Wealth, wealth distribution, sustainability and …

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone has a compelling column in The Guardian today providing a bit of an overview of the election results, the state of play in London and what it all means for the Labour Party in the UK. Livingstone does of course put something of a positive spin on the results – no mean feat given how fresh the wounds are – but what is perhaps more interesting is his take on what governments in the modern era need to do. Shunting the right/left paradigm to the side for just a moment, it’s worth having a bit of a think about these three objectives:

There are three tasks for a government and a mayor – to ensure the country and London are an economic success; to ensure everyone shares in that success; and to ensure that success is sustainable in the long run through improving the environment.

So in essence, Livingstone is suggesting that wealth, a fair wealth distribution and sustainability are the three objectives that government should strive for. Personally I think that’s a fairly neat conceptualisation of what good government should deliver in the modern era. If a society is prosperous, the prosperity is shared in an equitable manner and it is achieving its prosperity through a sustainable path, then it is probably going to be considered a successful society.

It is of course worth considering these three goals that Livingstone has highlighted in the context of the mayoral election results. With respect to prosperity – there is little doubting that London is one of the most prosperous cities in the world, and has been for what we would consider to be a considerable number of years. It’s difficult to gauge the extent to which Livingstone’s mayoralty on the city’s prosperity, but I would suggest that he has imparted a degree of increased prosperity to the city during his time in the top job. With respect to wealth distribution, the rhetoric has always been there with Ken, but I am not sure that he has achieved the outcomes that he would have liked. As he states himself in his column:

There is not the slightest evidence that “trickle down” – the automatic operation of the market – is a sufficient mechanism to ensure everyone shares in success or to deliver decent services. In London the shattering contrast, within a mile’s distance, of the wealth of the City of London and the poverty of Tower Hamlets shows this brutally.

On sustainability, lastly, Livingstone arguably has a record to be proud of. The introduction of the groundbreaking congestion charge has won worldwide plaudits and made London something of a model city when it comes to environmental considerations.

Ironically of course, despite doing quite well when marked against his own criteria, Livingstone did not manage to win the election. And why? Reading through some of the comments made on his column might give you some idea there. Sadly for the former mayor, I think the impact of the scandals that beset his mayoralty (e.g. the Lee Jasper affair) suggest that transparency or “good governance” is the crucial fourth element omitted from his wish list of societal goals. Boris Johnson of course proved quite the populist candidate, but one would have to think the result could have been different if Livingstone’s mayoralty was not dragged into the gutter in the months leading up to the election.

The meaning of Boris

“Red” Ken Livingstone’s reign as Mayor of London has come to an end over the last couple of days, with Tory candidate Boris Johnson easily winning the mayoral poll on May 1. Despite Johnson polling quite strongly in the weeks leading up to the election, I admit to being fairly surprised by the result. I did not really believe that Johnson was a serious candidate. His high profile background as a former satirical game show host and his often edgy forays into “humorous” wordplay have made him a star among the wealthy inner city set, but controversy still lingers. It is indeed odd to think that somebody who once thought nothing of using the term “piccaninny” to refer to African people is now the mayor of one of the most multiracial and cosmopolitan cities of the world. I am not sure if this reflects a magnanimous willingness of Londoners to forgive racism, an increasingly bitter dislike of Ken Livingstone’s more machiavallian tendencies or the modern political world’s obsession with celebrity. Possibly, at least in part, a combination of the three.

Strangely, at least based on what I have seen thus far, much of the media coverage of the London mayoral race and the associated council elections has been presented through the rubrik of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s trials and tribulations. The dismissal of Livingstone and the installment of Johnson in London has taken a back seat to the question of what this means for the leadership of Gordon Brown. To be honest, I am not sure how much can be read into it. It goes without saying that if an election was held tomorrow, it would be a brave Labour supporter indeed who would put money on a victory for Brown. On the other hand, there is still something a shadow of an expectation out there that sooner or later, the Prime Minister is going to shake off the cobwebs and punch through the current malaise besetting the Labour Party. Whether this latest setback proves to be the straw that breaks the back of this malaise remains to be seen.

In any case, London now has a new mayor, and it is a man who several conservative commentators have described as someone unfit for the job, and the infamous British National Party’s second choice in the mayoral race. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has a lot to prove. London will need to have the new, uncontroversial, spin doctored Boris of the mayoral election campaign holding the reins, rather than the toff-oriented comic wit of years past. If that old, more popular (among some) Boris returns, things could get a bit ugly.

ELSEWHERE: Charlie Brooker provided a comical summary for The Guardian as to why Johnson is a dubious choice.

Vote Tory – we are not reactionary in the slightest

The London mayoral elections fall on Thursday May 1 this year, with Labour’s incumbent mayor Ken Livingstone facing a tough challenge from Tory stand-up comedian Boris Johnson and Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick. Such is the highly multicultural and multinational population of London that even Australians on relatively temporary visas such as myself are allowed to vote; I plan to vote for Ken.The putrid fruit of Johnson’s campaign, which is running almost exclusively on the steam of Johnson’s slapstick celebrity, arrived in my mail slot just the other day. I thought it might be worth sharing.


For those who don’t have magical super-magnifying vision, Tory London Assembly candidate Kit Malthouse’s best arguments against re-electing Ken Livingstone appear to be: 

1) People who drive large, high-polluting “Chelsea tractors” around London – which probably has one of the best public transport systems in the world – shouldn’t pay an increased congestion charge.

2) A sixth runway at Heathrow is a bad idea. Ken isn’t running on any policy of expanding Heathrow further, but Kit still thinks it is a bad idea.

In a survey, Malthouse also highlights three “representative” Labour “policies” and asks residents if they are for or against the proposals. The policies are summarised on the survey in an extremely fair and balanced way, as you can see:


Sometimes politics really does want to make you vomit. 

Modern politics and that dirty, dirty word

One of the most obscene political words that one can use today, should one attempt to use it in some positive light, is of course socialism. To attempt to suggest that any particular socialist government might have achieved some good things for the country during its time in office is effectively tantamount to saying that you wish that George Bush or Kevin Rudd could be more like Joseph Stalin. In public discourse, we may as well just pretend that the word “socialism” and variants thereof have been blacklisted by some global, authoritarian political language regime. In the new political lexicon compiled by the enlightened victors of the Cold War, everything whatsoever associated with socialism is bad – or worse, evil. For some, this faith in the fact that socialism and everything associated with it is evil transcends the intellectual and becomes a quasi-religious fervour. As sure as Satan is evil, for such people, you can rest assured that socialism is evil as well.

In mainstream political culture, the central avenue through which this curious treatment of the word “socialism” emerges is through the world’s major centre-left political parties. The Labour Party in Britain and the Australian Labor Party have both publicly exhibited some embarrassment at retaining a reference to socialism (being a dirty word, and all) in their respective party constitutions. Soon after Tony Blair assumed the leadership of the Labour Party in 1994, the party voted to change the wording of Clause IV of its constitution to “modernise” the party’s relationship to the so-called “socialist objective”. The revised clause does interestingly make a reference to socialism (albeit qualified with “democratic”), but removed the admittedly anachronistic references in the clause to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. The Australian Labor Party has also discussed dropping the “socialist objective” from its constitution given socialism’s “taboo” status, with Kevin Rudd even going so far as declaring that he has “never been a socialist and never will be a socialist” after being elected Opposition Leader by the party in December 2006. To that, one would have to wonder precisely what Kevin Rudd means by “socialist”, given his known religious views and support for public health and education.

All this namby-pamby tip-toeing around the word socialism does, for someone like myself who believes that not everything associated with socialism is evil, intellectually grate. It makes comments like these from London Mayor Ken Livingstone in an interview with The Guardian seem quite refreshing by comparison. Here is Red Ken on some of the challenges facing the world today:

“All the politics of the post-war period was about the clash between the Soviet Union and America, and virtually all issues ended up being subordinated to that,” he says, “Now, the question is, what is the most a socialist can achieve in a global economy? What do we do about climate change bearing down upon us?

“In a sense, it brings us back to the basic socialist tenets. The only way you get through this is by sharing and planning, resource redistribution, allocating priorities – the market isn’t going to get us out of this. The market is a brilliant system for the exchange of goods and services, but it doesn’t protect the environment unless it’s regulated, it doesn’t train your workforce unless it’s regulated, and it doesn’t give you the long-term investment you want.”

Livingstone goes on to heap praise on Hugo Chavez, which is probably unfortunate. However, his beautifully succinct statement above, which summarises some of the limitations of markets with respect to some of the major problems facing the world today, is unequivocally, undeniably true, regardless of if you think Karl Marx was an economic Satan or not. It is true that Livingstone is portrayed in the media as a stereotypical leftist (and he certainly does his part to perpetuate that perception), in a way that perhaps Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd are not. However, one does somewhat wish that the leaders of centre-left parties like the Labor and Labour Parties would use reality as a device for crushing at least part of the stigma associated with the s-word.

Socialism as a body of thought is not in any sense equivalent to communism. The vast majority of people who refer to socialism in positive terms today do so out of deference to the humanistic and compassionate qualities of the ideology, not to the horrific calamities instigated in its name. Stripping away the irrational bonds of the taboo enforced by some intellectuals about this peculiarly modern dirty word, the truth of the matter is that we are all socialists now, at least to some extent. The “sharing and planning” that Livingstone speaks of is a basic, critical human activity that is inextricably embedded within the infrastructure of modern human society, and if compassionate and effective civilisation remains a desirable goal for the human race, we should hope it long remains there.

Buses from the future

When living in Sydney I did make use of the buses between North Sydney and the CBD quite often and found the service good, although this route is effectively the least onerous test of Sydney’s bus network that one can possibly conceive of. Despite this positive experience, by comparison, I have to conclude that London’s bus network puts Sydney’s bus network to shame. The ubiquitous double-decker red buses that roam the streets of London come surprisingly frequently, with the often complicated maze of available routes and stops quite well explained on signage throughout London and on the excellent Transport For London quango website. Displays at many major bus stops throughout the city provide a countdown of how long it will be until the next bus for each relevant route, and the displays are often pretty well on the money.

Probably the quality I admire most about London’s approach to public transport is that the city is seemingly not satisfied with just “good”. Whatever the quality of the service is at the current time, there seems to be a lot of political will and public pressure to continue to make the system even better, and then, after that, even better. Arguably at least some of this can be contributed to the drive of somewhat controversial lefty mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone.

The latest manifestation of this is the gradual unveiling of an advanced communication system for London’s buses. Sean Dodson explains further in The Guardian, in a report that gives you a teasing taste of the cornucopia of potential avenues for improvement that could be explored for a service so basic, political will and funding allowing. Finland’s awesome public transport system is justifiably provided as a reference to strive towards:

Passengers on routes such as the 148, between Camberwell and Shepherd’s Bush, may have noticed that each time the bus approaches a stop, a recorded voice tells them which one it is, similar to the announcements made on the tube.

Every bus and tram in Helsinki and the surrounding cities of Vaanta and Espoo are being fitted with Linux servers and GPS units. Every bus and tram in the conurbation will not only become a wireless hotspot serving broadband internet throughout the vehicle – for free – but every bus and tram is visible on a Google map (the beta version is at tinyurl.com/2gftso) that uses the same real-time passenger information as the controllers in their command centre.

I actually have had the pleasure of catching the buses that Dodson alludes to in London, and the stop announcements have often proved useful for reminding me whereabouts in London I am at various strange times of the day and night. The fact that the announcements are quite frequent may well prove annoying to travellers who catch the same bus everyday, but I suppose as an alternative they could instead be flashed up on the information displays that seem to be present on most of London’s buses. Either way, the ability to know the location of the bus at any given time is a godsend for tourists or those unfamiliar with the city, or even locals who are in a part of town they are not too familiar with. Not to mention folks too intoxicated to pay too much attention to the world outside after a night out.

As for Finland, sounds like science fiction compared to what we are used to, eh? I will actually be visiting Helsinki in May, if all things go according to plan, so I will be able to report back further then on whether the Fins really are the world leaders with regards to public transport.