23 Jun 2014
Alan Simpson: "Transition has enormous strength at the moment"
Alan Simpson describes himself as a “recovering politician”. He was Labour MP for Nottingham South for 18 years until he stood down because, as he puts it, “I was becoming obsessed with small-picture politics and I thought maybe I just needed to get out and try to influence it from outside”. He is also, to my knowledge, the only member of Parliament who has ever explicitly questioned economic growth while still an MP. What is it like, being driven by the urgency of climate change, not believing in economic growth and being in Parliament? We asked him.
“Very few people grasped it. I was given messages about the unacceptability of this way of seeing things at a fairly early stage. Tony Blair told the press lobby that if I was “the last surviving member of the parliamentary Labour party” he wouldn’t have me in his Cabinet, which I took as something of an accolade.
Nick Cohen in Fools Britannia quotes someone from Downing Street saying that if people listened to me I “could ruin everything”. It was quite clear to me that all of the political parties were strapped to a mindset about growth which was as self-deluding as it was going to be self-defeating, and it was only ever going to end in tears. The difficulty is that it’s locked into the mindset of the Treasury.
I had several unhelpful encounters with the Treasury during the time, trying to argue for a different approach to economics. The funny thing for me is that more often than not when I would go into the Treasury, you’d find yourself besieged by young kids running what I think of as naïve economic theories that we used to laugh at when I was an economics undergraduate.
They were seen as pretty daft ideas at the time, but the passage of time has almost made them market orthodoxies. They bore no relationship to the finite limits of the planet or the notion that at some point an economics of repair would have to overtake an economics of exploitation. It’s only the transformation movements (such as Transition) that really seem to grasp this.
Where do you come from on energy and climate change and the role of top-down, bottom-up action on those issues?
The big achievement for me in the parliamentary sense was that I organised the parliamentary ganging up that pushed the feed-in tariffs into the 2008 Energy Act. That for me was a really profound change that meant that at a community level people could start to get into the renewable energy game and to be drivers for transformation.
Parliament needed to provide the open door and the Transition movement needed to run like the clappers through it. That was what looked to be a real possibility post-2008, up until some time in 2010 when George Osborne turned what had been an open-ended commitment to the financing of that transition on the same lines as what Germany had done, into a fixed budget within government accounts. That seemed to a allow a fundamental change in thinking, in which all the shifts into renewable energy now have been constrained by the levy control framework and dominated by a government obsession not to do anything on any great scale and at any great rush.
We’re at a really critical stage of energy transformation, or not. What I’m hoping is that the transformation movement can save government from locking the UK into a mindset of the past but with huge financial millstones that would sink it in the future.
You wrote recently “obsessed with empowering the individual, parliament has lost sight of the collective.” Is reforming parliament possible, and if so, what would it look like?
What I like to try to remind people of is that if you look at the UK’s energy systems, you have to turn the clock back over 200 years to when they first emerged at a municipal level. From 1817 to the 1880s, you had this fantastic movement of municipal gas, water and electricity companies, all of which were formed by localities. Parliament didn’t catch up with this until the 1850s.
Where we are now, I think there is a similar revolution that is taking place (around renewable energy). Technology is driving this. The possibility of developing energy systems that are lighter, brighter, quicker, more nimble at self-balancing and self-regulating, all of these will deliver a quite different energy system within a decade. Old energy just struggles to grasp this.
Unfortunately they seem to have an absolute arm lock on the mindset of parliament, just bang this drum that “if you don’t throw us more money the lights will go out”. We have a politics of fear, of the Bogeyman. But if you step back from that, all of those who have any grasp of climate science and the turbulence of what’s going on understand that those big centralised energy systems aren’t going to work, and nor will individual energy solutions.
It’s really nice for me to live in a house where I produce more electricity than I consume. But is that going to make any difference to the shape of society in the decades ahead? No. It will only make a difference if that forms part of something larger and more inter-dependent. The era that is emerging that is going to offer any sanctuary is going to be one where we discover real strength and security through our inter-dependencies. In the UK this is difficult for people to grasp because we don’t think we have a starting point. We’ve forgotten the socialisation of our original energy systems.
We have to reach out beyond our own shores and see what’s happening in Denmark, in Germany, in parts of the USA, where people are beginning to see that if they re-socialise today’s grids, they can generate more of their own energy from clean, renewable sources, and they can generate today’s and tomorrow’s jobs in the process of doing that.
They can reduce energy consumption by selling less energy needs rather than more. And they can sell or construct themselves elaborate networks for balancing and storage that deliver that collective security. All this is constructed around an economics that treads more lightly on the present and the future.
You’ve written “tomorrow’s security and sustainability will be built from the strength of our inter-dependency.” What does it look like when politics actually supports that?
We could do far worse than just asking our own kids about the starting point. My guess is that older people may have no difficulty in owning up that at one stage they owned a Commodore 64 and that was where they started with the communications revolution. But if you came up to them now and said “I’ve got this fantastic plan to do a huge investment upgrade in the Commodore 64, we should put go faster stripes on it. We can have Commodore 64s in every school in the country and every house in the land”, it would be our kids who’d turn round and say “sod off, I’ll have an iPad, thank you very much”. The game has changed. What was a legitimate starting point yesterday is not even a credible one today, and it will just be open to ridicule for tomorrow.
When I’ve taken people around Germany, they’ve consistently asked me questions about the UK. I suppose the most consistent one is “why do your political parties all begin from an assumption that you have to work out your future security in partnership with the energy companies? Because in Germany we just see them as people who are intellectually locked into the idea of selling more consumption.”
If you want tomorrow’s partners, they are much more enthusiastically and constructively to be found in the telecommunications sector, where that notion of moving from smart phones to smart homes, and smart homes to smart towns, and smart towns to smart cities, all of which have much more localised senses of how we balance and how we build, how we retain and how we restore. And they join systems up in a way that our system doesn’t currently respond to.
We are where we are. The Treasury is like the land of the undead, which fails to hear messages about the unaffordability or unsustainability of today’s energy sources as the basis of today’s energy thinking. But outside there are people who are unafraid to run with this. Once politicians start to go in pursuit of votes, I think if we decide that we’re running off and not waiting, the parliamentary system will come chasing after us in exactly the same ways that it went chasing after the municipal gas water and electricity companies in the 19th century. I think they’ll catch up in less than the 50 years that it took then. My guess is that they’ll catch up, because they have to catch up, within a decade.
There might be people who are involved in Transition or things like that who are so moved by the scale of climate change and the urgency to do stuff that they might think “maybe I should run for parliament and try and get in there”. What’s your sense of that balance between whether we should be investing our time and energy at the local scale or whether we should be running for parliament? How much impact can you actually have at that scale?
I’m not sure that I see that as an either/or choice. I usually say to people don’t write parliament off, because parliament has an important role and it needs to be rescued by braver people coming in than we have there at the moment. Infiltrate every political party that you can and try to get yourselves selected as candidates. Don’t just think that you can, on a whim, put your name forward as a candidate and the system as is will whisk you up and hail your arrival. It doesn’t work like that.
You have to be realistic about how the current voting system works, and seek to try to engage with that constructively. That’s an invitation for brave people to become candidates for parties that are in with a serious chance of winning seats.
As part of a movement, Transition needs to recognise that it has enormous strength at the moment. All of the parties are living in absolute fear that the public will turn round at some point before the next election and say out loud “there is nothing here to vote for. None of you offer a vision that is worth taking our slippers off, putting our shoes back on and going out to the polling stations”.
That fear of being seen as standing for nothing has suddenly been hyped up by the arrival of UKIP on the right as challenging this notion that on the Conservative side of things, basically we just have to keep with UKIP on immigration to get ourselves in, and Labour on the left saying we can ignore all the votes to the left, we just have to be marginally better than the Conservatives.
The movement has to challenge the mainstream parties to stand for a positive alternative, a visionary alternative to the narrow, introspective divisiveness that is UKIP. To begin by saying, openly, to the mainstream political parties, “there is nothing here, no visionary agenda on sustainability that is worth voting for”. That will send a frisson of fear through the system now.
Why? Because there’s one year before the general election takes place. The Transition movement really has to enhance that feeling of insecurity of parliament. Because that is what drives them, drags them out of their little mouse holes to be bolder than they are.
We have to become much more assertive in running with an agenda of demands that says to all the political parties: “unless you can sign up to standing for a, b, and c, and fighting with us to get these commitments into your manifestos now, do not expect us to vote for you. Do not expect us to campaign for you. Do not expect us to say that you are worth anyone voting for”.
And if there’s a moment in which politicians are more vulnerable to that notion that they might just not be worth voting for, they’ll move heaven and earth to try and convince us that they are.
What’s your sense of what those lines in the sand, those “do these things or you don’t get our support” should be? Two or three of those things that would for you be the absolute?
I’d say absolutely they have to commit to demanding of their party that they reject and actively oppose the proposals from the EU Competition Directorate to make feed-in tariffs illegal and to replace them with auctions. Equally, we should be demanding that the levy control framework is scrapped and that feed-in tariffs are put within either the capacity payments mechanism or they’re dealt with in the way that the Germans do of self-financing parts of the energy sector accounts. But the levy control framework is going to bust apart in the next parliament anyway. At the moment, it’s just being used as a mechanism to constrain the potential of the Transition Towns movement rather than to support it, so make that as a demand.
And the right to be the first users of our own energy is really critical. Part of the reason for that is that at the moment the bulk of the community energy movement is really a movement of investors in community energy. We’ve been very poor at including those who are too poor to buy their way in as beneficiaries. But if you can sell energy or electricity back at something much closer to wholesale price, effectively cutting people’s electricity charges in half, all of a sudden the huge value of that, staying within the local 11Kw distribution network, all of that makes everyone in the locality a direct beneficiary. What Germany found is that as soon as you had a mass movement in the society that are beneficiaries of a radical change, then you have an unstoppable movement.
I think the final part of that is the notion that if you localise our thinking about distribution grids, we can really begin to sell non-consumption, energy saving, energy efficiency, in ways that are 10 times more exciting and coherent than anything you would ever find in Green Deal or anything like it. It turns communities, not just from being consumers to pro-sumers, but it turns people into the drivers of solutions. I think that’s something which is hard for me to quantify, but when I’ve gone round everywhere in Germany, that’s the thing that strikes me. At virtually every level at which there’s discussion about energy, communities see themselves as being in the driving seat and not the passenger seat of sustainable change.
[The above is abridged from our full interview, which you can listen to below]