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Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

corporate interests

Any vision of a genuinely better world gets trampled beneath the suited herd and their passion for technocratic tinkering.

Fears of species extinction at the Labour party conference have been uncommonly domestic in Brighton. Concern for the future of the nocturnal Aye-Aye, the exotic White Rhino or the fate of the climate, have all come a distant second to the survival of the party itself.

Ed Miliband, at least, has tried to combine the two. Roving the corridors of the conference secure zone like a modern political hunter gatherer, and making constant forays out on to the more threatening savannah of the fringe scene, Miliband has sought to muster support both for the government and for a bigger public campaign for action on climate change.

But what lies behind his relatively fruitless search this year goes a long way to explain the government’s own malaise and that of the environment more broadly. Speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight programme shortly before the conference began, Miliband defended his and the government’s role on climate change by saying that they were in the “business of persuasion”. It made it sound as if he thought he was in advertising, rather than in government, when the job is to lead.

Seeing the herds of suited corporate lobbyists and party apparatchiks drift with dutiful reluctance from venue to venue, as they know their efforts here are probably wasted, it’s to see how both the party and the planet got into such a mess.

In the place of passion, belief and real human connection a dreadful pall of technocratic managerialism descends over proceedings. In this landscape, any vision of a genuinely better world gets trampled beneath the suited herd as they periodically migrate between parties who manage business-as-usual with greater or lesser degrees of success.

The prospect of political ecosystem collapse does, though, seem to loosen some of the shackles of ministerial office. Hilary Benn, speaking, appropriately for this article, at an event organised by the trade body for chartered accountants, undoubtedly understood that nothing short of a rapid and revolutionary change in the UK’s over-consuming lifestyles will stave off disaster. It’s just that, even now, he can’t draw the logical conclusions because it would mean the opposite of technocratic tinkering. It would mean fundamental economic change.

In the last few months, however, a succession of great and good outside the party have begun to mention just this. From the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and the UK’s own Lord Stern to Lord Turner of the Financial Services Authority and formerly the UK climate change committee, the environmentally destructive doctrine of indefinite economic growth is finally being mentioned.

The Labour party though, still clinging to its faded “business-friendly” rebranding of more than a decade ago, seems unable to stop fighting the last war and move on. Joan Ruddock, the minister for climate change and energy, for example, had a few uncomfortable minutes defending the government’s disproportionate support for banks and the City, in comparison to the shockingly low levels of new and additional spending on any green stimulus. The last budget provided only a fraction in new green spending of what the City will still be allowed to pay itself in bonuses this year. Alistair Darling’s last-minute reinvention at conference as a bonus-basher looked like the worst kind of hollow gesture politics.

Everywhere you see the problem of skewed priorities. Where its friends in the City were concerned, the government calculated precisely what it thought was needed to preserve a failed and self-serving banking system. Where the environment has been concerned, it has largely been dragged by external pressure to doing just what it could get away with. This explains why, alongside the climate targets and initiatives for renewable energy, it is still building roads, new airport runways and coal-fired power stations. It’s a contradiction they cannot escape, and a prime example of the contradictions that are killing Labour.

Charles Clarke revealed one vein of antipathy to the green movement that is still deep in Labour, and chose to blame the messengers. Clearly irked by Miliband’s encouragement for the public to protest more (old ministerial portfolios are hard to shake) he complained about environmentalists being anti-science and anti-progress. A frustrated audience cried back that an awful lot of environmentalists were scientists, and that it was the greens that often put science on the public agenda. Progress, too, is surely about not putting the concerns of political, public image management above destroying your ecological life support systems. Slightly flustered, Clarke veered off into discussion of “genetically modified organisations”. Either it was an indication of how far Labour will have to go to survive, or the suspicion that the already modified Conservatives, meeting in Manchester next week, are using crafty new tricks to take over and dominate the political ecosystem.

Bookmark and Sharelindsay-mackie2Lindsay Mackie is a consultant at nef. She is leading nef’s post office campaign and works on Clone Town and Ghost Town Britain.

The Prime Minister’s commitment to bringing Post Office banking into the heart of communities, and to giving the Post Office a much greater role in the economy, is a brilliant and simple declaration that this government will protect the public realm, that community matters, that localism matters and that it wants to offer diversity within our astonishingly monolithic retail banking system.

It was also the commitment that got one of the biggest cheers of the Prime Minister’s speech.

If we can now, fast, build up the people’s bank at the Post Office, now that it has effectively been given the wholehearted stamp of approval by the government, it will safeguard the Post Office network – no more dreadful and unnecessary closures – and will offer a real banking alternative to people who think banks should be about more than slicing consumers and then gambling with their money.

So Gordon Brown has done the right thing with his one-line announcement. It’s great.  nef has been campaigning all year, with the Post Bank Coalition, for a Post Bank).

The idea is that the Post Office can also have a Post Bank, such as those that have been set up so successfully in other countries (France, Italy, New Zealand). It is a simple and practical way into a future where community, key information points and financial diversity will be needed more than ever.

A Post Bank will revive and protect the Post Office network, support local economies and small and medium-sized businesses, combat social exclusion and financial inequalities and introduce banking diversity.

Really there is hardly anyone who doesn’t warm to the idea of a great increase in Post Office banking services. (Apart from the British Banking Association, which thinks banks are doing a fine job without the need for another model. Where to start on this peculiar view?) The key now is to make it work.

Sources close to the prime minister are apparently saying we could see increased and improved Post Office services by the end of the year – we need to keep Whitehall to that.

But we also need, in comradely fashion, to ensure that what we get is a true, independent, proper Post Bank and that it keeps its radical roots. The UK has an amazing history of non-shareholder driven banking models – mutuals, trustee savings banks, co-operatives – and Post Banks must be set up using these.

There are all sorts of nifty technical innovations a Post Bank could use to bring in younger clients such as versions of mobile phone banking. And the Post Bank provides the reach to give practical financial advice and help to the poor and the debt-laden. There are very interesting systems available now that can offer planned financial systems to individuals at either no or low cost. Antony Elliott’s Fair Banking scheme is one.

And we don’t need to start from scratch in making the Post Bank a full banking alternative. As an initial step, building a Post Bank around an existing 100% publicly owned bank, Northern Rock, is a logical and brave step. Don’t sell it off to Tesco or whoever – will they provide a true People’s Bank? – keep it working for the public who own it .

In the worst of the crisis last year people flocked to put their money into the Post Office. It’s trusted, even loved. Today’s news is just what we need to keep it like that.

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.