On the dumbing down of politics, and why it creates barriers to solving very real problems.
Some of you may have seen Russell Brand vs Jeremy Paxman Mk II on Newsnight. If you didn’t, see below.
Fortuitously, I went along to another superb talk hosted by Cambridge University’s Zero Carbon Society. It was by Roman Sidorstov who is doing a PhD at Churchill College, Cambridge, trying to unpick the structure of the wider oil and gas industries with a longer term view to working out how the planet is supposed to get to a decarbonised economy. I tried to put his remarks into the context of the current fracking/shale gas debate going on in the UK. Roman’s talk addressed a whole host of issues dealing with global energy politics and economics that are simply not covered by the mainstream media or by mainstream politicians.
What are the issues?
For a start, there are a very limited number of firms that can afford to undertake the sorts of activities carried out by the likes of BP and Shell. The investment required to do the exploration, is measured in the billions. The technology required to work in very hostile environments – such as deep-sea offshore, or deserts, are incredibly advanced. The business lifecycles of such projects are measured in decades, not months or years. Compliance with, or (allegedly) trying to dodge regulations in the legal framework requires scores of experts of various types. Easy entrance and exit in this market is not an option. So when politicians (such as Boris here) come out with phrases such as ‘get fracking!’, it gives the impression that getting fracking is relatively straight forward. It’s anything but.
Economies and societies hard-wired to fossil fuels
First with coal, then with oil and gas. Our economies have developed and are hard-wired towards traditional fossil fuels. On my way to London earlier this week, my train took be past a couple of gas-fuelled power stations. The very difficult question I put to Roman was on how we get from this hard-wired and historically-embedded fossil-fuel-powered global economy to the decarbonised one we need in say 2050. The question stemmed from his point about the longevity of investment by big oil firms – the infrastructure that they put in place will be operational for decades.
Mapping the infrastructure, mapping the links, following the money
One of the reasons why the financial fallout of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill was of direct concern to the UK was the amount of money UK pension funds have invested in the company. This is where the students such as those under the People and Planet umbrella are targeting the corporate activities of their universities – from who they buy services off to where pension funds are invested. What I took from Roman’s talk (amongst other things) was a challenge to students and campaigners to map the financial links and flows. Where does the investment in oil and gas come from, and how can it be diverted towards more renewable and sustainable forms of energy?
Getting the transition right
Some of you will have seen the news – devastating for those affected – about the proposed closure of Grangemouth oil refinery. You only have to look at the picture in the article to get a feel for just how much money, resources, technology and human expertise has been ploughed into that site. This is not something you switch off over night – certainly not given the current problems with UK energy supplies. This is where industrial policy and industrial strategy matter – and one that none of the mainstream politicians seem to have grasped.
This is where planning, research, analysis, scrutiny and communication are all important. What is the current state of UK infrastructure today? Where do we want to be in 2050 and what might some of the core infrastructure look like then as far as energy is concerned? Then we need to ask what do we need to do in terms of actions now, and research into future technologies to help us get there. One example of this was back in 2006 when the then Labour administration signed up to a 10 year target that in 2016, all new-build new homes would have to be built to zero carbon standards, with the ratcheting up of regulations in approximately 3 year intervals. I worked in the policy team for a short while in my civil service days. It sent a clear signal to those in the industry that in principle and in law, low environmental standards for new homes would not be tolerated and that if they did not research and invest in new technologies, they risked putting themselves out of business in the medium term.
Personally I think there’s much greater scope for more of this type of policy. I’d like to see this with private rented homes for example – and the tightening of environmental standards that landlords’ properties have to meet before they can be let out. (Thus you get the investment in renovation or the sale of housing to an under-supplied market – assuming you take steps to stop landlords from sitting on properties and not using them.) You could use a similar scheme for transport – lorries, buses and diesel trains in particular.
Why don’t we see more of this – Where’s the failure in politics?
A number of reasons.
One of the big ones is the inability of members of political parties to influence policy. Take Labour’s programme Your Britain. Despite this programme, very soon after taking the policy portfolios, Tristram Hunt and Rachel Reeves made major policy announcements. Did they have time to look at the comments people made at the ‘Your Britain’ events? Some of you will know that I went along to one of their sessions in Cambridge – ending up sort of facilitating the session on housing given my past policy background. The principle here was I wanted to engage with political parties at a policy level and as a non-member. If other parties in Cambridge (the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Greens) did something similar, chances are I’d go along as well. Why? Because one of the big gaps in our politics is the ability of political parties to engage with the general electorate in policy-making other than at the general election. You’re asked to put a cross in a box. You can’t say “Well, I like policy A, would like to see the following improvements in policy B but am horrified by policy C and would like to see that scrapped”.
Bringing it back to Russell
The failure of our policy systems to deal with many of the nuances, overlaps and complexities in public policy is causing serious problems. The most high profile one is with immigration. You’ve got conflicting messages and policies from the centre, with the Home Secretary saying one thing and the Business Secretary saying another. It was similar under Labour, where the message seemed to be that so long as you had lots of money, everything was OK. Note Osborne and Boris in China recently. Compare this to the crises in Lampedusa (See here). My point being is public policy is incredibly complex and nuanced – far more so than politicians and the media portray it as. At the same time, when you start digging into the complexity and nuances in public policy, you come up against the brick wall of how global economies and institutions are structured. This matters.
Why does it matter?
It matters because people get angry when things are thrust upon their communities in which they feel they have no influence and no control over. Whether job losses, loss of community facilities to new unwanted developments, people want to minimise the impact of the bad things that inevitably happen. In a democracy, you need to have that outlet to enable people to shape those decisions.
Roman in his talk gave an example of a Norwegian fjord that the state oil company could have developed. They didn’t develop it because public policy engagement with local people and with scientists identified a large fish spawning ground in the same area. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ was the lesson he took from that. At the same time, you have the plight of the Greenpeace sailors in Russia. The principle on ‘developing’ [ie screw right up] the Arctic or Antarctic is that with less that certain legal frameworks in place, and less than certain policy, political and engagement systems in place, how can people make their voice heard? Ditto in various countries across the world that have oppressive systems of government.
Russell predicts a revolution
I can’t help thinking that it’s not hard to see why – especially when I look at the plight of young people, the unemployed, people with disabilities, the homeless and so on. Significant advancements in communications technologies means that the lifestyles of the superrich, plus their desire to really flaunt it, doesn’t really help. In London recently I was wandering around the area of Green Park/Piccadilly/Pall Mall, heading to a meeting. I found the buildings to be incredibly grand, catching glimpses of some of the beautifully ornate interiors of several of the buildings. Yet only an elite few have access to them.
It’s the same with policy-making and lobbying. Many organisations that want to influence the political process will have some sort of an operation within walking distance of Whitehall and Westminster – easy to organise the morning coffee, a lunchtime meeting or the after-works drinks with politicians, special advisers, research staff or even civil servants. Easy access too to the events that happen inside the Westminster bubble. Not so easy if, like me you have to spend lots of money on train tickets to get into central London for a single event. And you wonder why people outside London complain about public policy being London-centric? Two big barriers we have are time and money – many of us have neither to access such circles. Even more don’t even know such circles exist. Yet the problems of society remain. And they’re not getting smaller.