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.