Thursday, April 26, 2012
Mayor debate posted by Richard SeymourThe organisers of tonight's mayoral debate, London Citizens, took it upon themselves to vocalise #whatlondonwants. That is, as a civil society organisation rooted in the churches, synagogues, mosques, community groups, trade unions and so on, it drafted a moderate agenda for very mild and temperate social reform, and put this to four of the mayoral candidates: Boris Johnson, Ken Livingstone, Jenny Jones and Brian Paddick. The agenda included things like community land trusts and cracking down on dodgy landlords, extension of the living wage, more power and money for civil society groups like London Citizens (this is called better government), safer streets, jobs for young people, and so on.
The actual debate was surrounded by much adornment and ballyhoo. A school choir singing "Lean on Me" while the audience clapped. Many upbeat preacher types exhorting the accomplishments of community and the power of positive attitudes. Headteacher types treating the audience like a school assembly. Children summoning all their courage to mumble their scripted words. "Community leaders" aplenty - a slimy phrase which I detest. I thought to myself: what this event really needs is some corrosive cynicism.
Of genuine interest, however, were testimonials from campaigners and workers, relating stories about a side of London that seemed to make Boris Johnson's head slowly sink forward into his big fat-fingered hands as if to be cradled to a gentle sleep. The most shocking example was of cleaning workers in Hilton hotels, overworked, given no overtime remuneration, and payed such a miserable sum that after rent and utility bills they have only £7 a day to spend on essentials. In London, that's an impossibly small sum. You might want to bear that name in mind: don't caught in a bad hotel.
A few points about the main debate, then. First, quickly, it was only out of politeness that Brian Paddick was actually invited. He's a nice enough fellow for an ex-copper, and he's sporting some very sexy new glasses. And I thought to myself, I thought: "blimey, Brian, you ain't as ugly as I thought". And he even has some policies that aren't complete dogshit. But he's a Liberal, ergo he's a dead man walking. And he didn't do anything to improve his chances. If Jenny Jones wasn't such a repellent candidate for the Greens (more in a momen), they would easily take third position. Aside from anything else, Paddick is far too fond of cliche phrases along the lines of: "not just once a year, but 365 days a year", "taking this forward", "passionate about London ... passionate about people", "same old punch and judy politics". And I thought to myself, I thought: it's lucky Siobhan Benita isn't here as she would have nothing left to say. Which just goes to show, Brian Paddick is not a natural politician. He would be far happier giving up all this lark, growing his hair a bit longer and living with some scrumping hippies in the West Country.
Second, this was a naturally Labour audience. It always is. The organisers make a point of being polite to the point of obsequious to all the candidates, and this ensures a warm reception for everyone. This was true during the general election, when Clegg and Cameron were both feted with every sign of being returning footballers holding aloft a shiny new cup. Yet, despite this, you may recall, Gordon Brown carried the event on a wave of euphoria, and had one of his few real moments during that campaign (because he sounded briefly and vaguely like a Labour person). So, it's Labour territory. This was Ken's to lose; and, he didn't lose it. His fares policy was extremely popular, but not as much as his pledge to restore the EMA for London students. The latter, I would think, he should probably be making more of. His housing policy is pretty bland and not that distinguishable from his rivals. On the police, he hasn't changed his schtick - he's about getting Londoners and coppers 'on the same side again', and putting more officers on the beat. Soft on police crime; soft on the causes of police crime. But it was mainly on issues of national significance that he pulled ahead of his rivals. He beat on the government's public spending cuts, and said that as the economy had just tipped into recession it was obvious they'd taken the wrong course. (Well, they don't think so). He also hammered the bankers, and said that the problem was fundamentally about how they and their greed had been allowed to set the tone in politics and industry for a generation or so. This was all very popular. So, I think he was the de facto London Citizens candidate. And I think he will push Johnson very close in this race.
Third, Boris Johnson confirmed every thesis I have advanced about his campaign, which makes me even cleverer, if that is possible, even cleverer than you imagined me to be. First of all, Johnson wanted nothing to do with being a Tory. He did not once rise to defend Tory ideas. The only whiff of it was when he gently patronised the audience over the call for youth jobs, by saying: "I don't want to create 100,000 new jobs if there aren't young people out there with the skills and the aptitude to do them". But this was small beer when he wouldn't even defend public spending cuts - far from it! When his chance came, he rose to echo Ken Livingstone in saying that, of course, Mr Obama was absolutely right and one should never cut public spending in a recession. He then went on to list his various investments. Then there was the dog that didn't bark. You see, when faced with a simultaneous campaign to impose a Living Wage and create jobs, the Tory's instinctive response is to say, "no, you create jobs by cutting wages. You can have high wages and high unemployment, or low wages and low unemployment. But you can't have high wages and low unemployment, by the power vested in me by hidden hand of the free market." Boris? He was all for the living wage, all for more jobs, all for everything the London Citizens wanted. And, well, if he was inconsistent or coy, he is such a skilled gaffeur that he could amiably bumble and bluster his way out of tight spots. He didn't even raise an eyebrow when he said he would put Ray Lewis - yes, Ray bonkers Lewis - in charge of the Living Wage. Now, of course, it's true that Boris was addressing a Labour audience. But this hesitancy to come out as a Thatcherite, the unwillingness to be seen dead near the government's policies, the desire to come through this without bearing any of the stigma of actually being a Tory, is indicative of what he's about. Boris Johnson wants to lead the Conservative Party. Moreover, his willingness to publicly bash government policy - such as the granny tax - shows that he is unafraid of anything his old friend Cameron might do to him. He knows the leadership is weak.
Finally, and apologies for the slight change of tone, but just who the fuck does Jenny Jones think she is? If you want to patronise and berate people, probably you shouldn't stand for election. If you don't like the sound of other people's voices, maybe just go stand in a corner. Of course, this will sound harsh. But when I tell you that, first of all, she was boring - very boring - you will begin to see my point. And patronising. She patronised the audience not just on the detail of policy, but in every nuance of her tone. Like Brian Paddick, she had a few policies one wouldn't completely turn one's nose up at, but I got the feeling she was there mainly to heighten her profile in the GLA and shore up Ken for a future working relationship. And when she opposed the idea - advanced by London Citizens - of free transport for students, she did so in a tone of voice that was rather like mummy saying 'you can't have that, but it's for your own good'. She explained that her opposition was partially on the grounds of environmentalism, which strikes me as both dishonest and reflecting the worst elements of green anti-consumerism. After all, it isn't as if most students have any choice but to use public transport - all keeping these punitive fares does is ensure that they spend more of their money on the necessary commutes, and less on things they need. Then, when booed for this policy, she chastised the audience "no, you're not allowed to boo me, they [the organizers] said so". Not a joke, this - complete poker-face all the way through. Yes, it's true that the organizers had proscribed booing, but a) this is a pretty risible, pettifogging prohibition at a political debate, and b) if you're a politician and you get an audience this friendly booing, blame yourself. You fuckwit. Jenny Jones lost votes tonight. And if this is her form, which I believe it is, she's a terrible candidate.
So there you are, London. Your choice. You lucky, lucky city.