Thursday, 11 December 2008

Worth checking out

Some interesting stuff that has caught my eye recently:

Broadcasting guru Richard Rubin has a wise and thoughtful piece about dodgy BBC outsourcing, the Ross/Brand affair (expressing exactly my own thoughts about how this was just a particularly ghastly example of what has become a "nasty, cruel and very regrettable" aspect of British popular culture), and how TV stars can get radio wrong. Also fond memories of meeting Kenny Everett and Keith Skues.

In Ross's case, there can be little doubt that the negative coverage was partly prompted by his outrageous but seemingly sincere belief that his £6,000,000 a year contract with the Corporation was "worth a thousand journalists". It was that remark that prompted me to stop listening to him -- I rarely watched him, in any case -- because the BBC must have, as its irreducible core, robust, well funded and well staffed journalism, and the thought that, at a time when it was cutting journalist posts, such cuts were helping to pay this grossly overcompensated 'star' was offensive, to say the least.
There is a new edition of Joel Crawford's online mag Carfree Times. Among other things, he puts forward An Agenda for President Obama. Nothing less than the fate of the Earth is at stake, he says:
It has become apparent that we simply cannot continue growth in the manner prescribed by the World Bank and the IMF. Unfettered capitalism is the road to vast riches for a very few people, a better standard of living for many, but not all, people, and massive damage to the ecosystems that sustain life on Earth.

The only solution is a completely different approach. We must focus not on material standards of living but on quality of life. (.....) Rising material standards of living have led, in the main, to a falling quality of life. We must focus not on goods, the manufacture of which is nearly always accompanied by damage to the environment, but on services, which can provide a livelihood to enormous numbers of people while improving the quality of life and protecting the environment. One service in desperate need is indeed the repair of damage we have already done to the environment ..... 

He goes on to deal with the transport and energy implications in particular. With the aim of ending dependence on fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, he calls of course for a national system of renewable electricity generation, but also, in the short to medium term, for an urgent large-scale programme to reduce energy consumption in all buildings (labour-intensive work which will provide many jobs), an end to new housing in rural areas and distant suburbs, a new tax on air tickets, a ban on all airport expansion, and heavy public investment in the railway network. The article focuses on the USA but most of what he says applies everywhere, and it is well worth reading in detail.

Progressive London is a new website designed to keep alive the progressive policies of Ken Livingstone. It is cross-party, not a purely Labour affair. It is campaigning on various fronts, including a petition against the latest above-inflation fare increases.

Intriguing revelations from Christian Wolmar, who claims that the Cabinet is deeply split over transport policy:
On transport, it is clear that Geoff Hoon has little truck with the environmental agenda. He is a definite supporter of the third runway at Heathrow, the touchstone issue in this debate. A host of younger Cabinet members, such as the Millibands, more tuned into the Green agenda, are ranged against him. Gordon Brown's instincts are to side with the arguments in favour of economic development and I suspect that means the third runway will get the go ahead in the New Year. 
Bendy buses revisited: following my posts in March and September, London Travelwatch has given its attention to TfL's proposal to abandon bendy buses on, in the first instance, routes 38, 507 and 521. I am happy to say they wholly agree with me that this is a stupid idea:
London TravelWatch believes that there are overwhelming advantages in terms of accessibility, manoeuvrability in limited roadspace, loading and dwell times at stops, and economies of operation to the use of articulated buses on routes with high volumes of passengers. In particular these are very suitable for use on routes which serve main line railway termini where large volumes of passengers often arrive at stops in very short spaces of time from arriving rail services.
Congratulations also to Dave Cole, who has been following this issue as well, and has managed to extract some information from TfL. One commenter on his blog points out that the proposed replacements for the Red Arrow routes (507 and 521) will lead to a net increase in the amount of road space required of 21% and an increase in the number of drivers required of 82%.

And finally, European socialism is back, according to Neil Clark in the Staggers and Naggers:
Across the continent, there is a definite trend in which long-established parties of the centre left that bought in to globalisation and neoliberalism are seeing their electoral dominance challenged by unequivocally socialist parties which have not.

Train of the day

Super art deco design: "The Rocket", streamlined diesel, on the Rock Island Line (USA), 1937.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Happy birthday to Edmundo Ros

I am delighted to learn from Russell Davies's excellent Radio 2 programme that Edmundo Ros is still with us, and celebrating his 98th birthday this week.

Those of us who grew up in the 1950s remember when he and his Orchestra, with its very good band arrangements, seemed to be hardly ever off the wireless (BBC Light Programme), except when it was Victor Silvester or Sandy McPherson.

Edmundo Ros surely did more than anyone else to bring Latin American popular music to Britain. I honour him by presenting here his signature tune, Cuban Love Song:

Cuban Love Song - Edmundo Ros

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Grim news on transport in London

A couple of months ago I attempted to draw up a quick balance sheet of Boris Johnson's record on transport issues over his first few months in office.

At the time there was (a bit of) good news and (rather a lot of) bad news.

Since then, all the news out of City Hall has been dismal in the extreme:

(1) The Cross-River Tram scheme has been scrapped. This is a serious blow to hopes that Britain could resume its earlier progress towards catching up with our continental neighbours in the matter of sensible use of light rail in cities. The undoubted success of the tram schemes in Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Croydon has made it clear that there is nothing peculiar about the UK and that here, just as in France, Germany, Holland, Spain and elsewhere, trams are easily the best transport solution for high-density routes in cities.

In addition, the only opposition to the Cross-River scheme was coming from one or two loony maverick petrolhead Tories. Everybody actually involved, in particular all the boroughs along the route of all political hues, was very much in favour of it. All sorts of consultations had already been held by TfL, even down to the precise line of route (I declare an interest: I live near the route and took part in that consultation). There was none of the groundswell of local feeling against it that characterised the West London tram that Ken Livingstone wanted to introduce along the Uxbridge Road and which was scrapped earlier.

Boris Johnson says he is not against Cross-River in principle, and that the plan might come back on to the agenda if funding can be secured. But that is no good. Even if the go-ahead had been given now, it was going to take ten years to build it, which I find incomprehensible (the Victorians managed to build tram routes in months, not years). In effect he has junked the plan and all the work that has already gone into it. Funding could certainly have been organised if the political will had been there at City Hall and national level.

The consequence of this is that we have bequeathed to future generations more congestion on the roads and on the Tube, and a less livable London. We have also extinguished the hopes of deprived areas like Peckham that they will ever get properly connected to an efficient transport network, or benefit from the wider regeneration that that would bring.

(2) A lot of the initial coverage of Johnson's long-term idea of a new airport in the Thames Estuary assumed that this would be INSTEAD OF Heathrow. As he himself has often said, Heathrow is in the wrong place. But he made clear during Mayor's Question Time the other day that there was absolutely no question of shutting Heathrow. Any new airport would be AS WELL AS existing capacity at Heathrow. It is merely supposed to be an alternative to an extra runway at Heathrow. So the final effect of it would be a huge net increase in total airport capacity, which is exactly what we do not need at this point and which the citizenry, I suspect, simply will not put up with.

The only cheering note in all this came from Vince Cable, who as MP for Twickenham represents a lot of constituents angry about aircraft noise. He said last week that whatever Geoff Hoon finally announces (mysteriously and intriguingly, the announcement has just been postponed until the end of January), he is confident that the third runway is never actually going to get built, for a variety of practical, financial and political reasons. I am inclined to trust Vince Cable to know what he is talking about.

(3) The western extension of the congestion charge will be abolished. This makes no sense from an environmental, transport or urban-planning point of view, and seems to be a straightforward caving-in to the Jeremy Clarkson petrolhead tendency. It suggests that Kulveer Ranger has won the argument about "modal agnosticism" and that we are now supposed to go back to regarding the private car as equally entitled to take up scarce urban road space (a finite public resource), despite the fact that its use of this resource is enormously inefficient compared with other road users (bus passengers, cyclists, pedestrians).

(4) Once the DLR extensions that are already well under way (to Stratford International and Woolwich) are finished, no further extension to the DLR will be planned. So the longer-term ideas of pushing it eastwards to Dagenham Dock, and westwards from Bank to Fleet Street, Charing X and Victoria (part of which would have exploited some existing disused infrastructure), are dumped.

(5) Thoughts of extending the tram network in Croydon seem to have fallen off the table.

What are we left with? Well, there is Crossrail, and contrary to some recent whispers it does now look as if this is going ahead. That is very good, but some are worried that part of the financial justification for it is based on the assumption of a third runway at Heathrow. Although nobody has, as far as I know, suggested anything so crude as a straight quid pro quo, one might wonder whether the BAA share of the funding, for instance, would melt away if they see that they are not going to get their wretched Heathrow extension. Are we going to be told that we can only have Crossrail if we also get the third runway?

Crossrail is a very long-term scheme, the benefits of which will not appear before ten years from now, at the earliest. Much more urgent, indeed a lot more important than anything else, is getting on with upgrading the existing Tube services. Some work is pottering along, but there are big delays because of the funding crisis. One tube station near me has now been boarded up for nearly three years, with no sign whatsoever of any work starting behind the hoardings. TfL has a jolly website called "We are transforming your Tube" which attempts to put everything in the best possible light, but if we look at the details we see that the Bakerloo Line, for example, is not going to be finished until 2020, even if all goes to plan from now on. And the trains on that line are already 36 years old.

Here, the mess we are in is NOT BoJo's fault, and not Ken Livingstone's either. The blame lies with Gordon Brown, and his crazed sidekick, former investment banker Shriti (now Baroness) Vadera, who concocted the Public Private Partnership scheme on which squillions of taxpayers' money has been wasted in a now completely discredited attempt to part-privatise the modernisation work. As Chris Randall writes in Rail Professional magazine:

Despite fierce opposition from London's then Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and his transport commissioner Bob Kiley, who, with great prescience, described the public private partnership as 'fatally flawed', it was steamrollered through by Gordon Brown. Four years later, one of the contractors, Metronet, folded owing £2bn, causing prime minister Brown political embarrassment. And now the remaining contractor, Tube Lines, is demanding at least an extra £1.4bn of public money to plug a widening funding gap.
And yet New Labour seems never to have uttered a word of contrition about this. They continue to behave as if the PPP is a wonderful idea. And Baroness Vadera is rewarded with a ministerial job (not at Transport, thank goodness).

Monday, 17 November 2008

Baby P and local vs. national

Here is an important philosophical issue that keeps arising in politics, but never seems to get any nearer to being resolved: the tension between local decision-making and central government control.

I am among those who have argued in the past for a large dose of decentralisation from Whitehall and Westminster on those issues that can better be decided locally. This used to be long-standing Liberal Party policy. In more recent times, the Tories have also used the rhetoric of decentralisation (although in reality Mrs Thatcher was a great centraliser, the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan authorities being only the most egregious example).

The Labour Party, by contrast, has tended (with some exceptions) towards a centralist view, both on the old left and among social democrats. I remember this being eloquently expressed by Neil Kinnock when he was fiercely opposing Welsh devolution in the 1970s.

The public (led by the gutter press) seems to be completely at sixes and sevens on this question. On the one hand, they seem to like the idea that "the man in Whitehall" does NOT know best. A good example of where I agree with them is the recent grotesque micro-management by the Department of Transport of local railway services all over England (though not Scotland and Wales), even down to how many carriages a particular train should have. Some of the railway franchises have been absurdly tightly specified.

On the other hand, when some local autonomy is granted, leading inevitably to different outcomes in different places, a huge clamour goes up against the "postcode lottery". That very phrase implies an expectation that everything ought to be identical everywhere -- the complete opposite of the local accountability that people say they want.

In theory, the trick is supposed to be to locate each sphere of decision-making at the most appropriate level for the function in question. This is what the EU calls "subsidiarity". The trouble is, when it comes down to it, how do you reach any consensus about what that level is?

Steve Richards ponders this question in relation to the dreadful events in Haringey:

In the abstract, the political fashion is for localism, especially in the Conservative Party. It is a common theme of the Tories: let a thousand flowers bloom! Central government should keep out of local matters even if things go wrong!

I have heard shadow cabinet members argue that, when in government, if things go wrong locally, they must declare that the crisis is not their responsibility. Yet look what happens when a single local story makes the national front pages. Cameron leapt in and demanded that the government acted. Within hours the government did act. The only issue was whether it should have done so earlier. No one was arguing that this was a matter for Haringey council and that it was up to the voters to kick out the ruling administration at the next local election.

As Steve Richards points out, giving the London Borough of Haringey the local autonomy to decide its own affairs has also meant that that same council was free to make calamitous mistakes. Most mistakes by local authorities do not get as much publicity as this one, but any reader of Private Eye's  "Rotten Boroughs" column knows that there is no shortage of examples of gross mismanagement, even -- or perhaps especially -- by big councils with their hugely overpaid, self-important chief executives.

And yet we do not, I think, want to abolish local government: on the contrary. One step forward might be to improve local accountability by electing local authorities by STV, so that there would not be such a tendency for some of them to be a permanent one-party state, as Haringey is for Labour.

Then again, can it seriously be claimed that the quality of decision-making at national government level is all that much better, when we consider all the monumental cocks-up that have been made in recent times?

Let them eat cake

I popped into Waitrose yesterday to get a few odds and sods, not including booze as we had enough of that for now.

Looking at my half-full trolley, I guessed I had probably spent about 40 quid, or 50 at the outside.

Here is the bill: £92.95. I thought the lady at the checkout must have made a mistake, but no, it all adds up.

Happily, the boyf and I are on reasonably good pensions. How the poor are supposed to manage, I have no idea.

Railway poster of the day

This is from the pre-1948 LNER (London and North Eastern Railway). I remember my mother, who grew up in east London between the wars, saying it used to be known as the Late and Never Early Railway -- a reminder that public moaning about the railways did not begin with nationalisation.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

An amazing night; a wonderful day

I hadn't originally intended to stay up all night for the US election results. But I'm glad I did. 

It was a marvellous result. Obama's acceptance speech was inspiring and, I think, an historic moment. Today we can dare to feel a little bit more hopeful and optimistic about the world.

The trouble is that, despite all the understandable rhetoric, the extreme right has not actually gone away. If we needed any reminder, it came this morning on The Daily Politics with the appearance on Andrew Neil's sofa of the appallingly nasty Anne Coulter. 

47% of the electorate, which is still after all nearly half, voted against Obama. Some of them are the people who were energised by the ludicrous Sarah Palin. 

These people could be incredibly dangerous. It is a measure of how deluded they are that some of them believe in all seriousness that Obama is a communist. (Actually, watching one or two of his policy speeches, I am tempted to see him in European terms as more or less a Christian Democrat.)

I fear that these lunatics will now be so angry that at least one of them will try to kill Obama. I just hope his security people will be up to the mark and not let him take any rash decisions, as Kennedy did when he rejected advice to ride with the bullet-proof lid on his car in Dallas in November 1963.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Plus ca change ...

Nice little snippet in Richard Rudin's blog:

What a change from when we were last all together and today. I mean, in 1973, there was an unpopular Republican President in the USA, trying to extricate himself from a very unpopular war, there was a major economic crisis looming at home, Bruce Forsyth and Doctor Who dominated Saturday night television, Terry Wogan was doing the breakfast show on Radio 2…oh, hang on!

Sunday, 19 October 2008

My fantasy Cabinet

A very sharp piece today by Andrew Rawnsley points out that neither of the current front benches has any credibility at all in the present crisis situation:
Gordon Brown in June 2005 giving the Chancellor's annual speech to the City at the Mansion House (.....) paid lavish homage to 'your unique innovative skills, your courage and steadfastness'. They had his personal thanks 'for the outstanding, the invaluable contribution you make to the prosperity of Britain'.  (.....)

Gordon Brown surpassed himself when he returned in 2007 to deliver his final Mansion House speech (.....) 'A new world order has been created,' he proclaimed. Britain was 'a new world leader' thanks to 'your efforts, ingenuity and creativity'. He congratulated himself for 'resisting pressure' to toughen up regulation of their activities. Everyone needed to follow the City's 'great example', emulate this 'high value-added, talent-driven industry'. 'Britain needs more of the vigour, ingenuity and aspiration that you already demonstrate.' Thanks to their 'remarkable achievements', we had the huge privilege to live in 'an era that history will record as the beginning of a new Golden Age'.

(.....) What he then hailed as a 'Golden Age', the Prime Minister now deplores as an 'Age of Irresponsibility'.
David Cameron comes out of all this no better. In June 2006, Rawnsley reminds us,
he trumpeted 'the victory of capitalism, privatisation and liberalisation'. (.....) It proved that 'light regulation' and 'low regulation' were 'keys to success'.
(.....) In September 2007, Mr Cameron (.....) chose to amplify his thesis about the ascendancy of unconstrained capitalism. In a section entitled 'The End Of Economic History?', he answered the question by declaring that: 'The debate is now settled.' 'Liberalism' had prevailed. The left's silly idea that markets required tight regulation had been thoroughly discredited. 'The result? The world economy more stable than for a generation.' 
All this being so, perhaps it is time for a Government of National Unity. We have coalitions in wartime and now we are at war against the danger of economic meltdown. Here are some suggestions for a Lib/Lab/Con coalition cabinet that brings in sensible people of talent irrespective of party, and that removes from office those most tainted with blame for getting us into the current mess:

Prime Minister: Kenneth Clarke
Chancellor: Vince Cable
Housing: Jon Cruddas
Transport: Norman Baker
Leader of the House:  Tony Wright
Energy and Climate Change: Michael Meacher
Culture: Gerald Kaufman
Chief Whip: Charles Kennedy
Europe: David Curry
Leader of the Lords: Chris Patten
Foreign Secretary: Ming Campbell
Business: Chris Huhne
Communities: Diane Abbott
Education: David Willetts
Social Services: Frank Field
Health: Evan Harris
Security: Dame Pauline Neville-Jones
Immigration: Damian Green
Defence: Sir George Young
Environment: John Gummer
Justice: Bob Marshall-Andrews
Home Secretary: David Davis
Scotland: Malcolm Bruce
Wales: Lembit Opik

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Whither the railways?

Gordon Brown's partial nationalisation of some big banks has prompted new interest in the question: what else might be about to go bust and could usefully be nationalised?

Almost every essential service, seems to be the answer. As far as transport is concerned, airlines are already going bust all over the place, but most of their services are anything but essential. Railways are a different matter, and historically it has always been the case that passenger numbers fall sharply in times of economic slowdown. If we are really going into a severe recession, several of the companies operating the existing railway franchises could easily go down the pan. When their premium/sudsidy agreements with the DfT were drawn up, steeply rising ridership into the distant future was the forecast.

I noted the other day that New Zealand, having privatised its railways, has decided that the experiment was a failure, and has re-nationalised them.

Now comes news that Germany, which has been gradually moving towards rail privatisation for some time, is abandoning the project. It will keep its major railway network, Deutsche Bahn, in public ownership after all. (Some smaller branch lines there are already operated by private companies on a franchise basis.)

True, the form that the German privatisation was going to take was not nearly as stupid as the British one. Railwaymen on the continent have for years been citing the British model as a classic lesson in how not to do it. But even their more sensible version will not now go ahead.

Meanwhile, Christian Wolmar observes that re-nationalising our railways need not in fact cost anything, contrary to what ignorant politicians like Peter Hain keep saying. CW writes:
What New Labour refuses to let on is that the railways are effectively largely publicly-owned anyway. Network Rail, which owns the infrastructure, is a company without shareholders that is dependent on government backed debt (to the tune of £20bn), for its survival. It receives billions in annual grants direct from government and is, to all intents and purposes, a state-run enterprise.
So all that needs to happen is for the operating companies to hand back their franchises either when their terms expire or when they get into difficulties.

Nobody should worry that public ownership need involve excessive interference by civil servants. On the contrary, one of the great paradoxes of the railway privatisation saga is that we have ended up with far greater micro-management by Whitehall of services, rolling stock deployment and timetables now than was ever the case under British Rail, which in fact was an arms-length operation rather like the BBC. 

The present structure is also phenomenally more expensive than the old one, both for the taxpayer in subsidies (BR in its latter days was actually rather efficient in its use of resources) and for the passenger in fares, some of which are astronomically higher than in any comparable country. Truly we now have the worst of all worlds.

Neil Clark, founder of the Campaign for Public Ownership, is naturally cock-a-hoop at recent developments

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Cripes! Boris goes all Keynesian

Well, I never. Until a couple of days ago or so, all Tories and the people they represent were scornfully dismissive of J.M. Keynes and everything he stood for.

How the worm turns! BoJo in today's Torygraph extols the virtues of Roosevelt's 1930s efforts to spend America's way out of depression by such projects as building the Hoover dam: 
It is no wonder, frankly, that the average tourist to America still spends a lot of time looking at 1930s infrastructure, because Roosevelt's New Deal created 122,000 public buildings, 77,000 bridges, 664,000 miles of road and 285 airports, as well as jobs for 8.5 million people. Like the German autobahns - built at roughly the same time - these investments were indispensable to the country's future growth and economic might.
The lesson to be drawn, says the Mayor, is that in our present economic mess we must press on with big projects in London: Crossrail for starters, various other rail schemes, the Thames Tideway tunnel, and maybe, in the long run, his favourite fantasy, a new airport in the Thames estuary:
We will beat this recession more speedily, and emerge in far better shape, if we make sure we put people to work in projects that boost the long-term competitiveness of the country. That means investing in the things that can radically improve the transport, attractiveness and general liveability of the capital city, the motor of the British economy. We may be in a hole, but the lesson of history is that tunnels and bridges and dams can bring jobs and growth.
Boris Johnson's attempt to pose as the new FDR is a bit rich: Crossrail and the other rail schemes, notably the transformation of the North London Line into the London Overground and the inclusion in the latter of the extended East London Line, due to open in a matter of months, were planned and got started under his predecessor, Ken Livingstone. BoJo has merely inherited them all. Ditto the various DLR extensions that are well under way.

Still, his confidence that Crossrail is definitely happening is reassuring. Presumably he knows something we don't, because all the rumours recently have been to the effect that the project is being drastically scaled down, as first noted back in August by The Railway Eye and later picked up by Private Eye.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Eight bits of good news

Not everything is gloom and panic. Here are eight pieces of good news on the transport front.

1. The US government is suddenly spending money on 15 projects to boost intercity rail passenger capacity. Amtrak carried more passengers in July than in any month since it was set up in 1971.

2.  Road travel in the USA fell by 9.6 billion vehicle-miles in July.

3. The European Parliament has rejected enormous pressure by the motor industry to water down new EU regulations on fuel efficiency and lower CO2 emissions for motorcars.

4. New UK car registrations fell by 21% in September. The BBC report implies that this is assumed to be a "Bad Thing". They are essentially regurgitating a press release by that gang of shameless crooks, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Obviously, for the rest of us it is a Good Thing.

5. Aviation worldwide will lose more than £5bn over 2008 and 2009, with scores of airlines expected to go bankrupt, according to the IATA. This is excellent news. (But do not travel on airlines you've never heard of, and do not buy shares in any airline.) The unsustainable nonsense of "cheap flights" must surely now be almost at an end.

6. October's Modern Railways reports (text not on line) that building work has started on Edinburgh's new tram system. The first line will link the airport to Leith via Haymarket station and Princes Street. No thanks to the SNP minority government in Scotland, who tried to junk the scheme when they came into office.

7.  As a by-product of the Thameslink programme, Catford Loop trains from Sevenoaks that currently terminate at Blackfriars will, from next March, be extended through to Kentish Town, Monday-Friday. This appears to mean a 50% increase in frequency, from four trains an hour to six, between Elephant and St Pancras. Unlike Crossrail, the Thameslink scheme is now, at last, visibly going ahead and will cost far less while bringing improvements of a similar order, once it is all finished in 2015.

8. The new Rail Minister is Lord Adonis, who is a railway enthusiast. Christian Wolmar has the background.

Monday, 6 October 2008

"Casino capitalism and sheer greed"

Will Hutton is one of the few people who appears to have a clear idea about what has gone wrong with the financial system and what must be done to put it right. His long piece in yesterday's Observer, This terrifying moment is our one chance for a new world, is an absolute must-read.

Hutton writes that the crisis has been 30 years in the making, caused by "libertarian free-market fundamentalism, unregulated globalisation, the collapse of social and political forces committed to fairness, the explosive impact of financial innovations ... and sheer greed".

He notes that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union (though I'm not too clear what that really has do with it), there emerged in the USA "an ideological commitment to the view that government regulation had no place whatever in the economy".

(My own take on this has always been that the emergence around that time of new technology that facilitated further globalisation made it easy for these far-right economic notions to take over the world in what is essentially yet another form of American imperialism. Trotsky told us long ago that you can't have socialism in one country; but now we cannot even have European social democracy in several countries, though it worked perfectly well in most of Western Europe for several decades and remains, I am sure, the preferred model for most Europeans. Because American fundamentalist capitalism wanted untrammelled free-market forces to let rip, all based purely on individual greed, the whole of the rest of the world was somehow obliged to follow suit.)

Anyway, Will Hutton forensically sets out the stages that were gone through to reach the present mess, with ever more obscure financial instruments to disguise what was going on, ever more grotesque opulence for the wealthy few who benefited, and an ever-growing gap between rich and poor. "There was no effective opposition", he says: the left everywhere simply collapsed as an intellectual and political force:

There was no conviction that any alternative to this shareholder value-driven financial, 'securitised' capitalism existed, or any political muscle to support it even if there were. Mainstream culture moved away from public purpose and fairness; the new priorities were individual self-fulfilment, personal experience and loyalty to self.
This kind of ruthless, selfish, short-termist, fundamentalist capitalism, which now seems to be self-destructing, is contrasted with the "stakeholder capitalism" that he espoused in his 1995 bestseller The State We're In. He puts forward, in some technical detail, his plan for what now needs to be done, involving the creation of a new system, "built around different principles -- a long-term commitment to building businesses, support for investment and innovation, and fairness". To achieve this, the government must become the biggest shareholder in the financial system, so that banks are forced to behave differently -- "to move from financing casino capitalism to productive enterprise". He concludes:
The world of go-getting investment banks has gone forever (.....) What we are witnessing is a system failure that requires a systemic response – the creation of a new system that sponsors a fairer, more productive capitalism in its place, while maintaining high flows of credit and debt.

This is a terrifying moment; but it is also our generation's once-in-a-lifetime chance to change British capitalism. Brown has an awesome responsibility to his party and his country. I hope he rises to the challenge.
In the following 13-minute extract from last Thursday's This Week, Hutton outlines some of his ideas and discusses them with Andrew Neil, Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott (the soundtrack is slightly out of sync, apologies).

End Of Part One

My mention in passing this morning of Brian Walden reminded me to look out this very funny clip from a now completely forgotten TV comedy show of around 1980 called End Of Part One.

To get the most out of this, you have to be old enough to remember (1) Brian Walden presenting Weekend World -- living embodiment of the "Birt-Jay thesis" -- every Sunday morning, and (2) an extremely irritating Welsh trade union leader called Clive Jenkins.

Reshuffle (2): Tom Harris

Who knows what was in Gordon Brown's mind when he sacked Tom Harris from the government over the weekend: these things often seem unfathomable, with pretty useless people being promoted while manifest talent is left to rot on the back benches.  It was ever thus: I remember Harold Wilson's inexplicable failure to give jobs to Brian Walden, John Mackintosh and Tom Ellis.

In the case of Tom Harris as Rail Minister, though, one can only say "good riddance". What was the point of giving that particular job to a man who doesn't like railways? He it was who put forward the preposterous idea that the government should be "modally agnostic", i.e. he could not bring himself to say that it is better for us all if more people go by train and fewer by car.

Of course he could just have been parroting what his civil servants told him to say. The head of rail at the DfT, Dr Mike Mitchell, has been fingered many times in the railway technical press as the source of a great deal of nonsense, notably the department's rabid opposition to further electrification until it was forced recently into a U-turn.

UPDATE:  Christian Wolmar now reveals that Tom Harris admitted to him that he (Harris) had got it wrong about modal agnosticism.

Railway poster of the day

This is from New Zealand - where, incidentally, the privatised railways have recently been renationalised.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Reshuffle (1): Peter Mandelson

To the avalanche of comment over the past 48 hours, I add just two short points.

(1) I think many observers haven't taken account of the fact that Mandelson has been in a very high-powered job for the past few years. This is no doubt largely because the insular and ignorant hacks in this country don't understand anything about the EU and its institutions.  Some people still imagine that the Commission is a sinecure, and merely a graveyard for failed domestic politicians. Having worked there myself, I know that that is nonsense.

The job of Trade Commissioner, in particular, is extremely powerful because trade is one of very few policy areas where the Commission has a wide remit to negotiate binding agreements on behalf of the EU as a whole. And the fact is, Mandelson is regarded as having been pretty good at it.

So, whatever we think about the man and his politics, he comes back into British government a much more substantial figure than when he left.

(2) I was surprised to see it suggested in yesterday's Telegraph that one reason for Mandelson's undoubted unpopularity in the country at large is his "feline manner and his homosexuality". Surely his being gay is not relevant. Nobody minds that Alan Duncan is gay. Nobody minded that Chris Smith is gay. Surely in 2008 we have left all that behind. The reason people don't like Mandelson is that he comes across as very devious, which I'm pretty sure he is. (Mind you, so is Gordon Brown, so now they can be devious together.)

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Countries I have visited

visited 31 states (13.7%)
Create your own visited map of The World

Updated to take account of Cyprus trip, though it is almost too small to be visible here.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Back from Cyprus

We have just spent a week in Cyprus, thus becoming briefly part of that singularly unprepossessing group, The British On Holiday Abroad.

Not too guilty about my carbon footprint, as this was the first time I've set foot on an aeroplane for almost two years. My policy is to fly only if surface transport is completely impractical. Getting to Cyprus by rail and boat would take about a week in each direction

In any case, I wouldn't want to get on a plane unless I absolutely had to. Air travel is tremendously stressful, wearying and uncomfortable. It must be the most uncivilised form of transport ever devised. It is also extraordinarily unreliable: we arrived seven hours late on the way there, and two hours late on the way back.

Purpose of visit: The boyf spent his childhood in Limassol, and wanted to show me where he grew up. Much has changed out of all recognition, but he managed to find still standing the house in which he lived up to 1958.

Limassol has been largely spoiled by tourist overdevelopment. Nicosia is more interesting: oddly, the tragic fact of its political division since 1974 has been a blessing in disguise, in one respect -- it has clearly enabled the historic centre to remain unspoiled.

It is very encouraging that political tensions have recently relaxed to the point where visitors can now cross easily into the Northern (Turkish) sector.  The two communities in Cyprus now have leaders who appear genuinely to want to make progress towards what has in theory long been the agreed solution, a bizonal, bicommunal federation. This is the obvious compromise between the single unitary state that the Greeks originally wanted, and two completely separate states, as once hoped for by the Turks.

But there are an awful lot of thorny and sensitive details to settle, and talking to people on the ground it is far from obvious that the optimism expressed in this Guardian piece by Mary Honeyball is really justified. Let us hope it is.

Meanwhile, good news and bad news on the environmental front.

The bad news is the complete dominance of the motorcar and the car-culture mentality. Everybody is assumed to possess one. Visitors have to hire one, or take taxis. Public transport is dreadful. (I think Cyprus might be the first country I have ever visited that has absolutely no railways at all.) Bus services range from sporadic to non-existent. Provision for pedestrians in Limassol is lamentable, except along the seafront. Where there are pavements, you usually find them completely blocked by parked cars.

The good news is that practically every house, in the south at least, has solar panels on the roof. It is a very sunny country, and they take advantage of this to heat their water.

Busy heffalumps of the day

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Gordon and the money men

I was thinking of writing all sorts of stuff about the financial crisis, but others have said everything there is to be said. Here is Richard Ingrams in Now we all have to pay for the banks' mistakes:

At the root of the current crisis there is a simple and quite easily grasped fact, namely that banks were lending large sums of money to people who they knew where unlikely to be able to pay it back.

(.....) When you look back to find out how this sad situation arose, you find the trail leads, as so often, to Margaret Thatcher. Because it was her government that did away with the sensible restrictions on the amount of money that banks could lend to house buyers.

Another of her bright ideas, you will remember, was to sell off all the council houses. So that now when a couple default on their mortgage payments and have their houses repossessed, the state is in no position to help them.
And here is Henry Porter in The City's greatest lie was to convince us we were all rich:
The well-being felt in the boom years was an illusion (.....) The many have paid for the obscene enrichment of a few and will be doing so for years to come. 
However much Harriet Harman rails against city bonuses now, Labour cannot escape the reality that the government presided over the widening gap between rich and poor while helping bankers by deregulating and hedge fund managers with the special non-dom tax status. In terms of policy there is not a lot to separate Labour from the Republican Neocons.
The assumptions of recent decades, against which some of us have been raging for longer than we care to remember  --  that we must be "relaxed about people getting filthy rich" (i.e. greed is good), and that market forces will solve all problems -- are at last being called into question. What is really encouraging me at the moment is that this questioning now goes far beyond the traditional left. Here is Katharine Whitehorn in the BBC online magazine:
"How many economists does it take to change a light bulb? None; the market will take care of it." The only trouble is, it won't.

It's not just the markets as such, though that make me grind my teeth; market forces may be fine when they apply only to the markets. It's the conviction that commercial principles are always the most efficient; that anything done for private profit and in competition must always be better and more effective than anything done for any other fudsy old reason such as the common good.

Sometimes I feel as if I'd spent the first half of my life being told, without any obvious evidence, that anything run publicly, by government or the council or whatever, had to be better than anything run commercially; and the second half being told, equally without any evidence, that anything run for private profit must be better - and evidence of the fallacy of this pious belief piles up all the time.

This summer we've had, for example, the complete failure of the outsourced firm that was marking the exams of our schoolchildren. The latest Home Office loss was achieved by a private company that misplaced a memory stick.

And in the past there was the now widely mocked Internal Market at the BBC, and the privatisation of the railways, which even those who believe in the principle think was done the wrong way. 
I detect a new, strong mood in the country of outrage against bankers, speculators and fatcats with their obscene bonuses. This outrage clearly now embraces Middle England as well as the usual suspects. I hope Gordon Brown will seize upon this moment to do what he only half hinted at in his big speech yesterday -- to move decisively against the City crooks and shysters and to work much more transparently for a genuinely fairer and more equal society. He must stop kowtowing to the markets, which are nothing more than a huge casino in which greedy people gamble with other people's money.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Boris and transport: latest balance sheet

The latest newsletter of the London local group of the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) is out. You can download it here (PDF file). 

It reports good news and bad news on the progress or otherwise of the new Mayor - but sadly more of the bad than the good. (Why am I not surprised at that?)


- Isobel Dedring is the Mayor's new Environment Adviser. As former head of TfL's policy unit she entrenched the policy that car traffic must be restrained. This seems to presage a clash with the new Transport Adviser, Kulveer Ranger, who, as I noted a week ago, has delivered himself of the absurd view that all transport modes are equally valid.

- The Mayor says he wants to develop a scheme to protect local shops in the suburbs. If he means it, this will involve being much less accommodating to the big supermarkets (and their associated carparks) than any local politician hitherto.

- So far, the cycling and public transport investment programmes have been maintained in the budget.


- Fares are going up by 6%.

- Ken Livingstone's "100 Spaces Programme" has been dropped. This "would have reversed decades of traffic domination in many strategic locations".

- CBT fears that Boris not only is set to abolish the Western Extension to the Congestion Charge, but might be "softening us up" to scrap the charge altogether. (I slightly doubt whether he could get away with that, myself.)

- The planned pedestrianisation of Parliament Square has been scrapped. So this highly symbolic space in front of Britain's most iconic landmark, supposedly the cockpit of the nation, will remain a mad, roaring jumble of people-hostile traffic.

- As threatened in his election campaign, the £25 congestion charge for gas-guzzlers will not go ahead.

- The Mayor appears to be backtracking on his earlier opposition to the Thames Gateway Bridge (one of TfL's few major errors in Ken's term of office), an environmentally unsound proposal which, if built, would generate much extra private car traffic.

- He has also backtracked on his opposition to expanding London City Airport. As CBT notes, it looks as if he has been "got at" by big business. (What did we expect? He is a Tory after all.)

- It is expected that traffic lights will be rephased in favour of cars and at the expense of pedestrians, starting almost immediately.

- No sign at all, apparently, of any long-term thinking at TfL on the financial and environmental unsustainability of running a fleet of 8,000 diesel buses. Boris seems to have junked Ken's small experiment with hybrids, no doubt because at present they are fiendishly expensive - but this could turn out to be a false economy in the long run.
(UPDATE: It turns out I was wrong about the hybrids. The hybrids trial is being expanded.)

- The Mayor seems to be blowing ominously cool towards the already much-delayed cross-river tram project. Residents, borough councils and businesses potentially affected are overwhelmingly in favour of it. It would be a catalyst for regeneration in deprived areas like Peckham. Its benefit-to-cost ratio is good. But Boris is apparently listening instead to the idiot Tory MLA Brian Coleman, whose distinctive platform is an irrational vendetta against all tram schemes, in the face of evidence (Manchester, Croydon, Sheffield, Nantes, Grenoble, Montpellier, Nice, Bordeaux, Zurich, Melbourne) that well-planned tram schemes bring huge transport, environmental and social benefits.

- Eight major new developments under way in London, such as the huge new shopping centre shortly to open at Shepherd's Bush, have an average of 8,000 parking spaces each as currently planned. This, of course, isn't Boris Johnson's fault, but as CBT notes, if he is serious about tackling congestion "he will need to ensure that parking provision is substantially reduced during the planning process". It is not sufficiently appreciated how much new parking provision acts as a magnet to traffic growth from many miles around. That, naturally, is what the developers want. In the long run, such developments accentuate the vicious circle of an increasingly car-dependent society, a process which happily has, up to now, gone less far in London than most other places, especially in inner and central London. In part this is precisely because of the relative lack and/or expensiveness of parking. This is not just an "outer suburbs" problem. The proposed new Stratford City in inner London, adjacent to the Olympic Site, is planned to have over 11,000 parking spaces. This nonsense must be stopped.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The sad demise of the bendy bus in London

Dave Cole writes that he actually uses bendy buses every day. He regrets the fact that they will be disappearing from his route when Boris Johnson's absurd and ill-informed (and expensive) election pledge kicks in next year.

As Dave points out, these buses are particularly well suited to the short, high-density "Red Arrow" routes, which have to mop up large crowds of passengers at mainline rail terminals. Lots of people are getting on and off all at once, making the bendy's three wide doors ideal for fast loading and unloading. The journeys are mostly too short for it to be worth the bother of trailing up stairs and down again.

In the case of route 521, there is also the problem that double-deckers won't be able to go through the Strand underpass, so they will get stuck in the traffic going round Aldwych to get on to Kingsway.

Dave notes that getting rid of these buses is policy based on tabloid prejudice, rather than the boring facts on the ground.

I myself wrote about bendy buses back in March, when it was still possible to hope that Ken Livingstone would get back in and put a stop to all this nonsense. I noted then that the anti-bendy campaign was being run by aesthetes and commentators who probably did not much use buses themselves, and that actual regular users were largely favourable. Now we have an "actual regular user" speaking up to that effect, but it is too late.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Train of the day

This is the first of Southeast Trains' new Hitachi "Javelin" bullet trains on test a few weeks ago. Next year these will start running at 140mph from Dover, Ashford, Canterbury and Ramsgate into St Pancras via the Kent high-speed line.

I'm sure it is a very nice train, but can you believe that all this new hardware is being shipped all the way from Japan? How does this make economic sense? We have perfectly good train manufacturing plant in Birmingham Derby, and if they are too busy just now with the new rolling stock for the Victoria Line, there are very good railway factories just across the channel in Belgium and northern France, which (unlike Japan) are our EU partners. But then, that's yer globalisation, innit?

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Michael and Sarah Palin

Could they by any chance be related? Neil Clark has produced a clever surreal fantasy which made me laugh.

Next in this series: a special gay edition, Hugh and Brian Paddick ...

Saturday, 13 September 2008

London congestion charge

For readers in London: You have only a couple of weeks left to respond to TfL's consultation on possible changes to the Western Extension to the congestion charge zone. The Tories on the London Assembly say they want to abolish the Western Extension altogether. Boris Johnson's own current view is less clear. For more background on this, see The Tory Troll.

Give your views via this on-line questionnaire. It only takes a minute.

A new national anthem?

I have always loathed God Save the Queen, partly because I feel no loyalty to either God or the monarchy, but also because it is such a dreary, depressing dirge.

Now Peter Tatchell has launched an appeal for a new national anthem on the grounds that the existing one is "all about slavish deference and idolatry -- the veneration of aristocratic privilege, inherited status and monarchical rule. It promotes jingoism, war, imperial conquest and the British people's subservience to god and royalty."

He is right, of course, but what to put in its place? Blake's Jerusalem has a splendid uplifting tune by Hubert Parry, and can be read as a call for a better society, which is no doubt why it was the Labour Party's theme song in the 1945 Attlee landslide election. But the words are pretty weird and mystical ("And was the holy Lamb of God On England’s pleasant pastures seen?") and, according to Wikipedia, nobody can really decide what Blake meant by them.

Then there is I Vow to Thee, My Country, which has the advantage of not referring to any specific country by name, which at least gets over the England/Britain problem. Gustav Holst's tune is kind of OK, though it doesn't come to a lump-in-the-throat climax at the end, which I feel a national anthem ought to do. The words (by Cecil Spring-Rice) are more or less all right if you leave out the jingoistic middle verse, as people usually do. But they don't seem to be saying anything much of value.

Far and away the best from a purely musical point of view, surely, is Land of Hope and Glory. You could not hope for a better or more inspiring tune than Edward Elgar's masterpiece. A.C. Benson's lyrics are a bit unsuitable, especially the imperialistic line about "wider still and wider". Why not adapt the words for modern use, replacing the God-and-Empire stuff with something that better fits a secular and multicultural society?

While almost anything would be better than God Save the Queen, I am not at all sure I want somebody to write a new song altogether. It would almost certainly be dreadful. They'd probably get talent-free "celebrities" like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to write some nasty, banal, tuneless horror. Let us stick with Elgar!

Sing While You Sell

This is one of my favourite musical numbers. It's from The Big Store (1941, Charles Reisner), the last film with several Marx Bros in it, and regarded by Marx Bros aficionados as far from their best. It's always said that the Bros hated being made by MGM to do big musical numbers like this, but as far as I'm concerned it's easily the best thing in the movie, with a great song by Hal Borne, superbly orchestrated in early-1940s big-band swing style. The close-harmony singers are Six Hits And A Miss, and the extraordinary deadpan solo is by Virginia O'Brien. Fantabulosa!

Friday, 12 September 2008

Boris Johnson, the motorcar and the destruction of civilisation

Neil Harding has a brief post entitled What A Time To Be Pro-Motorist in which he points out that, bit by bit, Boris Johnson is moving away from the previous policy of seeking to reduce the role of private motoring in London and to increase that of public transport, cycling and walking.

The previous policy, known as "road user hierarchy", was enthusiastically embraced by Ken Livingstone, but actually introduced in the first place by the Tory Steve Norris when he was a junior Transport Minister in the 1990s. As Transport Times writes in its July issue:

The policy was introduced not because of any hatred for the car. Cars are the most inefficient form of transport when it comes to moving people on scarce road space. Based on average occupancy figures, a bus is six times more efficient in the number of people it can move for every yard of infrastructure than the private car.

The objective in any crowded city where space is at a premium must be to move people as efficiently as possible.

In stark contrast, continues Transport Times, Johnson's transport adviser Kulveer Ranger told the London Assembly: "No mode should be seen above any other. There's no hierarchy here. Those people who need to travel by car get a fair crack of the whip, as do cyclists, bus users and Underground users."

As Green Party MLA Jenny Jones commented: "The implications for me are that they don't know what they're talking about. They've promised to speed up traffic and reduce congestion and to make things better for cyclists and pedestrians – but it's impossible to do both."

For some more of what Johnson is up to on transport, see this piece by Simon Fletcher (a former Ken Livingstone staffer) on the Guardian blog: bus fares going up, kids' tube fares increased, the extra congestion charge for gas-guzzling vehicles abolished.

From the comments on Neil's blog item, it is evident that some people still haven't grasped that cities are for people and not motorcars, and that private cars are to be tolerated only "on sufferance", if at all, in city centres. This means that pedestrians, cyclists and buses should always have priority over cars, and if the cars get stuck in jams as a result, that's tough. That congestion will in itself help to dissuade idle and selfish motorists from careering around unnecessarily in their tin boxes on wheels.

Those of us who subscribe to Carbusters Magazine have long been familiar with these ideas. For those who are not, there was an excellent letter in the Guardian Weekly the other day from a reader in Tasmania, Annie March. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be on their website, so here are extracts:

Cars are a lie. The real costs of the mobility, freedom, comfort and power that they promise include environmental and cultural mayhem in oil-producing regions like the Niger delta; the Iraq war; the 1.2 million people who die every year at the hands of the motoring Moloch; ecological disasters caused by oil spills; and the fouling of earth, air and water during all phases of the life-cycle from the extraction of raw materials to the eventual disposal of the corpses.

As much as 35% of urban land is colonised by cars -- by noise, toxic fumes and acts of violence waiting to happen. This appalling monoculture has turned our cities into wastelands (.....) Car-based mobility has trumped not just community but common sense; divide the time spend driving, paying for, servicing and grooming a car by the distance travelled and the answer is walking speed.

Our addiction to cars is holding the future hostage and driving a planet to death.

What I like about this letter is that it stands back and gives the bigger picture -- it is not only in the environmental sense that the motorcar is destroying our civilisation, but also in the distortion, in all kinds of ways, of urban life to accommodate it, and its deleterious effect on human relations and society generally. Even if a completely non-polluting car were invented, cars would still be bad for us. The problems go much wider than just pollution and congestion.

UPDATE: Christian Wolmar is also on the case.

Matt Damon on Sarah Palin

I agree with the lovely Matt Damon. This is a terrifying prospect.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Further thoughts on leadership

Polly Toynbee deserves some credit for integrity recently. The other day she flatly admitted on Newsnight that she had got it wrong about Gordon Brown. "Sometimes you only find out when it is too late", she said (or words to that effect) of the business of trying to judge who will make a good leader.

Now, in yesterday's Grauniad, she mounts a new, despairing attack on the Prime Minister, and finally comes round to the view I have taken all along:

The imaginary Blair/Brown ideological distinction has now been exposed as the sham it always was. Brown used to let it be known he opposed university fees, war, ID cards, Trident, foundation hospitals and a host of other things he now supports. The 10p tax band abolition to bribe the better off was a wickedness entirely of his own devising. Letting rip the disastrous house price boom was him, as was letting top earnings soar unchecked while reckless banks had "light-touch regulation" and public sector workers were pinned to below-inflation pay. The sad truth is that he opposed Blair, not Blair policies.

I have said before that, throughout all the years when it was being taken as read that Brown would automatically be much better than Blair, I could never see it myself. I could never get anyone to tell me exactly what was supposed to be so good about him. Maybe, I concluded, I just haven't seen that much of him. I assumed that these people must know more about him than I did, and knew what they were talking about.

But many people, including oneself, can be amazingly wrong when it comes to deciding who will be the best man for the job. Who can forget the Tories' astonishing decision to go for the patently hopeless Iain Duncan-Smith when they could have had Kenneth Clarke, still even now one of the sharpest and most popular politicians in the country.

I also think back to November 1980 when Michael Foot became leader of the Labour Party. I was working for a Labour MP at the time, and I remember leaving the House of Commons with him that night. As we walked along Victoria Street looking for somewhere to eat, we were both delighted that, as we felt on that day, the right decision had been made.

It has all been forgotten now, but at the time, the point of choosing Foot was essentially that he was neither Tony Benn nor Denis Healey. Foot was supposed to be the person who could unite a badly fractured party. In retrospect, this seems absurd.

Looking back now, it is blazingly obvious that Denis Healey would have been the right choice in the long run. As things turned out, it was to be another 17 years before the party got back into power.

The lesson I draw from this is that nobody really knows who will prove to be any good. Maybe I am completely wrong in being unable to see why on earth some people think David Miliband is a sound idea.

Of course, this matters only if you think, like most of the commentators just now (Alan Watkins dissenting), that Labour couldn't possibly do any worse under a new leader than it is doing now, and just conceivably might do slightly better, i.e. reduce somewhat the size of the incoming Tory government's majority in 2010.

For what it's worth, I say give it a go, preferably with Alan Johnson. My main concern is to maximise the chances of the Lib Dems being in a position of leverage in the next House in order to get some progress on constitutional reform. For that to work, we need the two main parties to be fairly close to each other in numbers of seats. It's a long shot, but hope springs eternal.

UPDATE: The Tories are now worried that Labour might actually dump Brown, according to this piece on the Spectator blog. That fact alone suggests that Alan Watkins is probably wrong for once. If Tories want Brown to stay, it is presumably in Labour's interest that he goes.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Total Politics: that review in full

In a rash moment the other week, I bought a year's subscription to the new monthly magazine Total Politics. My copy of the first issue has now turned up, after a delay.

It's published by Tory activist and blogger Iain Dale, but it aims to be politically neutral. To guarantee this, it has an all-party/non-party editorial board including Paddy Ashdown, Chris Huhne, Denis MacShane, Shami Chakrabarti, Caroline Lucas and David Trimble. The editor is one Sarah MacKinlay, whose only previous claim to fame, as far as I can discover from Google, is that she is the daughter of a Labour MP.

The first thing to be said is that, in terms of design and presentation, the magazine certainly looks good. But so do lots of glossy mags, some of which look better than they actually are (think dentists' waiting-room fodder or in-flight airline mags). Does the content of Total Politics, on closer inspection, match up to the first impression?

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. You could divide political journalism into perhaps four broad categories:

(1) Debate about policies themselves, or "policy wonkery": what are the issues, and what should be the policies to tackle them?

This is a pretty saturated area, and it's hard to see that there is any room in the market for more. For instance, all the posh dailies and Sundays have plenty of this kind of stuff, and if that's not enough there is the Staggers, the Speccie, Prospect, Progress, Tribune, the Economist, the LRB, etc. etc. There is no shortage of opinions about policy. In fact, in my view there is already far more of this than anyone can cope with. What's lacking is a consensus, on almost any subject you care to name. But we knew that already, and perhaps it was ever thus.

The main example in this issue is a head-to-head on the smoking ban, one year on. It's certainly good to look at past reforms and take stock of how they worked out in practice, and we could do with a lot more of that. I always think there is not enough learning from past experience. (Railway privatisation, anyone?) The protagonists in this (smoking ban) case are Madsen Pirie, long a leading member of the "revolving bow-tie" wing of the loony far right, and Polly Toynbee, high priestess of the social-democratic nanny state. These are two old pros, and Ms Toynbee's piece in particular is probably the best-written slab of text in the whole mag. No surprise there -- not for nothing is she the top columnist on a big newspaper.

The trouble is, there can hardly be anyone out there who can't guess exactly what both these writers are going to say, before they have even read a word. It would have been much more interesting to find somebody less predictable to comment on this issue. This piece could perfectly well have appeared in the Mail, and for all I know it probably has.

The other significant policy-wonk item is a rather partisan article by Labour MP Denis MacShane, arguing that the Tories currently lack a coherent foreign policy.

(2) "How to do politics", and discussions of the machinery and processes of parties and the political system.

This is potentially much more interesting and useful, and there is quite a lot of it. Some of this is the kind of thing Alan Watkins and Anthony Howard often write about, with a valuable historical perspective. (We need old men to remind us that there is nothing new under the sun.) But there is also stuff here you might not easily find elsewhere, which could be very handy, less perhaps to sitting MPs than to those who hope to be elected some time soon: Tory spin-doctor Lynton Crosby on how Boris won in London, how to handle negative campaigning, what to do about your internet presence, tips for making good speeches (though these could surely be found in any of dozens of self-help paperbacks in your local WH Smith), how to choose the right PR outfit, and more.

There is also a moderately interesting article about the armed forces and the little-considered question of their voting rights and voting behaviour.

(3) Psephology, in its broad sense.

Under this heading we have such items as Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher on the relationship between local and national elections; and Andrew Hawkins of pollsters ComRes on the parallels between 1997 and now. This is all good, interesting, workmanlike stuff, though again there is little here that one would be surprised to find in any of the broadsheets or the political weeklies.

(4) Who's up and who's down, gossip about personalities, the lifestyles of politicians, where are they now .....

TP contains a good deal of this much more superficial material, and most of it I can take or leave. There are the obligatory gobbets of unfunny "humour", mercifully confined to about three pages in total. There is a little bit of intriguing history: I never knew Sir Francis Drake was an MP. The diary page, by somebody called Clemency Burton-Hill, is actually quite sharply written, and ably captures the essence of the current mood in the Westminster bubble, except that one paragraph of it has got completely garbled, presumably at the production stage.

Most interesting to me, no doubt because this is a hobby-horse of mine, is an article by a David Seymour (who he? we are not told) arguing that the political world in this country has become far too fixated on youth, and that we ought to give older contenders more credit for their accumulated wisdom and experience. Amen to that, say I.

Two items I could very happily have done without are (a) how to buy a good suit, as if anyone would look to a political magazine for such advice -- for heaven's sake, do please leave out this dreary "lifestyle" crap: we are all drowning in it everywhere we turn -- and (b) two whole pages of vapid Clarksonesque guff about various politicians' favourite cars (why is it taken as read that everyone has a car, and who gives a toss anyway?). Incidentally, the article about suits includes Alan Duncan telling us to "wear braces only if you want to look like a twit" -- so presumably we can now expect a certain froideur between Duncan and his Tory front-bench colleague Eric Pickles, who has proved such a star recently, his braces notwithstanding.

= = = =

Not really fitting into any of the above four categories is the cover feature, an interview with Gordon Brown. I suppose if you ask for, and unexpectedly get, an interview with the Prime Minister, you are more or less obliged to make it your cover story. Unfortunately it turns out to be not very interesting. Brown tells us nothing we didn't already know. The mag tries to sell us the idea that it got a scoop when Brown makes what can be seen as a veiled criticism of Tony Blair's style. But he said something more or less identical to this the day he took office a year ago, and it was widely reported at the time.

There is a breathless, schoolgirlish sidebar by the editor in which she tells us how thrilled she was at being let into 10 Downing Street. Bit of a giveaway, that: plainly these people are not the experienced journalists one might expect a serious magazine to employ.

A couple of minor quibbles on layout and design: some of the articles look like advertisements, and I almost turned the page without reading them. Don't set the body text of editorial in a condensed sans-serif face. Don't use white text on a black background -- it's much too tiring to read.

Less minor quibbles of a general nature: this magazine urgently needs a decent subeditor who understands about syntax and punctuation, and especially how to use commas. I'm afraid the editor herself clearly doesn't. There are dozens of missing commas. To quote only one example:

"All the more surprising then that he arrives for the interview, flanked by his special press advisor in a relaxed frame of mind."

This means that (a) it was surprising that he arrived for the interview at all, and (b) his press advisor was in a relaxed frame of mind.

I also noticed, just in the first half of the magazine until I got tired of counting, at least ten phrases whose sense would have been helped by the insertion of a hyphen ("create a two way dialogue", "thought provoking articles", and so on).

Having got that out of the way, I come to my one BIG complaint. There is an enormous elephant in the room, and it is this: You would never guess from this magazine that Britain is a key part of the EU, and has been for 36 years. There are some 30-plus articles in this issue, and in only one of them could I find any mention of the European Parliament, even in passing. That comes in the aforementioned Denis MacShane article about Tory foreign policy, and one could hardly imagine MacShane writing anything that was not at least partly about the EU, given his background; but even there, it is not really the main point of his piece.

As someone who worked for years in Europe as well as at Westminster, I find this lapse quite astonishing. I can only suppose that it stems, unconsciously perhaps, from Iain Dale's blinkered Eurosceptic mindset. But to any of the thousands of Brits working in politics in Brussels, it will seem utterly bizarre.

I note that there is one MEP (Caroline Lucas) on the editorial board, and MacShane himself is on it too. I trust that they will bang the table about this.

The net effect is to make the magazine seem terribly parochial. There are a couple of items to do with "abroad" - but both of them are about America, from which we all hear far too much already. The recruitment of somebody like Timothy Garton Ash or John Palmer or Mark Leonard is urgently indicated.

Friday, 11 July 2008

42 days - latest

I said all along that I thought Nick Clegg had made an error in deciding that the Lib Dems would not stand in the Haltemprice by-election.

Jonathan Calder at Liberal England seems to be of the same view, pointing out today that the LDs appear to have gained nothing from the deal.

I seem not to have been alone in my view that the right thing to do in the circumstances was to vote Green. Their candidate came second, with over 7% of the vote, quite respectable in such a stolidly conservative and reactionary place.

As for the overall outcome, it doesn't seem to have moved us on very much. The "great debate" did not really materialise. The government's position is completely untenable, but it already was. It still looks to me as if Davis was probably playing some sort of internal positioning game within the Tory party.

Meanwhile, Lady Bullying-Manner has said that the 42-days plan is both wrong in principle and unworkable in practice. And she is the former head of MI5! Ha ha ha!

Coming on top of the fact that the measure was already opposed by the former Attorney-General, the former Lord Chancellor and the present Director of Public Prosecutions, Brown's astonishingly inept and useless-looking regime seems to have less and less of a leg to stand on, whichever way you look.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Tories ARE still the nasty party

We have been led to believe in recent times that the Conservative Party has ceased to be "the nasty party" (in the words of Tory MP Theresa May), and is now thoroughly nice.

This may or may not be true of the party leadership, but if anyone thinks it might be true of Tory party activists, just have a look at Vote Tory and bankrupt The Guardian on the ConservativeHome website.

See the true character of the Tories. Such unpleasant, intemperate spleen. Don't they realise that non-Tories can read their spiteful ramblings?

And how revealing it is that, when they already have most of the press on their side anyway, and always have had, they should be looking for ways of destroying one of the few bits of the media that is not on the far right. Freedom of speech? Forget it.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Farewell then, Charles Wheeler

I must pay tribute to Charles Wheeler, who died today aged 85. I always thought he was just about the best radio/TV reporter ever.

I saw him only a year or so ago in a library, still beavering away at some research.

My boyf worked with him at the BBC in the 1970s and says not only was he six times better than any other journalist around, he was also a jolly decent chap. They don't make them like that any more.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Carfree Times

Joel Crawford has a new issue of his occasional online mag Carfree Times.

In addition to the usual nice pictures of carfree cities (above: Lagos, Portugal), there is a report on the sad failure of a plan for road pricing in New York. In other and better news from the USA, higher fuel prices are putting the brakes on suburban sprawl: the property prices that are NOT falling, or not nearly so much, are those that aren't 40 miles from work.

There is also an interview with leading traffic scientist, Professor Hermann Knoflacher, entitled Cars Are Driving Us Nuts:

The car is like a virus that beds in your brain and totally subverts behaviour, values, and perception. A normal person would call our present living space completely insane. (.....)

Urban planning requires cars to be as close as possible to all of our social activities. That's how you destroy the natural habitat, public transit, local supply, and eventually the social network that humans have established in millennia.

However, the good news is that the looming energy crisis may come to our rescue.

Various interesting stuff

A quick round-up of some links found in recent days:

Matt Wardman has a wonderful video clip in which a German TV reporter ambushes various MEPs in the act of clocking in at the European Parliament at 7 in the morning, purely in order to claim their attendance allowances, before flying straight back home. Typically, the response of the Parliament authorities was not to tackle the abuse, but to eject the reporter from the building. This sort of thing gets the European institutions a bad name. (When I worked at the EP in the 1980s, everyone knew this went on, but I thought the authorities were supposed to have fixed it long since; clearly not.)

Richard Corbett MEP welcomes the High Court's rejection of an attempt by betting tycoon and Tory party donor Stuart Wheeler to get a ruling that there must be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. (Declaration of interest: 30 years ago, Richard interviewed me for a job, which I did not get.)

Harry Barnes wonders how on earth Tony Benn can possibly support David Davis in the "contrived" Haltemprice by-election.

Dave Cole, like me, would vote Green if he lived in Haltemprice. He thinks Tony Benn's position is "cuckoo".

Neil Harding draws our attention to another candidate in the by-election, rape victim Jill Saward, who is standing on a very authoritarian law'n'order platform.

Alan Watkins says "I told you so" over the incompetence of Gordon Brown.

Polly Toynbee dissects the pros and cons of ditching Gordon Brown now rather than later. Either way, she doesn't really think it is going to happen, and there is no point in it unless there is going to be a much clearer definition of Labour's purpose: "No one need bother urging any new leader to step up to the plate unless they have a better answer to this: what's Labour for and what is it definitely against?"

Mary Dejevsky considers the upside of the rise in motoring costs. People are going to have to change their lifestyles and become less car-dependent. This might include travelling less altogether, with less sprawl and more compact urban living: "Fuel costs present city authorities everywhere with what may be a unique chance to demonstrate the financial and lifestyle benefits that can accrue from economies of scale."

Michael Savage asks why Andrew Gilligan and the Evening Standard are still obsessing over Ken Livingstone, despite having succeeded in getting him removed from office.