Friday, 31 October 2008

E-voting machines. What a marvellous thing they're not.

Already, there's contention.

For heaven's sake! What is so wrong with a cross on a piece of paper? Or at least getting the technology *right*. With this kind of cock-up hanging over the process before polling day even comes around, it messes with the mandate and the authority of whoever wins.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Brown is the New Black?

When I was growing up, my mum displayed her Judas Priest and Black Sabbath LPs with pride and had fabulous liquid eyeliner and a love for the Rocky Horror Show that knew no bounds.

That sort of thing is cool, but it has its downside - what was I meant to rebel against?! Now the same feeling must be sweeping the nation with the revelation that the inhabitants of Number Ten are metal fans.

Imagine if you will, after a hard day in Prime Minister's Questions, Gordo posing with a hairbrush and screeching along to Iron Maiden in the cabinet room. It puts a smile on my face, anyway. I think he should start throwing the horns for photo ops.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

The energy problem.

Just a quick one - this started out as a response to Anders Hanson's latest post, but got a bit out of hand! It follows on from discussion of green issues that have been on many Lib Dem blogger's minds lately, as you'll see if you visit his blog.

I have had the nuclear-as-green spiel from a couple of Lib Dem members. The argument starts from the same page as everyone: that we do need to stop burning coal and gas to produce energy, as it's polluting the earth and galloping through limited resources. Solar and wind power are all very well, say nuclear enthusiasts, and should be used much more, but they say we would need nuclear energy as something turn-off-and-onable to ensure continuity of supply as both the sun and the wind are so variable. Of course, storing power is not an easy task - if we could just keep it in a big warehouse or reservoir when we have a surplus, and send it down the wires when we need it, that would be lovely, but we just don't have the technology.

Fair enough then. What other sources of electricity could be turned on and off at will to fill the gaps when demand is greater than a wind/solar supply? To me the obvious answer is hydro and wave power - but I'm told I'm being naive and that even if we could build the infrastructure we need to combine those sources into a reliable energy network that could provide everything we need on demand, it would take so long that more nuclear power is still needed as a medium-term interim measure.

Hrrrmmm. I don't know. I still think that ensuring security of electricity supply by building nuclear power stations around the country is about as well-advised as ensuring security of your home by sticking landmines around your garden. I grew up hearing the stories of Windscale and Chernobyl, and you can tell me it's not the same these days until you're blue in the face, I just can't see how you can guarantee that accidents won't happen.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The Big Green Irony

I was one of the first wave of kids to be educated on environmental issues from primary school age in the UK. In the late eighties, I pestered my mum into spending what was a fortune out of her budget at the time on a catalytic converter for her car. I designed posters to stop people from using sprays that contained CFCs. I was the captain of my primary school's Environmental Quiz Team, and got to travel to other schools to take part in panel quizzes at assemblies and kick ass with my impressive knowledge of biodiversity and green issues.

I felt I was a typical member of my generation, as much as one analyses these things at the age of ten or eleven. So how is it that as my generation have grown up and entered the spheres of industry and politics, that in a lot of places we've lost our way so desperately? We can pat ourselves on the back for cutting out CFCs, but think about some of the ways we have moved backwards:

  • Doorstep deliveries of locally produced milk, fresh every morning, in bottles which were sterilised and reused, have been replaced by plastic bottles picked up in bulk weekly from the supermarket.

  • Instead of drinking soda from glasses, poured out of deposit bottles that could be returned to the newsagent for reuse by the drinks company, we grab plastic half-litre bottles of Coke or our sugary poison of choice, which are more likely to be thrown away than recycled.

  • Unnecessary packaging has increased almost everywhere you look, it's almost impossible or at least prohibitively expensive to buy vegetables by weight in paper bags as we used to, with the majority picking up their (already impervious to contamination by means of their skins) fruit in plastic trays, wrapped with more plastic. That's if people are eating fruit and vegetables at all, when processed foods with huge carbon footprints are so much more convenient and often cheaper to live on.

  • I don't know anyone locally to me who has a compost heap in their garden. In fact I only know one or two people who grow any food, or feed birds, rather than leave their garden as a close-cut lawn or something even more sterile featuring vast quantities of gravel.

  • Modern children have more toys than ever, scores of brightly coloured plastic objects which often see little use before being discarded to make room for the latest flavour of the month.

This is all more on my mind than usual recently, as on Friday I took a trip with the Housing Association panel I'm on, to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth. It was a return journey for me: I have visited once before, with my family, when I was about thirteen or so. I delighted in rediscovering the place, especially its ingenious cliff railway powered by gravity and rainwater (two things there are no shortage of in the Welsh mountains!) and astonishing engineering. You can see some pictures from my phone here, if you wish.

It was heartening to wander around with the Director and the new Manager of Pembrokeshire Housing, who have always been concerned and conscientious, on the lookout for yet more green initiatives they could incorporate into their policies, their existing stock and their new build houses.

The atmosphere at CAT is great, people there are doing positive things, from volunteering and living in a low-impact way to undertaking hugely impressive postgraduate research. You can't help but come away thinking. The idea is that you go away inspired and energise, I think, but I have to admit to feeling a little troubled.

As I said above, it's profoundly ironic that all the time we have been becoming more 'environmentally aware' this past couple of decades, we have also been consuming more, and doing so less responsibly on the whole. I am proud to be a Liberal Democrat for so many reasons, not least of which is our green credentials as a party: in the areas where government can change these things, we aim to (see the Green Tax Switch for a prime example). In many places where we lead councils you can see the difference, with better public transport and provision for pedestrians high on the agenda (try google searching for "Liberal Democrats pedestrians" and watch the number of campaigns that come up all over the country), and better, properly separated doorstep recycling facilities.

But we can't expect to come in as politicians and make everything better overnight. The mess we're in is up to all of us to take care of, and the eleven-year-old me is still in there somewhere dying to nag you so here goes...

While it is laudable that much is made of recycling up and down the country now, and almost everyone has some form of doorstep recycling scheme, I can't help but think that it is being regarded quite wrongly as a panacea. Sure, it's not entirely greenwash. I would rather see a recycled drinks can than one which is made by mining bauxite and using 95% more energy, that's not in doubt. But people seem to forget that recycling still uses energy and resources to achieve. Here are just a few things that will reduce your waste output in an even more green way than recycling:

  • Buying less, and buying ethically with reducing waste in mind wherever possible, ideally from places that use less packaging or biodegradable packaging - farmers' markets are an obvious example, you could see if there's a local 'box scheme' to get fresh fruit and veg delivered to you in season, and away from food I'm a particular fan of Lush (bath and beauty products) for their commitment to this ethos of minimal and degradable packaging. If you aren't frightened of looking eccentric, as it's so rare to find people doing it even now, you could try doing what Ben Bradshaw was urging two years ago and dumping excess packaging at the checkouts. If we could all do this and successfully encourage others to do it, there would come a tipping point where the retailers had to rethink their attitudes.

  • Swapping. Oh yes. I have actually done clothes swapping parties and it's a much greater fix than buying a new outfit, because you don't spend anything, you get rid of stuff you don't wear any more, and you get new-to-you stuff that you'll love.

  • Composting there was a tiny part of the vast array of displays at CAT that really impressed me and taught me something I didn't really know the extent of: they had two vegetable beds, side by side, into which they had planted precisely the same varieties of seeds. On the left, the weediest little runts of leeks, barely thicker than a pencil, struggled to survive. On the right, the beefiest, biggest leeks I have ever seen stood proud of the bed and jostled for space. The only difference between the two tiny plots was a layer of home made compost. This is an awesome way to cut down your household waste, it's really easy to get started and you can even use waste paper, especially newspaper, in your compost bin.

  • Selling things. You might think of eBay or Amazon marketplace immediately, but it's not all about getting the highest price for your limited edition books and music you no longer want! There are still places that will pay to take empty cans off your hands: try looking here to see if there's an alupro centre near you.

  • Re-using items, either for their intended purpose or any variety of new ones. Pretty craft projects are great and you don't have to be handy with that kind of thing, everyone can make a lemonade bottle bird feeder! And it's not only on this kind of small scale you should think about reuse of your junk - next time you're throwing out shelves or a microwave, don't just skip them, find out if your local authority has links with charities for such things to be repaired and resold cheaply. In Pembrokeshire, Frame perform this function, and provide work and training to disadvantaged individuals into the bargain. It's where most of my furniture came from :)

I know I sound like an idealist hippy. I know these ideas are still not mainstream. I know we're all very used to life moving quickly and everything being available and disposable to us. I'm as guilty as anyone of all the worst excesses of 21st century life. But we desperately need something politicians are hard-pressed to provide or impose, and quite probably shouldn't in some areas. We need a massive culture shift. And it's been twenty years or more coming. Let's help it gather speed.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Self-indulgent ramble, feel free to ignore...

I have been avoiding this blog assiduously for some weeks. I've had a storming head cold and a mental and financial hangover from conference but that really wouldn't normally be any excuse for me to stop writing, quite the opposite. I'd like to say I don't know why I've not been around, exactly, but the truth is, I do.

Over the course of Lib Dem Conference, I got to know someone who described me as 'the most utterly sorted person' he had ever met. I was disbelieving, stunned. I may project an aura of confidence and savoir-faire, but underneath I've been a bit of a mess, if the truth be told, for about ten years.

I've faced some difficulties over that time that were not of my own making, but many more that were entirely, if unconsciously, self-constructed. I have set about transforming my life into one I could be proud of, one more fitting of my native wit and intelligence and the schooling I was so generously afforded by my family, several times. And each time I have simultaneously done things that set me up for catastrophic failure. I could go into anecdotal evidence, but it is all too painful and too private to broadcast here. Take my word for it, I have the process of taking great opportunities and spectacularly blasting them to smithereens down to a fine art.

I'm not scared of failure. I'm used to failure by now. I am deeply, deeply ashamed of living in a housing association house and working for two days a week in a job that doesn't actually stretch me one iota. It has caused untold damage to my relationships with anyone I care about who knew me before about 1999: I am seen as prickly and unapproachable - permanently on the defensive because I have become so accustomed to seeing myself as a poor, lost cause that I am convinced that that is all anyone else who knew me as a child and a teenager will see when they look at me and it makes me bitter. And that is a high price to pay for being a failure in my own eyes, but I have continued to plant seeds of destruction in my life thus far because I don't fear failure at all. What I fear is success.

So, one and a half years into my membership of this party, when I find myself unexpectedly the subject of praise and admiration, when I find myself pushed from all quarters to become a parliamentary candidate, when I am surrounded at conferences (and at the end of the phone from at other times) by a whole network of good, worthy people who see huge potential in me, when I find myself nominated for Lib Dem Blog of the Year against and over other bloggers that I don't feel like I come close to measuring up against, I feel tearful. I am actually even struggling to write this.

The truth is, I didn't join the party with any ambition in mind. I joined because I met some people who liked to talk about politics and political history, who had noble ideals and kind faces, and I wanted to spend more time around them and people like them. I laughed when my PPC said to me at the time that I would find that responsibility comes quickly in this party and I may find that things snowball, I remember saying "what, so you'll have me delivering leaflets in no time, then?". So to find that actually, this is a place where I could achieve some form of success, not only some form but a form that really appeals to me and would make me proud of myself as like anyone I want to be, deep down, TERRIFIES me.

I actually woke up this morning and swore off going to Welsh Lib Dem conference this weekend, ostensibly because of the aforementioned cold, but in reality because I'm in the grip of terror. You have my mother, who knows me well enough to know when I need an arsekicking, to thank (or address your hate-mail to!) for the fact I've changed my mind. And the fact I'm back here.

A Proper Blog Post follows shortly.