Monday, 9 August 2010

Why 'lobby groups' aren't working - and why it's all over the press...

A few weeks ago I blogged on the role of political campaigning in democracy - and in particular the role of groups such as 38 Degrees in 'lobbying' MPs and Ministers.

I'm fairly sure that Dominic Raab MP didn't read my post but he and his now infamous elusive email address went big in the press today, as a result of his attempts to fend off 38 Degrees and their 'independent minded' supporters who apparently struggle to construct their own, independent, sentences and arguments.

Here's the Guardian's article and Iain Dale's take on it.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Head to head: Oona vs Ken

Oona's helped out Ken on his own campaign trail in the past
One of the annoyances of having a party leadership selection process running in parallel with a London mayoral candidate selection is that Facebook sends me countless invites to hustings events for either. Last Monday 26 July I ventured, in a rare move, out to Southall in West London to what I thought was a Labour Party leadership hustings organised by the Co-operative Party, an organisation with which I hold much sympathy. The latter part of my assumption turned out to be right - as it turned out, when I arrived, there were significantly fewer chairs at the top table than I was expecting. And a surprising lack of party staff to move things along. Nonetheless, our good friends at the Co-op had attracted a significant number of people to the event, compered by the ever-droll Steve Pound MP, which turned out to be an excellent chance for Ken Livingstone and Oona King, as the official Labour mayoral candidate nominees, to make their case.

I have to admit, once I arrived I did have fairly set views on my preference for London mayor, and have been used to having them challenged quite a lot recently by my boyfriend and others. I voted for Ken in 2008 and, for the last few years, and I've been of the view that, with a better campaign less-focused on the inner-London boroughs and an appeal to a more aspirational Labour vote, he could win City Hall back off Boris. After all, Ken's got something of a reputation as a comeback kid, what with his battles with the Labour hierarchy in the early 2000s and entering Parliament in the 1987 General Election, only to leave Westminster in 2001 once he'd returned to London local government. Of course, he's far from perfect, what with his confrontation with Evening Standard Journalist Oliver Finegold and various other skirmishes. But I have a lot of time for a politician with boomerang-like abilities - and his passion for, and ability to speak to, and for London. His words after the 7 July tube and bus bombings were well-judged and sensitively aimed.

But, I'm coming around to the idea that despite Ken's ability to come back from the abyss, London may have moved on. I hope that Oona King genuinely does have the fresh ideas and the new approach which she claims she has. Because, if there really is a palpable hunger within the London Labour Party, and the London electorate as a whole for Oona's qualities, then she really may be in with a chance of ousting Boris Johnson. Several London councils went back to Labour control in 2010, and despite the huge swing to the Conservatives in 2008, the Labour vote still held up very strongly in inner-London boroughs in particular.

Maybe this means that on this occasion, the debate is less about the policies, and more about the ability of a single personality to elucidate a metropolitan, socialist politics. After all, as Oona herself said at this hustings, she was previously one of Ken's greatest supporters- she just happens to think that she can do the job better now. After Ken's big falling out with Labour ten years ago, few party members would disagree the triumphs of Ken's congestion charge policy, investment in the East London Line and his vigorous campaigning for the 2012 Olympics and Crossrail as a catalyst for investment in London for the present, and future. Why would Oona want to undo those (perceived) successes?

The point of this hustings however, was to differentiate between King and Livingstone and their specific proposals for London. On balance, I found Oona to be the lighter of the two on matters of policy. Oona is clearly disadvantaged as the less well-versed in London politics, although arguably this is irrelevant given her experience in Westminster during the New Labour years. Most bizarrely, when faced with a question on Fair Trade (to be expected with a Co-operative party audience), Oona evidenced her credentials with her campaign within the House of Commons to ban Cadbury's chocolate in favour of Fair Trade products. That's all very well Oona, but surely London's ethical trade with the rest of the world is bigger than what you stock in an MP's tuck-shop? I don't wish to denigrate the good intentions of the Fair Trade movement - I support it wholeheartedly - but I expect a mayoral candidate to have bigger ideas than that. It's the sort of politics which I practiced in my student union nine years ago...

There were several questions around transport, and one subject in which a dividing line was evident was on dedicated schoolbuses for London's schoolchildren. I've been in favour of such a scheme since a report was published on the subject five years ago, and found the deadlock between the two candidates rather irritating. Ken adamant that such an idea won't work as "there's no more road space" whilst Oona extolled the virtues of it - quite rightly pointing out that parents,pupils and the public alike want security and safety on their morning and evening journeys - giving the travelling public a break during the school run. Ken did not present any tangible evidence as to why present dedicated TfL schoolbus journeys (of which there are very many in London) could not give way to a dedicated 'yellow' bus system with specially recruited drivers and monitors to look after their young passengers as exists in the USA. Ken further defected Oona's proposals with costs - £350 million to lease or £500 million to buy outright a fleet of buses. It didn't help that in these straightened times, Oona hadn't identified where the money for such a fleet might come from.

My own question was on policing numbers, and whether both candidates thought that the current standard of policing could be maintained with fewer policing officers. The Safer Neighbourhood team is all over my area like a rash, which is a good thing, and it's no surprise that (touch wood) that my bit of Balham has a particularly low burglary rate. Both Oona and Ken were pro-directly elected invididuals to look after policing, which is what we've already got of course with Boris at the head of the Metropolitan Police Authority. Ken had concerns about central government undermining local efforts to deal with crime (the Shoot to Kill policy being cited as an example - where ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers) and the Home Secretary had decided on a particular policy decision and the Mayor had not been consulted. A true test of the coalition's decentralising mettle could be to be more comfortable with policing policy decisions being made by directly elected individuals, as opposed to central government. Will traditional law and order Tories be able to resist the urge to intervene if these directly elected individuals become more widespread in other areas?

Both candidates gave inspiring final statements - Ken highlighting his view of the role of the London mayor in an uncertain world where ordinary people are now facing unprecedented cuts, and that "London needs to be at the place where the new world is being born". Oona, once again, summed up by asking the room "Do you want to win London?" implying that the opposite was a distinct possibility for Labour supporters if they failed to back her as Labour's candidate.

Me, I'm still undecided despite a strong case being put forward by both candidates (and with both having very different credentials). But I suspect that whatever happens, the public will have decided that, despite a bike scheme here and a 21st century Routemaster there, people will want a serious candidate in these less stable economic times.

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