A long-running 'feud'

The Tory London assembly member on what he says is one of the longest-running feuds in London politi

One of the longest running London political feuds is that between Trevor Phillips, the Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality and Ken Livingstone.

The row partly goes back to 2000 when Phillips ran as Frank Dobson’s deputy in his ill-fated Mayoral Campaign against Livingstone.

The following three years that Phillips spent on the London Assembly (including being its first Chairman) were probably not the most productive of Phillips’ career as Livingstone seemed to frustrate Trevor at every opportunity.

"I won’t have that Bastard Phillips on the Police Authority," was Ken’s remark to the first meeting of Tory Assembly members, and consequently Trevor had to sit through two years of endless London Fire Brigade meetings although he learnt at first hand what equalities mean in an organisation that had then barely emerged from the 1950s.

When Trevor moved on to the Commission for Racial Equality he had clearly found his niche in British Public Life and his immensely thoughtful contributions on race issues, stressing the need for integration, discussing the nature of Britishness gave the CRE credence it previously lacked.

The more sensible Phillips' speeches the more vicious Livingstone’s attacks culminating in the bizarre allegation that Phillips was pandering to the BNP.

Indeed in 2006 City Hall went to a great deal of trouble and expenditure to organise a race conference on the same day the CRE had a big event.

I was reflecting on this as I enjoyed a pleasant early evening reception at the French Ambassadors residence in Kensington Palace Gardens to mark the award of the Chevalier de Legion d’ honour to Trevor to go alongside his OBE.

A mixed crowd of the great and the good, including a couple of Conservative MPs, one Labour Assembly Member but strangely not the Mayor of London heard Trevor pay tribute to the French President Nicholas Sarkozy for taking the diversity agenda seriously in France especially in the make up of his new Government.

It has long been my view that whereas the left talk a good story on diversity and equality issues it is actually the right that drive through the agenda. On the London Fire Authority 10 years of Labour control between 1990 and 2000 saw virtually no progress yet all changed when a Tory became lead member on equality issues.

The left spend so much time arguing amongst themselves and playing one ethnic group off against another. I was flabbergasted when locally a Hindu Labour Councillor complained to me that we had invited a Muslim fellow Labour Councillor to take part in a veterans day service earlier this year. The conviction of Waltham Forest Labour Councillor Miranda Grell (a former aide to Deputy Mayor Nicky Gavron) under rarely used provisions of the Representation of the People Act for telling voters her Lib Dem opponent was a paedophile have shown how often the ethnic groups on the left are hostile to the gay rights agenda.

Trevor Phillips great achievement has been to mainstream the whole equalities agenda in the UK and it is not just the French Government that owes him a debt of gratitude.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle