Sian goes whaling

Exciting times as Sian goes head-to-head with a whale plus the glamour of a rickshaw ride in Leicest

We’re in the final week of the Welsh, Scottish and local election campaigns and, quite frankly, I’m on tenterhooks.

I was helping out Leicester Green Party this weekend. No pedalling myself around this time – oh no. I was transported up from the station in a swanky rickshaw eco-cab, to visit shops and knock on doors in Castle ward, which is officially the most marginal ward in the country for the Greens.

Four years ago, our candidate failed to be elected after reaching a tie with the Labour candidate for third place in a three-councillor ward, enduring four recounts, and then watching as the other candidate’s name was drawn from a hat. After all that, Green lead candidate Matt Follett and his team have been working hard to make sure they win with votes to spare on Thursday.

This time next week, the political map of the UK could be very different. Last year Labour lost control of several councils they had run for decades, including Camden where I live, and now a virtual meltdown in Scotland doesn’t seem out of the question. The Scottish Greens are being talked about as a potential partner in a new government.

Unusually for an election campaign, there’s lots of talk about green issues in the media. I have never been busier, and top of the list is of course bins. The rush for councils to make their recycling targets in the face of a steep increase in landfill tax next year, has meant nearly a third are going for the ‘panic button’ option of cutting mixed waste collections to alternate weeks, in the hope this will force people to recycle more.

This has left many households hanging onto their food waste (rarely collected by councils for recycling) for a fortnight, with some unpleasant results. I was called onto Newsnight to argue with ‘shock jock’ James Whale, which was fun. Although he wasn’t exactly engaging in sensible debate, (“Green - isn’t that something that comes out of your nose?”) I do have some sympathy for the campaigners – and not a lot of sympathy for councils that are playing catch-up after failing to invest in full recycling before now.

It seems it’s not just the media who have got the environment high on their agenda. Polling organisation MORI ask the public every month what they think ‘the most important issues facing Britain’ are. It’s an open question – people don’t choose from a list – and the results are classified into groups such as prices, education, defence, etc. afterwards.

You can look at MORI’s results going back to 1974 on their website. Anything relating to pollution and the environment has only been given its own category since 1988, but the results since then make fascinating reading. After reaching the heady heights of 35 percent (ahead of everything else) in July 1989 and staying mainly above 20 percent for another year, the growing recession of the early 1990s sent green issues back to the bottom of the pile for a while.

But, since 2003, there has been a sure and steady rise. A couple of big jumps in the past few months has seen nearly 20 percent of people bring up environmental concerns for the first time in ages, and it’s now figuring almost as high as education.

What this means for Thursday’s polls I don’t know. We’re expecting a record result above 10% as I mentioned last week, but that’s just based on election results a year ago and our canvassing. Thursday might prove even more exciting than we imagine.

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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.