Tag Archives: london

Does the London Mayoralty drive people mad?

Watching Boris Johnson’s appalling behaviour in front of a Parliamentary Select Committee today, I was reminded of someone else: Ken Livingstone circa 2006. The idea of Boris Johnson complaining about partisan attacks is simply too ironic to countenance. This was 2 April, not the day before.

Is there something about the role that makes you a bumptious, vainglorious ass with molecule-thick skin, or is it an entry level requirement in the first place? The jury is out on that one I suspect. Certainly, while the jolly “LOOK AT HIS FUNNEEE HAIR!” HIGNIFY-crafted demeanour of “Bozza” always was manufactured to a certain extent. But I can’t help but wonder if the role itself does reinforce such a mindset.

London Mayors (indeed all directly elected English Mayors) work under a system that gives them almost unchallengable power. To overturn a decision, the Assembly/Council needs to amass a two-thirds majority and the mayor can usually expect at least a third of the council to be of his party. Even independents are pretty safe because the chances of getting the main parties to agree a line are relatively low. On the odd occasion that Livingstone didn’t get his own way, he used to throw appalling tantrums. Johnson doesn’t have to worry about that in the London Assembly, but a Labour-dominated select committee is another story.

If it has taken him just a year before he finds the merest criticism intolerable, what will he be like in another two? And if it has taken him just this long before getting sucked in, how long will it take his successor? Will London even still be standing by then?

EXCLUSIVE: Chamali Fernando quits the Lib Dems

I was woken this morning by texts asking if I’d heard that Chamali Fernando – putative candidate for London mayor and sister of party president candidate Chandila Fernando – has resigned the party. It transpires that his is apparently true. No word as to why, but I understand it happened before the vote on tuition fees last night (where she presumably would have supported abandoning the party’s policy to scrap fees).

It’s all go today, innit?

Coleman’s hatch should be trapped shut

There is something excrutiating about being represented by Brian Coleman. I’m not so partisan that I cannot tolerate having MPs and Assembly members of other political parties. I’ve never particularly felt shame at being represented, through the years, by Jackie Lait, Gerald Kaufman, Hilary Benn (must stop namechecking Benns!), James Plaskitt or Rudi Vis. Yes, being represented by the Labour government’s pet-filibuster-in-chief has been known to grate on occasion. But nothing – nothing – amounts to the shame in having Brian Coleman represent me in City Hall.

The episode regarding gratuitously insulting Lynne Featherstone is just the latest in a series of examples perfectly illustrating how the man is unfit for public office, and yet the London Conservatives continue to place him in top jobs. The man calling for Lynne to repay him £250 racked up £8,000 in taxi fares last year. The man who accuses Lynne of not having an accurate view of safety is scared of driving through Haringey. The man who bandies around sexist insults accuses people of homophobia when he doesn’t get his own way. I would recommend people go to the Facebook group dedicated to following his career for more.

Coleman’s career is entirely reliant on an electoral system that denies people a proper choice. Most Tory supporters, given the choice, would happily get rid of him and replace him with another Conservative who didn’t make them look stupid. Instead, we’re all stuck with him.

Stoke dumps mayor

Stoke on Trent has voted to get rid of its directly elected mayor, something which a large number of Lewisham residents have been trying to do for years. Can anyone explain to me why the former referendum was allowed but not the latter?

Part of the explanation may be the comparative strength of the BNP in Stoke – Labour might be able to live with the odd Tory or Lib Dem mayor, but a BNP mayor – whose decisions could only be overturned by a two thirds majority in council – is not a prospect they were prepared to face. It’s okay to have elective dictatorships, just not if the people are in danger of electing the wrong elective dictatorship.

Glancing at their council’s political makeup, the politics of the place are a little idiosyncratic, with a large grouping of “City Independents,” a “Conservative and Independents Alliance”, a “Potteries Alliance” a smattering in non-aligned councillors and of course the blogosphere’s own cause celebre Gavin Webb. I remember campaigning in Stoke in a by-election during an LDYS conference back in 1998 (someone will have to remind me – was Gavin the candidate?). At the time, I seem to recall the Lib Dem success meant that there was a non-Labour councillor on the council for the first time in years. I appreciate I’m biased, but I do get the distinct impression that all these “independents” are an illustration of a system collapsing following years of hegemonic control. Only when they finally get some proper party politics back into the area will they finally begin to inject a bit of vision back into the city.

Labour’s answer to one-party strongholds was directly elected mayors, yet they have spectacularly failed to set the world on fire. Watford Mayor Dorothy Thornhill wrote an article in Lib Dem Voice a few months ago in defence of the policy, but failed to cite how they had made a difference in any tangible way. And while I have no love of Ian Blair, his single-handed dismissal by Boris Johnson easlier this month chilled me to the bone. A single person should not be able to effectively sack a police chief like that. No-one politicised the role of Metropolitan Commissioner more than Ian Blair himself, but the answer was less politicisation not more.

So well done Stoke for making a good decision. And here’s hoping the rest of us will get a similar opportunity.

Boris Johnson: taking the piff

What on Earth is happening in City Hall? If you want to know if a ship is seaworthy, look at which way the rats are running. It doesn’t look good.

Today’s latest debacle suggests that he is rapidly turning into the liability for David Cameron that some of us predicted he would be:

He wrote: “If you believe the politicians, we have a broken society, in which the courage and morals of young people have been sapped by welfarism and political correctness.

“And if you look at what is happening at the Beijing Olympics, you can see what piffle that is.”

But there is only one politician out there at the moment claiming we have a “broken society” – David Cameron. To claim this is not a criticism of his party leader, as Johnson has insisted is simply ridiculous. Or, to use David Cameron’s own terminology: “It was a lie and it was treating people like fools.

Of course, in Boris Johnson’s case, “piffle” is quite literally his middle name (okay, almost – don’t spoil the gag!). Speaking about the Petronella Wyatt scandal, which ended up being true, he had this to say:

I have not had an affair with Petronella. It is complete balderdash. It is an inverted pyramid of piffle. It is all completely untrue and ludicrous conjecture. I am amazed people can write this drivel.

So it is perhaps not the best word he could have chosen to use to keep him out of trouble.

Will another Tory suffer the curse of Quaequam Blog!?

I have to admit that, while I am tempted to offer Conservatives platitudes about reaping what they sow, I really am a bit uncomfortable about the allegations being made against Ray Lewis.

The fact that they are being made by an Anglican Bishop sets alarm bells going off instantly. But the fact that the woman he is alleged to have ripped off remains a personal friend and in his employ makes it even harder to swallow. There are dark mutterings about sexual misconduct, but significantly no actual allegations being made. He has answered all the questions put to him robustly and straightforwardly. It does all look rather like a bit of a smear, compounded by the standard of the Church’s own record keeping.

When you consider the number of paedophiles it lets operate under its radar, it’s amazing how they seem to think they have chapter and verse on Ray Lewis.

A caveat though: a few weeks ago I sprang to the defence of Caroline Spelman. In light of more recent developments however, I rather wish I hadn’t. So, innocent until proven guilty and all that, but I will suspend my judgement.

Boris Johnson’s crime maps, data protection and land values

Unaccustomed as I am to defending Boris Johnson, I’m not convinced that publishing crime maps would necessarily result in a breach of data protection. Didn’t we solve this problem with census data decades ago?

A more intriguing objection is the complaint by RICS that “publicising high crime areas in such detail could literally wipe thousands off house prices overnight, further disadvantaging those who are already struggling to make ends meet.” I think this is possibly true, although it is a particular problem for the UK where we don’t have proper land/property taxation. In countries which use property taxes more extensively and reassess them more regularly (or indeed, at all), such data is a double edged sword. Yes, it would lead to the value of their properties dropping but that in turn would lead to them paying less tax. If you don’t get the service, you get your money back: sounds like a fair deal to me. In the UK though it would be unambiguously bad news for many, whilst enriching those fortunate enough to live in safe areas still further.

Cameron and Johnson timed the Venezuela announcement for after the Crewe by-election

At a stroke, Boris Johnson has undermined the capital the Conservatives have made out of the 10p income tax fiasco. It isn’t that the cheap oil deal with Venezuela was defensible – it wasn’t. It was this sort of tokenism that disqualified Livingstone from office in the eyes of most Londoners. But no-one begrudged low income earners from getting half-priced travel. In Crewe, the Tories ground Labour into the dust attacking them for doubling the 10p rate and blithely ignoring the impact it would have on low income earners. Now the Tories have imposed swingeing cuts on a very similar group in society.

What’s worse is the timing: on a bank holiday weekend just hours after winning the Crewe by-election during which time they had very carefully kept quiet about the plans. It is clear they don’t plan to offer people on income support any alternative, otherwise why the stark announcement rather than a more cuddly “consultation” about how to continue paying for the scheme? It is clear they knew it would be politically damaging. And it is abundantly clear that was not merely approved by CCHQ and Cameron but crafted by them in the first place. Make no mistake – this was Cameron’s decision.

Expect this issue to become a Focus leaflet staple, within London at least. I can think of no better symbol of how paper thin the “new” Conservativism really is. Scratch beneath the surface and the nasty side is just itching to come out. At least now we know, but is has the public already made up its mind?

Oh dear, Livingstone is lost in his own mythologising

Ken Livingstone won the London Mayoral election last week. Well, okay, he doesn’t actually claim that in his Guardian article yesterday, but he comes pretty close:

Nationally Labour’s vote fell by 2% compared to 2004, but in London the percentage of first preference votes I received in the mayoral election went up very fractionally. The increase in the absolute number of votes was striking – up by 220,000, or 30%. There was no Labour “stay at home” factor in London. Four years ago I polled 10.8% ahead of Labour nationally – a week ago this increased to 13%. I received slightly more second preference votes than Boris Johnson. On the London assembly Labour made one net gain.

All of which points to a phenomenally high profile election in which the national and London media helped put out a squeeze message on a daily basis. There are plenty of Labour held seats across the country where they bucked the national trend for the same simple reason: it was clear to the electorate that it was a choice between two candidates.

If the acme of Labour’s ambitions is to come a very good second place in the next general election, they should listen to Livingstone. Otherwise, I suggest they look further afield.

His comments on the Lib Dems are more interesting:

Lib Dem failure in London was massive. They chose to stay outside the progressive alliance of Labour and the Greens. As a result they failed even to reach double-figure support in the mayoral election, and their London assembly seats fell from five to three. Hopefully this suicidal orientation will be reversed in the next four years.

The scale of the Lib Dems’ failure is undeniable (well, undeniable for anyone apart from Mike Tuffrey who sent out an email last week claiming that “actually when the final tally is examined, I think we’ll find that in many areas the total number of people we persuaded to vote for us was up. But that success was masked by a much higher turnout, spurred on by the mayoral Punch and Judy show.” – if only those pesky voters didn’t turn up, we’d have won! No lessons being learned there I fear). I’m not convinced that Livingstone’s prescription for success would have had any effect however. The Lib Dems are a national party which can’t afford to behave like the Greens and avoid scrutiny in the same way. Sian Berry can get away with broadcasting the message “Vote Green, Get Brown“; Brian Paddick and Nick Clegg could not. If we had done so, we would have mortgaged all our potential successes in the local elections across the country, helping the Tories push the message that they were the only alternative to Labour.

There certainly is an argument that we concentrated too much on the Mayoral election and didn’t consider how we could consolidate our standing on the Assembly anything like enough. As a third party which is no longer the repository for protest votes it once was, we have a peculiar problem with the AMS system where people feel they can split their ticket by giving the Lib Dems a vote in the constituency and, say, the Greens a vote in the London-wide ballot and be helping us (solution: our London-wide message in future has to focus relentlessly on the list). But hitching ourselves to the Green-Brown love-in would have done us no good at all.

It might have got Mayor Ken re-elected so one can understand why he thinks it has such appeal, but however much I might have preferred him to be at City Hall right now rather than Bozza, performing the role of Mayoral figleaf has very little appeal for me. Perhaps if Livingstone had understood that, rather than adopt this Bush-style “you’re either with us or against us” approach, he might have been able to come up with a counter-stratagem.

Random points about the London elections

I have a few things to get off my chest regarding the London elections and so I thought I would include them as a miscellenia rather than write seperate blog posts about them.

Bozza and the bloke factor

One thing that continues to perturb me is the rapid rewriting of history from the side of the Conservatives. Specifically, they have gone from fielding a candidate who was clearly selected because of his celebrity cache to insisting (now he has won) that his main appeal to the general public was his policy agenda.

Pish, and indeed, posh. It wasn’t that Boris didn’t have policy – I actually quite liked much of his housing policy for instance (well, the bits they’d nicked off the Lib Dems anyway) – but the average member of the public would do well to remember anything more than the fact that he doesn’t like bendy buses. There was a big emphasis on crime and numerous specifics, but the main tactic there was to deny Paddick his USP (and it worked superbly).

I’ve already mentioned how the number of people saying they’d vote Boris for a “laugh” on Twitter outnumbered the more contemplative souls by something like 4-to-1. Twitterers are not exactly the most representative sample however. So if that doesn’t convince you, I would refer you to the Political Brain by Drew Westen (also namechecked by Martin Turner on Lib Dem Voice today I notice). To horrendously summarise this book, it suggests that what people vote for is not policy but who they make the best emotional connection to. Crudely, they vote for the bloke they would most like to have a pint with. That’s why George W. Bush did so well despite having anything resembling intelligence. It’s why people continue to remind the Lib Dems what a desperate mistake they made getting rid of Charles Kennedy, despite the fact that his shortcomings had become quite insurmountably by the time we did. It’s why Ken Livingstone won in 2000 and it’s why Boris beat him last week.

There’s no shame in that fact. But let’s be honest about it, eh chaps?

The Evening Standard Factor

Again, I’ve already briefly touched on this. In my view, the Standard’s coverage was less problematic than the Metro’s lack of coverage and as I suggested earlier, that was clearly a deliberate ploy of the Rothermere Press’s, taking into account the two paper’s differing demographics.

Listening to Andrew Gilligan’s endless bleating about how his was scrupulously balanced and committed to the facts though is hard to take, especially since I spent an hour on the phone with him two weeks ago being accused of being a Livingstone stooge just for attempting to produce an impartial tool for the elections (an accusation that ended up going nowhere). He might be scrupulous with the facts, but he was driven by a very clear agenda. And you can assemble a bunch of uncontestable facts in any order to make a case that a specific individual is a saint or a sinner.

To be fair on the Standard, having read it more than usually over the past couple of months I can attest that it did indeed contain numerous pro-Ken articles to balance out the negative ones. But the paper itself has a very clear demographic and very few people will be swayed by it one way or another. What the Standard does have at its disposal more than any other paper in London, is the capacity to circulate thousands of posters on a daily basis. The posters, clearly visible on pretty much every single street corner in the capital, were unrelentingly negative about Livingstone. They knew it, just as they knew that no amount of balancing articles in the paper itself would make a blind bit of difference.

And Gilligan knows perfectly well that it was his scrupulously researched articles that resulted in those lurid headlines. Again, I don’t particularly begrudge him, or his newspaper, for doing this. Long live our free press, even if it is a worry that London can’t sustain a second paid-for daily. But let’s have a bit of honesty.

How Labour Blew It

Oh let me count the ways. The major factors have already been covered ad nauseum: the cronyism scandals, the familiarity (read: contempt) of Livingstone himself, the walking disaster that is Gordon Brown. But for me there are at least two other factors which backfired on Labour spectacularly.

The first one was to frame the debate as Livingstone vs. Johnson at such an early stage. I commented on my frustration over this earlier in the year and there’s no question it made Paddick’s job harder. The point I’m making here though is different: it also made Livingstone’s job harder.

I can understand the logic behind it: the idea was that by forcing people to focus relentlessly on Johnson, his flaws would be exposed for all to see and he would collapse in a blond heap of crikeyness. The problem with that stratagem is that it assumed that Johnson would be allowed to do that, either by his own party or by a media that was spoiling for a big personality-fueled two-way contest.

What Livingstone and his supporters should have been doing as an alternative is to insist that the field was open; to talk up the chances not just of the Greens and Lib Dems but specifically of One London. Livingstone should have been insisting that all debates include all the main party contenders based on which parties were represented on the Assembly and done all he could to keep Damian Hockney in the race.

Why? Because if there had been a contender on the right with some credibility, it would have dented Johnson’s popularity. If Hockney had stayed in the race, Livingstone could have kept suggesting in debates that he was where all rightwingers’ votes should go. And Hockney, with his opposition to the Congestion Charge, support of Heathrow Airport and scepticism about multiculturalism would have been able to articulate what a lot of Johnson’s core support actually happen to believe.

A side effect of this also would have been to present potential BNP supporters with a more mainstream party to vote for, which may have kept Barnbrook out of the Assembly. This brings me to screw up Number Two: taking Boris too seriously.

To be fair, the Livingstone campaign team seemed to consistently understand the problems with presenting Johnson as a racist, homophobic snob – even if their candidate kept lapsing into this rhetoric from time to time. But they really failed to get their supporters to rein it in. The StopBoris website was a perfect example of this, as was Zoe Williams’ silly article on election day.

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, it is simply logically implausible to expect people to regard Boris as a buffoon while taking every single word of his deadly seriously. It can’t be done and people already tempted by Boris will simply stare at you as if you don’t have a sense of humour. Johnson is a polemicist and raconteur. His articles are provocative. The right approach is to take his buffoonery head on and to suggest to people that it would be a bad idea to elect a clown as mayor. Whenever Labour stayed on message, they made progress against Johnson. Whenever they went into PC mode, they lost support.

The second problem was that it sent out the message that it is possible for a mainstream political candidate in the UK to be an appalling racist and homophobic bigot and still have a chance of winning the top prizes. Once again, I can’t help but wonder to what extent this helped the BNP who of course were only too happy to associate themselves with Johnson.

You would have thought that Labour would have learned the lesson about the limits of demonising your political opponents 12 years ago. Clearly not.