Democratic reform and climate change

| 1st February 2019
Voting booths
Proportional representation could enable us to solve our environmental, social, economic and educational emergencies together.

The Conservative-controlled Scarborough council has formally declared a climate emergency. It's the eleventh council in England to do so and joins an international movement that began with the Australian council of Darebin in suburban Melbourne. Bradford recently became the biggest council in England to yet follow suit, just as nearby Kirklees did the same.

At the same time as Tory councillors - following the lead of two Greens - were backing the motion in Scarborough, locals outside a little village called Mission, near Doncaster, were joined by people from across the North and Midlands to show their opposition to a fracking operation that started right beside a Site of Special Scientific interest. 

A little to the east, the people of another tiny community - Biscathorpe, in Lincolnshire - were being arrested. I’m told one of the protestors was a local man in his 70s who’s just had a pacemaker fitted – he had been opposing the proposed extreme oil drilling beside another natural wonder, a rare pristine chalk stream. 

Local government

This week I joined protest groups as Cheshire West and Chester Council and a local campaign group fought to defend a decision, made partly on climate change grounds, to reject iGas’s plan to test a gas well at Ellesmere Port.

Together, these events highlighted the way in which Britain is following the pattern of the US, Australia and Brazil, where local authorities are joining the global push for climate action, while their national government fiddles as the planet burns.

At the climate talks in Katowice last month, Sydney and Melbourne joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance (as did Scottish Power), despite having a national government seeking to push ahead with a scheme for expansion that could wreck the Great Barrier Reef. At the Oxford Real Farming Conference, I heard about how the Welsh government scheme for One Planet Developments is starting to be put into effect.

The demonstrators in Mission Springs, Biscathorpe, and at many other sites around England, demonstrate a key difference between the UK and other parts of the world where local governments have real power and resources. Even the actions of the Welsh (and Scottish) governments can have only limited effects.

In Britain, the powers of local government and devolved national governments are limited, even in the case of the London Assembly, where Green member Caroline Russell led the successful push to declare a climate emergency (the Tories abstained). 

Taking back control 

In Scarborough, the council agreed to aim to be carbon-neutral by 2030, and to bid for £80,000 to fund a sustainability officer work towards that ambition, but that’s about the total of action the council could agree.

Most councils now are so severely stretched by austerity that their ability to take any action beyond their basic statutory responsibilities (decided in Westminster) are severely limited.

The Welsh government was backing the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project, but Westminster effectively blocked it. As the slogan goes, “Lancashire Said No” (to fracking), but distant Westminster casually overrode it. 

That’s a contrast to the US and many parts of continental Europe, where local, regional and other sub-sovereign governments have real power of decision and resources to act on those decisions.*

The powerlessness of local government is one of the reasons why people are right to want to “take back control” in our non-democracy. 

Wider reform

Local communities are clearly committed to action on climate change and just need to be allowed (or to take) the power and resources to act.

That’s also an argument for wider reform. It is noticeable that two of the world’s most climate-destructive national governments – in Washington and Canberra - are two of the countries in the world with the most archaic, non-proportional electoral systems (much like the UK's) 

Countries with fairer (proportional) voting systems - where the views of parliament reflect those of the people and everyone’s vote counts - are, not coincidentally, those with significantly lower carbon emissions than majoritarian systems.

So if you’re campaigning with Extinction Rebellion, or on the gate at Biscathorpe or Mission Springs, it is worth sparing a little time and effort to back Make Votes Matter.

With a government in Westminster that reflects our views, and truly devolved power in local communities, we can stop having to do battle with faraway MPs, and work together to tackle our environmental, social, economic and educational emergencies together, democratically, cooperatively.

This Author 

Natalie Bennett is a member of Sheffield Green Party and former Green Party leader.


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