COVID-19: The Start of a New World Order?

Garden vegetable plot, with lettuce, sweet corn and peas.
Will growing vegetables make us better people?

There’s been a lot of talk about how things will be different after lockdown, with various commentators putting their own prognosis on how we’ll all be better people in a better world when all this is over.  I did at first doubt it, whether this Coronavirus pandemic would make any difference at all, or whether we’d all have forgotten about it in a year’s time.  That seems unlikely now – there will I believe be lasting effects, but it’s far from clear what they will be.

The first thing is to qualify what we mean by ‘the world’.  For those living in less developed countries, where the daily struggle to get enough food and clean water is the biggest challenge, and where other diseases are a far bigger threat, CV19 probably won’t change anything much. In Africa, fifty times more deaths will have resulted from Malaria than CV19 over the last two months.  Let’s hope this developed-world crisis will make us realise what people in some parts of the world have to face every day, not just during this pandemic.

For us in the UK, there are a lot of questions that will need to be answered.   Why was our approach to containing the epidemic significantly different from other European countries in the early stages, especially the decision to end mass community testing on March 12th? The mortality rates of those admitted to hospital seems high, at more than 30% – how does this compare to other countries?  Why have 10% of the CV19 deaths worldwide occurred in the UK, when we comprise only 1% of the world’s population?  And much more.

Contributing factors to our disproportionately high death toll begin back in the 1980s.  The privatisation of adult social care under the Thatcher government, and the cost-cutting that went with it, has led to that sector not coping with routine pressures long before the CV19 crisis. That has now proved to be catastrophic, with privatised care homes unable to keep their residents safe.  Ten years of austerity cuts to the NHS can’t have helped, and the systematic destruction of the manufacturing sector in the 1980s also left us with an inability to make the things we needed early in this crisis, from PPE to the reagents for CV19 test kits.

And yes, I do believe that Germany was helped by having a leader who was a trained scientist. A detailed knowledge of the Pyrrhic War and an ability to quote Plato doesn’t help much when you’re trying to get your head around intricate questions of virology and epidemiology.  The fact that neither the Prime Minister nor the Health Secretary have any formal scientific training would not have made for the best decision-making.

The analysis of all these factors will lead to lasting changes – it has to.  Hopefully, it will lead to a rebuilding of our manufacturing sector to create a sustainable future, in line with the Green New Deal proposed in the last Labour manifesto.  And we must now reverse the privatisation of social care by creating a national social care service, integrated with the NHS.  I’ll be expecting Keir Starmer to take all these issues up. The Labour manifesto included many policies this crisis has shown to be desperately needed. He needs to be pressing for them now.

Our own behaviour will change too.  It seems very likely that more people will work from home, now both employees and employers realise that could save them a fair bit of money. But I’m not sure that will mean a reduction in car journeys, at least not initially – people are likely to jump into their cars more often when lockdown is over, as they’ll be reluctant to travel by public transport and risk infection.  Air travel seems unlikely ever to recover to its former levels, which can only be a good thing, and a third runway at Heathrow is thankfully now just a silly dream.  Our town centres will never be the same again, as people stick with the habit of buying ‘stuff’ online, and realise they don’t need to go to town to do that, and it was never much of a leisure activity anyway. The future of pubs and cafes seems to be in question, but my guess is that they will bounce back, eventually, when social distancing is relaxed, probably after a vaccine becomes available.  It’s possible we’ll exercise more too – many people seem to be taking their one hour’s exercise a day when they would never have considered even walking to the end of their garden before lockdown. And it remains to be seen whether the big reduction in strokes and heart attacks presenting at hospital A&E is caused by people not seeking help when they should, or whether there is a genuine reduction because people are less stressed.

More broadly, it’s difficult to say whether our behavioural changes will stick.  There’s no doubt that many of us have rediscovered our love for home and garden – the unavailability of flour and potting compost testify to that.  We’re digging vegetable plots, baking bread, and building chicken coops.  Will we still all be enjoying cakes from our home-grown eggs and fruit when all this is over? I hope so.  It will make us better people.

And what of the new-found love for our neighbours, the Thursday evening applause for the NHS, the support and co-operation within our communities?  Will that remain?  I’m not so sure about that.  This crisis has brought out the worst in some, as well as the best in others.  From the driver caught doing 130 mph in a 40 mph limit to the nursery workers who refused to look after the children of NHS staff, not everyone has been a hero.  But many have, in their own small way, whether it’s getting groceries for an elderly neighbour or sharing those home-grown vegetables – believe me, my entire street will be sick of courgettes if this goes on into Autumn.  And of course, the health and other front-line workers, who have sacrificed so much for the rest of us, including in many cases their lives.  Maybe that will make us remember what’s really important.  Can you ever imagine your neighbourhood coming out onto the street to applaud hedge fund managers?

But behind all this remains one big, continuing challenge: climate change.  It’s still the biggest threat to our species, far greater than CV19.  And it’s far from clear what the impact on climate change will be as we emerge from this crisis.  The rush for economic growth could push climate considerations into the background – pollution levels in affected parts of China are already back to pre-lockdown levels. This does seem like an opportunity to switch to sustainable economic growth.  And we’ve learned one big thing from this crisis: when governments are really under threat, the money can be found. The laws governing how a virus replicates or how the earth is warming are natural, we can’t change them.  The laws that govern our economy are of human construct, we can change them.  And change them we must.

So the long-term changes that emerge from this pandemic are far from clear, and not automatic.  We can make a better world, but we will need to shape it for the better.  To push them in the right direction will require community and political pressure, in which we’ll all need to play our part.  We can’t just let it happen.  We need to make sure lasting change benefits the many, not the few. And it must be change that benefits not just our species, but all life on earth.

Keir Starmer: A Blair or an Atlee?

Picture of Clement Atlee, head and shoulders
Is Keir Starmer the new Clement Atlee?

Keir Starmer has secured an impressive victory as Labour Party leader, and has appointed his shadow cabinet and shadow ministerial team.  But what does this mean for the Labour Party?  Is it really an end to Corbynism?  Does it mean a return to Blairism? And does it mean we can look forward to a Labour Government?

On the face of it, the 56% share of the vote on the first round of voting looks convincing.  Another way of looking at it could be that it’s the smallest percentage share of the vote a Labour leader has ever been elected on, since the One Member One Vote system of elections was introduced.  But then, there have only been three elections under that system, with Jeremy Corbyn winning the other two, with 59% and 62% of the votes cast.

Nevertheless, it’s still impressive.  The favoured candidate of the left, Rebecca Long-Bailey, secured only 28% of the vote.  So does that mean the Labour Party membership has suddenly seen the pale blue Blairite light and returned to the path of post-Thatcher neoliberalism? No, not really.

Many of those who voted for Keir Starmer had been keen supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and the 2017/2019 manifesto.  They still are. They voted for Keir for two main reasons. Firstly, because his candidate statement and the ‘ten pledges’ he made indicated that he would retain the most radical parts of the manifesto, saying ‘we are an anti-austerity party. We believe in common ownership. We want a fairer and more peaceful world. We have led the way on climate change and the need for a Green New Deal.’  His pledges include a continuing commitment to common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water, ending outsourcing in the NHS, repealing the Trade Union Act, increasing income tax for the top 5% of earners, abolishing Universal Credit, and putting the Green New Deal at the heart of everything we do.  Secondly, he came across in interviews as relaxed, professional, competent and personable.  Any Labour leader who is putting forward a radical manifesto needs to be able to resist the media onslaught of personal attacks that they’ll inevitably receive.  He looked like he’d be up for the fight.  And his campaign was brilliantly well organised.  He phoned me personally during the campaign – not to canvass for my vote, but to promise me support for the local election campaign in Hastings if he won.  He knew exactly how long I’d been leader of the council, and he knew I was planning to stand down.  He chatted with me for a half hour.  He must have done that with many other council leaders – impressive, I thought.

Rebecca Long-Bailey ran a much poorer campaign. If anything, she seemed to be supporting a less radical set of policies, presumably because she was trying to gain support by distancing herself from Jeremy Corbyn. She came across in interviews as rather robotic, nowhere near as able to speak off the cuff and deal with blind-side questions.  And her apparent anti-abortion stance, coupled to her Catholicism, didn’t play well to the left either.

So a lot of those on the left ‘lent’ their votes to Keir Starmer. I know many ardent Corbynistas who voted for him.  But he’ll quickly lose their support if he doesn’t deliver what he’s promised.

His shadow cabinet shows a broad political spread, an attempt to unite the different wings of the parliamentary party. There’s some representation from the former Corbyn shadow cabinet, with Angela Raynor, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Emily Thornberry still present, although several prominent Corbyn supporters have been sent to the back benches.  The choice of Annaliese Dodds as Chancellor is interesting too.  I know her reasonably well, she used to help a lot with election campaigns in Hastings when she was a South East MEP.  She’s impressive, as well as being down-to-earth and a good communicator, she went down very well on the doorstep. Politically, the description I read of her as being on the ‘far left of the soft left’ probably sums her up pretty well.

However, this ‘broad church’ approach has meant that some of those Keir Starmer has brought into shadow ministerial posts certainly don’t support his ten pledges, or at least not all of them. For some of these new shadow ministers, I assume they’ve accepted shadow posts because they think he didn’t really mean it.  Hopefully, Keir Starmer is better than that, and is above the tactic of lying to get into office that some of his supporters seem to think he’s pursuing.  So like many others on the left of the party, I find myself supportive of what he has said, but not supportive of some of his supporters.

For those of us who remember the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader, this has some uncomfortable parallels.  Blair won over some on the left with his idea that you had to adopt a centrist manifesto to get into power, then implement radical policies when you attain power.  That was a lie of course – the radical policies never came.  Keir Starmer hasn’t said that, but plenty of those MPs who supported him, some of whom now hold shadow ministerial positions, still believe in the Blair approach, and are ideologically opposed to much of our current manifesto.

But perhaps a parallel drawn by Owen Jones in a recent Guardian article is more optimistic.  George Lansbury, a left-wing Labour leader, was displaced by the ‘soft left’ Clement Atlee, who went on to lead the most radical Labour government we’ve ever had.  The comparison is a bit adrift, in that Lansbury never lost a general election, there wasn’t one during his time of office. But Atlee came to power after a period of great turmoil – while the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing like a world war, whatever the press would have us believe, it’s an interesting comparison.

So it remains to be seen whether Keir Starmer sticks to his promises.  I hope he does.  If he doesn’t, the Labour Party membership will rapidly shrink.  It’s still the largest political organisation in Europe, but all those younger members who joined the party during the Corbyn years because they wanted radical change won’t stick around if he simply oversees a drift back into Blairite centrism. It’s not just about winning back those northern ‘working class’ constituencies, it’s about retaining and building on the young, radical vote that brought us unexpected gains in 2017.  We have to be winning both the Copelands and the Canterburys if we’re to get back into government.  Keir Starmer can achieve that, and he’s got my support to do it, based on retaining that radical manifesto.  But he has to remain true to all those radical party members who supported him. 

Poultry for Pleasure: All Part of the Family

Keeping chickens has been such an enormous pleasure.  There’s something very relaxing about them, their movements, the noises they make, their behaviour … it’s a much more pleasurable experience than I’d expected.  And of course, fresh eggs every day.

We’d been thinking about getting chickens for a couple of years.  Our garden is a reasonable size, but not huge (about 30 metres long), so we had to think about how we’d fit them in.  After a lot of research and a chicken keeping course at Mantel Farm in Catsfield, we finally succumbed last September.  We bought three: Marge (a Light Sussex, the white one); Phyllis (a Cuckoo Maran, the speckled one); and Hilda, (a Skyline, the brown one).  They quickly established a pecking order: Marge at the top, although she’s the most placid and doesn’t mind being picked up, and Hilda at the bottom, she’s the least placid and hates being picked up.  The names come from Jo’s three great aunts – long dead now, but she thinks they would have approved.  We did wonder what the cats would make of them, but after being a little alarmed at first, they’ve quickly accepted them as part of the family.

Their house and enclosed run came from ‘Buttercup Farm’, an online retailer – expensive, but very solid and completely fox proof. The chicken house part is 1.8m x 1.2m, the attached covered run is 2.4m x 1.2m.  It did need a bit of modification though to block up the eaves (installing a covered air vent instead) and fitting a door jamb. The house wasn’t designed for coastal environments where the rain falls horizontally.  We tried a number of different feeds, but eventually settled on Marriage’s Organic layers’ pellets, which they seem to like best.  We also give them ‘treats’ made up a mixture of dried maize and mealworms.  Treats are how you get chickens to co-operate – once they learn the sound of a shaken treat box, they’ll go anywhere you want them to.  We also give them a tin of tuna occasionally – they love tuna, and it provides lots of protein. But overall, chickens seem to eat more or less anything: worms, snails, woodlice, spiders, grass, weeds, courgettes, cabbage, and indeed your favourite plants if you let them.  On this diet, they lay about an egg a day each – a bit less in the depths of winter.  Hilda, the Skyline, lays blue eggs.  The other two lay brown eggs.

Cleared vegetable patch with chicken house in background
The vegetable plot nicely cleared and fertilised, with the chicken house and enclosed run in the background.

The floor of the enclosed run (which is just earth) is covered with a 100cm or so layer of hardwood chips, which are cheap and work well, giving the chickens something to scratch around in.  The coop part is quite large, and has allowed us to use a ‘deep litter’ system.  You don’t hear much of deep litter chicken management nowadays.  It used to be popular, but was abandoned in favour of more ‘hygienic’ methods.  But I wanted to try it as it’s how my Dad used to keep chickens, in the garage in Chobham at the house where we lived until I was five years old (we didn’t have a car then).  ‘Deep litter’ was something I heard every day, and was quite probably one of my first words.

The idea with deep litter is that you turn the floor of the chickens’ indoor housing into a sort of compost heap.  That requires a bit of modification to the housing. I asked for the pop-hole (where the chicken pop out) to be raised six inches above the floor when I ordered the housing, and I had to put a board across the bottom of the door opening. You put in a deep layer of bedding, and allow the chickens to scratch around in it, mixing their droppings in.  A natural decomposition process starts, with an ecosystem established in the litter, from microorganisms up to predatory arthropods, and indeed the chickens themselves. The advantage of deep litter is that you don’t have to clean it out for months; the disadvantage is that it has to be quite carefully managed to make sure the process works as it should, maintaining the right kind of decomposition of the droppings and the right microflora in the bedding.

I used hemp bedding, which is very absorbent and stops the litter getting too damp. If the moisture content gets too high, the droppings will decompose producing ammonia, which is toxic. I put in a 150cm layer, and rake it over once a week, using a cultivator hoe to make sure air remains in contact with the droppings and hemp bedding throughout.  It’s been there for six months now, and there’s no sign of any ammonia odours, it still smells as sweet as when I put it in. I was thinking it would need changing after six months, but I’m going to leave it longer now.  The chickens like it, scratching around in it and picking out insects that are now in the bedding helping the decomposition process.  It’s also still quite dry, which seems to be more to do with the extraordinary absorbing properties of the chopped hemp. Using the deep litter system, the rest of the weekly clean-out (cleaning the nest boxes, washing their perches, refilling their oyster shell and grit, generally tidying up) takes about half an hour.

When we’re out in the garden (or in the summerhouse, which is close to the chickens) we let them out into a larger, uncovered run.  It’s not fox proof, but is fairly robust – we’ve used chicken fencing from Omlet, an online supplier – pricey, but good quality and easy to move around.  Throughout the winter, they roamed our vegetable patch (with our winter kale and spring cabbage carefully enclosed in a cage), which worked really well, they scratched it over, fertilised it, and got rid of all the weeds.  Now they’ve moved on to their summer quarters, part of the lawn and our ‘wild area’.

So it’s been an enjoyable experience. Marge, Hilda and Phyllis are part of the family.  They provide us with eggs and endless, calming entertainment.  If you’re thinking about chicken keeping, I can recommend it. And if you’re not thinking about it, and you’ve got the space, do consider it!