The next mayor of London?

Sian is the Green Party's candidate to be London's mayor

Voting and democracy are what make the world of politics go around, and there has been a lot of it about this week. Like the proverbial bus, you can wait for ages for a vote that will take you in the right direction, and then three come along at once.

First up, MPs were voting on proposals for reformed House of Lords on Wednesday. We’ve had quite a wait for this one, given that most people agree the system of heriditary and appointed law-makers went out of date on about July 14th 1789. New Labour entered government with a commitment to action. However, they have been dallying over the final steps for nearly a decade.

Last time MPs tried to agree on the shape of reform, they threw out seven different options and didn’t support any. This time, in the wake of the cash for honours scandal, MPs finally backed two radical options for change: an 80% elected Lords with a majority of 38, and then a 100% elected Lords with an even bigger majority of 113.

I have to admit I was hugely pleased and relieved at the result – particularly at the popularity of the 100% elected option. Finally we might see a change to our constitution that means that, for the first time ever, Britain will be able to say it’s a grown-up democracy.

It’s obvious for a Green to say this, but it’s important now that we make sure the new house is elected with a fair voting system, and that a new Lords brings a greater diversity of voices into parliament. With a fair system of proportional representation, we’ll see a serious Green presence in parliament at last, ideally placed to put real teeth into green legislation.

The vote also slightly restores my faith in back-benchers, who I usually look upon as a shower of careerists and timeservers. The vote for 100% was no doubt influenced by the stench of sleaze attached to appointments by party leaders and must have been a shock for Blair and co. This wasn’t as far as they wanted to go at all. Blair voted for a 50% elected house and then cleared off, Brown voted for 80% but abstained on 100%, and Jack Straw, leading the process, voted for 50, 60 and 80% but not 100%.

Any reform won’t be easy for the Labour top brass to swallow – having held absolute power with a minority of votes for a decade. But, especially if elected under PR, a renewed Lords will also have renewed vigour and renewed legitimacy. With a real mandate, even with restricted powers, the new Lords will be more inclined to oppose the government and could pose a real challenge to the government’s hegemony.

The next vote of interest was when results started coming in from Northern Ireland on Thursday and Friday. After a doorstep campaign focused mainly on issues like water rates, sufficient numbers of people cast their votes beyond religious lines for us to see the first Green elected to the Assembly, in North Down. Congratulations go to our candidate Brian Wilson – his election is a definite sign of a shift away from the old politics in Northern Ireland, which depend so much on history, to ideas more concerned with the future. The Green Party can also boast it is now the only one represented in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Belfast.

The third election this week was slightly less earth-shattering, but very significant for me. Votes were counted on Saturday for the Green Party’s selection of our candidate for Mayor of London. From a shortlist of five, including our brilliant drugs spokesperson and tireless activist, Shane Collins, I managed to secure the nomination with 45% of first preferences.

I’m thrilled to get the chance to take on Ken Livingstone next year. He started out as an independent, ‘man of the people’ character but is increasingly turning into an agent of New Labour’s business agenda.

His fondness for big, shiny projects is well known, frustrating me and the people of Camden over the Kings Cross development, where we desperately need family housing not more office blocks. And his support for similar projects, such as the Thames Gateway motorway bridge (which will do nothing to improve air quality for people in east London) is alienating people in other boroughs too.

With no other party’s candidate yet selected, I’m looking forward to being the only challenger for a while and working hard to highlight what we will do to make London a human-scale city again.

This weekend we also selected our candidates for the London Assembly list (the Assembly is made up of constituency members topped up with list candidates to make it all proportional to the votes cast). The list is where our Assembly Members tend to come from, although we do well in a lot of the constituencies too.

Our top three are, again, our excellent team from 2004 – Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson (current AMs) and former AM Noel Lynch. I’m next on the list, so it’s up to me now to make sure we get enough votes to win four seats this time round. No problem!

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder