Irish emigrants deserve a vote

This piece on why Irish emigrants deserve to vote first appeared in the Guardian’s Comment is Free on 22/01/2011. The debate then moved to the Irish Times, where I also wrote a piece, and I appeared on Today FM’s The Last Word talking about the need for Irish emigrants to be allowed to vote on 24/01/2011

At about 1.40pm on Thursday afternoon, the Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, reluctantly made the announcement the country has been waiting months to hear: Ireland’s next general election will take place on 11 March. Within seconds Twitter was abuzz with Irish expats’ excited chatter. “I’m booking my flight home right now,” chirped one youthful tweeter. “Can’t wait to go back to vote them [Fianna Fáil] out,” chimed another.

It is refreshing to see such enthusiasm for representative democracy – which only makes it doubly sad that few, if any, of these politically engaged emigrants will be legally allowed to vote if they do turn up at an Irish polling station in seven weeks’ time.

Under Irish electoral law, unless you are “ordinarily resident” in the country (that is living in Ireland on 1 September in the year before the voting register comes into force) you cannot cast a ballot in elections. To live outside the Republic of Ireland and attempt to vote constitutes electoral fraud and carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison.

The contrast with UK passport holders could not be starker. As the Electoral Commission says on its website: “Yorkshire puddings, pubs, and having a good debate over a decent cup of tea with an old friend are just a few things you may miss while you’re overseas. But living abroad doesn’t stop you having your say back home.”

If you’re Irish, it does.

More than 110 countries allow passport holders living abroad to vote. Ireland, with its long history of emigration, is not among of them. Unlike citizens of, say, Ghana, Mexico or the Dominican Republic, Irish people living outside the republic are barred from directly participating in the electoral process. Greece, the only other EU member with a similar policy, is in the process of amending its legislation following a successful appeal by two Greek nationals living in France that the law breached the European convention on human rights.

Emigrant voting rights have been on the political agenda in Ireland before, most recently in the 1990s when proposals were put forward to elect representatives of the diaspora to Ireland’s second house, the Seanad. Although these comparatively piecemeal suggestions came to naught, the Irish abroad’s clamour for greater involvement in political life back home now seems set to intensify.

After a hiatus during the Celtic Tiger days, emigration is once again a reality for hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women. According to the Central Statistics Office in Dublin, between 2006 and 2010 emigration reached a level not seen since the late 1980s. The Economic and Social Research Institute says that about 1,000 people are leaving Ireland every week, a trend that is expected to continue well into 2012.

Just how many of the Irish people moving to the US, Australia, Canada, the UK and other places around the world realise that they lose their vote when they leave is unclear. That they are being disenfranchised is beyond doubt.

As Noreen Bowden, editor of, has pointed out, denying emigrants their right to vote has long suited Irish political elites: “Ireland’s refusal to allow emigrants voting rights is a tremendous advantage for the insiders of the political establishment, ensuring that a big proportion of those most affected by the economic downturn won’t be around to cast their verdict.”

However, many in Ireland remain opposed to any extension of the franchise to include emigrants. A popular argument for maintaining the electoral status quo is that with 70 million people of Irish descent living across the globe, the numbers of overseas voters would dwarf the Irish electorate.

As ever, the reality is at odds with the rhetoric. That 70 million figure represents the Irish diaspora in its broadest sense, not Irish passport holders living abroad. According to the Irish department of foreign affairs, there are about 3 million in the latter category.

For a population of less than 4.5 million, 3 million is still a significant number. But based on the figures for expatriate voting from the UK (where you retain your voting rights for 15 years after you leave) and elsewhere, only a small proportion of Irish passport holders abroad would be expected to actually vote – if they were allowed to make that choice.

Instead, as Ireland gears itself up for arguably the most important election since the foundation of the state, the voices of countless Irish emigrants will not be heard.

Ireland deserves change. Allowing those who have left, many forced out by the current government’s disastrous economic mismanagement, a fair say in the country’s future would be a step in the right direction.

Analysis: Never mind a week – a day is long time in politics

What a difference a day makes. On Tuesday evening, Brian Cowen celebrated after defeating a motion of no confidence in his leadership tabled by foreign minister and party colleague Micheál Martin. “The party is united behind Brian Cowen as leader,” declared Fianna Fail chief whip John Curran.

But barely 24 hours later, the Irish premier’s political prospects lay in tatters. Despite saving his job, the dearth of confidence in Cowen among his own party was soon laid bare by a raft of ministerial resignations. By yesterday morning, the premature departure of front-bench heavyweights such as Noel Dempsey, Mary Harney and Tom Killeen left Cowen with just nine serving ministers.

When Fianna Fail’s coalition partner, the Greens, refused to support his nomination of replacement ministers, the Taoiseach was forced into yet another embarrassing volte-face: instead of new ministers, he bowed to the Greens’ wishes and called a general election.

Any hopes Cowen had that replacing retiring ministers with new faces from the back-benches might refresh his moribund party have been dashed. Instead, his government will face the electorate with many of the same cadre that presided over Ireland’s economic crisis in prominent positions.

With unemployment at a vertiginous 13 per cent, inflation on a two-year high and an estimated 1,000 people leaving every day, Ireland is still a long way from recovery. Both Fianna Fail and the Greens face almost-certain electoral annihilation. Yet neither Fine Gael nor Labour have fully convinced the Irish public they have a credible new vision for the country.

Originally appeared in the Scotsman 21/01/2011

The Great Migration

This feature on Irish migration to the UK was the lead story in the Sunday Business Post‘s Agenda magazine on 16 January.

Standing at the edge of the McNamara Suite in the London Irish Centre, it’s difficult to believe you’re in cosmopolitan Camden town, and not a function room somewhere in Tipperary or Waterford.

Well-thumbed copies of The Munster Express lie abandoned near rounds of sandwiches and half-drunk cups of tea on nearby tables while, on the opposite side of the room, a lone accordionist plays King of the Road to the delight of the crowded dance floor.

The dancers are mainly in their 60s and 70s,members of just one of myriad Irish social clubs that use the space; almost all of them left Ireland for Britain in the 1950s.

Their arrival coincided with the foundation of the London Irish Centre.

Set across a pair of renovated Georgian terraces in a once down-at-heel but now stridently middleclass slice of north London, it has been the epicentre of Irish life in the city ever since.

For more than 55 years, the centre has doled out advice and assistance to thousands of young Irish men and women, but in the last 12 months there has been a slow, if steady, increase in the numbers of new Irish emigrants looking for help.

‘‘During the good times in Ireland, we probably got five or six people a week coming through our doors, but now it’s easily twice that number,” says the centre’s director Peter Hammond, who is originally from Dublin but has been living in London since 1975.

Ascertaining the exact number of Irish emigrants arriving in Britain is a tricky task.

At 11,000,the number of Irish nationals who applied for British National Insurance numbers in 2010 was not significantly up on 2008 and 2009 levels.

However, this figure is expected to grow in 2011,with many experts predicting that Irish emigration to Britain could increase dramatically in the coming years.

According to the Central Statistics Office, during the period 2006 to 2010, emigration reached a level that had not been seen since the late 1980s,with Irish citizens accounting for 42 per cent of those leaving the country.

The Economic and Social Research Institute expects the numbers to rise as high as 120,000 by the end of this year, while the Union of Students in Ireland estimates that as many as 150,000 students will emigrate in the next five years.

It’s not hard to see why jobless Irish men And women might head for Britain: it is easy and cheap to get to, there are no visa requirements, and, despite its on-going economic difficulties, employment opportunities in many parts of Britain are still better than in Ireland.

The prospect of a new wave of Irish émigre ¤ s in Britain has already become something of a political football in Westminster.

In late December, a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a respected London think-tank, suggested that Irish emigration would contribute to an overall rise in immigration in 2011, thwarting prime minister David Cameron’s election pledge to bring Britain’s annual net immigration below 200,000.

At the London Irish Centre, where the youthful cast of 1916 The Musical are rehearsing in the top floor annex, Peter Hammond acknowledges that the centre’s role – and the very nature of Irish emigration – is changing.

‘‘The traditional model was that people would physically show up at our door and say: ‘Can you help us?’. We’d send them off to Mrs O’Reilly, who’d give them a bed for the night, and then we’d send them down to Mr Smith, who’d give them a start in a bar. Now, people are more educated and are able to set themselves up with jobs.

They are looking to us for advice rather than direct support, and they’re contacting us over email or the phone, rather than coming here in person,” he says.

Gary Dunne, the centre’s artistic director, has rejuvenated its cultural programme, bringing in popular Irish acts such as Des Bishop, John Spillane and Declan O’Rourke, and seeing them play to sell-out audiences. Dunne, who left Ireland in 2002 and is now married in London, believes that new Irish emigrants have very different expectations to those who came before them.

‘‘They’re not coming here to dig holes or work in bars – most of them have skills and training, and want to use them,” he says.

Louise McHenry is typical of this new generation of Irish emigrants.

Originally from Ballycastle in Co Antrim, 24-year-old McHenry completed a master’s degree in journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology, but after a year of fruitless job-hunting she left Ireland for east London.

‘‘When I was in Dublin I applied for lots of different jobs, but I didn’t even get a single response.

Then I came over here – two weeks later I got a job, and a week later I got promoted. I had my pay increased three times in the first three months; that would never have happened in Ireland,” she says.

Only two out of McHenry’s master’s class of 20 have found work in Ireland, and while she initially took a job in a bar, within four months she secured a position as a reporter on a trade paper. ‘‘I’d never have got a job like that in Ireland.

Over here, there are lots of jobs for people who are starting out, there’s nothing like that in Dublin,” she says.

McHenry would like to return to Dublin or Belfast eventually, but feels that the Irish government has failed to provide opportunities for graduates. She is equally scathing about the quality of assistance offered at Irish job centres.

‘‘In Dublin, the job centre was awful, really awful. In my first week in London I was sent on a course about how to write a CV for media jobs – that’s how tailored it is here.

In Dublin the courses were useless, if there were any at all.”

One of the main reasons Britain remains the destination of choice for so many would be emigrants is its cultural similarity to home.

Sinead McEneaney, a lecturer in American history, has worked mainly in Britain since graduating with a PhD from NUI Maynooth in 2004, and finds little substantive differences between living in Britain and Ireland.

‘‘My life is exactly the same as it would be if I lived in Dublin. It would feel as odd to live in Kerry or Cork as it does to live in London,” McEneaney says from her office in St Mary’s University College in Twickenham.

With a moratorium on public sector recruitment in place, academic positions are at a premium in Ireland, leading many PhD graduates to look across the Irish Sea to further their careers.

Highly educated workers are a great loss to the Irish economy, not least as the state invests significant sums in their postgraduate education, an investment that is unlikely to see any return for the foreseeable future.

McEneaney makes regular trips back to Dublin, and has noticed increasing numbers of Irish people commuting from Ireland to work in London during the week.

Aside from separation from family and travel expenses, such workers must deal with another, often hidden, cost: exchange rate fluctuations.

With most of her outgoings in euro and her wages in sterling, McEneaney knows better than most the vagaries of the currency markets. ‘‘I remember when sterling hit parity with the euro [in December 2008], I almost cried. It meant that I was making less than I would have been in an entry-level academic position in Ireland.”

Born in Canada to Irish parents and raised in Celbridge, McEneaney doesn’t consider herself particularly Irish, and seldom seeks out the company of compatriots in London, but she keeps up to date with Irish current affairs through Twitter and online news outlets.

Like many emigrants, the young lecturer is phlegmatic about her future in Britain. ‘‘I don’t see this as permanent. I still figure that I will move again, either back to Ireland, or someplace else,” she says.

The demise of the Celtic tiger has had an unexpected knock-on effect for many of those who emigrated during the boom years.

Having left in a time of prosperity, with the implicit assumption that they could return one day, the economic downturn has forced many to realise that going back is not an option, at least in the short term.

Increasingly, these emigrants are turning to places such as the London Irish Centre to express facets of their Irish identity that, until recently, were little-used or needed.

Gary Dunne has seen a surge in interest from Irish nationals with young families who have been in London for a number of years, but now want their children instructed in Irish dancing or language courses.

‘‘I think we are going to see an explosion in this kind of thing in the coming years.

People who came here thinking they’d stay for a year or two are now realising that they are not going back, and are trying to define themselves as being Irish in Britain,” he says.

Marc Scully, a social psychologist at the Open University who has written about Irish identities in England, believes we could be witnessing a nascent ‘‘third great wave’’ of Irish emigration to Britain. ‘‘We are starting to get back to the paradigm of collective emigration, which we haven’t seen since the 1980s,” he says.

But he cautions against making early presumptions about the shape of current Irish emigration to Britain.

‘‘It’s a fallacy to assume that every migration will follow the pattern of the previous one.

The 1950s generation built Irish associations and clubs, but those that came in the 1980s formed networks that didn’t have the same interest in occupying a physical space – they connected in bars and on the phone,” he says. ‘‘Now, migration patterns are more fluid, people are migrating in cohorts and with very different skills. It’s hard to predict in what way they will organise themselves.”

Recent Irish emigration reached its peak in the 1950s,with the majority of the 50,000 people that left the country each year that decade heading for Britain.

After a fall-off in the 1970s, emigration ratcheted up in the 1980s,with almost 35,000 leaving the state every year.

Once again Britain was by far the most popular destination.

But with so many Irish men and women Now heading for Australia, Canada and even the Far East, will the next wave of emigration to Britain really be as significant as previous generations? ‘‘In terms of numbers, I doubt it,” says Scully. ‘‘But in terms of psychological impact, very possibly.”

Emigration might be Ireland’s ‘‘great national trauma’’, but so far the Irish government has made little attempt to stem this flow of human capital. Indeed, the assumption that emigrants are leaving in search of fun and excitement – and not for economic reasons – still seems prevalent in certain political circles.

Speaking to the BBC’s Hardtalk programme in February of last year, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan opined that emigration for some was ‘‘not a bad thing’’.

Characterising emigrants as highly educated and mobile, she said that, ‘‘the type of people who have left, some of them find they want to enjoy themselves and that’s what young people are entitled to do’’.

Coughlan’s words partly reflect the radical shift in popular representations of the Irish abroad during the boom years. As the country prospered, images of Irish labourers in London and bar staff in Glasgow were replaced by pictures of stylish, suited executives in Singapore and backpackers chilling out on Bondi beach.

Marc Scully traces the origins of these new images of the successful, transnational emigrant back to the late 1990s.

‘‘As circumstances in Ireland improved, the diaspora came to be seen as a project of a modern, successful Ireland,” he says. ‘‘But the truth is that Ireland’s image of the diaspora was as based in fact as many IrishAmerican’s images of Ireland were.” Mary Gilmartin, a lecturer in human geography at NUI Maynooth, agrees.

‘‘There was a celebration of mobility during the Celtic tiger era – a celebration of the ‘Global Irish’ with all this cultural capital trotting around the world, doing the best jobs in the best places,” she says. ‘‘But this ignored the reality that emigration to Britain to work in manual jobs continued throughout the Celtic tiger – we just never spoke about it.”

While many young, talented Irish men and women took high-paying jobs in places like the City of London during the boom, less fortunate emigrants continued to come through the London Irish Centre’s doors.

According to Peter Hammond, even during the good times people came to the centre seeking help, ‘‘but they tended to be people with other problems: drugs, crime, family’’.

There is also still a sizeable number of Irish born men and women sleeping rough on London’s streets.

Mary Gilmartin draws attention to another oft-forgotten aspect of Irish emigration to Britain – the fact that it is heavily gendered.

Throughout the past 20 years, more women than men have left Ireland for Britain, mainly due to the private sector opportunities available for men as the country enjoyed record growth.

Traditionally, in times of recession, there is a spike in the number of men emigrating as private sector jobs dry up, but Gilmartin predicts that the trend for greater numbers of females moving to Britain is unlikely to abate any time soon.

‘‘Britain offers opportunities for women that they might not get here.

Women are far more likely to be employed in the public sector – as teachers or nurses, for examples – and it is this type of occupation that is being squeezed in Ireland,” she says.

Back at the London Irish Centre, Gary Dunne is taking a break from chaperoning the afternoon dance to reflect on the centre’s future.

‘‘This place is going to have to change totally to cater for the next generation,” he says, sellotaping shut the biscuit bin that holds the day’s raffle proceeds.

‘‘We’re seeing more and more people every week looking for help, and we’ve got to be proactive to be there for them. It’s going to be a challenge, but I do think this is a good time to be Irish in London.”

Celtic Connections

Scotland and Ireland have always been close. At its shortest, the distance between the Mull of Kintyre and the north Antrim coast is only 20km.

The ancient Gaelic overkingdom of Dalriada stretched across western Scotland and the north of Ireland during the 6th and 7th centuries, but large-scale migration between the two countries only really began in the 1840s. As the famine ravaged Ireland, increasing numbers escaped across the Irish Sea to Scotland: according to census results, in 1841 4.8 per cent of the population of Scotland was Irish-born, within a decade this figure stood at 7.2 per cent.

The list of Irish-Scots is as lengthy as it is illustrious: James Connolly, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sean Connery are just some of the famous names born in Scotland to Irish parents.

Now, once more, Irish men and women are coming to live and work in Scotland’s towns and cities.

Oliver Ralph, 25, originally from Upper Church in Tipperary, arrived in Edinburgh 18 months ago after losing his job as a carpenter in Limerick. Sitting in a crowded bar a stone’s throw from the city’s fabled castle, he explains why he made the move.

‘My brother was living here and it seemed like a good place to go. And it has been. I’m happy here now. I’ve made a life for myself and I’ve no plans to go back,’ he says firmly.

After a brief spell cleaning gutters when he arrived, Ralph has now settled into a job as a waiter in Edinburgh. Although he sometimes misses the ‘daft money’ that he made during the boom years he enjoys his work, and with Ireland only an hour’s flight away he seldom feels homesick.

‘There’s so many ways you can keep in touch. Facebook, email, telephone,’ he says. ‘And if anything happened you could be back in no time.’

Before the crash, Ireland’s overheated housing market was another push factor for some emigrants. Paul Jakma spent most of his life in Leixlip but when he found himself still residing with parents in his early 30s, despite having a good job as a programmer at an American multinational, he decided it was time to move on.

After a couple of years spent trying to buy a house in various parts of north county Dublin, ‘the middle of nowhere really’, in late 2006 Jakma moved to Glasgow, where he had lived briefly as a teenager. Initially he simply transferred his job but has since returned to university and is now studying for a PhD in the University of Glasgow.

Jakma feels ‘lucky’ to have avoided Ireland’s property trap. Within a few months of moving he bought in the east end of Glasgow city centre. Although he lives close to Celtic FC’s ground, in the traditional heartland of Glasgow’s Irish community, the student consciously avoids ‘the flag waving stuff here’.

Like many Irish emigrants, Jakma would like to go back home one day but is unsure if that will be possible.

‘My family is there, it’s the place I know, but the question is will Ireland be in any state for me to go back to anytime soon? I’ll be finished my post-grad in four years but will there be any jobs then? I don’t know.’

Votes for Emigrants

Those living in Ireland are not the only ones anxiously awaiting the forthcoming general election. Across the world hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens are following the political debates and discussions back home – even though they won’t be able to participate in the vote itself.

According to the law, those not ‘ordinarily resident’, that is living in Ireland on 1 September in the year before the voting register comes into force, cannot cast a ballot in Irish elections.

Many Irish emigrants, however, are not aware that once they leave they quickly lose their electoral voice. ‘It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to vote,’ says Sinead McEneaney, a lecturer in American history at St. Mary’s University College Twickenham. ‘I never knew.’

At present Ireland is the only country in the EU, and one of only 50 countries around the world, that does not allow passport holders living abroad to participate in national elections.

Noreen Bowden, a Diaspora consultant who was born in New York but spent the past 12 years living in Ireland, believes that Irish emigrants’ have paid the price for their own generosity. ‘Irish people aboard are very generous to Ireland in so many ways so there’s never been much of a need to go the extra mile to engage with them politically. Many countries have allowed emigrants to vote as a way to encourage them to contribute economically. Ireland has never needed to do that,’ she says.

Emigrant voting rights have been on the political agenda before. In the 1990s there were serious proposals to elect representatives of the Irish abroad to the Seanad, in much the same way that universities hold six seats in the second house. This suggestion was never followed through, mainly on account of a split between advocates of immediate full voting rights for all emigrants and those who saw the Seanad as a first step towards this broader goal.

More recently a mandate to prepare a proposal to allow the Irish abroad to vote in presidential election was included in the current coalition’s Programme for Government. But this proposition was not followed through.

Opponents of extending the franchise to the Irish abroad have raised numerous objections: Who would qualify to vote? Would everyone of Irish descent be eligible? And what about Northern Ireland? Would Irish citizens there be included?

Bowden thinks these concerns, while valid, are overplayed. ‘The way to resolve these problems is not to say that no one can vote. We need to sit down and figure out a fair, workable system.

‘We ask so much of the Diaspora yet we don’t even give them a vote. It’s shameful’.

Is Our Political Discourse Really That Much Different?

Since the terrible shooting of Gabrielle Giffiords at the weekend, much attention has – rightly – been focused on the rhetoric of the Tea Party in the US, and particularly Sarah Palin.

We have now seen the cross-hairs in the target, listened to Palin’s inane talk of ‘blood libel’ and – rather smugly – told ourselves that things are different here in Britain. That our politicians – and political discourse – does not use the same emotive, divisive language as the US.

But is this really the case?

Increasingly it seems that politics in this country is being played out on an emotional, rather than a rational, register and the extreme language of the US is infecting debate here. If you don’t believe me check out much of what passes for political debate on a lot of Twitter feeds, or read James Delingpole’s blog about Michael Gove’s appearance on BBC Radio 5 Live in the Telegraph today. Too often the voices of our commentators are starting to resemble the shrill witterings of US shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh rather than articulating reasoned political analysis.

At the Netroots UK conference in London last weekend, just hours before the shooting in Tuscon, Ari Rabib-Havt, from Media Matters, described in detail how Fox News has eviscerated political debate in the US and how it could do the same here. One questioner suggested this ‘could never happen here’ but Britain is ‘too smart’ but is this really true? It’s easy to believe that extremism – in political discourse and opinion – is an American disease, but if we’re not careful it’ll start spreading on this side of the pond, too.

Netroots Taking Hold in Scotland?

At the weekend I travelled down to the London for the UK’s first Netroots conference. There are already been plenty of reports on the day’s proceedings elsewhere on the web, from the Guardian and Total Politics to Red Pepper and Counterfire….so surely another one won’t hurt.

On the whole it was a useful day – although I’d agree with the criticisms of the fetishisation of the Labour party and the over-reliance on establishment speakers voiced by many – but my aim here is not to critique Netroots, either as a concept or as an event, but to briefly sketch what I learned from the day that might be of use to activists in Scotland, and beyond.

In the morning plenary, Nigel Stanley from the TUC made a strong pitch for showing people that the cuts are both unfair and unnecessary: we are not all in this together, the Con-Dem coalition has no electoral mandate for cuts. Stanley made a number of very useful points: we are not yet in the majority, we’re in danger of mobilising a minority, coalition narratives are strong, we need to make the case for alternatives such as Robin Hood tax, end to tax dodging, and a return to growth.

Excepting my scepticism about the possibility of growth as we know it returning the Western world – that’s an argument for another day – Stanley, and Clifford Singer from False Economy both made strong cases for the primacy of creating new narratives against the cuts that can grip the public consciousness. This is definitely something that we need to take up in Scotland, where the mainstream media has, broadly, accepted the logic of government cuts even if many leading commentators have not.

Surprisingly one of the recurring questions heard at Netroots was whether personal stories or facts and figures are the best way to persuade the public that the cuts are wrong. This Manichean division struck this observer as rather unnecessary: surely individual stories supported by broader context about the economic and social situation in the UK, and Scotland, provide the most effective framework for creating anti-cuts narratives?

I went to Netroots with one main aim – to learn from others about the best way to help grow and develop the anti-cuts movement in Scotland. With this in mind, in the late morning I attended the ‘Theory of Change: Planning Your Campaign’ session, which highlighted the fact that winning the argument isn’t enough (cf. Iraq, Climate Change, etc), we need to use on-line in tandem with physical and economic power.

Here in Scotland the inspiring occupations by students in Edinburgh and Glasgow have shown the physical power can achieve results, while the UKUncut boycotts have demonstrated our economic power. Developing new, creative forms of such protest in the coming weeks and months seems crucial.

Julielyn Gibbons, from the New Organizing Institute in Washington DC, talked of the importance of mobilising around a key date. In Scotland the Holyrood election in May is the most obvious red letter day in the short-term for anti-cuts activists.

The afternoon session on ‘Countering Cuts in Your Area’ was excellent. Jim Cranshaw from Oxford Save Our Services spoke of the need to be creative, something I’ve written about before, and also to think about how anti-cuts groups market themselves: instead of coming across as some sort of hard left proxy force (which we’re not), we need to focus on our own, and others, concerns as residents in a neighbourhood.

Cranshaw also highlighted the need to create a clear, attractive website, to organise in a non-hierarchical way and to try to make meetings fun: ‘I’ve never thought that fun is a counter-revolutionary concept’.

Matthew Scott from Community Sector Coalition had excellent advice for getting voluntary and community groups on board an anti-cuts campaign: show solidarity with local campaigns; listen to community groups rather than telling them what you need from them; avoid jargon; put a premium on collective rather than individual action; get beyond funded brokers to grassroots level; get the whole community involved; start from where people are physically at; never try to go beyond the experiences of your own people.

Much of this might sound self-evident but we all have experience of movements and campaigns that broke many of these rules – and failed as a consequence.

Given that the overwhelming majority of those at Netroots were based in and around London, that the situation in ‘the regions’, and particularly in Scotland, was rarely discussed was no great surprise. But that is not to say that campaigners in Scotland cannot learn from the broader UK anti-cuts movement.

In Edinburgh, where I live, we already have a vibrant student campaign against the cuts as well as community groups opposing the government’s spending policies. But we need more; we need an up-to-date website that allows people to see clearly what cuts are being made where; we need to make the cuts THE issue of the Holyrood election; we need to broaden the movement’s appeal to encompass people from all walks of life; and we need to find creative, innovative ways to organise and get our message out.

Perhaps a useful bridging step would be to organise our own ‘Netroots Scotland’ conference, there are certainly enough grassroots activists and innovative thinkers out there to make this worthwhile.

We also need to build a Scotland-wide anti-cuts movement and to get the cuts onto the political agenda – which is more difficult given the fact that Holyrood is passing on Westminster edicts.

But first off I’m working on building an anti-cuts group in Edinburgh. Everyone is more than welcome to join – just drop me a line.

The Secret Life of Stuff

Review of Julie Hill’s new book the Secret Life of Stuff appeared in the Sunday Business Post on January 9

Economic growth is always a good thing, right?

Not according to the New Economics Foundation. In January 2010, this left-leaning British think-tank warned, in the aptly-titled Growth Isn’t Possible report, that the prevailing orthodoxy of perpetual increasing, consumption based prosperity has left the world teetering on an ecological cliff.

Instead of trying to grow further, developed economies should look to consume resources in a stable, sustainable way.

While such views are unlikely to curry favour with many captains of industry, particularly in the face of a protracted worldwide financial slump, their influence reverberates across Julie Hill’s insightful, if occasionally frustrating new book, The Secret Life of Stuff.

Dismayed at ‘‘how little we understand the complexity of the material world that surrounds us’’, Hill draws on her 25 years’ experience as an environmental campaigner to examine where the ‘‘stuff’’ that clutters our lives comes from – and why we need to change radically the way we use, and abuse, the earth’s natural resources.

The problem is dispiritingly simple: we currently consume resources around 30 per cent faster than they are replaced naturally – and the rate is increasing annually.

Hill lays the blame for this sorry state of affairs squarely on the linear economy’s disposable philosophy – ‘‘make stuff, use stuff, throw stuff away’’. Growth at any cost simply produces more stuff, more waste and, crucially, a marked reduction in our core capital asset, the natural environment.

Take newspapers. If you’re reading this in print – and you probably are – then you can try to console yourself that newspapers today are printed on recycled paper. But this system isn’t an indefinite closed loop: paper can only be recycled half a dozen times before its fibres irrevocably breakdown.

Meanwhile, trees are diminishing. Half the world’s forest has already been felled; another quarter will be gone by 2050. Almost every other material resource – metal, minerals, water – is similarly overexploited.

So what’s the solution?

Not the ‘green consumer’ trend that, Hill argues, has simply produced a niche market for putatively environmentally friendly products. In its stead the author proposes a comprehensive overhaul of how we produce and use goods and objects: zero waste.

Zero waste ‘‘represents an aspiration to let as little stuff out of the economic system as possible’’, a philosophy of renew and reuse, not chuck away and start again.

It is a simple phrase, but one with devastating implications for our accepted ways of living and, even more so, doing business.

Alongside changes in government procurement policies and tax incentives for recycling and renewable energy, Hill proposes the introduction of binding ‘producer responsibility’.

Put simply, companies should be legally responsible for the entire life cycle of the products they produce.

Before buying a stick of timber or a spool of copper, businesses would have to consider how these raw materials would be used again after their product’s lifecycle.

It is a compelling argument with obvious benefits: massive savings in energy bills, the increased preservation of natural resources and the alleviation of the effects of climate change. But there are also drawbacks to zero waste at present.

Recycling technology is, in the main, remarkably primitive, even in the developed world. Economic inducements would certainly help change this, but progress takes time as well as legislation.

Lowering the price of renewables could also invite a Jevons paradox, whereby technological advances increase demand and consumption, negating any efficiency savings.

The Secret Life of Stuff is no dry, academic treatise.

Hill takes the reader on a journey from community incinerators on the Shetland Islands, to toxic spoil pits that pollute parts of Montana via ground-breaking recycling plants on the Japanese island of Shikoku, all the while explaining where our material world comes from, and how we too often waste it.

A range of sources are drawn on to produce a well researched, cogently-argued whole.

Unfortunately, the breadth of Hill’s reading is not always reflected in her style, which tends towards the demotic and too quickly becomes predictable.

Almost every section is prefaced with an historical anecdote, some of questionable relevance, while attempts to breakup the text with invented letters and hypothetical discussions fall flat.

Nevertheless, there is much to recommend here. The Secret Life of Stuff is a mine of revealing stats and facts: our consumption of agricultural products from other countries means that each person on earth uses a staggering 4,645 litres of water a day; Americans throw away 25 billion Styrofoam cups each year; the largest aluminium smelter in Australia uses as much energy as a city of one million people.

Ignore the rather misleading subtitle, A Manual for a New Material World, The Secret Life of Stuff is a polemical , often persuasive, manifesto for reusing and remodelling the planet we already have, not designing a new one.

Hill’s is a radical challenge to our prevailing economic culture, not just a paean to eating organic and buying local.

There are limits to growth; if we haven’t bumped our heads off them already, we certainly will soon.