Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Letter from London 27th February 2006

Published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

I voted for Ken Livingstone to be Mayor of London in the last mayoral election and I would vote for him again. This is for three main reasons two of which are fairly rational and one of which is more emotional and a tad mischievous. The rational reasons are that Mr Livingstone has really achieved something in his years as Mayor - not least improving London's transport infrastructure significantly. His introduction of electronic road pricing was brave and despite the dire predictions that the system would not work it has been a resounding success. The technology works reliably and central London is much clearer of traffic as a result. Some useful funds have been added to London's income as well. Ken has also greatly improved London's buses and he is also tackling the huge task of getting a better underground railway system. The second rational reason is that the Mayor is enthusiastic and unyielding in his pursuit of London's interests and is quite happy to take on Government or anybody else who he sees standing in the city's way. It was this enthusiasm that led to Ken's unequivocal support for the London 2012 Olympic bid - a key factor in the bid's success.

The emotional and mischievous reason for my veneration of Ken Livingstone is that the sort of people that oppose him are just the sort of people who it is always a pleasure to annoy! Ken is a hate figure for all of those who define personal freedom as the freedom to do what they like and when they like without "vulgar people like Ken Livingstone" interfering. So they are affronted that it now costs them money to drive their Four wheel drive gas guzzlers into London and by the various other "losses of liberty" that they see from the Greater London Authority's rulings. That the London bus service is improved is of no interest to this privileged mob as they wouldn't be seen dead on a bus anyway.

The newspapers of choice for the Ken Livingstone hate brigade are those owned by "Associated Newspapers" - the Daily Mail and the London Evening Standard. These newspapers have attacked Ken for more than thirty years, often in the vilest of terms. It was this history that led to the Mayor's intemperate outburst at a reporter last year - an outburst that has got Livingstone into trouble and for which he has now been suspended from office for a month. Whilst the Mail and the Standard and their petty-minded readerships will be crowing with pleasure this is not the position of the political world which has roundly condemned the fact that an unelected quango can remove from office a democratically elected Mayor. Livingstone's opponents may well rue the day that this suspension happened because Ken is at his best when his back is against the wall. He will turn this indignity to his advantage you can be sure - and I for one will cheer when he does!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Letter from London 11th February 2006

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

The new leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, is intent on imprinting on the minds of the electorate that he is to be the new master of the ideological and pragmatic centre ground – in effect Tony Blair’s logical successor. Keener students of British politics will not be surprised by Cameron’s stance – although it is unusual for a Conservative leader to embrace a broadly social democratic agenda quite so openly. “Social justice and economic efficiency are the common ground of British politics” Cameron said recently and modern history (not just Blair) teaches us that he is right. Certainly if it is power that you want then it is in the moderate centre ground where you have to be seen to live.

Apart from a brief dalliance with Labour when I was a student in the 1960s I have only once joined a British political party. That was in 1981 when I became a founder member of the newly formed Social Democratic Party (SDP) – a party which promised to “break the mould” of British politics. The party was formally launched on 25th March 1981 by the so-called gang of four (Shirley Williams; Bill Rodgers; David Owen and Roy Jenkins) all of whom were politicians I admired - particularly Jenkins who was my political hero.

The attraction of the SDP to me, and to the thousands of others who became involved in politics for the first time with the SDP, was that the policy positions of the new party seemed rational, moderate, pragmatic and unideological at a time when the main parties had vacated the centre ground. Labour had bizarrely elected the old socialist firebrand Michael Foot as leader the year before signalling a major shift to the hard left. And the Conservatives had in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher a leader who had contempt for the consensus politics of the post war years and who was determined to instigate a radical revolution driven by her belief in unbridled capitalism and her conviction that there is there was “no such thing as society”.

In the 1983 General Election the SDP, now in alliance with the old Liberal Party, garnered nearly 8 million votes - more than 25% - but (scandalously) the “first past the post” electoral system gave them a paltry 23 seats in parliament. The party was never a force in British politics again and faded away. But its influence was dramatic because over the next years Labour reformed itself and colonised the centre ground whilst the Conservatives squabbled amongst themselves and generally, until Cameron’s arrival, positioned themselves well to the right of centre.

Twenty-five years after the SDP burst on the scene we now have a broad acceptance of a political ideology by both major parties in Britain that is little different from what the Social Democrats were proposing. So whilst David Owen and his friends never gained power they do have the consolation that the centre ground that they once occupied alone is now very crowded indeed!