Thursday, 27 November 2008

Abolishing the congestion extension: an odd idea of democracy

Boris Johnson beat Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral contest last May in big part because a lot of people wanted the right to drive their vehicles wherever, whenever and as fast as they like. Now he’s taking the first step towards paying them back for their support by announcing the abolition of the western extension to London’s congestion zone.

Actually, bicycle-riding Bojo didn’t have the ungreen guts to simply abolish the zone off his own bat. He disguised the decision as the product of a public consultation exercise. And he warned those who were ‘consulted’ that abolition would cost a lot of money, cause a lot of congestion, pollute the air in London even more than it is already and generally make life more difficult and unpleasant in the city. So he could palm off all responsibility for this environmental disaster in that bumbling Bojoish manner with a ‘Look, I did my jolly best to make the environmentalist case but the public just weren’t having it and who am I to ride my bicycle roughshod over their democratic verdict?’

The problem is that Bojo’s consultation exercise, in which he promised to ‘listen to the people of London’ and go along with whatever they said, has about as much to do with democracy as a phone-in talk show. Those who bother to express their views are those who feel strongest on the subject.

So, unsurprisingly, it’s those who were being made to pay more for the privilege of driving their petrol combustion engines through any semblance of a sensible transport and environmental policy who shouted loudest. Out of 28,000 responses (London’s electorate numbers 5,044,962, by the way), 67 per cent of individuals and 87 per cent of businesses said get rid of the zone, let us drive for free. You’d have had a similar response if you’d proposed abolishing car insurance.

Much less well-publicised has been the response to Transport for London’s mini-opinion survey on the subject. This was organised to see how representative the responses to Bojo’s consultation exercise were.

The answer is: hardly at all. In the TfL survey, only 41 per cent of individuals (out of 2,000 surveyed) favoured getting rid of the western extension and only half of businesses (out of 1,000). Thirty per cent of individuals favoured keeping it as it is and 15 per cent said they would keep it but make changes to the way it operates (such as easing restrictions in the middle of the day).

On a crude reckoning that makes a 45:41 per cent majority in favour of keeping a modified scheme – which is an odd sort of popular mandate for its abolition. If Bojo goes ahead with getting rid of it – and incurs all the costs of doing so, including the removal of signs and cameras and road marking and all the rest, as well as the estimated £70 million annual revenue loss – let it be clear that it is his decision. He should not be allowed to hide behind some floppy notion of the ‘people’ having spoken.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Council bans Christmas

Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without the familiar seasonal reports of local authority killjoys trying to ‘ban’ it. And like the Christmas displays in the shops, which the laws of commerce now require to be in place before the first leaves fall from the trees, the reports of the bans start earlier every year. This year it was the city of Oxford that was first in the media firing line with the Oxford Mail’s ‘Council set to axe Christmas’ headline on 1 November setting the tone for a spot of ‘political correctness gone mad’-style bureaucrat bashing. The Mail even managed to rope in Sabir Hussain Mirza, chairman of the Muslim Council of Oxford, to lead a chorus of non-Christian, pro-Christmas complaint.

‘This is going to be a disaster. I’m angry and very, very disappointed,’ Mirza moaned. ‘Christmas is special and we shouldn’t ignore it. Christian people should be offended and 99 per cent of people will be against this.’

Against what, exactly? A prohibition on plum puddings and carol singing, a la Oliver Cromwell circa 1649?

Hardly. Instead, it seems the charity Oxford Inspires took the outrageous decision to call this year’s city centre festive lights switch-on a ‘Winter Light Festival’, with the idea of incorporating Hannukah, Diwali and maybe a midwinter solstice bonfire or two. There are still going to be Christmas carols and a Christmas tree and people getting outrageously drunk and shagging each other at office parties and all the other things that make up a traditional Christmas, so it’s hard to see where the axe is falling.

Anyway, as Oxford Inspires spokesman Tei Williams commented, ‘The ceremony takes place on 28 November. It's hardly Christmas if it’s November.’

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

BNP membership list online

'I can't believe it. I own a PC retail outlet and this could ruin me. It makes me want to puke on my shoes.'

Just one of the comments on the highly-entertaining 'North West Nationalists' blog this afternoon about the news that the BNP's entire membership list has been posted online. The details provided include names, addresses, phone numbers, emails and in some cases notes about ages, occupations and interests. One member is apparently a male witch - or was, as I'm told the Pagan community is already moving to kick him out of his coven.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Barack Obama jokes

Okay, that’s enough of a new dawn, new day. The sun’s risen now, Obama’s not yet in the White House but all that can be said has been said. We’ve just got to wait until January for some action. As David Letterman put it, though – anyone mind if he starts a little early?

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to find even one half-funny joke about the president-elect. I’m not picky or PC – I’ll laugh at anything with a bit of wit to it. But a trawl of the usual sources for these things have come up with nothing better than the following:

Q: Why did Barack Obama cross the road?
A: To help the other side.

That was on a right-wing website where they clearly felt that the Good Samaritan was a commie agent. Doesn’t anyone have any good ones?

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Feeling good

Yo Obama!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

My inner Obama

Tonight I’m getting in touch with my inner Obama. My side came back from three goals down with five minutes to go to grab a draw in football earlier this evening, after calling on a bit of that ‘Yes we can’ spirit to defy the odds. I’m assuming John McCain won’t do something similar in the US election, so I’m settling in to savour the most positive political development of the 21st century to date.

Of course there are 101 things I could come up with to diminish the occasion. Obama’s no socialist, no matter what the Republican right may think. I’ve no doubt he’ll leave the major power structures of US society, and the inequality and injustice that go along with them, largely unchallenged and intact. I dare say he’ll disappoint over some of what might be considered touchstone issues. And I suspect he’ll sell the pass on occasion when we’re looking for firm leadership to take a stand.

But no one who has cast half an eye towards the United States over past months can have missed the mood that has accompanied the ascent of the man who will now surely become the country’s first black president. People who never vote, people who are disenfranchised, people who are excluded and unrepresented have been mobilised in their millions in a way that hasn’t happened in two generations. No one else – certainly not the US left or other alternative political movements – has had anything like the impact. If not Obama, then what? Quite simply, this is the best – the only – chance of change we have had in decades.

It’s not just a matter of what Obama himself will do, important though that undoubtedly is. It’s a matter of the dynamic he creates, the opportunities that are opened up, the direction the US is moving in. The old leftist slogan that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government still gets in has never been closer to the truth than in the US, where the division between Republican and Democrat has sometimes seemed so narrow as to defy definition. But the 2000 election should have put an end to that illusion for good. Who can doubt that the world would now be a different, safer place had Al Gore’s ‘stolen’ victory been upheld in court and George Bush and the neocons not been unleashed upon the world?

So the champagne is on ice ready for that ‘Yes he has’ moment. Plenty of time for the provisos and reservations later.

A Tory for Obama

Andrew Boff has been in touch to say ‘thanks... for the very generous review. I should emphasise that I wasn't the main organiser, just a helper but there is common ground nowadays between people who might have been on either side of barricades in the 80s now finding that they are sometimes together in opposing the blunt corporatism of big government.’

I’m not sure how sound that common ground is (Broadway Market is not so far from Hackney Marshes, after all), but Boff is one of that new(ish) generation of Conservatives who are comfortable with civil liberty and personal freedom issues to a degree that would have been inconceivable in Margaret Thatcher’s day. He’s even a member of the intriguing ‘Tories for Obama’ Facebook group. Apart from Iain Dale, though, there don’t seem to be many other Tories of note prepared to nail their colours to the Obama mast, so that might not have been the best of moves if Boff has any future aspirations to higher political office under the Conservative label.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Spirit of Broadway Market

It’s not often you get a Conservative councillor lining up with the Advisory Service for Squatters, the London Coalition Against Poverty, assorted anarchists and a variety of other protesters in support of a Rasta shopkeeper facing eviction by Bahamas-registered property speculators. When the councillor concerned invites you to gather outside the shop to ‘share breakfast [and show] support and solidarity’ on the day that the bailiffs are due to arrive, it’s clear that this is a cause with a wider-than-usual range of local support.

As a Conservative London Assembly member, former Hackney councillor and twice-defeated candidate for Hackney mayor (he’s also failed three times to get the Tory nomination as London mayor), Andrew Boff has his own angle on the eviction of Lowell ‘Spirit’ Grant. But you can’t fault his commitment to the campaign in Spirit’s defence, which saw him mobilising supporters for this morning’s protest breakfast to greet the bailiffs.

Since 1993, when he took over a derelict building on a cheap lease from Hackney council, Spirit has made his home and livelihood at the Nutritious Food Gallery, a Caribbean fresh fish, fruit and veg shop at 71 Broadway Market. When the council decided to sell off the Broadway Market properties in its ownership to property developers a few years ago, Spirit was one of a number of people who stood to lose their shops and homes. The campaign against the sales and the gentrification of the area has involved well-publicised occupations and other protests.

In Spirit’s case, his property was sold at auction – for £15,000 less than he had been prepared to pay for it – two hours after a council official accepted a £10,000 cheque from him as a deposit. Allegations of corruption, made by Andrew Boff and others, led to a formal investigation, which came to no conclusions for lack of any firm evidence. The Bahamas-registered company that bought this and other properties in the area put up the rent by 1200 per cent and then, when Spirit withheld payment in protest (he has since repaid most of it), proceeded to evict him.

The bailiffs were turned away by protesters when they turned up at 9.20 this morning. But Spirit, after years of fighting for his home and business, has agreed to hand in the keys to the property on another occasion. He couldn’t face any more today, and issued a statement to supporters in his absence:

‘Although there is still an enduring determination in me to continue my fight for justice, it has become aware to me that my physical and financial strength will no longer allow me to actively participate in this final act of defiance to keep my beloved property.

From the time I acquired this property back in 1993, it has been a long, hard struggle … At times I have felt completely discriminated against, robbed of my self-worth and dignity and feel as though I am being whipped.

I would like to let you all know that if it was not for the support and strength of the people like yourselves, who have actually given me the determination to physically last until now, particularly the people of Hackney, especially the people of the Broadway Market community who I know are the true defenders of humanity. To you all I give much thanks.

We have tried to keep my home and my shop. However, corrupted forces have prevailed by way of taking it from us for now. My situation at this moment in time is that I have no home and my possessions are scattered all over the city but I still have life and where there is life there is hope. I am very sorry that I am not able to be with you today in person to join in this last act of defiance against this eviction. I feel that this is just too much emotionally for me to witness. I am continually thankful for the support during this distressing time but I ask that your support should only be of peace, love and unity and not to be of any form of violence or intimidation toward the authority ...

I am still fighting the Battle of Broadway along with your continual and much needed support and together we can show the whole of London that we care about our communities and each other and it is what makes us unique and real.’