Ken Livingstone and the curate's egg

Sian responds to some of the Labour Party hacks who have been posting on her blog, calling on her no

Having been selected to stand for Mayor of London last week, I hadn’t planned to blog about the subject every week from now until next May. Apart from risking boring the readers of newstatesman.com into a campaign-induced coma, it wouldn’t be much fun for anyone outside the M25.

But the people of London have surprised me. Judging by the number of comments generated by my last posting, it seems they are quite engaged in the coming election already, and up for debating some of the issues now.

One point I am keen to answer is the question of ‘isn’t the Mayor dead green already?’ Unfortunately on this issue, Mayor Livingstone is - and always has been - a curate’s egg: good in parts.

Yes, the Mayor’s Climate Change Action Plan is impressive, but it consists mainly of a compendium of measures brought in over the past three years thanks to the effective Green Party veto over his annual budget. Without the hard and skilled negotiations of the Green Assembly Members, the plan would be far less ambitious. As Livingstone himself said at the launch, he couldn’t have done it without us, and that’s exactly why he needs a strong Green challenge next year.

And he is a disappointment on many planning issues, especially the waving through of the vast Kings Cross project in the face of almost unanimous community opposition. The London Plan has reasonable targets for affordable housing and renewable energy but the Mayor has yet to enforce them properly in any development, and in Kings Cross the need for affordable family homes is acute.

The Mayor’s blind spots to the needs of ordinary Londoners seem to occur particularly when it comes to big, shiny projects, to the extent that I think he might back a big hole in the ground if it was clad in glass and came with a billion pound price tag.

Some of last week’s comments are from obvious Labour Party hacks, peddling the old “Don’t stand, you’ll let the Tories in” line. I find this kind of thing disgusting and profoundly undemocratic. Without new parties springing up out of new ideas and challenging the comfortable, ‘no alternative’ status quo, we’d be hearing now how we have to vote Tory to avoid another Whig victory.

The fact is things are constantly moving on in politics. Most notably over the past ten years Labour and Conservative policies have converged to the extent that, like leading brands of washing powder, the only real difference is in the marketing.

Which party is stealthily packaging up and privatising the services we get from the NHS and the Benefits Agency? Who came up with the idea of sponsored schools? Who wants to push council houses steadily into private hands? These are all classic Tory policies, but brought in by a Labour government.

What some of the ‘don’t stand’ brigade seem to be promoting is little better than a one-party system worthy of the old Eastern Bloc. Even the LibDems aren’t above trying this line. The phrase, “It’s a two-horse race!” will be familiar to voters in local elections throughout the country. It’s the standard headline on the template for their final-week Focus newsletters.

American presidential elections are the standard example of a two-party closed shop but other elections in the USA give me more hope. Directly elected mayors run most cities there, and independent or Green victories are not unusual. Currently, eight towns and cities have signed-up Green Party mayors - in California, New York state, Pennsylvania, Kansas and even Texas - and many independents are successful on the back of ecology-focused campaigns.

Here in the UK, where some towns and cities are taking up the same model, non-party directly elected mayors now run Bedford, Mansfield, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough.

And, let’s not forget, Londoners have also shown an appetite for a Mayor who stands outside the two (or three) party system. Ken Livingstone himself won first as a independent in 2000 before moving back under Blair’s wing. And there’s where the irony lies. At the time, compliant Labour hacks pressured Livingstone not to stand. Can you guess why? “Because you’ll let the Tories in.”

Anyway, enough of that. I’m still standing, convinced a Green Mayor would be a vast improvement, and determined to win every vote I can. No, what I really wanted to talk about this week was of course David Cameron’s haircut.

OK not really. What did catch my eye was the most disgraceful bit of greenwash I’ve seen in ages, brought to my attention twice this week. First, I spotted it in the latest Landrover brochure to come through my door (hilarious people keep signing me up to their mailing list, and I can’t seem to get off it). And then I was sent some shocking photographic evidence by Nick, our local Brighton anti-4x4 organiser.

It seems that everything’s been solved between 4x4s and the environment because now Landrover have got together with offsetting company Climate Care to purchase a basket of indulgences that ‘neutralise’ the manufacture of your new Chelsea Tractor and cover the first 45,000 miles that you drive it to the gym/supermarket/golf course etc.

No, no, no, no, no! How many times do we have to say it? The only justification for taking part in any offsetting scheme (if you can find a good one) is for residual carbon dioxide emissions – after you have done everything possible to cut down.

Climate Care themselves say on their website, “We must work towards low-carbon lifestyles,” so they should be ashamed of themselves for getting involved in this scheme. If you can persuade genuine farmers and tree surgeons to donate to climate projects to assuage the impact of their 4x4 use, then fine, if they do it quietly in the privacy of their homes.

But handing town dwellers an excuse for driving a needless, dangerous waste of resources? And giving them a pious green window sticker with your logo on? Such desperate wrongheadedness must be stopped.

Photograph by Nick Sayers

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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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