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 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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide