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
Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.