Confessions of a Political Animal

August 23, 2012

Two weeks in London

Filed under: Uncategorized — Political Animal @ 7:55 pm

This post was originally a guest column at The Practical Pinko.

Panem et circenses. When Juvenal coined his scathing phrase about Roman politicians, he inspired two thousand years of cynicism, of conspiracy theories, of scepticism. The master manipulators, seeking to distract from ideological failings, from corruption and drudgery, through gaudy entertainments and cheap bread.

Two millennia old it may be, but Juvenal’s hoary old phraseology got plenty of outings from Olympic-sceptics as the night of 29 July 2012 approached in London, and occasionally in the two remarkable weeks that followed. This was how our rulers, across party boundaries, would change the narrative. No more would we think about the pain of austerity, the injustice of cuts that make the worst off pay for the mistakes of the richest, the deadly spiral of rising youth unemployment, a continent teetering on the edge of yet another financial armageddon. Panem et circenses, but mainly circenses.

If any politician really believed that, they were cynics headed for disappointment. They will fail to reap any such reward. But the real cynicism in this case was, perhaps, not the politicians, but those whose opposition to London’s Games was that they would succeed as a distraction. That is to take a view of the electorate that is deeply patronising, that somehow the mere ordinary people can handle only one narrative in their mind. Swept away in a whirl of stadia and gold medals, we would forget all that has happened over the past years, and our fears for the future, rallying to the flag and to David Cameron.

We didn’t. Well, maybe we forgot briefly, as the sun beat down and the world fell in love with London, but there has been no ‘Olympic bounce’ for the government. No real respite for the teetering coalition. Yes, the media covered little but the Games, and yes, that pushed important issues both at home and abroad off the front page. But anyone who has lived through a British summer will know that the idea that governments fall or destinies shift due to what the media reports in the first two weeks of August is risible. We are an imperfect democracy, but we are not fools.

The problem for some, mainly but not exclusively on the left, is to become seen as miserabilists, trudging out the idea that a bit of fun, a bit of light, a bit of diversion is somehow wrong so long as people suffer poverty, unemployment or inequality. Criticise the Games, by all means – and there is much to criticise and question. But criticise them for their practice, not their fact. A left that believes in a role for an enabling state beyond being simply a nightwatchman should not see ‘bread and circuses’ as a motto of the cynical politician, rather as a rallying cry. Yes, we want government to ensure that no-one goes without the basics of a decent life, but so too do we want to see an active engagement in supporting the diversity of life, including culture and sport. And that means engaging with, supporting and – yes – spending money on events with mass, sweeping appeal. The crowds at the torch relays, the scramble for tickets, the TV viewing figures all show that the Games had that appeal.

Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about what the Games mean for London and Britain. It is one of those events so broad, so sweeping and so beyond the normal register of occurrences, that it provides space onto which everyone has been able to project their own viewpoint and ‘lessons learnt’. The comparisons between the Games and the 2011 riots, taking place a year to the day before, have been crudely drawn. But both have provided canvasses vast and blank enough for anyone to paint upon them.

There is no guarantee that anything will change as a result of the Games. The key facts of life, the economy and politics remain the same as they did on the morning of the 29th July. A thousand conflicting predictions of what happens next mean that most will be proved wrong. But there is that little glimmer of something, as yet intangible.

The danger of the Games is that they would become another soggy Jubilee. A few days of slightly introverted, slightly enforced festivity, based on flag and tradition. Enjoyed by many, but simply reinforcing what we are, where we are. And there has been no shortage of flags paraded over the past two weeks. But from the first astonishing moments of Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony, this had a feeling of something different. It was a very British event, yet also cosmopolitan. We waved flags for Team GB, but we welcomed the world to London as equals and peers.

That was the eye-opener. This was sport, it was competition, in theory between nations. Raucous and proud, but rarely partisan; and sometime simply about celebrating humanity. On Wednesday last week, a mainly British crowd packed out one of ExCel’s huge halls for a Greco-Roman wrestling final, a sport for which no British athlete had even entered. And yet they yelled and cheered the athletes on with as much passion as the groups of Iranians and Georgians in the crowd with home athletes to support. On the first Sunday, in those first few days when home advantage seemed a myth, the crowds lining Box Hill in lush Surrey loudly applauded the power of Dutch cyclist Marianne Vos as she broke from the pack on the gruelling climb, to put paid to gold hopes for Britain. And at the final event, the final medal, on a blistering Greenwich Sunday, there was probably not a Lithuanian in the crowd for the modern pentathlon. Yet there was nothing to distinguish between the stand-shaking cheer that greeted Laura Asadauskaite as she entered the stadium leading the final lap from that which, 10 seconds later, heralded the British athlete chasing her down. Nor for one moment did anyone in that crowd begrudge standing for Lietuva,Tėvyne mūsų rather than God Save The Queen. The idea, at a London Olympic event, of separating home and away supporters, would have been met with bemusement and laughter.

There isn’t really a word to describe the feeling that swept over Britain these past two weeks. This certainly wasn’t nationalism, at least not in its normal form. Nothing so ugly, or so small minded. We invited the world as equals, not to humiliate them. Nor was it patriotism, the famed ‘last refuge of the scoundrel’, in its normal form. Proud of our athletes, yet also in awe of others.

What it feels more like is a pride in a job well done, for its imperfections, and in difficult times. If there are parallels to be drawn, perhaps it is with the civic pride which gave Britain’s industrial cities their peculiar, culturally-rich, form of municipal socialism. Or perhaps with the unique form of pride and determination which inspired Britain’s greatest government to its heights of achievement after 1945. Not based on being better than others, but in being unique and proud of what we could achieve. In 2005, London won the Games by showcasing what is unique about the city. It did so again this summer, promoting our multiculturalism, our diversity, our organic city and yes, even our infrastructure. We celebrated what London and Britain is, not what we imagine it once was, and we didn’t seek too hard to hide the cracks. This pride in modernity is why so many backward-looking commentators have called these past two weeks so badly wrong. The less said about Aidan Burley MP the better, or indeed Piers Morgan’s reaction to the Opening Ceremony, thinking that it was a call to rebuild a British empire, or his petty insistence that emotionally and physically shattered athletes should belt out the national anthem. This wasn’t that sort of moment. And no, I don’t believe that one editorial in The Sun eulogising a migrant from Mogadishu as having defeated the far right means that paper and their bedfellows have turned their back on barely concealed race-baiting. But every little moment like that helps.

But maybe the greatest political potential from these Games lies in a reversal of the sense of managed national decline. A right-leaning perspective might relate that decline to the end of empire and the eclipsing of Britain as a global power. Whilst the debate about Britain’s global role is important, there is no need for it to be framed in such a way. But since the late 1960s, the unspoken consensus is that Britain can no longer do things, no longer make things, is no longer the nation that held the Festival of Britain or hosted the 1948 Olympics. And that has fed into our national psyche and narrowed our political horizons. We decided we could no longer afford to dream the big dreams of the scale that the post-war governments did; we trimmed our ambitions of freeing every woman, man and child from Beveridge’s five giants. We couldn’t have a world-class infrastructure. We were content to be the dirty man of Europe when it came to environmental protection. Our decline as a society was deemed to be inexorable, unstoppable. The job of government was to manage that as best it could.

Maybe, just maybe, that has changed a bit. The tale is that when a bid for the Olympics was first mooted, senior civil servants reacted with horror, protested that Britain could never make such a gigantic undertaking and advised in the strongest terms against it. The lesson, supposedly, of the story, is that they had been schooled in the era of managed decline. We couldn’t dream any more. It would be foolish and simplistic to try to turn this into a parable of the visionary Labour ministers and mayor rebelling against their stuck-in-the-mud mandarins. But if the decision to bid was based, in any little way, on a desire to show the ‘declinists’ that they were wrong, then it turned out to be fortuitous. No-one in the sun-lit economic uplands of 2003 could have predicted the Britain of 2012, yet the coming of the Games could not have been more timely.

In the weeks to come, and after the closing ceremony for the hopefully-as-successful Paralympics, we will need to talk about a lot of things. We still need to get to the bottom of the G4S debacle, and to unpick what that means for the future of public services; and there is a legacy to pursue, both nationally and locally in East London: the grand promises of affordable homes, active venues and real jobs need to actually be delivered. There will be moments of soul-searching and moments when we wonder if it really was all worth it.

But perhaps there will also be those moments too, when a glimpse of the towering Olympic Stadium and the memory of a wall of sound carrying Mo Farah to two gold medals; or hearing a train driver announce the next station and recalling the time he painstakingly translated it in his GCSE French simply to play his part in welcoming the world to London; perhaps those will be the moments when we will say – we aren’t better than anyone else, but we are capable of dreaming great dreams and achieving great things together – we can have bread, roses and circuses; we can set our sights higher. That would be a legacy.

July 10, 2012

Lords Reform: Went the Day Well?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Political Animal @ 8:41 pm

Several people have asked me to try to explain what happened in Parliament today over reform of the House of Lords. It’s all a bit too complex for Twitter, so I thought I’d stick up a short post here. Disclosure: these are my views, and the wonderful thing about this situation is that there are very few facts, and merely opinions and predictions. If for some reason you want to know what I think about Lords reform in general, I would refer honorable members, senators and strangers to my post here.

First, I’ll try to explain what happened today, then what might happen in the future, and finally who might have won and lost from today. But my key message is this: ignore any media outlet, any triumphant Tory or hand-wringing Lib Dem who tells you that Lords reform died today and that Labour or rebel Tories killed it. Lords reform lives – and is perhaps more likely to actually happen after today than it was before.

What has happened today

As I write this, the Commons is in the last hour of the debate on the second reading of the government’s Lords Reform Bill. Unusually, because of the number of MPs wishing to speak, this has gone over two days. The intention was that at 10pm tonight, there would be two votes. The first of these would be to give the Bill a second reading (i.e. to allow it to proceed to the next stage) – this would, and indeed will, pass easily. All three major parties have three-line whips to vote for it, and I suspect every minority party will also back it. There will be a significant number of Conservative rebels and a small number of Labour rebels, but nothing to threaten the bill.

The second vote would have been on a so-called ‘programme motion’. This is a motion which the government attaches to some bills, particularly those that, like this one, will have their committee stage on the floor of the Commons. It sets out how much time the government is prepared to give to consideration of the bill – in this case, ministers were prepared to give 10 days. It became increasingly clear over the past few days that the government was very likely to lose this vote. Labour announced it would oppose it because it has significant issues with many of the details of the bill (such as term length, the need for a referendum, and the 20% appointed element) – the argument is that ten days would simply not be long enough to guarantee scrutiny of the bill and for all Labour’s amendments to be brought forward. The government argument is that without a programme motion, the bill will clog up the Commons for months to come, with opponents of the bill seeking to talk it out.

This afternoon, when the numbers of Tory MPs proposing to vote against the programme motion and with Labour became clear (now believed to be well in excess of the 70 MPs who signed the public letter against reform), the government decided to withdraw the programme motion, rather than face almost certain defeat. This means there will now be only one vote tonight, on second reading of the bill. This will pass, and the bill will be cleared to move on to committee stage.

What happens next?

We don’t entirely know. Announcing the withdrawal of the programme motion, Leader of the House Sir George Young suggested he might be able to say more when he makes his weekly business statement on Thursday. The government now has the long summer recess (the House rises a week today) to attempt to find a compromise on how to go forward. It is possible that it can find enough compromises or goodies for Tory backbenchers to get an amended programme motion through the Commons when it returns. At this stage, however, Labour says it will not back any programme motion or a ‘guillotine’ (which curtails debate at a pre-decided time). The government will therefore have to convince a large number of its own backbenchers to agree to back such a motion – and any compromises would likely need to be on the actual substance of the bill, rather than simply debate time.

Perhaps a more likely outcome is that the the summer is spent in negotiations through back-channels with Labour. The opposition front bench has been clear today that it does not wish to ‘wreck’ the bill and is committed to it going through, once it has achieved adequate scrutiny. Shadow Leader of the House Angela Eagle today committed Labour to sending the bill to the Lords in good time. What this means is that whilst Labour will not support a pre-emptive programme motion or guillotine, which limits debate time before the debate begins, it will, when it believes the time is right, vote for a so-called closure motion on an amendment or the bill itself. This will serve to end debate, and because of the combined numbers of Labour+Lib Dem+pro-reform Tory MPs, will act as a block on filibustering from Tory backwoodsmen. This means the bill could well take a while to progress, and expect there to be at least one day per week in the Commons to be dedicated to the committee stage of the bill. But as fictional PM Harry Perkins said, “democracy takes time, comrade. Dictatorship is quicker, but more people tend to get shot.” Eventually, this bill will complete its committee stage and will make its way to the Lords, where life gets really interesting. As one Labour MP put it to me today, normally bills leave the Commons in a complete mess, with a mass of badly drafted and hasty amendments. It is the Lords’ job to tidy it up. This time, the Lords are not going to co-operate in that. The Lords Reform Bill has to leave the Commons in law-ready form.

Who has won today?

That’s an impossible question – in all reality, no-one has completely won and no-one has completely lost. But these are my estimates of the scores on the doors:

David Cameron: 5/10 – on one hand, it’s been a bad day for the PM. He’s had to back down in the face of a massive rebellion on his backbenches, and at least one PPS has resigned. He is going to have to do something urgently to rein in the mood of disquiet on his backbenches, not only over Lords reform and the coalition, but over the performance of the government since the budget. On the plus side, however, he has bought himself time on this controversial issue. Lord reform isn’t in the long grass, but it’s in the unmown rough. Cameron now has the summer recess for feelings on his backbenches to simmer down, for some of the more wavering rebels to be bought off, and for a way forward to be worked out. Ending today with a heavy defeat would have been far worse. But one thing is certain: Cameron wishes he’d never put Lords reform in the 2010 manifesto, let alone the coalition agreement.

Ed Miliband: 7/10 – in combination with the Tory rebels, Labour scored a significant win today. Whilst the party would have rather seen the government defeat, but a slightly humiliating withdrawal of the programme motion is a passable second best. Barring some remarkable man management over the summer by Cameron, Labour could well end up in the driving seat of the committee stage of the bill, holding a whip hand over when closure motions occur. That ensures Labour will get to push its own amendments to a vote – and it is far from impossible that on some of them (such as a referendum) will be passed with the help of Tory rebels. On a more tactical note, it gets to clog up the Commons and prevent more damaging bills getting parliamentary time. There is a risk to all this, which is that the narrative being pushed hard by the Lib Dems and the Tory front bench – that Labour has blocked reform – gets traction, and allows Miliband et al to be painted as being anti-reform, coalescing Lib Dems. Miliband needs to be ready to noisily turn on the Tory backwoodsmen when the time comes. It is also possible that the Tory leadership manages to negotiate a generous programme motion with its own backbenches over the summer, and calls Labour’s bluff on it in the autumn.

Nick Clegg: 4/10 – a bad day – Lords reform will get a buffeting ride, and his coalition allies have had to give ground rather humiliatingly to their right – but it could have been worse. In the short term, Clegg doesn’t wake up tomorrow to headlines about a government defeat and the coalition under threat. In the long term, he now has the opportunity over the summer to seek to build a reform package that can attract a cross-party consensus, ironing out the idiocies in this bill. A bill which can command the support of the vast bulk of the House will have far greater integrity when it comes before the Lords, and will give the Commons the upper hand when it comes to the inevitable rounds of ping-pong. If he plays his cards right – and he might well not – Clegg could end today somewhat closer to his goal of Lords reform than he was this morning.

June 12, 2012

New column…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Political Animal @ 10:54 pm

Am really excited to have started a weekly-ish column over at the excellent Practical Pinko blog. My first column, on why Labour needs to rip up the twenty-year old playbook on how to win elections is here.

May 1, 2012


Filed under: London Politics — Political Animal @ 7:06 pm

Below is a series of tweets I posted on 1st May 2012 about the London mayoral election. A few people seemed to agree with them, so I’ve put them up here for posterity. Being tweets, they aren’t exactly overly well argued or in-depth.

There now follows a party political broadcast on behalf of what I think. Sorry it’s a bit long…

People said we got 08 election wrong, saying Boris was a joke. They’re right. But no-one would have believed truth: an utterly boring mayor.

Boris lets the mayoralty wash over him like a warm bath. No imagination, no drive. Not once has he pushed boundaries of what a Mayor can do.

His jokes are same as they were 4 years ago, tired, scripted and repetitive. He still has to quote closing a free paper as an achievement.

London as a city is exciting and vibrant, but with immense challenges. It deserves better.

As a life-long Ken supporter, there’s occasionally head-in-hands moments. But what he’s done for London outweighs all his critics combined.

Full disclosure – I’ve worked for Ken. He lives, breathes and sleeps London. In 8 short years, he helped transform it.

I have never met a politician more passionate about their job. That’s why I’m proud to be backing him to carry on where he left off.

Finally, for the Hodges of this world, when I couldn’t back a Labour candidate, I quietly resigned from the party and did what I had to.

I would never have dreamt of taking cash to write a self-indulgent piece in a Tory paper seeking to undermine the work of Labour activists.

Here endeth the lesson. #sackBoris


January 4, 2012

I want to talk about welfare reform. Liam Byrne won’t let me.

Filed under: Labour Party,Poverty,Public spending — Political Animal @ 9:11 pm

I want to talk about welfare reform. Liam Byrne won’t let me.

Resheath your pens, denizens of the Fourth Estate. This isn’t a tale of shadow cabinet ministers cracking down on free expression by humble bag-carriers.

Over the New Year holiday, the forces of Twitter were unleashed on the shadow secretary of state for work and pensions. He knew they would be. He wanted them to be. Otherwise he wouldn’t have pre-briefed the Daily Mail in advance of his not-massively-controversial-when-taken-on-its-own Guardian piece on welfare reform. Not being a paper that puts many coins in the nuance meter, the Mail duly obliged with a piece heavy on the rhetoric of ‘scroungers’, ‘cheats’ and ‘evils’.

The Mail article predicted a fight with ‘the left’, a prediction that even Old Mother Shipton could probably have managed to get right. Though when the fight immediately came, those ranged against the ‘new line’ on welfare included large sections of the Labour centre and right as well. Again, Byrne won’t mind. Some have said he’s a Blairite who still sees getting into a scrap with both the intra-  and extra-Labour ‘left’ (however defined) as a vote winner. Being increasingly disinterested in such labeling, I’ll simply describe him as a politician doing what a certain breed of politician has always done – seeking identity through conflict. It’s a tactic as old as the hills and generally about as useful for gaining votes as said hills.

Twitter, like the Daily Mail, isn’t a great place for nuance. It provided very little over those days. A lot of the condemnation that Byrne received, particularly over the Mail piece, was more than justified. Sure, there’s those who can’t see the words ‘welfare’ and ‘reform’ together on a page and not immediately label the writer as a Thatcherite lickspittle. But there were many who pointed out precisely where the language of ‘the scrounger’ leads us. To the demonisation of the vast majority of genuine benefit claimants, to finger-pointing, to misplaced blame. To the steadily growing instances of hate crimes against the disabled, to the suicides, to the stigma and to the political space it gives to the forces of reaction in the two governing parties to chip away still further at the welfare settlement.

These, by themselves, are more than good enough reasons not to engage in such easy, throw-away rhetoric, even if the words that appear under your actual byline are far more measured. But there is a further reason: by doing so, you in fact close down the debate on welfare reform and make genuine reform all but impossible. You condemn the British welfare state – the Beveridgian inheritance Byrne proclaims himself to be an heir of – to another decade of managed decline.

Let me be honest – I don’t think the British welfare state works. That doesn’t mean I want to throw every recipient of benefits on the breadline. For probably somewhere in the region of 99% of claimants, I would be happy to die (metaphorically at least) in the last political ditch to ensure a continued guarantee of those benefits. But I’m not necessarily prepared to offer even so useless a sacrifice for the system that calculates and writes that cheque. The Welfare State is a post-war creature, predicated on full employment, jobs for life, stay-at-home mothers, the nuclear family and predictable cycles of boom and recession. Like a vast, gothic cathedral, it is a magnificent edifice. The very scale and noble purpose of it can make the most secular heart sing. But we’ve tried patching it up to make it more suitable for the modern age. It’s worked in places – the tax credit system is doing a passable job of keeping the rain from leaking through the sacristy roof, for example – but there’s only so far this can go.

The British welfare state is inflexible, complex, user-unfriendly, faceless and unpersonalised. When I make those criticisms, that doesn’t mean I want a replacement which is less generous or more austere to those in need. In fact, I want to see a system which doesn’t lead to billions in benefits going unclaimed – as many have pointed out, that, in terms of scale,  is the true scandal, not the relatively limited benefit fraud.

But I also know that one of the key pillars of the post-war welfare settlement is legitimacy in the eyes of the public. I’ve canvassed enough Labour heartlands (and non-Labour heartlands) to know that this is eroding. A lot of that is due to misreporting and misplaced rhetoric, based on a very limited number of genuine case of welfare state failure. But tell me that the average Labour voter doesn’t like the language of ‘scroungers’ and ‘cheats’ and I will laugh in your face.

That, however, is not an excuse to perpetrate it. By doing so, we simply enter an arms race with the Tories which we cannot win.

A political party cannot ignore public opinion; nor should it believe it cannot play a part in shaping it. The counsel of despair which is governance by the top-line findings of opinion pollsters leads to a non-courageous style of government which would never, for example, have seen Labour Home Secretaries abolish the death penalty or lower the age of consent. Rather than demonising the old welfare settlement, and particularly not those who depend on it, you address the concerns through a new settlement in which the majority can have confidence.

Soaring unemployment is creating a new influx of welfare state users, from a wide range of social backgrounds, including large numbers of graduates and professionals. Not only does this render a shift to generally abusing welfare recipients as politically short-sighted, it also misses that opportunity to build a new, legitimated, welfare settlement. The ‘new unemployed’ will quickly discover the shortcomings of the current system – the petty bureaucracy,  the low payments, the unwelcoming JobCentrePluses, advisers who, whilst committed, are going to struggle with this influx. They will demand change, improvement. And they have the political clout to do so.

This new unemployment is a personal and economic tragedy, yet it is also a political opportunity to forge a new consensus. A welfare state that is based around work where possible, and a comfortable existence where it isn’t; that personalises its offering for each client; that provides genuine training and (properly) paid work opportunities; that doesn’t stigmatise or dehumanise the long-term claimant. And yes, maybe Byrne is right to suggest a greater role for the contributory principle – I am not going to attack him for wishing to emulate parts of the often highly successful welfare systems of much of northern Europe.

So, I should be excited by the opportunities for welfare reform, and for my party to be spearheading them. But I’m not. Because instead, Liam Byrne has catapulted us into a pointless, degrading and actually rather childish debate about  linguistics. Rather than a victory for those who want to debate welfare reform, even if we don’t agree with every dot and comma of Byrne’s stance, he has handed a victory on a plate to the conservatives (lower case ‘c’ intentional) on both left and right who will countenance no reform. He has removed the option of nuance and made it harder for genuine welfare radicals to put their heads above the parapet. And by failing to link in policies on job creation to the narrative on welfare reform, he has left many people shaking their heads as to the disconnect with the most pressing economic debate.

I disagree with Liam Byrne on a lot, but I don’t think he’s an evil benefit-snatcher. I’m not, as Owen Jones puts it, ‘ashamed to share a party card with him’. I joined a broad church party, and by doing so happily accepted that I’d be sharing a card with Byrne. But I thought the leadership had learnt some lessons on the linguistics of welfare reform. To my mind, Ed Miliband’s biggest mistake since taking over the leadership was the line in his Coin Street speech in which he appeared to qualify himself to judge a man on incapacity benefits’ ability to work. This soured an otherwise thoughtful and intelligent speech on responsibility ‘at top and bottom’, and rightly caused anger. At party conference, Miliband seemed genuinely contrite and understanding about why that had been an error. I don’t think he, personally, will make it again. But he has allowed Byrne off the leash to make that mistake on his part, and by doing so has damaged the prospects of a new welfare settlement being at the heart of Labour’s next manifesto, where it belongs.

May 10, 2011

In Search of the Air-Conditioned Desert

Filed under: Uncategorized — Political Animal @ 10:57 pm

Over Easter I travelled by train, bus and ferry from St Pancras to the Red Sea, through Europe, Turkey and the Middle East. I’ve written up an account of my journey over at my travel blog –

February 14, 2011

New Travel Blog

Filed under: Uncategorized — Political Animal @ 12:06 am

Apologies that for various reasons this blog has been pretty quiet recently – I’ve yet to decide if, or when blogging will recommence here. I have, however, started a new site chronicling my occasional travels, here. Do pay a visit if long-winded travelogues are your sort of thing.

September 20, 2010

Cross with care: Evidence-less policy making

Filed under: London Politics,Transport — Political Animal @ 7:11 pm
Tags: , , ,

Back in July, Transport for London announced it was consulting on the removal of 145 sets of traffic lights across the capital, half of which included lights with pedestrian facilities. All part of the Mayor’s obsession with his mythical goal of ‘smoothing traffic flow’, which increasingly seems to take priority over the needs of every other road user. The outcry from residents, the London Assembly and borough councils is well documented elsewhere. I was alerted to the remarkable nature of some of the proposed removals by the fact that several were within spitting distance of my then central London workplace, involving pedestrian crossings on a busy road popular with tourists, shoppers and school groups. Removing the crossings in question would have led to around 300m between crossing facilities, encouraging pedestrians to dice with often fast moving traffic.

Many of the other proposals looked equally ill-thought through, so I stuck in a Freedom of Information Act request to TfL, asking for their evidence base in choosing the pedestrian crossings earmarked for removal. Specifically I asked for what, to me, seemed a sensible data set that ought to be part of any judgement as to the continued need for a pedestrian crossing – and which would not be particularly onerous to collect:

– the number of times each crossing was used by pedestrians on an average day;

– the distance from the nearest alternative pedestrian crossing;

– average traffic speeds at the crossing location;

– data relating to traffic congestion caused by existence of the crossing.

After it took two months for TfL to respond, I was expecting a pretty hefty evidence base. Alas no.

“I can confirm that we do not hold the information you require.”

So, what were the selections based on?

“These signals were selected following a review of traffic flows and historical accident data and, where the sites include pedestrian facilities, observed pedestrian demand levels.”

Oddly, this last point sounds remarkably like what I asked for, but never mind. You have to question how useful historic accident data is – in many cases the crossings will have been in place for decades and the nature/levels of pedestrian or traffic uses will have been completely altered in that timescale. Nor does it appear that there was any quantitative approach to considering which crossings actually had any serious effect on traffic flows. The lack of an evidence base certainly increases the perception that these crossings have been picked almost at random, hence examples outside schools or tourist attractions being amongst their number. Evidence-less policy making towards an evidence-less policy.

One small bit of good news, however. Apparently, further analysis

“may include the collection of some of the data you have requested.”

Good. But who knows if a completely different – and somewhat more sensible – list of traffic lights for removal would have been drawn up if some of that data had been used in the first place?

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…)

May 28, 2010

Oona: a history and ambition mismatch

Being young-ish and dull, I have a Salieri-like disposition to beat up on those who appear to be young and bright. This colours my view of the world in a rather unpleasant way, so what I’m about to write needs to be viewed in that context.

Learning that Oona King was indeed running for the Labour nomination for the London mayoralty is rather like getting confirmation that Lord Lucan is dead: something that most people have accepted for some time. This meant I had a partially formed opinion already of what I felt about her candidacy, but the past week has crystallised that for me. I am now more convinced than ever that if the Labour electoral college was to nominate King, then Boris Johnson might as well start writing his speech for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.

 Over the past 5 days, there has been a concerted effort in sections of the Labour-leaning blogosphere and Twit-osphere to convince nay-sayers such as myself that King has ‘changed’; that to attach too much credence to her past as a committed Blairite is in some way unfair. Now, I’ll accept that people change. I even accept that some politicians change, although that list is mainly limited to Napoleon Bonaparte and Tony Benn.

This narrative is at least honest – it accepts that Old Oona, the undissenting New Labour MP simply does not fit the settled London view of what its Mayor should be like – basically, it wants independent-minded mavericks. It also accepts that the Old Oona, unbending in her support for a morally questionable invasion of Iraq, who achieved the unthinkable of losing a super-safe inner London seat on a swing of 26%, does not have the kind of electoral record that would appeal to the party and affiliate members who will select the candidate. (more…)

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