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.