Confessions of a Political Animal

June 21, 2010

Time for the street-fighting council

On May 6th 2010, Labour won by a small landslide.

Yes, you did read that correctly. Because as the party fell to defeat in parliamentary seats across the country, it swept to power in London borough after London borough. Before the elections, of 32 London boroughs, Labour had majority control of just 7, running a further one in a coalition and one more as a result of having the elected mayor. By the evening of Friday 7th May, Labour had overall control of 17 boroughs, running one more as a minority administration. In 9 of the remaining 14 boroughs, Labour increased its number of seats. Eighteen months before the elections, I suggested that if the general and local elections were to coincide, this might prove to be to Labour’s benefit. So it turned out, but the results were far beyond what I predicted in that post. There is something more than just an increased turnout behind these very good results; and I believe that it has a direct bearing on how Labour councils in London, both newly-elected and returned, should conduct themselves over the next four years.

The easy answer to ‘Why did Labour do so well in London’ is that the party’s core vote turned out. But the core vote cannot deliver 18 boroughs – in reality (as was tested in 2006), it can be guaranteed to deliver about 5 boroughs. What turned out across London on May 6th was what I will describe as the ‘Core+’, a coalition of broadly progressive forces more akin to that which delivered two Livingstone victories than to that behind the 1997 landslide. With a Conservative victory nationally seen as certain, voters with personal or political reasons to fear the onset of Osbornomics (the radical, ideology-driven downsizing of the state using deficit reduction as a pretext) turned out, only partially in hope of preventing this, but equally to try to ensure that savage cuts would be opposed at a local level. For better or worse, this coalition of forces overwhelmingly saw Labour as the party best placed to deliver that opposition.  (more…)

February 5, 2010

Living in an Alternative (Vote) London

But who? And how?

The Prime Minister’s proposals for electoral reform are too limited and too late. But despite that I support them.

Not only because I believe the introduction of Alternative Vote is a key step on the way towards the introduction of a genuinely proportion (and more psephologically interesting) electoral system but also because the rabid response of the right has convinced me that Brown must be on to something. This has ranged from Cameron’s none-too-subtle barbs about rigging the electoral system at PMQs, through to the ill-advised playing of the Mugabe card by Reading East Tory Rob Wilson MP*.

As I like to give all politicians the benefit of the doubt (stop sniggering at the back, there) I’m prepared to be convinced that if we weren’t 100 days from a general election then the response would be a bit more considered. Because if this is an attempt to rig the electoral system, it would be an astoundingly cack-handed way of doing it. Alternative Vote makes no significant amendment to the UK’s constitutional settlement, it is highly unlikely to break the dominance of the two major parties and will leave the vast majority of seats in the same hands as currently, albeit with a little more legitimacy for the sitting MP.

Whether the AV transition is likely to happen this time round or not is a moot point. But I remain convinced in some degree of historical inevitability of electoral reform in the UK, and AV seems a very likely first step whenever it comes around. So what would it mean? I don’t have the time or inclination to go through each of the UK’s 650 constituencies, but I thought I’d have a run through the London region: not only because it’s my home, but also because we have some experience of this sort of system. The Supplementary Vote system used for electing the Mayor is a hybridised form of AV, in which the voter is limited to expressing two preferences, rather than being able to number all the way down the ballot paper. So there is a bit of evidence, albeit somewhat unwieldy, as to how voters might react to a preferential system. (more…)

September 4, 2009

What a difference 12 months doesn’t make

Summer's over, Mr Mayor

Summer's over, Mr Mayor

Last autumn I wrote a couple of posts examining the effectiveness of the London Assembly’s questioning of the Mayor – and in particular the interesting (that’s to say hands off) approach adopted by the Conservative Group.

So, with a year passed and the summer recess over, I thought it might be apposite to see if anything much had changed. After all, the Mayoralty has certainly moved on in those twelve months (in many cases in ways the Mayor would probably rather forget), so shouldn’t the Assembly have moved with the times too?

With the usual caveat of  quantity not being everything, let’s take a quick look at just how many questions the political groups are now tabling, using the forthcoming Mayor’s Question Time on 9th September (questions publ;ished here) and comparing it with that held on 10th September 2008. (more…)

July 3, 2009

New Standard – same old news values

Printed in Southwark: not all that interested in reporting on it

Printed in Southwark: not all that interested in reporting on it

I am Political Animal, and I am a secret purchaser of the Evening Standard.

Well, just once in fact, so perhaps I don’t need to head for Standardholics Anonymous just yet. But yesterday, the sun was shining, there was 50p burning a hole in my pocket and my train home was 5 minutes late. So I gave in to temptation. But, honestly folks, I had a motive. I wanted to check a hunch I had. Bear with me.

I’ve written before about the running fiasco that is the Elephant & Castle regeneration project. This is probably the biggest such project in Europe and affects the homes and businesses of thousands of people in one of the most deprived areas of inner London. It includes thousands of new homes, businesses and transport facilities. Well, on Wednesday the newswires(alright, Google News Alerts, but that makes me sound so much less important) alerted me to the latest depressing development – or rather, non-development – in the saga. With the project already around seven years behind the original timescale, the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition at Southwark Council have failed to meet their self-imposed deadline of 1st July to reach a deal to progress the project. This follows two years of exclusive negotiations with struggling Australian property giant Lend Lease (also responsible for the Olympic Village) – the exclusivity deal expired on Wednesday. Where this leaves the project is anyone’s guess – in these difficult financial times it is entirely possible that Lend Lease will refuse the meet Southwark’s demands on affordable homes, small business premises and green space protection and simply walk away, leading to years more of delays. The thousand households in the soon-to-be-demolished Heygate Estate are effectively in limbo: no-one knows when their replacement homes will be built and the council is years behind targets in building the temporary ‘decant’ homes. (more…)

June 10, 2009

Party like it’s 2008 – sort of.

London Boroughs Euro Labour

Note: I have published my data sheet for the London European election results with borough-by-borough breakdowns here. I am missing the exact breakdown of independent candidate votes in Hillingdon and the results for the City of London (unless the latter are included in a neighbouring borough). If anyone has access to these, please could they leave me a note? Thanks! UPDATE: data now complete thanks to Nick in comments.

If the patterns emerging on the map above (apologies for the atrocious reproduction quality) look slightly familiar, it’s probably because, like me, you spent some time last year poring over maps like this or thiswhich showed clearly the inner/outer London divide in voting in the Mayoral elections. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that last week’s European elections produced similar results – voting patterns aren’t likely to change that much in 13 months – but they are evidence of the re-emerging political disconnect between the ‘two Londons’. The dominance of New Labour did much to smooth over that disconnect. It may be the case that its death throes are widening the gap further than ever before.

There’s no getting around the fact that the European Election results were very, very bad for Labour, but as Dave Hill has pointed out, what was calamitous in the rest of the country was merely dismal in London. Whilst Labour’s vote dropped 7% nationally compared to 2004, it fell by only half of that in the London region; the Tory increase was smaller even than the limited national figure (+0.6% in London, compared to +1% nationally), whilst UKIP, surging into second place across Britain registered a 1.9% vote decrease in London, narrowly falling into fifth place behind the Greens. (more…)

May 27, 2009

No expenses spared

banknotesStudy leave, exams and recuperation now over, the Animal is given to understand that there has been something of a hullabaloo going on in the febrile world of British politics. Before going on to my substantive point, therefore, four quick observations on the whole ‘Troughgate’ merriment.

1) A number of the claims are beyond the pale. There are some MPs from all parties, including my own, who need to go, go now, and go, like, yesterday.

2) We are getting dangerously close to a situation where certain sections of the media and population will denounce any MP with an expenses claim greater than, say, £0.00 as having their snout in the proverbial trough. Yes, there is a collective failure of non-whistle blowing; there is very limited evidence of a collective malaise of greed.

3) If at the conclusion of this mess, we end up with a situation whereby the only people who can afford to be an MP for a non-London seat are those who can privately afford to rent, furnish and run a second property, then democracy in this country will be in a far worse state than it is currently.

4) <Selfish mode> As a former employee of an MP, I am so glad that the feudal, tax-exiled Lords of Brecqhou have probably got my bank account details.</selfish mode> (more…)

January 20, 2009

Liberal with the spin

Norman Baker MP

Norman Baker MP

Skimming through Guardian Online yesterday, I came across this doom-and-gloom article about rail franchise holders going cap-in-hand to Geoff Hoon, waving the threat of service cuts if the Department for Transport (DfT) doesn’t show some ‘flexibility’ (for which read slashing) in the premium payments that it will be demanding from many of them in the next financial year. This has come about as a result of falling growth in passenger numbers – note falling growth, not falling numbers – due to economic circumstances pertaining.

No-one is expecting the franchises  in question to cease to be profitable (only the most lucrative routes have to pay premiums – others receive subsidies): simply that the profit margins will be a bit less comfortable than their holders bargained for. Given this, my advice to Hoon would be to wave an offer back at the franchisees – if you don’t want to pay up, hand in the keys and a new National Rail will run the services, keeping all the profit for re-investment in the railways.

But this is all as an aside. What really caught my eye was the footnote to the article, headed:

Go further in Serbia

What could this possibly have to do with the UK’s railways, wondered the Animal? Well, reading on… (more…)

January 15, 2009

Elephantine miscalculations

elephantAh, the Elephant and Castle. Exotic (well, exotic sounding) southern terminus of the Bakerloo line. World-class example of everything that was wrong with the car-centric planning of the 1960s. Site of one of Europe’s largest ever regeneration schemes. Perhaps. Maybe. One day.

The Elephant, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is an unappealing mixture of vast, traffic-clogged roundabouts, slightly threatening pedestrian underpasses, poor quality housing, shabby shopping arcades and badly integrated Underground, rail and bus hubs. The people who re-planned the area after substantial war damage thought visitors would come to watch  cars going round the roundabouts. For some reason, that didn’t happen.

On the fringes of the Elephant is the huge, barrier-block Heygate Estate, one of the most deprived areas of one of London’s most deprived boroughs and itself the subject of a major regeneration scheme- albeit one which shows all the signs of being horrendously badly managed by Southwark Council, who seem to be intent on clearing the blocks earmarked for demolition before enough suitable ‘decant’ housing for residents is available.

The Elephant regeneration, which centres around the creation of a pedestrianised town centre and the construction of new homes and businesses, is, however, in an even worse state. Southwark (more…)

January 13, 2009

Not gerrymandering, but still a bad idea

House of CommonsThe reaction to today’s announcement from David Cameron that an incoming Conservative government would seek to slice off 10% of MPs has been understandably suspicious. After all, the Tories don’t have a great track record with electoral reform: in government the party preserved university seats and business votes and fought against universal suffrage. And the words ‘gerrymandering’ and ‘Dame Shirley Porter’ go together like the words ‘homeless’ and ‘asbestos-ridden tower block’. The Guardian’s article (linked above) is suitably sceptical, while even the Cameron-hugging Evening Standard rather damningly starts its article with the sentence

David Cameron will cut 60 Commons seats and redraw the political map to give the Tories more chance of winning elections [my italics], he revealed today. 

And that was my first reaction to the news as well, with a lot of talk about allegedly over-represented Labour heartlands in inner-cities and Wales seeing their seat numbers slashed. Obviously that would be to Labour’s disadvantage, but the reality is a lot more complex than that. (more…)

December 18, 2008

London 2010: Will national meet local?

ballot-boxWith yesterday bringing the latest in a string of polls showing Labour within striking distance of the Conservatives – well within the single figure Tory lead that I suggested would be a signifier of the game being ‘on’ for the next general election, there has been a resurgence in discussion of Gordon Brown calling a 2009 election.

At the risk of very quickly looking silly, however, I still consider 2009 to be an unlikely date for the next general election. The polling evidence to suggest that Labour would be the largest party remains too limited for Brown to call an election with any confidence – and no poll has pointed to a Labour majority. If the polls continue to to show a similar picture into the new year, with Labour sticking around 4-5 percentage points behind the Tories, then Brown may conclude that a Labour-biased hung parliament and some sort of Lib-Lab coalition or agreement is the best available outcome and take the plunge. However, once we hit January the available windows (more…)

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