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
Photo: Getty
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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