Whose Olympics are they, anyway?

Organisers aren't engaged with the needs of ordinary Londoners.

The Olympics are causing quite a stir, but not in the way you might think. The number of people expressing discontent with the rules and regulations surrounding the event is increasing - from the court case around missiles placed on residents' roofs, to a protest against the closure of a much-used towpath, to a group of activists gearing up for a march on how "big business stole the Olympics".

All this raises questions about the engagement of the Olympic organisers with the needs of ordinary Londoners. In fact, you'd be forgiven for wondering whether these really are the "people's games" after all.

As historian, archaeologist and activist Neil Faulkner recently pointed out, the taxpayer is thought to have forked out £12bn for the event. But it's hard to pin down a reliable figure, and an investigation by Sky News has suggested that the once all costs are taken into consideration the real figure could actually be closer to £24bn. Corporate sponsors have contributed £700m. So why has there been so little apparent consideration for what ordinary people want?

The activist group Counter Olympics Network (CON) accuses the games of being a "showcase of class privilege, corporate power and security wonkery", and this week confirmed a march on 28 July to highlight the issue. "The organisers are only interested in defending their corporate sponsors and their rights because that's what it is - a branding exercise," explains CON's Julian Cheyne.

A good example of the imbalance of interests is the revelation that 95 per cent of the 30 miles of road in central London exclusively reserved for use during the event by the "Games family" of athletes, officials and sponsors will be off-limits to cyclists, a move that's been described by the Environmental Transport Association as "baffling as it dangerous".

To compound the issue, a busy towpath running from Homerton to Bow was closed last Tuesday, sparking a campaign from angry cyclists and residents to get it reopened. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) responded to questions from locals and The Guardian by saying it wanted to deliver a "safe and secure Games." The problem, though, is that the cyclists aren't feeling either of these things.

"Our complaint is that it's going to push people onto busy roads. Personally, my alternative commute involves me going along the A11, a dual carriageway, and over the Bow roundabout where two cyclists were killed last year," says Ruth-Anna Macqueen, co-organiser of Open Our Towpath. She adds that there was no consultation and little real publicity, and that many are confused about the move because there are still plenty of open roads leading up to the site.
"There's a total lack of understanding that some of us use it as others use roads. I don't think they've considered the effect it will have on people - although we don't know because we haven't had any conversation back from LOCOG apart from that statement."

Lack of consultation has also been a problem for the residents whose homes were chosen as the site for surface-to-air missiles. Taking their protest to the High Court, they argued that the move was a  "disproportionate interference" with their human rights. While their bid for either the missile or themselves to be relocated was rejected earlier this week, the fact remains that the sight of such a strong military presence on London homes will be an incongruous one for many.

Faulkner believes that there's been absolutely no engagement with ordinary people throughout the preparations, and that this is because those in charge only represent a small percentage of the population. "It's riddled with class privilege, draped with corporate logos, they're turning the east end into a militarised zone and it's all being run by an unelected quango," he says. "Last time I checked on its website, LOCOG consisted of 19 people - 17 of whom are white men and the only woman on the board is Princess Anne. Half of those white men are business men and the other half have major business interests, so essentially it's an appointed body of white male millionaires completely unaccountable to anyone except the Government."

Meanwhile, Baroness Dee Doocey has called for LOCOG to show greater transparency. She criticises the fact that it held back 14,000 tickets for government officials and its refusal to reveal the proportion of tickets for top events such as the 100m sold to the public when questioned by the London Assembly's economy, sport and culture committee, of which she is the former chair.

She says: "On the one hand LOCOG is doing a brilliant job and I have no doubt at all that they'll produce a brilliant games - and I'm not just saying that - but on the other hand they're hiding behind this private company every time it suits them. You can't take taxpayers' money and hide behind this idea that you're a private company. This is meant to be the people's games."

When asked, LOCOG declined to comment on this story.
 

The Olympic countdown clock in Trafalgar Square at 100 days to go. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change