Tag Archives: Ed Miliband

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 head.photo[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.

 

Me and Mrs T

Liverpool docks regenerationA former dock worker, 60-ish, ruddy-cheeked, and too big for the bar stool in this central Liverpool pub.  Not somebody I’d expect to find channelling my thoughts. But yesterday, we were in tune on Margaret Thatcher.

This past week and a half, I have avoided almost every word written about her. I have turned the pages of the newspapers unread, ignored the radio and television programmes, written nothing, and commented only once. (I was caught off guard when CBC Montreal called in the middle of lunch, broke the news of the former Prime Minister’s death, and put me straight on air.)

It’s not that I lack intellectual or even journalistic interest. It’s just that I simply don’t care. My fight with Mrs Thatcher was over long ago. It started in the sixth form of school, and raged through university when I marched against apartheid (she regarded the ANC as a terrorist organization) and her government’s homophobic Section 28.  I yelled ‘Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out!” when required, and stood quietly at the silent vigil that persuaded Oxford Dons to refuse her an honorary degree.  I did my bit as I saw it at the time. (My views have since benefitted from perspective: I remember what came before – and after.)

So forgive me, but my emotions are long since spent where the Iron Lady is concerned.

The former docker felt the same. “Don’t get me wrong, I hated her,” he said. “But that’s the past, what’s the point of going over it all now?” We agreed it was time to move on and talk about today. The bedroom tax (“not a tax, a benefit cut,” he corrected me). Unemployment – still higher than the national average in Liverpool despite regeneration that has physically transformed the city since I last visited nearly 30 years ago.

“Get rid of the current government,” my new friend said, adding with a disconcerting glare, “the whole lot of them.”

Not that he was a fan of Labour’s Ed Miliband. “Why isn’t he fighting?” he asked. “He should be shouting about what’s happening.” This ex-docker was getting dangerously deep inside my brain. I shook his hand and left.

Less than a mile away, in the vast neo-classical elegance of St George’s Hall, I found a tea dance in full flow. tea dance in St George's Hall Liverpool Couples waltzed and tangoed in a magnificent ballroom, with statues of great Victorians lining the walls. For decades this grand public building, once home to the courts, lay abandoned and decaying. A symbol of a city that, as Mrs Thatcher’s Chancellor advised her,  should be left to “managed decline”.

St George’s was brought back to life with a huge injection of lottery funds. Much of the rest of the city centre got up off its knees with government money leading the way. In 2008, Liverpool’s tenure as European Capital of Culture was a stunning success. Millions of visitors came, though one of the tea-dancers complained to me that “down south”, Liverpool didn’t get the credit it deserved.

But it survived, and according to residents is a better place to live now than before 2008. Maybe that’s another reason my ex-docker could let Margaret Thatcher go in peace.

As for me, I made a peace of sorts a couple of years ago when walking on a Saturday afternoon through one of the Inns of Court in Central London. There wasn’t a soul around. A car pulled up and a driver helped a beautifully turned out but frail old lady to her feet. Having gained her balance she instinctively looked around and seeing her public (my husband and me) smiled warmly and waved. I admit I was impressed and didn’t hesitate for a second.

I waved and smiled equally warmly at Mrs T.