Sunday, 30 October 2011

Have you got an interesting story to tell about community action?

I'm very interested in the activities of neighbourhood groups and local organisations doing great things and organising to make people's lives better in some way. I'm looking for stories about the struggles they face and the hurdles they come across – and overcome - and the ways in which they raise money and succeed. The focus is politics, but with a small 'p'.

Your story could get a large audience - as well as my blog, I write for the Guardian's Voluntary Sector Network, and occasionally other publications.

If you've got something you'd like me to cover please email me and don't forget to include brief details and a way of me getting in contact.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Seeing red in London's mayoral contest

I cried when Ken Livingstone lost the 2008 election to Boris Johnson to become Mayor of London. Yes, I know. I'm a silly, soppy thing who takes politics far too seriously. I have soft spot for the old warhorse, and I'd been canvassing all day. I'd had a few bottles of wine, and it was late. Ken Livingstone's valedictory address was heartfelt, and he was clearly gutted. And surely politically-savvy Londoners would see through the vagaries of The Blonde and re-elect Red Ken, the man who had remade London politics, with a landslide. Wouldn't they?

That was over three years ago. I've given up active politics since then, mainly because I couldn't do anything but feel guilty when looking at bundles of leaflets that needed delivering to nearby streets. I don't feel so guilty any more though. London's politics has changed – and elections are no longer fought and won in the hole of the 'doughnut' that is inner London boroughs. With credit to Ken, the centre ground of London's politics – a micro state within the UK – did shift westward. Even the Telegraph has called Ken the most successful left-winger of modern times. As a result, massive investment in public transport, the congestion charge and a commitment to police numbers have all been written into the rulebook for London's mayor.

Boris knows these truths, and in spite of the blustering demeanour is no fool. He is surrounded by smart people at City Hall; strategists, specialists, communicators. As Conservatives, they have realised how valuable City Hall is as a power base and they are not prepared to throw it away, despite the historic antagonism towards London local government under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Much has been made of the personal similarities between Boris and Ken – the mavericks acting outside the party mainstream, even their occasionally racy private lives. Boris isn't on the same page as David Cameron. Ken's rarely read from the same book as the Labour leadership. But both claim to be standing up for the People's Republic of London in their own way.

The New Bus for London – or the new Routemaster -is a big bold, physical manifestation of Boris making his mark on London. But Ken was right to scrap the original Routemaster, as I've argued before. He was right also to introduce the unfairly maligned bendy buses, which seem to operate in many of Europe's other cities without any trouble at all.

Boris and his team have been entirely wrong to scrap bendy buses, which have been well suited to the job expected of them. Preferring to listen to ill-informed advice on what might win him the election (it worked, but his advisors know nothing about running transport) we’ve seen chaos outside places like Waterloo and Victoria stations, where there are either too many replacement double-deckerscausing congestion at the terminus, or smaller buses which leave large numbers behind. Here's the evidence:

Enormous queues build up at Waterloo station every morning waiting for the 521 bus - down the stairs, double-backing several times and causing huge congestion like some sort of low-budget British horror film
Bendy buses on the route I use most often just vaccumed up queues and never left anyone behind. And, as for the urban myth that they're more dangerous to cyclists – well, not a shred of evidence could be provided to support that theory.

I’d personally like to see the return of the bendy bus, and for politicians to leave decisions over what sort of buses should be on our streets to the professionals, rather than getting stuck in a 1950s timewarp about ‘new' Routemasters. Yes, that's right – a bus based on a open rear entrance design that dates back to at least the 1920s, but built in 2011. It will leave TfL and the London bus companies open to lawsuits. But Boris powers on with his pet project, which although is undeniably pretty as buses go, is still unnecessary and expensive in an age of supposed austerity and budget cuts. The first is due in trial service in the new year.

Artists' impression of the imaginatively titled Emirates Air Line
Then there's the Thames Cable Car. Who remembers Londoners asking for this? It would have been expected that any incoming or re-elected mayor would have supported a new bridge in that part of London, easing the pressure on the Blackwall Tunnel and the Limehouse Link. It wasn't however, part of either Boris', or for that matter, Ken's manifesto and has managed to spectacularly overtake other long-hoped for projects such as the Cross-River Tram or Crystal Palace Tram extension, or the DLR's Dagenham Dock extension. The Emirates Air Line, as it will be called, has even sneaked on to the tube map. Like the new Routemaster, it's shiny and glossy and looks great in the run-up to a Mayoral election. But do we actually need it?

Non-Londoners may wonder why all this is of consequence. But what happens in London next year will undoubtedly have an impact on UK politics come the next general election in 2015, or sooner. Ken Livingstone has been busy attacking Boris on police numbers, for example. Boris sounds less combative towards his opponent and has grown in confidence significantly since taking on the job. He's even using similar language and the posturing of his opponent. Meanwhile, Ken really needs to learn the lessons of 2008 - and some have doubted whether he really can - if he is to wrest back control of the capital. There's even been muttering that he may be deposed as Labour's candidate. Either way, 2012's going to be an interesting year in London.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Civil partnerships or 'gay marriage'? What should progressives be arguing for?

A month or so has passed without me banging on about some aspect of the politics of sexual identity. Yet I've been following the gay marriage debate with interest, watching the odd Conservative MP or two speak for or against it, the culmination of the debate being David Cameron's speech to the Tory conference last week. In the speech, he told the assembled blue-rinse brigade that he was for gay marriage “not despite, but because” he's a Tory. And despite the common perception that it's the older generation of his party that are most uncomfortable with it, there are plenty of younger Tories, including self-hating acquaintances from my past, who have also expressed reactionary sentiment against the idea. On the whole, however, it's reasonable to say that there is political consensus behind it.

Yet, to me, it's striking how little the gay community itself is talking about marriage equalisation. And let us resist the 'gay marriage' tag, because there's nothing inherently gay about making the law equal for same-sex couples. We don't after all, call the existing institution 'straight marriage'.

In reality it could only have been a matter of time before Cameron came out in favour of marriage equality, but I applaud him for his decision to once again make gay rights a cornerstone of one of his conference speeches. Speeches such as this are still important to leaders, if not the political rhythm of the UK more generally, and it took a confident centre-right Prime Minister to announce that he was in favour of marriage equality when the eyes of the UK's political class and media were on him. His speech means that the language of marriage equality is now commonly spoken not only by Cameron and all three mainstream party leaders, but by Peter Tatchell also, which is very rare indeed. Tatchell himself, in that classic liberal way of his, wouldn't even tie the knot in marriage himself, but believes it's a fundamental human right. I agree.

If and when the law to equalise the law does get passed however, it will pose an interesting dilemma for those gay and lesbian couples who are planning on getting hitched, or indeed are already in civil partnerships. I'm not sure which category my boyfriend and I will be in by the time that the law is passed – we officially registered our intention on Friday - but should we accept that a civil partnership is still as good as a newly defined extension of marriage? In other words, do we 'upgrade'?

Speaking purely for ourselves, we're actually quite happy with the relatively progressive institution of civil partnerships, the legislation for which has only existed since 2005. We are happy without the historical, religious and cultural trappings of marriage, and see our civil partnership as a more favourable evolution of the concept of shackling together human beings in matrimonial harmony. After all, whatever form of legal agreement we choose, we still have to decide who puts the bins out on Wednesday nights.

Chris Ashford's blog is another interesting read on this subject.

Oh, and this from Channel 4 News too. Had to have a little lie-down after half-agreeing with Douglas Murray.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Keep your hands off my balance sheet, Dave

I’ll be paying back my student debt for some time to come, thanks to the last government’s zeal for vast loans and my complete inability to secure ample part-time work while I was studying. Resigned to not being financially secure until my mid-thirties – and that’s an optimistic outlook – I now realise that the semi-detached, picket fence comfort of my parents’ generation will be much harder to come by.

Short of inviting himself to kitchen tables across the land, armed with an accounts book, a calculator and a pair of scissors to guillotine our flexible friends, the Prime Minister’s response to my domestic financial crisis has thankfully proved short-lived. An early draft of his conference speech announced that “the only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts. That means households - all of us - paying off the credit card and store card bills."

All of this confuses the Government’s economic message; aren’t we supposed to be propping up fragile High Streets by spending on clothes, electrical goods, and holidays? Or should we be living as if we’re part of a religious order? What Dave has failed to explain is how we’re supposed to eke out a day-to-day existence in the meantime.

Yes, debts are terrible, nasty things that strangle our otherwise happy existences like a noose around the neck. Most of us enjoy luxuries such as shelter, food and clothes that make us look vaguely flattering, so we put off the inevitable. We limit your outgoings, dealing with one debt at a time. An instruction to pay off everything we owe on national television would have halted already fragile consumer confidence, plunging our retail sector into despair. The message is all the more insulting as when you consider that Britain’s Prime Minister and his consort are reportedly worth around £30million between them. Many of the Cabinet are also millionaires. They don’t have to borrow a penny to survive.

Here’s a better idea. ‘Plan A’ doesn’t work. Youth unemployment is at 20%, consumer confidence is at an all-time low. Cameron would be better off concentrating his efforts at macro-level, securing growth and jobs for those who really need them. That’s what he’s paid to do. Frankly, I’d rather be advised on my finances by the broadcaster and financial advisor,
Alvin Hall. He’s got bags more charisma and would make a lot more sense.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Cat-call politics is back

Every so often, a generation of politicians becomes afflicted by a rapidly setting form of collective amnesia, as they forget why a key piece of legislation exists in the first place. The Human Rights Act is one example. It’s not yet clear what its fate will be, but it’s another excuse to talk about immigration.

There’s something about discussing immigration in the UK which does more to uphold the image of the British as a nation of eccentrics than an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Something about it touches a nerve so that it becomes responsible for much unhinged ‘debate’. The Home Secretary delivered another of these crazy interludes when she claimed, while making her case against the Act, that an illegal immigrant could not be deported “because he had a pet cat”.

The tradition of Britain standing up for human rights goes back at least to the Second World War - during which fascism and communism had been responsible for some of the twentieth century’s worst atrocities. Hats off to the relative sanity of Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, who responded by wagering a bet with May that nothing of the sort ever happened. Recalling how Britain led the way in drawing up the European Convention on Human Rights, Clarke echoed a more serious politics.

I’ve a feeling that the abolition of the Human Rights Act is just mood music to placate rowdy Tory backbenchers, frothing at the mouth at perceived concessions to Liberal Democrats. We are still in conference season. Ideas are floated, dismissed, chewed over. David Cameron knows that any real attempt to rip this particular statute would be terminal for the Coalition, and worse, the prospect of minority government. Like other things which this government has told us it is against, the intention to do so something does not necessarily mean it will happen while it relies on Liberal Democrat votes.

Even May’s own department claimed that the pet defence did not have a role to play in the decision not to deport the man in question.
So, don’t bet on it becoming a common factor in immigrants pleading with the UK Borders Agency in future. Aside from the odd parrot or two, how many innocent cats, dogs, guinea pigs or hamsters could we really expect to construct a defence of their owner’s right to stay in the UK? That’s cat-call politics for you.

Share this