Monday, 3 November 2008

All meat on the same bone

It's easy to feel remote from your fellow-countrymen. I felt like a visitor from another planet when the nation went into collective mourning for Princess Diana, and I did again last week, as tens of thousands of people began baying for the blood of radio presenters.

Initially I felt irritated by 'Manuelgate'; the furore seemed like a distraction from 'real' news, like the continuing collapse of global capitalism. Then I realised that these were actually the same story: while regulators dozed, infantile over-paid idiots with egos the size of counties caused havoc with their reckless speculation. Both disasters started out small, noticed only by the aficionados, but rapidly snow-balled to become national (if not global) crises.

To stretch the comparison, we are now assured that there will be a retreat from risk-taking. Bankers will no longer trade arcane and spectral financial instruments, but will return to their 'boring' core business of offering punters somewhere to keep their money (which they can lend out to other punters). Similarly, BBC radio hosts will have to find something interesting or amusing to say between playing records (which doesn't necessarily involve prank calls, rude words or sex with burlesque stars).

A retreat from risk may seem reasonable, especially after the turmoil we have witnessed in recent months, but slipping back into stagnation, culturally and financially, does not seem very appealing either. Are we even capable of finding a happy medium, between stodgy and stifling conformity on the one hand, and the unconstrained exuberance of adrenaline-charged nutters on the other? It's too early to tell, but the omens are hardly promising.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

From goose to snake

Watching Newsnight's 'trial' to examine who was to blame for the near-collapse of global capitalism last night, I could only wonder at the sheer quantity of bad faith on display.

The programme began with the results of a telephone survey, showing that the vast majority of the public blamed speculation in particular or banks in general for their irresponsibility, with s smaller proportion blaming the government, and five per cent each blaming regulators and the borrowing public.

The various 'accused' explained why it was not their fault. Paul Mason, the usually sensible Newsnight Economics Editor, talked in horror-struck tones of bankers being motivated to lend recklessly by the "personal enrichment" that could follow (as opposed to the altruism that usually prevails in financial services), and Will Hutton lambasted banks for not unilaterally cutting back their remuneration to a level that could be described as sane (and would no doubt lead to a swift leakage of skilled personnel).

So, the mess we're in is all a result of these evil institutions, which apparently operate in an entirely parallel universe from the rest of us? No. The simple truth, however unpalatable, is that - whenever we have rejoiced in cheap mortgages, easy credit card transfers or stockmarket gains - we have added air to the bubble. We may wriggle to avoid blame (and everyone else involved is, so why not?), but most of us were complicit in the system.

But now, less than a year after we were worrying about the terrible implications of asking rich people to pay tax, when all the talk was of killing geese that lay golden eggs, we stand astonished that financial institutions have been playing as fast and loose as they can, in order to maximise their profits.

Perhaps it's because I am a child of the Thatcher years, but I can't find it in my heart to expect capitalist institutions to be anything other than ruthlessly - and even recklessly - self-interested. You may not like it (and I don't much), but it's the world in which we live. As Michael Foot recently observed (a footnote to this), there was an alternative, but we chose a different path 25 years ago.

I'm reminded of Al Wilson's Northern Soul classic, The Snake: a kindly woman takes in and looks after a snake that is dying of cold. Recovered, the snake duly bites her. As the venom takes hold, the woman complains of how her hospitality has been repaid, but the snake is having none of it:
"Oh shut up, silly woman", said the reptile with a grin.
"You knew darn well I was a snake before you took me in!"

Friday, 19 September 2008

Glas at least half full

You have no reason to be interested, but I'm in two minds about Glasvegas.

There's a lot to loathe. Songs about missing children, stabbings, playground fights and absent fathers suggests an unhealthy level of lachrymose. To be blunt, it sounds like the laddish, beer-spilling, tearful sentimentalism reminiscent of Oasis. And I don't mean the good bits of Oasis.

But there's a lot to love too. The music - feral, echoing drums, churning guitar chops, and full 'wall-of-sound' production - is curiously compelling. James Allan's vocal delivery proves this heady mix. His voice lilts, raps and yelps, in proper Scottish ('Flowers and football tops' sounds somehow less trite when rendered as 'Flou-aas 'nd fitba torps'). At times, his words spill out on the off-beat, like some anguished mixture of the Proclaimers and Eminem.

And the lyrics have the capacity to surprise. 'Geraldine' - which starts out sounding like a love song but ends up as an ode to a social worker - is a one-trick pony, but this nag rocks like a Lipizzaner. There aren't enough people hymning social workers. These are people who undertake one of the hardest jobs in the world, perpetually making judgements that could result in their demonisation as little Hitlers or negligent liberals. They hold the physical and mental health of some of our most vulnerable citizens in their hands. They deserve more songs.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Legless at Glasto

Newspaper coverage of last weekend's Glastonbury Festival suggests a new parlour game. In recent years, the press have picked up on a few defining features of Glastonbury: it's quite muddy, the sanitary facilities leave something to be desired, there are young people there, some of them are dressed oddly, many of them take drugs. Oh, and there's some music too.

So, the obvious response is to cast round for the journalist least likely to enjoy this unique mixture of charms, and send them out there. Last year the Guardian sent tent-hating Charlie Brooker, this year it was veteran columnist Alexander Chancellor. The Telegraph followed bearded Westminster mystic Christopher Howse with a smartly-tied parliamentary sketch writer Andrew Gimson.

The Daily Mail, however, possibly won, by sending whiney fashionista Liz Jones. Unlike the others, all of whom wrote variations on "I enjoyed it despite everything", Jones appears to have had an authentically miserable time (even if some cast doubt on whether her tent was actually there).

So, here's the game. Who should the newspapers send next year? Anna Wintour? Brian Sewell? The Duchess of Devonshire? Nominations welcome.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

In praise of indifference

Last week, I visited a friend who now lives in a medium-sized Midlands town. He'd been in London a few weeks earlier, he told me, at a party. Later in the evening, with a few other fairly intoxicated late-30s types, he'd ended up in a drum-and-bass club in Islington.

He was amazed at how little attention this frazzled group attracted, despite being the oldest people there by about fifteen years. It would have been very different in his home town, and not in a particularly positive way.

I started to say something about London being 'inclusive' and then stopped myself. I've been writing too many public sector policy documents. The people in that club weren't being inclusive; they had just erected screens of privacy around themselves and their friends. Unless and until the newcomers did something outrageous - stripping, starting fights, lighting cigarettes - they were invisible.

Tonight, in Brixton, in Brick Lane, in Soho, people from all ethnicities, nationalities, sexualities and classes will gather to enjoy a Saturday night out. They will be in the same places, but they won't be together in any real sense.

Big cities like London may have weak 'social capital', to borrow the concept popularised by Robert Putnam in 'Bowling Alone', but they are also places where an astonishing variety of people manage to live (for the most part peacefully) in close proximity to others with whom they have little in common. In the urban context, strong communities can be exclusive and antagonistic, as the murderous turf wars of London gangs illustrate.

Outside the world of well-meaning platitude, Londoners do not spend an enormous amount of time "celebrating diversity". Rather, we are indifferent to difference, preserving privacy in the crowd.

Friday, 2 May 2008

The age of change?

The accursed power which stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and Champagne, and Bridge)
Broke - and Democracy resumed her reign
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne).

Hilaire Belloc

Monday, 28 April 2008

Personality politics

London voters will now have received the candidate leaflet for Thursday’s mayoral election. Reading some of the policies in the document, you wonder whether to laugh or cry. Among the many powers that the Mayor of London does not have are the power to stop immigration, to pull troops out of Iraq, to declare St George’s Day a national holiday, to promote marriage, or to insist all employers pay the London Living Wage.

But the London mayoralty is not really about policy. Try as they might, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are hard-pushed to find serious areas of disagreement: pledging to "consult residents...on whether we should keep the Western [congestion charge] extension", as Johnson has promised, is hardly an ideological rallying call.

The London Mayor is primarily a city manager: he or she needs to be able to represent the capital, to strike deals, to make things work better. This means having a clear idea of what London needs, and the political smarts to be able to lobby, haggle and argue with a jealous central government to get it. It’s personality politics, but it’s far from trivial.

This is where a difference begins to emerge between the two front-runners. Ken Livingstone has secured more powers for the Mayor, commitment to Crossrail, and billions of pounds of investment to fund the London 2012 Games and legacy. Admittedly this has been a Labour mayor working with a Labour government, but the relationship has not always been an easy one.

An incumbent always has the advantage of pointing to his record (though Livingstone's opponents have found plenty of ammunition there too). But some of the signals sent out by the Boris Johnson campaign are worrying. While Livingstone’s inner circle of advisors are not people who feel particularly at home in the Labour Party headquarters, Johnson’s campaign has been closely managed by some of his party’s top strategists, from Lynton Crosby to Nick Boles.

In addition, some newspapers have pointed to Johnson as a poster-boy for socially-liberal cameronite conservatism, a one-man vanguard for the coming general election. Johnson is insisting that he is his own man (just as Steve Norris did in previous elections). But it is hard to see in him the same cussedly independent streak, and willingness to denounce his ‘comrades’, that has endeared Livingstone to so few people in his own party and, at least in previous elections, to so many people in London.

Whatever policies the mayoral candidates espouse, the test of their mettle will be how they deal with government. Whether the government in question is Conservative or Labour should be almost immaterial. The capital needs a Mayor whose interests lie in securing the best for London, not in letting City Hall be used as a second front in Westminster’s wars.

Friday, 11 April 2008

There should be a law against us

Today's story, of a teenage boy who badly burnt himself in an un-staffed tanning salon, only merited a few lines in most papers, but one comment offered a sharp insight into the state of modern capitalism.

Asked about the unfortunate incident, salon owner Steve James said that he could not afford to have staff on duty all the time if he was to remain competitive. He said: “I’m really disappointed this has happened. We are not operating illegally. If laws were passed to make all salons staffed all the time it would solve the problem.”

It is worth pausing over this statement. Mr James does not seek to defend his business practices on any grounds apart from their legality and the need to remain competitive. Indeed, in calling for legal changes, he implicitly acknowledges that, without tougher regulation, salons like his will operate in an irresponsible manner. In effect, he is saying: “There should be a law against us.”

You could hardly ask for a more damning indictment of contemporary capitalism. In an era of global and local competition, businesses cannot afford to let any moral considerations to dull their competitive edge. Conscientious entrepreneurs are cornered, and end up actively seeking regulation by the state, as their only defence against a relentless descent to the bottom line.

Consumer pressure, on sweated labour for example, can act as a gentle inhibitor of the worst practices, but shareholders will swiftly punish any working practices that raise costs (without a parallel boost to profits). Codes of conduct and self-regulation offer only uneasy stand-offs, which hold for as long as their least scrupulous member.

There is an irony here. After years of rolling back the state, building bonfires of red tape and so forth, businessmen like Steve James see state regulation as the only thing that can rescue them from the callous consequences of relentless competition.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Civilisation under attack!

Under a great headline ('Pranks cannot resist the brilliance of Olympic sacred fire'), the People's Daily has this to say about the Olympic torch farrago (my italics):
Many netizens issued a warning. The few Tibet independence elements have a wishful thinking. The Olympic torch does not belong to China alone, but belong all the more to the world. Tibet independence elements now stand in the opposite to the peace-loving people across the world, and their evil deeds are sure to be subjected to denunciations by people worldwide.

The Olympic sacred fire is a vital, important symbol of human values with respect to the modern Olympic Games. Every torch relay represents a spread of human civilization. It is precisely because of this sense that people worldwide have all along regarded the Olympic torch relay as a lofty, sacred ceremony....So any deeds to interfere with and sabotage the Olympic sacred fire constitutes not only a blaspheme of the Olympic spirit but
a grave challenge to the human civilization.
And I thought it was just a crappy outsize cigarette lighter, and an excuse for a bit of traditional western argy-bargy....

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

de Pfwaffl

Boris Johnson was a sad sight on the Newsnight debate last night. Like a whipped cur, he shrank back, avoided saying anything, and cast around for fences to sit on.

Would he get rid of the western extension to the congestion charge? Well, yes. Or maybe no. "I don't think it's working, but I'm in favour of consultation. I will abide by what the people say." There are several problems here, apart from sheer issue-ducking. Consultation is not a decision-making deliberative process; it is a way of seeking public views on policies being proposed by politicians. It attracts only interested parties, and cannot confer a mandate. That's what elections are for.

It was interesting comparing this triangulated guff with the talk given by Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba in Brazil, about ten days ago. Asked why he had moved so quickly to pedestrianise Rua de Flores (the project was completed in three days), Lerner replied that, once a decision was taken, it should be implemented fast to avoid self-doubt and bureaucratic obstruction and, most importantly, to prevent the whole discussion from starting again. Mayors rule. Or at least, if they don't, they have no place being mayors.

But Alexander Boris de Pfwaffl Johnson was not finished. He had more issues to dodge, and those issues were going to be dodged. How much would scrapping bendy buses cost? Less than replacing them with hybrid buses. Was the Mayor paid enough, too much or too little. Hard to tell.

You could not imagine a greater gift for Livingstone and Paddick. Against this mop-topped embodiment of evasive action, they could hardly look anything less than decisive and statesmanlike.

Monday, 31 March 2008

Maoist managerialism

Mao and Stalin are rarely cited as management gurus, but today's announcement that 6,000 civil servants have been selected to act as "special agents" of the cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell, with a remit to "give their bosses a hard time" if they don't push reform hard enough, suggests that their influence lives on.

Mass mobilisation by cadres of young zealots was a popular technique for both of the great communist tyrants: Stalin's purges in the 1930s were often fueled by workers' denunciations of their bosses, and the Red Army cadres who led the Cultural Revolution were chosen for their youth and commitment to cleansing the party.

Of course, you can't really compare what Sir Gus is proposing with the horrors of those regimes, but mass mobilisation is undoubtedly a popular tool in seeking to enforce change in the face of perceived inertia within a monolithic public sector. In a previous generation, John Major rtied to do something similar through his much-mocked Citizen's Charter initiative: unleashing the forces of consumers against remote and unaccountable service providers. Rather disturbingly, the wikipedia entry for the Charter even refers to "taking measures to cleanse and motivate civil service".

Saturday, 29 March 2008

To see ourselves as others see us...

Following a shaky and inauspicious start, the Olympic Torch is on its way round the world (or 'Journey of Harmony', to use official Olyspeak). On 6 April, the Torch will arrive in London. What sort of city will it find? According to the official torch relay website, quite an alarming one.

London, the website tells us, was founded by Roman Celts, but then burnt to the ground by Boudicca in the Seventh Century, the first of a veritable catalogue of calamities. The capital grew to become “an important commercial and social centre” in the Seventeenth Century, “however all was not well”. The Great Plague devastated the population and “London simmered under the smell of death” until cleansed by the Great Fire (which also destroyed four fifths of the city).

Pausing for breath, London had a chance to rebuild itself, but despite the best efforts of John Nash the city quickly became overcrowded by people and sewage. Jospeh Bazalgette’s sewage system rescued London from cholera, only for the city’s skyline to be “re-arranged” by the bombing raids of the Blitz. Post-war re-construction seemed for a moment to put the city back on an even keel, before the London Fog descended to kill thousands, “adequately being nicknamed the ‘Foggy City’.” Welcome to London.

There are a number of ways of reading this narrative, which seems to have been assembled from a combination of visits to the London Dungeon, the grimmer sections of 1066 and All That, and perhaps some briefing from the French tourist authorities. One can simply enjoy someone else’s perspective: the website also gives some culinary information – toad-in-the-hole is “not as strange as it seems”, and afternoon tea has declined “as life has taken on a faster pace”.

More seriously, one might see, within this tale of woe, sewage, pestilence and fog, a veiled rebuke from China: “Do not criticise our degraded environment, our polluted rivers, the smog that hangs heavy over Hong Kong. You too have been here, and not that long ago either.”

Another reading is perhaps more optimistic. The website doesn’t need to talk up London in the way that it does the beauty of Almaty. “Everybody knows” that London is a mess, with a legacy of poxy people, chaotic architecture and noxious air. But it is still London, a serious city. Who'd visit for their health? In the guise of a warning, this gruesome pen portrait pays London a sly compliment.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Sacred flame of guff

The slightly shaky start to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Torch Relay yesterday also marked the beginning of an important competition: the quest for the most sonorous and meaningless Olympic slogan.

'Light the passion, share the dream' is a worthy first contender. Its words are entirely interchangeable, with each other and with pretty well any other Olympic word: Light the dream, share the gold, Dream the passion, share the light, Dream the gold, share the goal, Share the athlete, dream the goal, etc, etc, etc.

While on the torch-relay, it's good to read this breathless account of the feelings of the 'high priestess' (an actor called Maria Nafpliotou).

More to follow. Much, much more.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Bedfellows make strange politics

Amidst the second wave of Gilligantics (I think one can describe the man in question as having waves), the mayoral candidates and their proxies are setting out their pitches and sharpening their knives.

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have, at one level, the same aim: they want the voters to take Boris Johnson seriously. Ken Livingstone has always emphasised the serious (and in his view seriously worrying) core behind Boris's bumblingly benign facade. Monday's poll showed that he needs to persuade wavering Labour party voters that a Johnson victory is a real possibility, and not a pretty one either.

So the two main candidates are locked in a p0-faced struggle for seriousness, a dullness decathlon (enough alliteration, ed.). Hence Livingstone's exclamations that "this is not Big Brother" and references to 'dog whistle' racism, hence Gordon Brown's craw-sticking emphasis on the serious nature of the Mayor's role, hence Jonathan Freedland's predictions of the decline of western civilisation in the case of a Johnson victory, hence Johnson's failure to say or do anything with a shred of wit or interest for several days.

Meanwhile, on the fringes, tactical alignments are being forged. Nick Cohen declares, with a hint of self-importance but also a grain of truth, that lefties should vote LibDem: if Brian Paddick comes third, his voters' second preferences may split equally between Johnson and Livingstone (or even favour Johnson as they did in Monday's poll), hence securing a Conservative victory. But if Livingstone comes third, his second preferences will almost all go to Paddick (errr, except those that Livingstone has already told to vote Green), hence securing a victory for Paddick.

The maths work, but the prospect of this level of switch away from Livingstone looks remote. That said, if the drip-drip-drip of insinuation and accusation continues, anything could happen.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Choices, choices

The London mayoral election model - essentially a two-round voting system (like that used for the French president) compressed into one vote - is a wondrous thing. YouGov's latest poll, commissioned by the Evening Standard and published on Monday, looks like pretty bad news for Ken Livingstone on the surface. Underneath the surface, if you look at the full poll report, it looks a lot worse.

To take the bad news first, the poll places Boris Johnson clearly in the lead with 49 points, with Livingstone on 37 and Brian Paddick on 12. To win, a candidate needs more than 50 per cent of the votes, once minority candidates have been ruled out and their electorate's second preferences taken into account. Johnson's lead puts him in sniffing distance of that overall majority.

However, unlike previous polls commissioned in January and February, this poll also asked voters for their second preferences. This is where the news starts getting worse for Livingstone. Barring a dramatic change in fortunes, Paddick will be eliminated and his votes (like those of Greens, BNP and the rest) will be redistributed. 41 per cent of those who declared their intention to vote for Paddick first would give their second vote to Johnson, compared to 34 per cent to Livingstone. In other words, 'Anyone But Ken' is a stronger rallying cry for Lib Dems than 'Anyone But Boris'.

There are other interesting (or worrying) details in the poll. One is the way that voting intention breaks down by party loyalty. Unsurprisingly, 87 per cent of Conservatives plan to vote Johnson. Much more surprisingly, so do 21 per cent of Labour supporters. Johnson even gets a tactical 33 per cent of Lib Dems (compared to 28 per cent for Livingstone and 38 per cent for their own candidate). In other words, not only is Livingstone proving unappetising to tactically-minded Lib Dems, he only has 68 per cent of his own core vote.

It's interesting to contrast this with the situation in 2000, when rebel Livingstone probably garnered support from across the political spectrum. Now, he is struggling just to get his own vote out: 25 per cent of Labour voters (excluded from the numbers above) said that they would not vote, or don't know how they will vote.

Bringing those 'don't knows' and defectors back in to the fold (and out to vote) will be critical to a Livingstone win, and the campaign proper has only just begun. The electorate may be gently chiding him through this poll rather than expressing settled intentions, and the core Labour vote may yet balk at Boris. But this doesn't look good.


It's hard to get a sense of the scale of London's Olympic Park. 270 acres is the size of about 135 football pitches, to use the official journalistic unit of measurement (though, apparently, football pitches also differ in size). This is not one park, but a whole new network of new green spaces in one of the most built up and complex areas of London.

Yesterday, to accompany the announcement of the Park's designers, London 2012 issued some material about the character and content of the Park after 2012. The plans are starting to take shape: there will be areas of woodland, open space for events, hills to challenge walkers and cyclists, and a 'One Planet Pavilion' to encourage environmental responsibility.

I think the Park will be incredible, but this is the first time that I have ever considered a landscape design to be bossy. This Park is not going to let us alone: it will be telling us to take more exercise, to recycle more, to appreciate native trees, to run, to cycle, to jump, to lose weight. Where's the space for more leisurely activities - for lazing, for smoking, for drinking, for kissing? Will the Park tell us to pack a healthier picnic, to watch out for our units, to practice safe sex? I wouldn't rule it out.

We can expect more homilies as the 2012 Games draw nearer. The quasi-spiritual wing of the Olympic movement is fluent in the international language of pious eyewash: children are the future, cleanliness is next to godliness, mens sana in corpore sano, we don't own the planet we are just borrowing it from our children (or is that Patek Philippe watches?), citius altius fortius, now wash your hands.

It's at times like these, to paraphrase the Beck song, that the IOC makes me want to smoke crack.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Just 'so'

It's the small words that are the most difficult.

I've been slightly eccentrically mulling over the meaning of the word 'so' for the past few days. It seems capable of meaning almost anything. gives more than 30 possible uses from adverbial uses indicating extent or manner ("so cold", "do it so"), to use as a conjunction signifying intent or result ("he seemed to be successful, and so he was"), to a pronoun indicating proximity ("nine or so").

The most common meaning in every day speech is perhaps least explored: "so, I was walking down the street", "so, how are you?", "so, what next?" Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary explores this more colloquial use, suggesting that 'so' can begin a sentence:
1. to indicate a connection it with something that has been said or has happened previously;
2. as a way of making certain that you or someone else understand something correctly;

3. to refer to a discovery that you have just made;

4. as a brief pause (sometimes to emphasize what you are saying);

5. before you introduce a subject of conversation that is of present interest;
6. to show that you agree with something that someone has just said, but you do not think that it is important.

That seems to cover most possible sentences and conversations.
French and Spanish seem to have similar words ("alors" and "pues" respectively), heard constantly in everyday talk. These correspond to some meanings of "so", but the correspondence is only exact in its inexactitude. To a certain extent, whatever they mean, these words are just used as punctuation, to fill space as sentiments and sentences are formulated - what a relative of mine use to call "sloppy speech".

But there's something more. Life may just be, to use Arnold Toynbee's phrase, "one damn thing after another", but we crave connection, some sort of narrative thread. By scattering 'so' through our sentences, we create create connections in our conversations, and form at least the illusion of such a narrative.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Opening up

Following Jaspergate - or Jasper-ama to adopt Andrew Gilligan's more florid moniker - you can expect to hear a lot more about openness and accountability in the mayoral election campaign.

Boris Johnson and the Lib Dems had a first stab on successive days last week, variously pledging that they would make the City Hall register of interests public, would set up a code of conduct for mayoral advisers, would require them to attend question and answer sessions with the London Assembly, and would publish details of their responsibilities and contact details on the web.

Only some of this is new: elected officials already publish their register of interests (Livingstone's is here), and all staff (including mayoral advisers) are bound by a code of conduct and required to attend London Assembly hearings if summoned. Nevertheless, these proposals could make a difference to the openness of City Hall.

If they were implemented, that is. Readers with long memories may remember Ken Livingstone's Advisory Cabinet. This big-tent public committee was one of Livingstone's election pledges in 2000, and included Labour MPs Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Glenda Jackson (though not Frank Dobson), London Assembly members from all parties and assorted great and good from the worlds of race relations, disability and gay rights

The Advisory Cabinet met several times during Livingstone's first year in office (disconcertingly, this BBC Report of its first meeting includes a picture of an alarmingly chinless and younger me in the background). But after a while, initial enthusiasm faded, and with it the Advisory Cabinet: now a Google search brings up this ghost page.

The meetings had become, to use Bagehot's formulation, 'dignified' rather than 'efficient', with real decision-making and debate taking place behind closed doors. If Johnson or Paddick win, it will be interesting to see with how much gusto they follow through their current enthusiasm for flinging those doors open.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

After the flood?

So, how much has Ken Livingstone been damaged by the relentless revelations that culminated this week in Lee Jasper's resignation?

The last poll published, by YouGov last month, showed Boris Johnson leading Ken Livingstone, by 44 points to 39 (a reversal of their positions a month previously), though the strongest gains were made by Brian Paddick, whose share of first preference votes increased from eight to 12 per cent.

In the wacky world of the mayoral election system, however, these first preferences are only part of the story. On this basis, the second preferences of those people voting for Paddick (and minority candidates) as their first choice, would be re-distributed among the front-runners. So the critical question is whether Paddick's votes are 'anyone but Ken' or 'anyone but Boris'. That will make all the difference.

The fieldwork for the YouGov poll was conducted between 19 and 21 February, so the situation may well have worsened since then, as cringe-making personal emails became Lee Jasper's undoing. But, if the polls are only this bad, following weeks of destabilising and embarassing revelations, the Mayor might be forgiven for feeling a glimmer of optimism. Lee Jasper has resigned, the sheet has been wiped clean, a new beginning beckons...

And yet. It's always struck me as curious the fact that Andrew Gilligan's Lee-gate campaign began in December last year, fully six months before the mayoral election. Didn't such an early start run the risk that allegations would become old news in voters' minds by May? Shouldn't he have been keeping his powder dryer?

In today's Standard, in an article that gently chides Johnson for sloppy attention to detail on transport policy, Gilligan writes a sentence that might strike fear into hearts at City Hall: "Luckily for Boris, all these questions have so far been largely drowned out by the ongoing Jasperama. I can promise more such entertainments in the future."

Gilligan is an odd and obsessive character, and this may be grandstanding. But, in the week when William Hill made Boris Johnson the favourite, I wouldn't want to bet on it.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

The Corrections

The Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column is always a good read, but it's unusual to have corrections correcting corrections. This correction, from today's paper, shows the fractures that beset the UK left:
"A clarification of an opinion piece headlined The political choice facing London could not be clearer (page 35, January 24) said that although Nick Cohen believes Ken Livingstone is unfit to be the Labour candidate for London mayor he is not a supporter of Boris Johnson, contrary to an assertion we made. In fact the piece said he had "more openly lined up behind Boris Johnson". While Nick Cohen has not endorsed Boris Johnson as a candidate he wrote in a Time Out piece in December last year, "Go Lib Dem, Green or Tory [Johnson] if you must. But don't vote for [Livingstone]" (Corrections and clarifications, page 36, January 26)."
So is that clear? Nick Cohen attacked Ken Livingstone in the Observer. Seumas Milne attacked Cohen for that attack in the Guardian, alleging that he (Cohen) was supporting Conservative candidate Boris Johnson. Cohen demanded a correction, arguing that he had never argued for Johnson, but only against Livingstone. Milne went back to his sources, and has now demanded a correction to the previous correction.

This could run and run...

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Not mentioned in Dispatches

There's nothing like the sound of the great British public in sanctimonious hue and cry. I have worked for Ken Livingstone, and I like the man, so my sympathies will be obvious. But there was a lot of dross in the Dispatches show on Monday night.

That Livingstone has spent money boosting London among our trading partners - quite right. That he likes a drink - not a great surprise (though I've seen no evidence that he habitually drinks in the morning). That he, a nostalgic socialist, has forged links with Venezuela - eccentric, but to be expected. That some of his associates come from the wacky (or even 'Stalinoid') fringes of socialism - again, unsurprising.

But there was more menace in the details. Firstly, Dispatches alleged that Livingstone's office used public money to attack Trevor Phillips in his candidacy for the chief executive of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. Secondly, they claimed that people in Livingstone's office worked on his campaign, while being politically restricted GLA bureaucrats.

Both of these allegations are serious, but they are expressed in shades of grey. In relation to Trevor Phillips, it is easy to present the row in terms of personalities. There's been bad blood since Livingstone suggested in 2000 that Phillips might be his deputy, and Phillips replied that this was typically patronising behaviour. But there's more to it than that.

There are two distinct views of what anti-racists should seek to achieve, and how, in play here. I'm not an expert, but a simplistic view is as follows. Phillips believes in a broadly integrationist approach, which values a common 'British' identity, expresses concerns about multiculturalism and seeks to work through negotiation. Livingstone's view, or at least Lee Jasper's, is more Manichean. To create a truly multicultural society - where difference is viewed as a matter for celebration rather than a problem - the organs of the state need to be attacked until their intrinsic racism is overturned.

I don't take sides on this, or even claim that my presentation of the argument is correct, but this is about more than 'Ken hates Trevor'. In fact, you can hardly think of a more important issue for public debate. Whether the campaign was correctly pursued through attacking Phillips is another matter, but this is not about nothing.

The water is murkier still in relation to GLA officials misusing their office to pursue political ends. The staff alleged to have done so are 'politically restricted' - an injunction that applies to all senior local and central government staff. As such, of course they should be impartial.

But - and it's a huge 'but' - the staff accused of this offence were not appointed to support the Mayor as generic local government officers, but as some of his closest aides, trusted to work with a nascent bureaucracy to make sure that his policies could be implemented.

The GLA's organisational structure gave the Mayor the right to appoint 12 staff, but didn't give those staff the right to direct other offices. So Livingstone agreed with the London Assembly that they would appoint staff to help him, while he would make sure that they had the budget they needed to carry out their own role.

So, the aides' position is far more like that of special advisors than that of normal bureaucrats. For example, they all have contracts that expire at the same time as the Mayor's period in office. It may - or may not - be that some of them paid attention to the campaign to re-elect the Mayor while they were strictly speaking at work, but we appear to be talking at the margins.

Which of us can honestly say that we have not sent an email or written a letter on personal matters while in the office, whatever formal procedures may say? And would we be surprised to read that central government special advisors had an interest in the re-election of their party, as well as on the pursuance of its policy?

That said, the row exposes the persistent flaws in the GLA's constitution. With characteristic fudge, New Labour created a structure that aped the presidential model of US mayoralties - where senior officers are unambiguously appointed by the Mayor, are accountable through him and lose office when he or she does - without following through in terms of staff appointments. Politicisation is only a problem when it is surreptitious.

The new GLA Act half tackles this problem, by making staff appointments a matter for the GLA's chief executive rather than for the 'scrutinising' London Assembly. But the legislators still fail to understand the basic issue: if mayors are to rule, and to be accountable for what they do, their employees must be allowed to dance to a more political beat.