A concept illustration of the new Crystal Palace, produced by the ZhongRong Group.
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Boris Johnson’s plan to sell public land for a new Crystal Palace will be a terrible boondoggle

The idea of building a new Crystal Palace in south London appeals to the Victorian Toryism in Boris Johnson, but it would be another pointless, aesthetically-bankrupt legacy the capital will have to deal with.

Whether or not Boris Johnson runs for another term as London Mayor or whether he heads off to the shires to prepare his assault on Downing Street, he will have left a very peculiar built legacy in London. Where Ken Livingstone saw letting developers get their way as something of a Faustian pact, attempting to extract “planning gain” – public realm works, affordable housing, etc – in exchange for permission to build, Boris has no qualms about giving rich builders carte blanche, and is fond of a good old-fashioned vanity project.

First came the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the utterly pointless and aesthetically inept viewing platform for the Olympics, and then it was the Emirates Air Line, the similarly pointless cable-car river crossing. There is the New Bus For London, a bigger, heavier, more pointless bus than what Londoners had before, not to mention the ill-fated Barclay’s sponsorship of Cycle Hire. Johnson’s usual strategy is to find a mega-wealthy sponsor to contribute some – but not all – of the funds required to build his urban trinkets, in exchange for branding opportunities and no doubt various other negotiated preferences. And in Sydenham, south London, it looks as though Boris might be trying to build his grandest, most pointless project yet.

Johnson’s new billionaire friend this time is Ni Zhaoxing, head of the ZongRhong Group, a Chinese state-backed real estate company, and the prize he’s offering is a chance to rebuild the Crystal Palace, that magnificent symbol of Britain’s glorious industrial history. But that’s not quite what’s happening. What is actually going on at the moment is that six of the UK’s best architects are working on proposals to build a new building inside Crystal Palace Park on the site where the original building stood. This will be “in the spirit” of the Crystal Palace, and at the moment will apparently house a “cultural asset/visitor facility”, art galleries, observation deck and a six-star hotel.

It’s not hard to see the problems in this. Crystal Palace Park is “Metropolitan Open Land”, and it’s not clear that Boris had the legal right to offer it up to someone to build something there, let alone something with a footprint of nearly one million square feet – roughly equivalent to the O2 in Greenwich. It’s also not clear that there’s any demand for a building of that scale out in a suburb of south London, and even if there were, it’s not clear that the transport infrastructure could cope with the amount of people who would visit a building of that size. And beyond these issues, there’s basically no way that some kind of ill-defined “cultural programme” and a hotel could make a building of that size commercially viable. So it’s perfectly right that local residents and politicians are highly suspicious of the process, as it appears that Johnson (and Bromley Council) are trying to hand over public land to a private developer who simply haven’t made up their mind what they want yet, and will probably in the end build something that will make them a profit, such as, just possibly, a shopping mall.

The Crystal Palace is a fantastic brand for a conservative, a potent image of the Victorian glory days of 1851 when Britain was the most powerful country in the world and host of the very first world event, the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, to demonstrate this fact. The incredible pre-fabricated palace, designed by the gardener Joseph Paxton, has also cast a long shadow over architectural history as an archetype of functional design, and there is no doubt that this new project would be a dream commission for many on the architects long-list.

But there’s another history: the Crystal Palace was only an exhibition hall for six months, and in 1854 it was rebuilt as a permanent facility. In its new guise it held museums and galleries, winter gardens, art and engineering schools, and a number of concert halls (of which the largest could accommodate an audience of 23,000). Intended to provide an educational, uplifting space where the classes could mix, it struck a public chord, and for many writers it even became symbolic both of a social utopia where humans lived in harmony with nature, but also a rationalist dystopia where all mystery in the world had vanished forever. At various points it was a popular venue, but at that scale it verged on being financially useless and went bankrupt a number of times before being taken over by the government in 1911. One wing burned down in 1866, and by the point it was completely destroyed on the 30 November 1936 – described by Churchill as “the end of an age” – it was on the verge of ruination.

It’s worth noting that the period in which Britain was showing itself off at the Great Exhibition was the same period it was violently opening up China to foreign trade. So if Johnson wants to rebuild this shimmering symbol of Britishness, he may find that it has somewhat unwelcome historical resonances – decline, failure – to the ones he’s aiming for, and one wonders if he’s considered the potential ironies in this latest mighty work of his.

 

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.