An island looking outwards

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An island looking outwards

If you are one of the many who signed up to the Remain declaration I launched on Friday, thank you. The response has been overwhelming. As I write this, the number of Labour members and supporters who have put their name to the declaration in less than 36 hours is heading towards 50,000. If you haven't already done so, please take a moment to click on the link to add your name, and please share on your networks and social media

As I told the audience at a Sustainable Food Trust, we now have new information about the costs to our society and economy showing that Brexit is much more difficult than thought in 2016. We have a parliamentary impasse over deal or no deal. The only way to resolve this is to take it back to the people, and Labour lead the campaign to Remain.

I believe an island nation does not have to look inwards. Never before have we been constrained by our borders. In all our thousand years of history we have been bigger and better and that. 

Labour’s democratic tradition also confers on us an obligation to win elections. Without power we can achieve nothing. As a party of Brexit we will never win again, and that is an abrogation too far.

As the party of Remain, we will not take every voter with us, but it’s the only way that Labour can win, and the only way to keep our country together. A democratic socialist Labour government - equality, social justice, opportunity and prosperity for all of Britain - will follow swiftly when we regain the people’s trust.


Do not defend the indefensible

Democratic socialism requires consent. Consent is fundamental to our ethos and to our purpose - that’s why the ‘democratic’ bit is in the name ‘democratic socialism’. And that is why all of us who call ourselves socialists should be appalled by what is going on now in Venezuela.

The UN reported concerns this week that death squads, operating on behalf of the Venezuelan Government, are murdering Venezuelans in order to ‘maintain social control’. The report describes a society where ‘unmarked black vans arrive in poor neighbourhoods, masked officers get out, round up young men and shoot them.’ The horrors are almost unimaginable and they come as Venezuelans are forced to cope with spiralling hyper-inflation, with food and medicine shortages and with a Government that refuses to be held to account.

There are those who will tell you not to worry too much about what is happening to the Venezuelan people. It is all just propaganda, apparently, invented by the dastardly UN and by global aid charities to undermine the socialist paradise being built there. These armchair cynics do socialism almost as much of a disservice as they do the victims of the Venezuelan Government. 

Do not defend the indefensible because someone decides for you that it is socialism. What is happening in Venezuela is neither democratic nor socialist - it is the pillaging of a country by a gangster government. It is death squads and torture and people queuing for food and dying unnecessarily for want of basic medicine. It is grift at the top whilst the only resource being actively redistributed is the misery. We all have an obligation to call that out. Socialists, in particular, have a responsibility - we must not allow these things to be done in the appropriation of our cause. The people of Venezuela deserve better, they deserve a future that they consent to and can forge together. Nobody who calls themselves a democratic socialist should be objecting to that aspiration, least of all in the name of our cause.



Two giant panderers


There was no more depressing sight this week than the two contenders for the Tory leadership, and somewhat unbelievably the keys to No 10, pandering to the regressive right.

First up was Boris Johnson with his plan to scrap the sugar tax. I have said this before but the sugar tax is the only thing I can ever congratulate George Osborne on from his time as Chancellor. At a time when one third of our children are leaving primary school overweight or obese, to hear Johnson's specious arguments about it being a tax that clobbers the poor, is soul-destroying.

I know what sugar does to the body. I know that we are facing an obesity epidemic and that Type 2 diabetes can cause heart attacks, strokes, blindness and amputations, and that the cost to the NHS will be £30 billion a year, unless we can reverse the tide. 

The truth is the sugar tax removed 90 million kilograms of sugar from soft drinks in its first year. It raised £340 million that was invested in school sports. It’s helping our children get healthy. Johnson would favour Coca Cola’s profits, and the lobbying interests of his chums, over our children’s health. That, I find, terrifying. (Here's a long-ish twitter thread I wrote on the subject.)

Not to be outdone, Jeremy Hunt countered the following day with his headline-catching gibberish about bringing back fox hunting, which he claimed was part of our country's heritage. 

If it is, it is a shameful heritage. Fox hunting is the cruel, vicious killing of wild animals by dogs, cheered on by people in fancy dress on horses. Jeremy Hunt's words serve as a timely reminder of the nastiness that runs deep in the Tory party. 

What depressing times we live in when our political discourse is so shallow and the opinions of those who seek to be Tory leader, hence this country's Prime Minister, are either blinkered by privilege and entitlement or just plain idiotic.


A deep injustice


Theresa May spoke of her desire to deal with "burning injustices" when she first entered Downing Street three years ago. This week my team discovered that 1.5m widows and widowers stand to lose out, under plans to remove the free TV licence for over 75s, following the death of their lifetime partners. That's a burning injustice.

A pensioner rang me this week to ask if I could help him get his telly to the cancer research shop before November because he can’t afford the licence. He asked me if the receipt would be enough to prove he no longer had a telly. He said now that he’s on his own he’ll miss it but he can’t afford the licence. That's a burning injustice.

Gordon Brown also challenged the PM to deal with it - and stop passing the buck to the BBC - before she leaves office. She has little over two weeks left to halt this scandalous attack on the lonely and vulnerable, which will be yet another deep and lasting tarnish on her government of failure.


A roaring legacy

Many congratulations again to England's World Cup team whose semi-final against the USA was a pulsating thriller of a game. The Lionesses had to bear the heartbreak of defeat. But no girl in any school playground should ever be told again that football is a game for boys. That is a remarkable legacy.


Plants drink carbon (roots edition)

If we want to slow down climate change then we should burn less fossil fuels. To reverse it, there’s still a way. Plants drink carbon. They put it in their roots. They literally bury carbon in the ground. A 0.4% increase in soil carbon stocks each year would offset all the carbon we burn. 

This week, the Guardian reported on the “mind blowing potential” of of tree planting to fight global heating. It’s not the only solution as I discovered at the Sustainable Food Trust conference. Moving from annual agriculture to perennial planting is another important consideration. 

But trees. I love them and I’m reading everything I can about them. Three books I’ve read this year really have blown my mind:

The Hidden Life of Trees. Peter Wholleben

Trees live in families. They com
municate with each other. They support each other by sharing nutrients with struggling neighbours through their root networks. You will never walk in a wood without being awe inspired after reading this book. 

Sprout Lands. William Bryant Logan. 

We lived in harmony with trees until we developed the technology to harvest them with chainsaws. They arguably civilised us. Farmers once knew how to make living fences and feed their flocks with tree hay. We knew ho
w to best prune them to provide an endless supply of nuts. We’d coppice trees to maintain a supply of straight, strong wood rods for baskets and bridges. They allowed us to build ships to explore the world. Over thousands of years we lived in balance and harmony with ancient woods and forests. And then we cut them all down with chainsaws. 

Trees of Power. Akiva Silver. 

This is an organic grower’s guide to planting, propagation, culture and ecology. The book explains how trees help us to regenerate soil, enhance biodiversity, increase wildlife populations, grow food and medicine and most importantly, pull carbon out of the atmosphere. 

The books have ensured that I feel a much deeper appreciation for these magnificent plants. And if those crazy people on twitter get their wish, who knows, I could always retrain as an arboriculturalist.

** Remember the "Climategate" leaked emails out of the University of East Anglia 10 years ago? The highly selective and edited release of comments by scientists fuelled the climate change denial movement. They are strongly suspected of having converted Donald Trump to the deniers' cause. Now read Iggy Ostanin's data investigation which pinpoints the source of hacking to the Russian city of Ekaterinburg.


Compassion is not a crime


There was a really important debate on Assisted Dying in Parliament on Thursday- the first for four years. MPs told of heartbreaking stories like those of my constituents Julie Smith and James Howley (pictured above), and of Ann Whaley, who was interviewed under caution for simply helping her husband of 50 years have the death he wanted. My colleague Paul Blomfield's recollections of how his father, when faced with a terminal illness, took his own life was deeply poignant.

What these tragic events show is that the current law is not working, unfair and devastating for those involved. MPs said the government should launch a wide ranging investigation to gather evidence on the effects of the current laws on assisted dying, in anticipation of possible new laws to change the approach. My personal experience of hearing the stories of Julie and James has convinced me that it is time MPs changed the law to allow peace and dignity in death. 


Pound foolish - but not penny wise


This week the big five betting firms finally, and under overwhelming political and public pressure, made a commitment to increase the voluntary levy they pay towards treatment of gambling addiction from a risible 0.1% to 1%.

The betting industry turns over £14.5 billion a year, yet voluntarily contributes less than £10 million to research, prevention and treatment of gambling addiction.

Take these extraordinary examples: Sportpesa who sponsor Everton and Fun88 who sponsor Newcastle gave only £50 each last year; Best Bets gave £5; GFM Holdings Ltd just £1. Yes, you read that right. £1. That is a calculated and deliberate insult to 430,000 gambling addicts, 55,000 of whom are children, and their families.

I told the House of Commons that a 1% mandatory levy is the only way to provide the structure and consistent funding that a proper system of dealing with gambling harms needs – with the NHS at the heart of this process.

We have inadequate regulation and a gambling act that is not fit for the digital age.We have gambling companies licensed in the UK, sponsoring UK football teams, yet operating entirely abroad – behaving irresponsibly and fuelling addiction in countries like Kenya.

We have companies allowing customers to lose tens of thousands of pounds on multiple credit cards in a single sitting. We have companies who, after a customer tries to self-exclude, bombard them with offers of free bets. Then make them sign NDAs.

The gambling market is broken, and it’s up to Government to fix it. We don’t need a voluntary patch – we need a full overhaul.


Riders in a storm

A small but noisy group of gas-guzzling, property-rich residents have been allowed to shout down plans for a desperately-needed cycle scheme for Kensington and Chelsea.

It's a two-fingered salute to those battling to lower air pollution in the capital, and to the hundreds of thousands of cyclists who should have the right to safe and secure passage.

I have called on Boris Johnson, who went out of his way to paint himself as the cyclists' champion when Mayor of London, to join me in condemning the decision.

Today I have been attending a West Midlands Labour Cycles Summit where we discussed how a major UK city can work to integrate cycling into the veins of the transport system. In local government Labour mayors and council leaders are showing what can be done by bringing in new bike sharing schemes and cycle pathways using existing urban infrastructure. We need more people on their bikes, living a healthier lifestyle and contributing to a healthier environment. 


Alexa, where did it all go wrong?

To mark 25 years to the day that a man called Jeff founded an online book store, I wrote a piece for The Independent. Jeff Bezos is now the world's richest man. And in the quarter century since he started out, the dreams we once had have become a digital dystopia of self-harm, terrorist live-streams and electoral meddling.

I used to be a digital utopian. I believed in a future where the internet would allow us to access all the world’s knowledge in a few clicks and would lead to a level of human flourishing never seen before. I didn't for a moment imagine a world in which conversations had in the privacy of our own homes are being recorded by Alexa and listened to by anonymous Amazon employees far away across the globe. 

Now I recognise that tech oligarchs are running rings round governments.  These huge tech companies think they are too big, too international and too clever to be brought under control. Labour has to deal with the distorted marketplace - if necessary, by breaking them up. The age of unaccountability must come to an end.


Alexa, prepare for the backlash

On the same subject, hats off to the Competitions and Markets Authority which has heeded my call for an investigation into the way data monopolies like Google, Amazon and Facebook abuse their power and exploit our personal data.

The regulator has also issued an enforcement order against Amazon's attempt to swallow up (or in City speak, purchase a minority stake in) Deliveroo pending an investigation into potential breaches of competition rules.

And to complete a hat-trick of good decisions, the CMA has also threatened Viagogo with a contempt of court action over its failure to comply with laws to protect customers from rip-off ticket prices, particularly to music events.

As my good friend Michael Dugher, ceo of UK Music, said: "Music fans should avoid getting tickets from this website which continues to rip off music fans. Equally, it’s high time Google stopped putting Viagogo at the top of their search engine when customers are looking for tickets, when they could instead be directed towards legitimate, lower primary ticket sales.” Funny how it is the usual suspects time and time again.


Fighting for the right - to party

Access to arts and culture venues has improved significantly for the millions of people in this country with disabilities. But there's still a way to go. As illustrated this week by the experience of Virginie Assal (pictured below) who has the spine condition scoliosis so can't stand for long periods.

Manchester International Festival organisers initially said the 25-year-old may not be guaranteed a seat at the concert she's attending. They've now changed their policy. Music, theatre and other cultural experiences including sport shouldn't be off-limits just because someone has needs. That's why volunteering schemes like Gig Buddies are so important. The charity recruits volunteers who are trained then matched with people with learning disabilities. They then 'buddy up' with them on trips to events. Gig Buddies' slogan is 'you've got to fight for the right to party'. In an ideal world, no one should face barriers just to see their favourite band.   


Keeping Local Radio alive

Replacing local radio voices with London-based presenters is a disastrous move, and one which I've already spoken out about. This week my colleague Kevin Brennan highlighted the impact of the plans drawn up by Global. The media company runs stations countrywide but wants to replace local breakfast shows with just three nationwide programmes. As Kevin says, this will turn local radio increasingly London-centric and result in hundreds of likely job losses.

Nearly half of studios run by Global locally are already facing closure. The changes are allowed under new rules issued by Ofcom last October, and Kevin has now written to the regulator asking for a rethink. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Equity and the Federation of Entertainment Unions are also concerned about the demise of broadcasting in the regions. As NUJ spokesperson Frances Rafferty says local radio is trusted and 'a friend' for many listeners. And during emergencies, such as floods, it can even help save lives.



Brief encounter

Heading out to the Sustainable Food Trust/ NFU conference in the Cotswolds on Friday, I randomly stumbled on the official opening of a new waiting room at the Moreton-in-Marsh train station. Fund-raising for the £400,000 project was led by the Cotswold Line Promotion Group, which has passionately defended the Oxford-Hereford line for almost 40 years. The waiting room - which will be a memorial to the group's founder Oliver Lovell and John Stanley, its long-standing membership secretary - will also be used as a community meeting venue. 

Naturally I soon found myself microphone in hand offering my very best wishes to all those involved. At the end of a week which has not always seen the best of British, it was a moment to cherish and remind myself how much I love this country.