary’ people like Nicola herself in Parliament (Nicola has two children and works full time running her business).

Nicola echoes Liz Kitching of TUSC’s criticisms of Hilary Benn, describing him as the archetypal career politician – “if you want to know about politics ask him, if you want to know about real life ask me!” – and thinks ‘ordinary’ people don’t stand for election due to the stigma associated with being a ‘politician’, the difficulties of combining campaigning with family and work, and the situation where you cannot win if you run against a safe-seat candidate.

For Nicola, the big issues in Beeston are jobs and role models for young people. She wants to help businesses grow so they can employ more people, and she wants to make sure work pays more than benefits. She also wants good role models for children to help them and the wider community.

…So, has talking to the candidates changed my mind about voting in Leeds Central when Hilary Benn is bound to win? I wasn’t expecting it to – but it has. The non-Labour candidates are under no illusions about their chances of winning the seat, but they are all passionate about why they are standing and the changes they want to see. I don’t agree with every candidate’s policies of course, but I do respect them all for going out and campaigning in Leeds Central when they know they cannot win the seat. So while I might not have a super-vote, I’m convinced that my vote does matter to them – so I will use it.

But while my engagement has improved this year through talking to the candidates, I now feel even more strongly that we need to tackle the issues of safe-seats and First Past The Post.

It can’t be right that it takes 120,000 votes on average to get a Lib Dem MP while it only takes 34,000 to get a Conservative or Labour MP. Many people in Scotland will vote Labour on May 7th, but there probably won’t be any Scottish Labour MPs on May 8th.

Proportional representation helps smaller parties to develop and politics to broaden and strengthen. Under these circumstances more ‘ordinary’ people might be encouraged to run for election. They might still lose to Hilary Benn in Leeds Central, but the votes they do win will really count.

While the pros and cons of different voting systems are complex (something the big parties exploited in their bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate during the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum), we can at least be clear about the principle. Do we want Parliament to proportionately reflect public opinion, or do we want it to distort public opinion to the advantage of the Labour and Conservative Parties?

If the big parties really do love democracy then perhaps it is time they set it free.

 

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Footnote: the interviews are presented in the order they took place.

Q: How do you sit on 2 different seats which are 300 miles apart at the same time?

Leeds Central Liberal Democrat candidate (and superwoman?) Emma Spriggs

Leeds Central Liberal Democrat candidate (and superwoman?) Emma Spriggs

The Leeds Central Liberal Democrat candidate, Emma Spriggs, might be some kind of superwoman…

Emma Spriggs is not only campaigning to be your MP in Leeds Central, but she is simultaneously campaigning to be a councillor in Bucklebury, Reading. That’s over 300 miles away. The train from Reading to Leeds takes just under 4 hours, plus it takes another 30 minutes to get the bus to Beeston & Holbeck where I live. There is nothing illegal in standing for an MP and council post at the same time, but how is this feasible?

The Lib Dem Central Office confirmed this is true, and indeed you can see it’s the same Emma Spriggs by comparing the home address on the Berkshire Council website (page 2 of the pdf) and Emma’s page on the Liberal Democrat site.

The Lib Dem Central Office even has a standard line for callers with this question. I know this because I rang them twice and two different people gave me the same answer. They say it is “not unusual” and give the example of Boris Johnson who is the current London Mayor and is also standing for election as MP on 7th May in the Tory safe-seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. But Boris Johnson is not running simultaneous campaigns – he is already the Mayor. When I pointed this out the Lib Dem Central Office admitted it was not a fair comparison. They were unable to give an example of another MP running simultaneous campaigns many miles apart. Incidentally, while Boris Johnson claims he will be both MP and London Mayor until 2016 when his tenure as Mayor ends, David Lammy says this would be a conflict of interest and leave him as a lame-duck Mayor.

So what are Emma Spriggs’ chances?

Bucklebury is a Tory safe-seat in J R R Tolkein country – the kind of place Bilbo Baggins lived. The Duchess of Cambridge’s family have a home there, and Chris Tarrant lives there too. Tories Graham Pask and Quentin Webb are standing for re-election, and I guess they’ll win again, with Emma taking the place of one of the losing Lib Dems (Benjamin Morgan, Philippa Harper) in the 2010 election.

Leeds Central is a very safe Labour seat, but the Lib Dems came closest in 2010 with 21% to Labour’s 49%. Yes, everyone expects the Lib Dems to take a bashing because of the Coalition, but isn’t the best way to deal with that to come out fighting with a dedicated campaign in Leeds Central?

The Lib Dem Central Office didn’t want to speculate on how Emma would deliver two campaigns simultaneously, instead pointing me to Emma herself or the Leeds Lib Dems. Emma has not responded on two different email addresses, and the Leeds Lib Dems say they only really look after North East Leeds and don’t know much about Leeds Central. They suggested I ring Emma, but they have no number for her, and there isn’t one on her profile, so they suggested I try the Yorkshire & Humber Lib Dems – but they don’t have a telephone number, and frankly, I think I’ve done enough.

So come on Emma, tell us what your priority is – Leeds Central MP or Bucklebury councillor? What are the top 3 issues in the area that you want to tackle? There is a serious question here of whether the Lib Dems are throwing the Leeds Central election – potential Lib Dem voters (of which there were 7,789 in 2010) really need to know if that’s the case.