Far from breaking our politics, Brexit has given it a new lease of life

Far from breaking our politics, Brexit has given it a new lease of life

It is easy to look in despair at the UK’s attempt to negotiate an exit from the EU. The government’s negotiating position is built on a series of red lines which appear mutually exclusive. Deadlines swoosh past, yet parliament seems paralysed, unable to find an acceptable way forward.

Our incompetence is now writ large on the international stage. Yet outside Westminster, things look very different.

Yesterday, as many as one million people joined a peaceful march through central London, calling for a public vote on whether to accept the Brexit outcome negotiated by the UK. That makes this one of the largest, perhaps the single largest public protest in British political history.

At the same time, an online petition calling for the revocation of Article 50 (which would effectively cancel the UK’s exit from the EU), has been signed over five million times.

These are not normal numbers. To give a little context, the 2015 general election saw a turnout of just over 30 million. Even the Poll Tax, which remains one of the most infamous public policy failures of the last century, only led to a protest of 200,000 people.

Nor are these numbers isolated. Other recent anti-Brexit related protests have seen hundreds of thousands of people marching. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s hard to argue that the 200 people walking from Sunderland to London are not atypically committed to their cause. The 2017 general election saw the highest turnout in 20 years.

Politics has gone from being something that a few geeks cared about, to something which animates the nation.

Yes, the nation contradicts itself. Of course, it does. It contains multitudes. But this is not a sign of failure. People will always disagree about things that matter. Such disagreement is healthy. Indeed, as a Liberal, I believe we have a duty to uphold the rights of everyone to disagree about such issues.

The only failure here is rooted in Westminster. In the decision to place party management about the national interest. In boiling down a remarkably complex decision into a binary choice between the status quo and change. And in failing to agree what the change proposition was.

One day, Brexit will be in the past. But there will be millions of people who have learnt how to protest. How to make their voices heard.

A generation will have learnt that politics is not something which happens once every 4 years. They will have learnt that politics is about the choices we all make, each and every day.


Minutes to Midnight

Minutes to Midnight

There is no serious debate about the reality of man-made climate change. For four decades, we have known that increased CO2 emissions would have significant global effects.

Yet for four decades, we have made astonishingly little progress. Annual global carbon dioxide emissions are now 50% higher they were in 1980. The Kyoto Protocol, only met its meagre target thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit warming to “well below” 2°C represents a significant step forward, current contributions will not come near to meeting this ambition.

This dereliction of duty is mirrored by at the national level. In 2016, the UK government scrapped the Department for Energy and Climate Change, and with it, took climate change off the Cabinet’s agenda. The fringe passion project of pursuing Brexit was apparently more important.

Of course, many people have done what they can to live up to the scale of the challenge we face in spite of the government. For my part, I walk, cycle or take public transport, get my energy from a renewable supplier, buy second-hand clothes, reduce, reuse and recycle. I’m aiming for a sustainable diet in line with the findings of the EAT-Lancet report Food in the Anthropocene.

But the EAT-Lancet Commission does not place all the burden on individuals to change their behaviour. It is focussed on the entire food system, from production right through to consumption. It recognises the need for systemic changes to tackle climate change.

Such systemic change requires high-level support from policy makers, to tackle major sources of emissions, from the food and transport sectors, to housing and electricity generation.

What’s more, high-level action is needed so that people understand the gravity of the situation. Inertia is a powerful force; it is unrealistic to expect most people to make major behavioural changes when the government seems unconcerned. In all likelihood, people will need to be nudged into action by policy changes.

I don’t know what the solutions to Climate Change look like (although I have ideas). But it should not be down to people like me to work this out. The greatest minds in government and public policy should be focussed unswervingly on saving our planet from humanity. Instead, time, energy and attention is wasted on the scream into the void that is Brexit (a project which will weaken the very international institutions we need to tackle climate change).

Last week, the House of Commons held is first debate on climate change for over two years. There is a particular commentary which slams  the debate for poor attendance. Yet this is missing the bigger point. The chamber was far from full, it is true, yet almost 40 members spoke over two and a half hours of debate.

Poor attendance was a symptom of the problem, rather than the problem itself. The debate was led, not by the government, nor even by the official opposition. It was a back-bench debate, led by members of two minority parties (the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party). The debate itself was detailed, despite being scheduled for a Thursday afternoon; the tag end of the parliamentary week, when many MPs where headed back to their constituencies.

The problem is not with attendance or engagement. The problem is that this debate would not lead to legislation or policy change. Although the minister for Climate Change and her opposite number in the shadow cabinet were both present, there is little sign of any real appetite to face this challenge head on. Until that changes, such debates will be little more than a talking shop.

And we need more than that.

We’re almost out of time.

We need to act.


AOC is right, we need unprecedented action to prevent climate catastrophe

AOC is right, we need unprecedented action to prevent climate catastrophe

This blog was originally written for and published by Liberal Democrat Voicethe most-read independent website by and for Lib Dems .

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been US Representative for New York’s 14th District for less than two months, but she has already made waves in US politics so large that they have spread across the pond.

Earlier in February, Ocasio-Cortez (or AOC, as she is popularly known) tabled House Resolution 109. The “Green New Deal” it outlines would transition the US to a carbon neutral economy and 100% renewable energy generation within ten years. These changes would be accompanied by massive investment in infrastructure, from improving the energy efficiency of buildings, to developing new transport links to reduce domestic air travel.

AOC is a self-described democratic socialist, so it is no surprise that this change is underpinned by economic policies some in our party would baulk at, notably a government jobs guarantee. The “Green New Deal” effectively posits the complete restructuring of the US economy. To call it radical would be an understatement. Yet on the issue which will define the next half century, she is bang on the money.

Because radical is what we need right now.

Last year’s publication of the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5˚C was simply the most high profile of numerous reports highlighting the sheer magnitude of the climate crisis we now face.

Between 1850 and 2011, the USA was responsible for 27% of all greenhouse emission – more than the whole of the EU combined – and it remains the second largest emitter today. It is welcome, then, that some in the US political elite are finally grasping the need to lead change on a massive scale.

Of course, we cannot rely on the US alone. The entire basis of the global economy needs to shift radically. Yet here in the UK all our political energy is being wasted on a vanity project of the far right. We are modern-day Neros, fiddling while Rome burns.

Commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement will not get us close to the necessary reduction. The UK’s Carbon Budget only requires a 57% reduction in emissions by 2030. In contrast, AOC has put forward a vision of change on the scale we need.

The “Green New Deal” may not be the preferred policy of the average Lib Dem, but it is an appropriate response to challenge we now face, and its success, even in part, would be a huge step forward. Like AOC, we should make the long-term survival of our planet a foundation for all policy we develop, from funding social care and investing in our infrastructure, to local devolution and housing. Anything else is futile.

Just over a week ago, young people across the world staged a school strike for climate, following the action of Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. They, like AOC, have grasped the severity of the moment we face. As Thunberg put it; “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

We Wait

I dont need to rehearse the facts. We all know them. The biggest defeat of a government policy in memory. No clear majority for any outcome. The government facing a confidence vote. We are where we are.

So what does it all mean?

Tomorrow, the government faces a vote of confidence. My best guess is they’ll win, but perhaps not. So we wait.

Then if the government wins, they have to return on Friday outlining next steps. Perhaps they’ll resubmit the same plan (with minimal changes) having won the vote. Perhaps they’ll change tack, and pursue Norway (I fear not). Or perhaps they’ll wait and run down the clock a bit more. We’d have to wait and see.

What if they lose? Two weeks to form a new government which commands a majority in parliament. We can dream of a government of national unity – but no politician with any sense would willingly take responsibility for delivering something so divisive if they can leave it to someone else.

So an election seems more likely if the government falls – an election which further runs down the clock on article 50, giving whoever wins less scope to make changes. We’d have to wait and see who wins and whether the EU will extend A50 for them.

But of course, that’s irrelevant if a new government pursues the same mutually exclusive red lines – no hard border while leaving the customs union. Unless they pursue a very different set of priorities, there is no other option. The EU will not break the four freedoms. Any renegotiation is simply looking for unicorns.

So we wait.

And we hope.

We save our energy for where it may count.

With barely two months before no deal, there is nothing most of us can do, except wait.


A Sustainable Future for HE?

A Sustainable Future for HE?

This blog was first published for GuildHE, here.

Interesting times

In the words of the late former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, Climate change represents “the greatest existential threat of our time”. Yet, while many universities and colleges are facing this challenge head on, there remains much more that could be done.

It’s easy to see why governing bodies might be preoccupied. Short-term uncertainties abound, from the Augar and ONS reviews of student funding to the TEF, KEF and REF. And if Labour wins the next general election, all bets are off. We can hardly be surprised if these uncertainties are prioritised over longer-term challenges.


The long view

Universities and colleges can and should take a long-term view. Whereas governments rarely look beyond the next election, many providers trace their history over a century or more, and most hope to have a future at least as long. Institutions look to prepare their students for working lives which may last 50 years and span numerous industries and roles. They also seek to foster ‘active citizenship’ among students, helping them grow in their engagement with the world on social, political and cultural levels.


The (endangered) elephant in the room.

As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shows, the future could be catastrophically different from the present reality. Without radical changes in the way we live, we could see droughts, floods, extreme weather events and mass extinction by the time this year’s Freshers turn 30. The sector can hardly claim to be preparing graduates for the future without addressing this reality.

Of course, there is no shortage of good practice to draw upon. Many institutions are taking steps towards more sustainable operation, recognised by EAUC’s Green Gown Awards. Professor Joy Carter, Vice Chancellor of the University of Winchester, highlighted the importance of environmental sustainability when addressing GuildHE’s Council last month, and it formed a key theme in our 2016 Active Citizenship report.


Leading by example

Higher education is big business; UK universities had a turnover of some £33bn in 2014/15. This means that collective action can have far-reaching impacts.

Steps already taken by many institutions, and which could be taken up across the whole sector, include:

  • Divest from companies in the fossil fuels sector, and the most heavily emitting industries (just 25 companies have been responsible for over 50% of emission since 1988);
  • Focus their procurement on sustainable companies;
  • Ensure their energy is from renewable sources;
  • Invest in improvements to improve the sustainability of estates;
  • Embed the Sustainable Development Goals into strategic plans and curriculum development;
  • Identify climate change on institutional risk registers.

Universities and Colleges are also visible champions of sustainability, supporting students to make the little changes which together make a big difference, and imbuing values of sustainable stewardship:

  • Ensuring catering is responsibly sourced, with more vegetarian and sustainable options available and eliminating single-use plastics;
  • Ensuring university vehicles are hybrid or electric and providing electric vehicle charging facilities on campus;
  • Supporting staff and students to access public transport, or to walk or cycle to campus;
  • Providing students with opportunities to take part in sustainability activities such as community gardens or clothes swaps.


Then say something, say something

Crucially, the HE sector occupies a position of trust and respectability. Professors remain the fourth most trusted professionals in the UK, after nurses, doctors and teachers, and followed by scientists. When VCs speak as one, the media listens, and as the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act demonstrated, the university lobby has major clout with policymakers.

HE institutions can continue to undertake and showcase world-leading research which not only demonstrates the seriousness of man-made climate change but also presents possible solutions. They can invest in innovative forms of green growth. They can use their public engagement functions to drive forward changes in individual behaviour right across society. And they can encourage governments to act on a national scale, for example by investing in sustainable energy or public transport.

Universities must use their voices to call for greater action, must support relevant research and teaching, and must, above all, put their money where their mouths are. Only then can they really plan for a sustainable future.

Small but Perfectly Formed: supporting the “small” research group

Small but Perfectly Formed: supporting the “small” research group

This blog was first written for, and published by, GuildHE, here.


As demonstrated by REF 2014, research at UK higher education institutions both world-leading and diverse. Research England, the new research funding body, is paying heed to this fact, with policies and programmes intended to directly address the needs of “small” research groups.

But if you asked twenty civil servants what a “small” research group is, it’s a safe bet that you’d get twenty different answers. And, if policy-makers aren’t clear about their objectives or target groups, unintended consequences will follow, as the night the day.

Missed opportunities

One such targeted funding stream is the Expanding Excellence in England (E3) fund, which exists to “help grow small but excellent research units and departments in English universities”.

This is a laudable aim.

Small grants can make a big difference to modest teams with limited resources. They can drive significant growth, catalysing the research environment, culture, and capacity of both the research group and the whole institution.

What’s more, where those small groups exist in smaller and specialist institutions, new funding could have an even greater impact. Such institutions normally focus on applied research, with close ties to specialist industries, and are distributed across the country, including in areas which have seen little growth or investment in recent decades. They are thus well-placed to meet priorities identified in the Government’s Industrial Strategy.

Troublingly the technical specification for E3 does not live up to this promise. Instead, it notes that “owing to the diverse nature of the sector the broad disciplinary scope of this fund, a singular definition of ‘small’ is impractical.”

This leaves open the possibility that research units which are small by some measures, but part of larger, well-resourced institutions, absorb available funding. Fledgeling units in less research-intensive institutions may well miss out on this opportunity.

Defining the undefinable

We can get a picture of what small research groups actually look like by considering data from REF 2014.

Across nearly 2000 submissions, relating to 154 institutions, and 36 units of assessment (UoAs), the average number of staff per institution UoA was 27.2 FTE.

Significantly, the distribution of staff per institution UoA was concentrated at the smaller end of the spectrum, with a long tail of larger teams. Figure 1 shows this distribution (we recommend viewing these visualisations in full screen mode).

We can also break this down by subject (UoA), as in Figure 2.

The median number of FTE staff per institution UoA is just 18.2, while the lower quartile across the sector is 11.8FTE.

Interestingly, 80% of the units of assessment submitted by GuildHE and CREST members in 2014 – a group which consciously identifies as small or specialist – were below the 11.8 FTE lower quartile. These research units are most often found in institutions with a traditional teaching focus, but in which there is a growing commitment to research and impact.

Go easy on me

While E3, and the new RED fund, skirt around the issue by simply leaving ‘“small” undefined, the REF managers have taken a different line.

Institutions may request not to submit units, with less than 5 FTE. But this simply means that potentially excellent research goes unrecognised. In the smallest institutions this would include a majority of their submissions; hardly an ideal solution.

The REF managers also recently announced that the threshold for additional impact case studies – above the two required for all UoAs – would be increased from 15 to 20 FTE staff (above the 18.2 FTE median).

This is a welcome change for those groups struggling to meet the new requirements to include all research active staff. Yet it means that there is no distinction in REF between the impact evidence required from a unit with 6 staff and one with 19, though the two would be very different in practice.

The reality is that, as currently planned, REF 2021 offers is no real reduced burden option for very small units at all.

The wrong tools for the job

Current funding mechanisms aren’t great for smaller institutions, and the new REF rules, unfortunately, result in a heavy administrative burden for institutions that can least afford it.

Policies and funding streams must explicitly recognise the differences in scale and capacity between research groups and institutions if the UK’s diverse research environment is to flourish. Only then can they help “build a Britain fit for the future”.