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The Politicians We Deserve?

City Hall “Rubbish, rubbish, you’re talking rubbish!” cries the Mayor of the greatest city in the world.

“Boring, boring, boring!” chants an elected member of the assembly that’s supposed to be holding him to account.

Welcome to Mayor’s Question Time at London’s City Hall.

Labour leader Ed Miliband worries that the weekly bun-fight at Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament “subtracts from the reputation of politics.”

He should take a stroll eastward and cross the Thames. He’ll see how Mayor’s Question Time leaves that reputation in shreds.

The Mayor is of course, Boris Johnson who sits at the centre of a horse-shoe of desks. Behind him are the sloping glass walls of the City Hall chamber. Stunning views of the Tower of London, the Gherkin building and the river frame his famous blonde[2]

The subjects under discussion, including sponsorship of the city’s bike hire scheme and the budget for building new homes, are serious.

The debate, if one can call it that, is not.

Questions from the Labour members are often lengthy and repetitive. Answers from the Conservative Mayor are evasive at best. Attempts to get any firm information from Mr Johnson are met first with bluster and when that doesn’t work, with tired attacks on Labour. Amongst other things, he accuses them of being “consumed with hatred for the private sector” and of wanting to deprive the people of Lambeth of access to the hire bikes.

Ever the performer, the Mayor sprinkles his responses with mild insults (Labour members are like “passive Buddhas”) and belligerent clichés (“So put that in your pipe and smoke it!”)

When the audience in the public gallery, at least half of them primary school children, start to giggle, you can see the light go on in Boris’s eyes. Previously slumped, he sits up straight, his voice rises, a smile spreads across his face.

After barely half an hour, the Assembly Chair is exasperated. “When the Mayor gets found out he resorts to abuse of Assembly Members,” he exclaims.

He’s quite right. Tory members ask questions too – of the “would the Mayor agree with me that he is marvelous?” type. Another half hour passes and despite a couple of informed questions, we’ve learned nothing from the Mayor at all.

But incredibly, it’s about to get worse.

It’s the turn of Green member Jenny Jones to ask a question. She and the Mayor talk across each other. She accuses him of “making things up to amuse the audience.” So far, so predictable.

And then, out of the blue she describes Mr Johnson as being “a proven liar to Parliament.” Boris is completely unfazed and barely responds, even when she repeats it. But a Conservative member asks Baroness Jones to withdraw the accusation  – or substantiate it.

“I don’t have evidence to hand,” is her airy response. She then adds that the Mayor has accused her in the past of being a liar and “I don’t see the difference.”

Ed Miliband said last week that politicians give the public “the sense that their kids behave better than we do.”

The children watching from the public gallery in City Hall must have been wondering when someone would tell these two to shut up and behave. (Jenny Jones did eventually withdraw the accusation of lying to Parliament and later acknowledged breezily via twitter, “Oh god I think I shall have to apologise to Boris.”)

Soon after this unedifying exchange, low rumblings amongst a group of grown-ups in the gallery erupt into shouts.

photo“Homelessness isn’t a crime,” yells one. “Homes not jails!” they start to chant. They’re protesting against Operation Encompass, a police campaign to deal with beggars and rough-sleepers.

The most vocal are hustled out of the chamber. One young woman is grabbed by the wrists and ankles and carried to the door after she refuses to budge.

“Boris is a wanker!” is the parting shot from the last to go. The stunned children let out a collective gasp, then start to laugh before being hushed by their teacher.

I really do think London is the greatest city in the world. But it has some massive problems, of which a dire shortage of affordable housing is perhaps the most acute.

I saw nothing in the City Hall chamber to suggest London’s representatives are working together to deal with that, or indeed anything else.

Surely, we deserve better than this.


The Playing Fields Myth

Find me the 2012 Olympic medallist who owes their sporting success to wet afternoons on an English school playing field and I’ll get worked up about selling off school playing fields.

The fact is, like so many stories from inside the Westminster village, the row over school sports fields is a red herring; great for political point scoring,  nothing to do with kids and sport. 

And even less to do with future Olympic triumph. 

Most of our Olympians came up through local clubs not schools. In track-side interviews, still breathless from their efforts, almost all pointed to the National Lottery and other public funds as key to their success.  Even hurdler Lawrence Clarke, heir to a baronetcy no less, only got serious about sport at university. School (Eton) he said, was of little help. The public money directed towards individuals like him, was.   

Double gold winning distance runner Mo Farah may have been spotted and encouraged by a school PE teacher but he ran on a public track. It is now apparently derelict.

And that is what we should be discussing: the need for investment in community sports facilities.

School fields are often many miles and long bus journeys away from the institutions they serve.  Much better to have a good gym and a hall that can be used whatever the weather.

The vast majority of school fields are closed outside school hours. Public facilities available to communities year round are of more use. The coaches and specialist staff that many of them host are more valuable than any PE teacher, however committed and skilled.

But even before the coalition took office in 2010 and began its massive spending cuts, the Daily Telegraph had started a campaign to halt the decline in community sports facilities. Since the budget-slashing spending review that followed the election, leisure centres – along with libraries and other “recreational” services – have felt the squeeze.  

Sport England, the body responsible for community sport saw its government grant slashed by 33% and its capital budget reduced by 40%.  All over the country, sports-related charities funded by local government have been axed.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary talk of wanting to change the culture in schools. There must be more competition they say, and an end to the leftie notion that everyone must have prizes.  That’ll make Olympians of us all.

It’s another red herring. Nobody in government has ever offered a shred of evidence to back their claims about prolific loser egalitarianism. A quick look at some of my local school websites confirms that competitive sports days with cups and trophies are very much in vogue, even in staunchly Labour Islington.  

The battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton. The battle for healthy, active children won’t be won on the soggy, expensive-to-maintain fields of our cash-strapped schools. Yes, they should have sports facilities. Yes, teachers must encourage sporting activity and identify those who excel.  But let’s fund grassroots community facilities and clubs with first-class trainers and talent spotters of the sort that led Mo and Jessica and all the others to Olympic gold.    


Going for (Economic) Gold

I never had any doubt that Danny Boyle’s Olympic celebration of proud, multi-cultural, contrarian Britain was spot on.  I loved every minute of the opening ceremony’s anarchic creativity. It even prompted my first ever act of patriotism. Incensed by the cynical tweets of a critical American, I clicked “unfollow” and banished him from my Twitter stream for good.  

I’m a Londoner. Born and bred in a vibrant, diverse city that has hummed with excitement as the medals have come pouring in, of course I’m infected by Olympic fever.

But I wondered whether the glow extended to the rest of a country beset by economic gloom, where spirits have been dampened by high unemployment and months of near-endless rain. 

First stop Birmingham, on the busiest weekend of the Games. When I first got to the city’s Victoria Square at 6pm, there was just a handful of spectators slumped in deck-chairs or sprawled on the steps in front of the Olympic Big Screen. They were barely glancing at Andy Murray’s doubles finals.   

But then the local Jamaican community arrived to watch the men’s 100m final and a damp Sunday evening turned into a glorious party wrapped in black, gold and green. 

They weren’t just there to cheer on Jamaican legend Usain Bolt. Earlier, two elderly men with rich Jamaican accents looked almost hurt when I asked whether they supported the British team.  Then, as the women lined up for their 400m heats, a middle aged afro-Caribbean woman waving a Jamaican flag yelled “come on team GB”.  

There were loud whoops as Britain’s Mo Farah mounted the podium to collect his 10,000m gold. And when at last Usain Bolt surged over the finish line in the sprint final, the white spectators roared just as loudly as the black.  Not quite as good as being in the stadium itself, but for buzz and bonhomie, a close second best.

But that was Birmingham.  A big multi-cultural city where people of Jamaican heritage were gearing up for the home country’s 50th anniversary celebrations and in a mood to party. 

 I found far less to cheer about in Jaywick.  

Built originally as a holiday resort for workers in London, about 120 km away, the small town on the Essex coast is officially the most deprived area in England.  

Many of the homes, never meant to be permanent residences, are poorly constructed. Some are boarded up; others are in a state of disrepair. An amusement arcade on the sea front is closed; the main high street offers only a handful of convenience stores and a couple of run down cafés selling fish and chips or take-away Chinese meals.

In a large, almost empty pub, the Olympics were on TV.  Two old men staring into half-finished pints at one end of the bar didn’t seem to be watching. But they surprised me when I asked how Britain’s Brownlee brothers had done in the Triathlon. They knew, telling me  the younger brother had won the bronze medal and  the older one the gold.

At a café near the beach I met two women drinking tea with their teenage granddaughters. They told me they spend all their summers in one of Jaywicks trailer parks. As for the Olympics, “we cheer when we win something” said one of the women “but apart from that, we don’t really notice the games”.  London they all agreed, felt a long way away.

I said that Jaywick, with its long gritty beach, seemed very quiet for a seaside town at the peak of holiday season. One of the women said that was partly because the weather had been so bad. Then the other chipped in “and because of the recession”.  

Ah, the recession. The Olympic Games are a welcome distraction but they will be gone in a few days time. Britain’s dire economic situation will be exactly the same. On the morning after the UK celebrated its greatest gold medal haul in more than one hundred years, the Bank of England announced there would be no economic growth at all in 2012   

The economic policy of the Conservative-led government is to focus on cutting Britain’s debt, largely by shrinking or even dismantling the state.  I’ve written about the impact of that before but with the chorus of demands for an alternative – a so called “Plan B” – growing louder, are there lessons to be drawn from the London Olympic Games?

When asked why cycling has been such a resounding winner at the Games, Sir Chris Hoy, his two London medals clinking around his neck, specifically mentioned the big investment in his sport over the past 15 years. That’s government investment. 

It’s done mostly through UK Sport set up in 1997 to invest about £100 million a year of public funds (from the National Lottery and from taxes) in the sports men and women most likely to succeed. For specific events like the Olympics, an additional £20 million has been raised through private sponsorship which is channelled to the same athletes. (The BBC’s John Beattie  has an excellent breakdown of how and where the funding has led to a gold rush). 

The lesson is that a clear vision, supported by state-led investment, works. No wonder some businesses and many economists  are crying out for an industrial policy.  If government can decide what it wants to achieve in sport, put the money on the table and deliver spectacular results, then why not try the same for an economy that has completely lost its way?    

It’s a question of imagination and commitment,  of investment and of the public and private sectors working together towards the same goal. It’s also about having a sense of national pride.  We’ve been a bit diffident about that in the past, surrendering our flag to the xenophobic parties on the far right, whispering patriotism as if it were a dirty word.

But Danny Boyle reminded us we can both laugh at ourselves and rejoice unashamedly in what we’ve achieved – as individuals and as a nation – and that’s what we’ve done during the Olympics. So if we set our minds to economic recovery, if that were the national vision we rallied behind, who knows. Maybe even Jaywick would feel a touch of the gold.