Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Caught beneath the landslide: Lessons from the 1983 general election

May 8, 2013: It was 30 years ago today that the British general election campaign got under way, the one that produced a landslide for the governing Conservatives, a rout for the Labour Party, and a serious reduction in the ranks of the party that I supported back then: the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Although Britain's political terrain has changed dramatically since 1983, that year's election has a few valuable lessons, some of which apply to the United States. 
Card-carrying member

Lesson 1: Leveraging Small Numbers
At the start of the 1983 campaign the parliamentary SDP consisted of 27 members. When the House of Commons reassembled after the election, the number had fallen to just six. Losing three-quarters of our MPs did not diminish the enthusiasm of ordinary SDP members in the country. Even with a parliamentary presence so small it could caucus in the back of a black cab, the Social Democrats in the House of Commons managed to project an image of the SDP as an effective political force with more competence and box-office appeal -- though fewer MPs -- than their Liberal allies.

David Owen, who became leader after the general election, used Parliament as a device for amplifying the party's voice. Although the Conservative landslide meant the SDP and Liberals had negligible influence inside the Commons, Owen's parliamentary performances and TV interviews made the SDP seem not only relevant but also sometimes more effective at opposing the government than the Labour Party, which enjoyed the title of Her Majesty's Official Opposition. Without a foothold in Parliament -- and with only six MPs it really was no more than a foothold -- this  would have been impossible. 

Owen also exploited the SDP's minuscule number of seats by relentlessly presenting it as Exhibit 1 in the case for a referendum on proportional representation. After all, a proportional system would have awarded seats to the Liberals and Social Democrats roughly corresponding to their share of the national vote, i.e. about 23%, instead of the 4% they ended up with. Perversely, therefore, the 1983 election instilled even greater enthusiasm among some members in that it generated a sense of outrage (or its SDP equivalent) about the first-past-the-post electoral system. 

Lesson 2: Room for one more
That grievance, that feeling of having been cheated, smoldered. Two years after the election SDP members gathered in Torquay for the party's annual conference, where a group of loyal young Social Democrats, myself included, posed for a photo-op with party leader David Owen to launch the SDP's youth campaign (below). Have You Got the Guts, asked the campaign's rhetorical question. My question was "Can I keep the sweatshirt?" to which the answer was an awkward and apologetic "No."
We had the guts. But not enough sweatshirts.

Another valid question would have been why the organizers chose to call the campaign, of all things, the Youth Blitz. Distributing fliers next to a large sign announcing the Youth Blitz in my native Swansea, whose downtown the Luftwaffe had so comprehensively and unforgivingly redesigned, I met with some frosty stares, particularly from older passers-by.

Clunky slogans aside, what mattered was that the party had at least survived. In hindsight, more surprising than the party's failure to win a larger number of seats was its ability to retain any at all. What the SDP's experience in the 1983 election proved was that British politics could comfortably accommodate four national parties: Conservatives, Labour, Liberals, and Social Democrats. Of course, after the 1987 election when the SDP managed to hold on to five seats despite Labour's long march back toward the center ground, several leading Social Democrats claimed the exact opposite and successfully worked for a merger with the Liberals.

3. Minor Party Magnetism
The SDP's performance in the 1983 general election helped pull the Labour Party away from left-wing extremism back toward the center. When the SDP formed in 1981 it was as a response to Labour's sudden lurch to the left: its commitment to nationalize the major industries and banks, to unilaterally surrender Britain's nuclear deterrent, and to withdraw from the European Community (as the EU was then known). By the time Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1995, the party had already thrown those policies overboard. The party Blair inherited had transformed itself, in large part because of the SDP, which exerted a kind of magnetic force that drew Labour toward it.  

In alliance with the Liberals, the SDP gave alienated Labour voters a powerful way to express their rejection of Labour's dogmatic socialism. In 1983, Labour polled only two percentage points more than the SDP/Liberal Alliance. Following the election, Labour's new leader, Neil Kinnock, realized that his party's only hope of regaining power was to win back those voters who had fled to the SDP, and that the only way to win them back was to re-morph into a genuinely social democratic party. This effort, which Kinnock's adherents called modernization, continued under John Smith, albeit at a slower pace, and sped up again under Blair, whose coterie dubbed the project New Labour.

Without the willingness of social democrats to defect from Labour to form the SDP and then fight against Labour in the 1983 general election, it seems unlikely that Labour would have detoxified itself so thoroughly and (by the standards of British electoral politics) so quickly. By breaking away and continuing the fight outside the Labour Party, the Social Democrats strengthened the hand of those inside Labour who wanted to return the party to its more traditional, centrist, catch-all position.

From alliance to merger
The SDP's policies (e.g. incomes policies and industrial partnership) are now out of date, reminders of the Cold War and the ideological argument over free markets versus the planned economy. But the party's enduring lesson is that fourth parties can have an influence out of proportion to their size. So sometimes, even within the constraints of the plurality voting system, it is worthwhile breaking away if your goal is to force one of the two large parties to change. Progressive Democrats and libertarian Republicans should take note.

Those who pressed for the SDP to merge with the Liberals argued that British politics had room for no more than three national parties. Ironically, they included some who had helped found the SDP in the first place when they could, instead, have simply joined the existing third party, the Liberals. Even more ironically, almost as soon as their argument prevailed and the SDP vanished into a merger, another force emerged as a strong fourth party: the Greens. 

In the 1989 European Parliament elections, with the Liberal-SDP merger feud still going strong, the Greens won 15% of the votes. At that stage, a rump party of anti-merger Social Democrats under Owen's leadership was still clinging to life. But when their party came last in a by-election (special election) behind a joke candidate, Owen and his allies opted for swift dissolution rather than protracted humiliation. They thought that with fewer than 20,000 dues-paying members the SDP could no longer hold itself out as a viable national party. If the Internet age had already dawned in 1990, their decision might well have been different.

Perhaps, then, the final lesson from the 1983 election and, more generally, from the short life of the SDP, is this: even in the hostile conditions that plurality voting systems create, small parties can survive, sometimes even long enough to effect lasting change.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: Dangerous Progressive

Margaret Thatcher was a conservative. She saw socialism (even in its democratic, parliamentary form) as a threat to individual freedom. My stating of the obvious has a purpose, which is to make clear that, headline notwithstanding, I am not about to diminish the late British prime minister by treating her as my personal Rorschach test, imputing to her principles that she did not, in fact, espouse.

But, that said, by contemporary American standards the Margaret Thatcher of the 1980s was a progressive: on the environment, on healthcare, and on market regulation she was quite liberal (in the U.S. sense of the word). Thatcher’s stances on these three issues show how far to the Right the center of political gravity has shifted. Nowadays, a candidate with her principles and policy positions would have a hard time winning the Democratic nomination for President, let alone the Republican one.

Climate Change
“[F]ree markets are a means to an end,” Thatcher said in a speech to the United Nations in 1989, which she commenced with praise for Charles Darwin. “They would defeat their object if by their output they did more damage to the quality of life through pollution than the well-being they achieve by the production of goods and services.” She then demanded international action on climate change, saying “[i]t is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay,” adding that while environmental protection requires economic growth “it must be growth which does not plunder the planet today and leave our children to deal with the consequences tomorrow.” 

The expression "inter-generational responsibility" was not one that likely ever passed her lips, but that is exactly what Thatcher was propounding. Any Republican candidates with the courage to voice to such sensible thoughts today, with or without a laudatory reference to Charles Darwin, would have to brace themselves for the Tea Party hordes, torches and pitchforks in hand.

Margaret Thatcher accepted the need for the National Health Service (NHS) and, while ever hopeful of establishing “internal markets” within the NHS, never questioned the legitimacy of a publicly-funded healthcare system. In 1982 she told the Conservative Party conference “[t]he principle that adequate health care should be provided for all, regardless of ability to pay, must be the foundation of any arrangements for financing the Health Service.” The following year in Edinburgh she declared, “I have no more intention of dismantling the National Health Service than I have of dismantling Britain’s defenses.” And it wasn’t all talk.  Margaret Thatcher’s governments devoted an increasing share of public spending to the NHS, rising from approximately 10% in 1980 to around 12% in 1989, tracking the percentages that went to defense in the same period.

It is hard to imagine even a moderate Republican (something that is, in itself, increasingly hard to imagine) proclaiming fealty to the principle of publicly-funded healthcare for all. What more flamboyant form of hari kiri could there be than for a contemporary conservative in the United States to stand before the Republican party faithful and not only equate healthcare with the national defense, but also to agree that a civilized society should fund both through taxation?

Margaret Thatcher deregulated the financial sector, most famously via the Big Bang reforms of 1986, thereby creating the conditions that gave rise to the subprime debacle and meltdown 20-odd years later. That may be a truism, but is it true? In a recent articlePhilip Booth, program director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, reminds us what really happened during Thatcher's premiership:
"[I]n general, the 1980s was not a period of financial deregulation. Insider trading was made illegal in 1980. The life insurance industry, which had been almost free of regulation for over 100 years from 1870, was re-regulated from 1980 to 1982. Bank deposit insurance was introduced in 1979. The sale of investment and insurance products came under statutory regulation from 1986. Further, the first ever regulation of UK bank capital took place under Basel I, agreed while Thatcher was Prime Minister."
Failing as they do to align with the myth, perhaps the facts as Booth presents them are so discomfiting to Left and Right alike that they will remain conveniently out of sight and mind. Margaret Thatcher exercising oversight and setting limits on the financial sector is an image that triggers cognitive dissonance among both her supporters and detractors. Far easier, for current purposes, to remember Thatcher as a cartoon conservative, a free-market buccaneer hacking and slashing at the remains of the welfare state while dancing around a bonfire of regulatory red tape. If we choose to remember her a laissez-faire warrior, the scourge of the public sector, then the cabal that currently controls the congressional Republican Party looks comfortingly normal.

How much more challenging and chilling to recall the reality of Margaret Thatcher's policies -- her respect for climate science, commitment to universal public healthcare, and refusal to give speculators free rein -- that would mark her out to today's Republicans as an unelectable outcast. For that matter, how well would Thatcher's policy statements play in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, sounding as they do more like Bernie Sanders than Barack Obama? It is a measure of how narrow the political spectrum has become when we can ponder the Iron Lady's legacy and say, "Margaret Thatcher: dangerous progressive."

Monday, April 8, 2013

Out of the frying pan, etc.

Goodbye coal, and hello natural gas. Consistent with a nationwide trend, the Pioneer Valley looks set to replace one fossil-fueled power station with another. GDF Suez's coal-burning plant at Mount Tom in Holyoke seems poised to close in the next few years, by which point a 400 megawatt natural-gas-fired facility will have come online 15 miles to the southwest in Westfield.

When GDF Suez finally stops burning coal at Mount Tom, we will all breathe more easily (literally). But there are two reasons to hold in that sigh of relief for the time being: water and the climate. A new natural-gas plant would have big implications for drinking water in the area. And it would do nothing to reduce the state's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while increasing our dependence on fracking.

The company proposing the Westfield power station -- Pioneer Valley Energy Center -- expects that the new plant's cooling towers will need up to two million gallons of water per day. Where will it find all that water? From the Tighe-Carmody Reservoir in Southampton, which is owned and operated by the City of Holyoke. How much wastewater will the plant expel? About a quarter of a million gallons per day.

To put those amounts in context, the average family in the U.S. uses about 300 gallons of water per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. So every day of the week, the new power station would withdraw as much water as 6,600 families would use and discharge enough to account for about 800 families. In addition to wasting water, building yet another gas-fired plant will exacerbate the climate crisis.

About half of the electricity we generate in Massachusetts comes from natural gas, and because we don't extract it here (not yet, anyway) the power companies have to pipe it in from other parts of the country and Canada. For an overview of the pipeline network click here. Over the next 25 years or so, the Energy Information Administration is projecting that a steadily increasing proportion of our natural gas will come from shale formations. Extracting natural gas from shale requires hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

So what is the alternative to the Westfield gas-fired plant? One option is to keep generating energy at Mount Tom: clean energy.

Saying goodbye to coal should not mean bidding farewell to GDF Suez. If we can keep the company here, we will have a unique opportunity to transform Mount Tom site into a showcase for renewable-energy innovation. At a recent public meeting in Holyoke, Senator Michael Knapik said his legislative task force would welcome ideas to present to GDF Suez. Spending some of the company's €231 million research-and-innovation budget in the Pioneer Valley would be a good start. Located on the Connecticut River, surrounded by farmland, and in the heart of the Five College Area, the Mount Tom site would make an ideal home for a renewable-energy research facility focusing on hydro power, micro-hydro, and anaerobic digestion.  

Thanks to the current pause in global temperature rises, policymakers in Massachusetts and across the world may have just enough time to make the changes necessary to stave off climate catastrophe. But if we replace the coal-burning plant at Mount Tom with a gas-fired plant in Westfield, our regional CO2e emissions will remain constant or even rise while our methane emissions will increase. Electricity users in the Pioneer Valley may no longer feel quite so complicit in the disregard that Colombian mine-owners show for the lives of the miners who dig the coal (see blog post January 26, 2011); instead we can shoulder more responsibility for the fracking that makes projects like Westfield economically feasible. 

A group called Westfield Concerned Citizens has been leading the fight against the new gas-fired plant. On Thursday, May 23, at 7:00 p.m., they and local Greens are hosting a public meeting at the Westfield Athenaeum to rally opposition and present practical, clean-energy alternatives including solar, net-metering, and opting in to the Green Communities Act. So if you live in Western Massachusetts, please mark your calendar and come along.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Which company had to pay an EPA fine?

Houston, Texas, is home to Cabot Oil & Gas and to Strategic Minerals, Inc. Both of these companies have a connection to Massachusetts. One of them extracts the fossil fuel that generates about half our state's electricity and, according to this search tool run by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was responsible for emitting about 611,000 metric tons of CO2e in 2011. The other operates a glass recycling facility in the town of Franklin, about 40 miles southeast of Boston. Read on if you want to find out which of these two companies had to pay a big fine to the EPA.

The company paying the fine was Strategic Minerals, which runs the Franklin recycling site. A couple of months ago, it agreed to pay a fine of $159,000 for failing to have an adequate stormwater pollution prevention plan and for other stormwater discharge violations. Why was Strategic Minerals obliged to take care of its stormwater discharges? Because it has a duty to comply with the federal Clean Water Act, including Section 402(p) which requires permits for "discharges associated with industrial activities."

Flooding in Pennsylvania, 2011 (AP photo)
Not so Cabot Oil & Gas. Whereas oil-and-gas exploration fall under the Clean Water Act, natural gas production does not. Although subject to regulation by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) the frack pads that dot the state do not have to comply with the provisions of the Clean Drinking Water Act.

So any stormwater that might flow over any of Cabot's Marcellus Shale fracking sites -- picking up pollutants along the way -- would enter the waterways of Pennsylvania free from EPA meddling. Pennsylvania has experienced devastating floods in recent years, and climate change may increase the intensity of extreme weather events in the state according to this report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The source of the statutory exemption is the infamous Energy Act of 2005, which exempted hydraulic fracturing from several important environmental laws. As a result, some industrial activities (glass recycling, for example) require permits under the Clean Water Act's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). But not fracking.

If you would like to take action to help Massachusetts make the switch away from fracked natural gas toward clean energy, visit beatbackfracking.org.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Beat Back Fracking

According to the Office of the State Geologist, fracking is "probably not" coming to Massachusetts. You can read all the FAQs about the Hartford Basin here, but in the meantime, here's the answer to the question "Is hydraulic fracturing for shale gas coming to Massachusetts?":
Probably not.  Based on a survey of all available scientific data, the geologic conditions in the Connecticut Valley in western Massachusetts are not optimum for shale gas development.  Black shale units in the Hartford Basin are generally too thin, laterally discontinuous, and are cut by too many pre-existing natural fractures and extinct faults. This makes extraction of hydrocarbons economically not feasible with today’s technology at current market prices (see below). However, more data need to be collected to completely rule out that possibility. 
In addition, oil and gas wells used for conventional or enhanced hydrocarbon recovery are defined as Class 2 wells under the Massachusetts Underground Injection Control Regulations (310 CMR 27.00).  Class 2 wells are currently prohibited in the Commonwealth.
This is good news, and I was relieved to read it. But while Massachusetts itself is likely to remain frack-free, we are still complicit in the practice. After all, most of the electricity we generate in Massachusetts comes from natural gas. So every time we switch on the light (or type a blog post, for that matter) we can be sure that it's because somebody somewhere is having their land fracked. Massachusetts could use its market power to require that any company selling natural-gas based electricity in Massachusetts has to certify that the extraction process did not pollute anyone's drinking water.

That was the idea behind a bill the Sierra Club promoted in the last legislative session, and that deserves more support in the next session. The bill won the support of the Massachusetts Democratic Party's state convention in 2011. If you'd like to help the bill become law, please let me know.

3 tips for creating your campaign message

Tony Blair taught me a lesson I will never forget. One day toward the end of the 1997 general election campaign he put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. "The most important thing in politics," he said, "is sincerity." Blair flashed his notorious grin. "Once you can fake that, you've got it made."
Tony Blair on sincerity

Admittedly, only one part of the foregoing is truthful. I have never had a deep and meaningful conversation with Tony Blair (although we did meet once, for all of five minutes) and the ability to feign sincerity will not lead ineluctably to political success. Which leaves the assertion that the most important thing in politics is sincerity. That, I believe, is true.

It is not, however, the first in the promised list of three tips for creating your campaign message (see below). The tips come after my shameless pitch for the upcoming Green Campaign School in Worcester on  Saturday, February 23. If you think you might want to run for office, this event is for you.

If you plan on attending, please take a few minutes to watch these campaign commercials from Greens in other parts of the world. I'll be running two workshops at the conference, Campaign Basics and A Green Electoral Presence. We will draw lessons from the videos in Campaign Basics.

Sian Berry
The first, called Make History Melbourne, features Adam Bandt, a Green who is now a Member of Parliament in Australia. Sian Berry, stars in the second video. Sian was the Green candidate for mayor of London in 2008.

Video number three is from Europe Ecologie and it's in French. The Greens in the German state of North Rhine Westphalia (NRW) produced the fourth video, a 30-second spot in party's package of single-issue ads for the 2010 elections. As the junior partner in NRW's coalition government, the Greens seem to know a thing or two about winning elections and holding on to power. Closer to home, California's Ross D. Frankel's 2010 campaign video is four minutes long, a painfully long time in politics. Just watch the first 30 seconds and I guarantee that you will agree it's worth discussing in a workshop.

We will analyze the videos (or at least some of them), focusing mainly on audience, emotion, and imagery. By talking about what works well versus what falls flat we will learn to develop our own messages more carefully and deliberately.

Why would we cover this in a workshop called Campaign Basics? Because nothing is more basic to a campaign that its purpose, and nothing reveals the purpose -- or purposelessness -- of a campaign like its fundamental message. Constructing the message starts with asking yourself this simple question: "Why am I running?"

Tip #1: Know why you are running

Answering this question honestly and thoughtfully will uncover your authentic vision, which will shape your message. It may take a while. But unless and until you have the answer, you should devote your time, energy, and other valuable resources to something other than running for office. I do not mean that you should swear off politics. I merely suggest that you should wait until you can give a sincere answer. After all, if not even you know why you are running how can you expect others to entrust you with their vote?

For many of us, having to explain why we are running forces us to ponder issues that go to the very heart of who we are. Our passion for politics is like a pilot light, always burning away in the background. Why do you care about politics? "Why do you breathe?" might be easier for us to answer. If you have not wrestled with these matters since Existentialism 101, you should do so before you commit to running. Otherwise you risk not only being stymied in the manner of the late Senator Ted Kennedy in this 1979 interview, but also you rob yourself of the opportunity to develop a genuinely compelling message that connects with the people who matter most, i.e. the voters.

Tip #2: Know where you are running

Narrowing that broader question of why you are running, you need to ask yourself why you are seeking this particular office. Remember, you are not running in the abstract: Your goal is to win a specific election in a specific district. Your campaign can certainly educate people about the big subjects, the ones you care about so much that you decided to run (see Tip #1). But as any teacher will tell you: "It's not what you say, it's what they hear." So you need to meet people where they are, and introduce the global and national subjects through local issues.

How? Let's say climate change is the reason you devote yourself to electoral politics and that you are running for state representative in a district where the front-page stories are about job losses. You will be tempted to repeat the phrase "green jobs" over and over again until you ride an electoral tidal wave to Beacon Hill. After all, no progressive campaign seems complete nowadays without that mantra. Resist the temptation.

What you need to remember is that jobs gains are general, whereas job losses are specific. So start acting like a state representative, or rather like a state representative should act. Do your research and find out what kind of clean-energy businesses might come to your district -- and which local businesses would hire more workers-- if the conditions were right. Then reach out to the people in your district who are already trying to grow green jobs. Learn from them, and show them that you respect the voters enough to have done your homework.

At that point you can start connecting the dots in a very clear way between climate change and job growth in your district, and you will be better prepared to ask the human beings who live there to trust you with the task of representing them.

Tip #3: Know who to ask

So who do you want to vote for you (bearing in mind that "everybody" is not an acceptable response)? To answer the question realistically you should calculate how many votes you will need in order to win. Happily, you will discover that your universe of potential voters is relatively small.

For example, in 2012, a presidential election year, approximately 20,000 people voted in some House district but in many others the turnout was closer to 15,000 (click here for the official results). In 2010, the numbers were lower. Assuming a two-way race in a district where the likely turnout is 16,000, your target number of votes should be no less than 8,000.

It is very likely that there are 8,000 people in your district who would vote for you if (a) they knew you were running; and (b) they believed that you would represent them well. Who are they and how do you find them? Start with the most up-to-date list of registered voters, which your town/city clerk will provide. Next create smaller lists arranged by neighborhood so that you can go from door to door in an efficient way (the GRP's NationBuilder capability can help with this). When you have these walk-sheets, start canvassing your district in a systematic way for several hours every day, recording the voting intentions of the voters you meet.

After a day or two, you will have a reliable sense of how your target voters are responding to your message, which is the subject of next week's more detailed post. If the responses consist mainly of glazed eyes and bemused expressions, you will need to adapt your message, your delivery, or both. But you will be building on a solid foundation, the why, where, and who of your campaign.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What's wrong with fracking?

Why am I against fracking? That was the question Benjamin Coleman, a student at Boston University, posed when he interviewed me for his film project. My short answer: climate change. For my slightly longer answer (about two minutes) please check out this video.