Confessions of a Political Animal

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…)

March 28, 2010

Boris and Transport: Easy Words, Broken Promises

Two years and half way through Boris Johnson’s first – and I trust, only – term as London Mayor and the opposition parties on the London Assembly rightly took the opportunity last month to step up scrutiny of the Mayor’s…ahem…interesting approach to his manifesto pledges.

Johnson’s 2008 manifesto was a fascinating mix (rather like the man himself) of the sweeping, the generalised, the populist and occasional flashes of obsession with random bits of minutiae. But what was partially evident at the time of it’s publication, and has become even more so since, is that it was written with very little input from anyone who had the foggiest idea what they were talking about. Nowhere was that more clear than in the transport manifesto, saved from oblivion by The Guardian here. Everyone knows its headline-grabber: the removal of the bendy bus and the introduction of a new Routemaster – a policy which it has since become clear has no significant economic, environmental, safety or public utility case to its name. Sadly, this was not a lone case. And a badly thought-out, media-driven manifesto means a manifesto that gets broken all too easily, with just this week a new entrant to the fast growing list emerging.

“It is not good enough…that the Tube doesn’t run later on Friday and Saturday nights. […] It would be a major benefit to Londoners if the Tube ran one hour later on Friday and Saturday nights, and we want to see this happen.” (p.20)

If it wasn’t good enough when Johnson wrote his 2008 manifesto, he’ll have to say that it still isn’t good enough when/if he writes the 2012 version. This week saw the death of this pledge after TfL announced that it was impossible to implement later running and that this would remain merely ‘an aspiration’. This should have come as no surprise to anyone who has had a passing interest in London’s transport pre-2008 – so we can assume it came as a surprise to the Mayor. In his second term, Ken Livingstone consulted on running a one hour later service on Fridays and Saturdays, with commencement of service at weekends cut back by one hour to ensure the amount of time available for engineering and upgrade works was not curtailed. From the consultation it became evident that the later start would leave the many commuters, particularly shift workers, who relied on an early Underground train at weekends heavily inconvenienced, so in 2006 TfL proposed a compromise: running trains 30 minutes later on both Fridays and Saturdays and cutting back starting time on Saturday mornings by one hour whilst leaving Sundays unaffected (this would have meant that Saturday and Sunday start up times were the same). However, by February 2007 it had become clear that negotiations with unions over changed working hours had ground to a halt, and the proposal was shelved.

Despite all this, Johnson in his manifesto reverted to the original proposal of an hour extra for both Friday and Saturday, strangely neglecting to mention that this would need two hours to be cut from somewhere else. Even if this barely-disguised Thatcherite could have succeeded where Livingstone failed with the RMT and ASLEF, he would either have had to at least partially break his manifesto promise by implementing the 30-minute extension plan or taken a potentially highly unpopular decision to leave early-morning commuters without an Underground service. And we all know Johnson doesn’t like making unpopular decisions. So, this manifesto promise was setting Johnson up for a fail, as anyone with a bit of nouse could have told him. The Mayor is trying to claim that upgrade work is what is preventing him from keeping his pledge, but this is clearly rubbish: whilst upgrade work does take place at night, so too does the day-to-day engineering work necessary to keep the Underground running. Even when the upgrades are complete, it is almost certain that any extension of operating hours in the evening will have to be matched by a curtailment in the morning. (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…)

October 15, 2009

Hey, low earners! Thanks for the subsidy.

Fare change 2010

You can read plenty about Boris Johnson’s rather impressive hikes in TfL’s fares today elsewhere. With many of the increases coming in at more than 18 times the current rate of CPI, describing them as ‘inflation-busting’ would be like calling Richard Littlejohn ‘moderately right-wing’. And, worryingly for our jovial Mayor, for all his attempts to pass the blame for the increases off as being the fault of Ken Livingstone, the quite correct notion that Johnson inherited healthy TfL reserves and has bought this for the most part on himself is gaining traction. As Dave Cole notes, the extra revenue to be raised by the incredible 20% increase in Oyster Pay-as-You-Go fares on buses fits very neatly into the £50-£70m hole left by the removal of the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge.

Combine that with the decision not to proceed with the Gas-guzzler Charge, the end of the Venezuela oil deal, the scrapping of bendy buses and the advent of the neo-Routemaster – all at a time of falling fare-box income thanks to economic circumstances pertaining – and you begin to see where the hole comes from. And that’s why Boris is coming after you with his hat.

And when I say ‘you’, I mean ‘you’ (possibly), not ‘me’. One thing you won’t see much of in the coverage of the new fare regime is a complaint that you aren’t paying enough. Well, here’s one. The 2010 TfL fare settlement is too lenient on me – and on people like me. And it makes me sick. The graph at the top of this post may give you an idea why. (more…)

October 13, 2009

A Fare-ly Sketchy Strategy

boris tubeYesterday ought to have been one of the defining moments of Boris Johnson’s mayoralty. Three draft strategies published, covering housing, planning, economic development and transport (or, in other words, barring policing pretty much everything the Mayor has any meaningful influence over). Somehow, it didn’t quite feel that way, for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, there is Johnson’s sudden ability to hide from public view when matters of substance and detail rear their ugly heads. The contrast with his normal persona is remarkable. After all, the Mayor is normally happy to engage in publicity  stunts for the TV cameras, write expensive rubbish for the Telegraph or inundate us with 13 oh-so-fascinating photos of himself at Conservative Party Conference via his Twitter account. But just as Blair didn’t do God, Johnson doesn’t do detail. So with three hefty documents being published in his name, Macavity wasn’t there. As Ken Livingstone’s former Chief of Staff Simon Fletcher writes on his blog:

Although these strategies are now up for public consultation, the mayor chose to launch them not with a press conference for the media who communicate with millions but with a meeting of City Hall staff.

All we, the great London unwashed,  got from the Mayor is a solitary tweet. (more…)

July 29, 2009

What a load of Phibbs

conservative-homeIn many ways I admire ConservativeHome. It’s an attractive, reasonably open and user-friendly site that does genuinely appear to seek to engage with the Party’s grass-roots activists and supporters.

It has a problem though – serving as it does as a bit of a shop window for the Tories, it does with some regularity highlight to the outside world the more, ahem, interesting points of view and personalities within the Party. You know, the sort any party would want to keep a little under wraps – it’s not a partisan thing, every party has them. However, ConservativeHome sometimes seems to go out of its way to highlight them. Take, for example, the innocuous sounding statement ‘Cllr Harry Phibbs edits ConservativeHome’s Local Government page‘. I don’t know a huge amount about said Cllr Phibbs, but I’m learning – largely through his own teachings. And the more I learn, the more I feel that an equivalent statement would be ‘Margaret Moran MP edits LabourHome’s Probity in Public Life page’.

Cllr Phibbs represents the Ravenscourt Park ward in the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, flagship council of the Tory right since they took control in 2006 – tax-cutting, service-slashing, employee-bullying, homeless-bashing. The council’s most recent brush with the media spotlight has surrounded the intriguing views of Leader Stephen Greenhalgh about exactly for whom and where social housing should be provided. Some have intimated that his policies are almost Porter-esque. The Animal is saying nothing for fear of the libel courts. (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 1, 2009

Revealed: £2.75m down the River

boris-johnson-11“One thing we cannot do is spend tens of millions keeping projects alive, for political reasons, when there is simply no government funding to deliver them. The truth is that we don’t have to cash to do everything we would like, and it is better to be honest than continue to play upon false hopes.”

Boris Johnson, “Way to Go“, November 2008

So said the Mayor last year, as a justification for removing any ambition from Transport for London’s infrastructure investment programme. Johnson’s implied criticism of the previous mayoral administration was that it had spent money developing and promoting transport projects that were unlikely to ever come to fruition. The weakness of the argument is palpable: it was investment in the development and promotion of schemes such as Crossrail and the East London Line Extension that paved the way for funding eventually emerging from central government.

However, a few schemes escaped the Johnson Axe, including stage 1 of the Greenwich Waterfront Transit, a partially-segregated bus route linking the Jubilee Line station at North Greenwich with Woolwich and Thamesmead. The principle aim of the route was to improve bus services to Thamesmead, a heavily deprived area on the borders of Greenwich and Bexley with woeful public transport links. Given the opprobium heaped on the Transit scheme by Boris-friendly commentators, in particular Andrew Gilligan, its survival in November was very surprising: all the more so as its proposed future extensions across the river had been rendered impossible through Johnson’s scrapping of the Thames Gateway Bridge. (more…)

April 29, 2009

Satisfying the masses…or not

city-hallMuch has been written this week about the Yougov poll, commissioned by the Evening Standard which shows a reasonable satisfaction level for Boris Johnson’s performance as Mayor for his first year, caveats about honeymoon periods providing an unreliable polling background excepted.

There isn’t any getting around it for those of us of a more sceptical bent – Boris’ support is sound, albeit relatively limited, and beating him in 2012 isn’t going to be a walk in the park. Not, of course that that should mean adopting the desperate measure of attempting to draft the eminently unsuitable Sir Alan Sugar, regardless of current polling evidence.

But there is another set of numbers, also released this month, which have had a lot less publicity. These tell a subtly different, but far from irrelevant story. Each year, the GLA commissions an Annual London Survey, asking questions about residents’ perceptions of living in London. Generally, the media either ignores or scorns the Survey, because it shows a picture that doesn’t fit with their narrative: Londoners feel pretty safe on their streets and the transport system serves most people pretty well. The surveys from Ken Livingstone’s terms in office are available here, whilst the latest is here. There is a gap for 2008: for reasons of purdah it couldn’t be produced before the election and, understandably enough, it looks like the new administration pushed back the dates to allow for a bedding-in period. (more…)

March 23, 2009

Pushing the boundaries

Filed under: Elections,Labour Party,London Politics — Political Animal @ 4:34 pm
Tags: , , ,

m25Amongst the general hubub of French politics – a general strike, an unpopular president, parliamentary votes of confidence over the nation’s return to NATO military command – a mini-row is simmering on over Nicolas Sarkozy’sproposals to radically redraw the administrative map of the country, knocking together many of the existing regions to more closely resemble France’s historic dukedoms and kingdoms. Nowhere, however are these plans more hotly contested than in Paris, whose administrative system has failed miserably to evolve alongside its demographic growth.

The area governed as ‘Paris’ – i.e. by the Mayor and Council is astonishingly small, covering just the 105 square km that fall within the boulevard peripherique, the ring road that follows the former line of the city walls. As a rather generous comparison, this could be likened to London stopping administratively at the North and South circulars, casting the likes of Woolwich, Wembley, Stratford and Wimbledon into the outer darkness of the shires from whence they came. Whilst the City of Paris is by no means universally wealthy, it certainly doesn’t represent the poorest portion of the Ile de France, as testified by the fact that prior to the current incumbent, no left-winger had been elected Mayor since the Commune. (more…)

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