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.