Thursday, April 24, 2008


Voting, closer to home

My ballot card arrived in the post today, which means that it’s finally time to start thinking seriously about London’s elections (on May 1st) for Mayor and Assembly. This prospect is more onerous than it should be: London’s new government will probably have more effect on my day-to-day life than, say, the next US President, so I ought to be taking a high interest in it. Nevertheless, I have been going out of my way to avoid the tedious non-debate that has characterized the race so far.

As a New Yorker essay pointed out recently, calling London’s top dog “mayor” is a bit generous: “transport commissioner” would be slightly more accurate. Most of the Mayor of London’s powers revolve around transport and housing, with a bit of influence over the police thrown in, plus he gets the moral authority of having a soapbox to make pronouncements from. As a result, most of the campaign promises are going to be fairly similar. Cheaper public transport. Better public transport. More affordable housing. More green housing. More greenery in general. Less crime.

Given how unobjectionable most of this stuff is, it’s off-putting to discover how unlikeable many of the mayoral candidates actually are. The attitudes of most Londoners are probably accurately summed up in the words of my housemate’s boyfriend: “there are only two real candidates, and one of them’s been in power for too long.” Despite this, it’s one’s civic duty to vote, so it’s time to dive in and take a look at who’s who and what’s what, and, perhaps, to take a stand on the inevitable brand war of “Ken” vs “Boris”.

The leaflet that comes with the ballot helpfully includes an A4 (landscape) manifesto-cum-advert for each candidate. The booklet is fat: there are ten candidates for mayor.

Some of these are clear no-hopers. One befuddled looking lady standing for the “Left List” (the name of the far left party seems to change with each election – wasn’t it the Socialist Alliance last time?) offers, as her third most important priority, bringing the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Quite how she intends to do this from the Town Hall is not explained. (Perhaps she intends to send the redundant bendy buses over to pick them up?) Attention is also drawn to her pledge that “Londoners should not have to subsidize the Olympic games,” presumably implying that the rest of the country should, and thus harking back to the proud Stalinist dictum that anything painful is clearly someone else’s responsibility.

The Christian Choice, in the meantime, presents a candidate with a good portrait but a scary-looking family photo, whose pedigree is worthy but whose top priority is to “promote marriage” as the solution to most of London’s problems. Once that’s taken care of, he intends to move on to stopping West Ham’s proposed mega mosque. Somewhat forlornly, the list of priorities ends with stopping the “(alleged) corruption” at City Hall: We may not know if it’s real, but we sure don’t like it anyway!

The next page offers a slick picture of an English Democrat, who, one suspects, sports a beer belly further down from his quiffed, bleached hair. The party's platform is concerned, exclusively, with being pissed off about English subsidies for Scotland. “We all remember a country we called home,” he begins, presumably referring to the England of 1706 which we all so fondly recall. Whether Londoners should really consider the relationship with Scotland as their top priority is a puzzle; the claim meant to reinforce it – subsidies to Scotland amount to “over £2,500 of YOUR money, per person, per year” – is saved from being untrue only because of its misleading grammar, and the fact that the candidate’s name is O’Connor leads one to suspect that the entire thing is actually a sly joke of some sort.

The usual suspects are represented, too. UKIP offers an MEP, but in the absence of any control over “mass immigration” or the “European Constitution”, he is reduced to arguing for – you guessed it – better transport and less crime.

The BNP pops up offering a thuggish candidate, who seems to be slightly uncomfortable sitting in a suit and tie with his hair looking wavy. A list of “People Like You Voting BNP” include a thuggish-looking “HOUSEWIFE”, a thuggish-looking “BUILDER”, and a thuggish-looking “STUDENT” who is actually Irish and therefore presumably wants to go home very badly. Like the Scottish fellow before, they try to play the idyllic-past card. “Remember London the way it used to be? Clean, friendly and safe.” (Lost me there.) Rather optimistically, the candidate promises that “as mayor I will make sure that people like you – the real Londoners – are put first.” Presumably he isn’t referring to the one-third of Londoners born overseas. Not that intelligence is something that this fellow is too concerned about, given that his agenda includes such BNP-unfriendly measures as “Zero tolerance on crime and yobs” and “Better education for all our people”.

The Greens, in the meantime, present an attractive young woman named Sian Berry, who has all sorts of cheery ideas for better insulation in houses, solar electricity on houses, a city-wide speed limit, and – you guessed it – cheaper transport, better transport, and less crime. The only vaguely controversial things on offer include cancelling the Thames Gateway Roadbuilding and, er, “opposing all airport expansion in London” – a task which should be very easy indeed given that the only airport actually in London is City, which isn’t exactly surrounded by rolling meadows.

And then there’s Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat candidate, who is trying very hard indeed to be the third candidate in the race, but struggles on account of no-one really knowing anything about him other than that he’s “the gay policeman”. A quick perusal of his policies explains why he's having trouble standing out: his three main priorities are: “action to cut crime,” “action to improve transport,” and, you guessed it, “action on housing and environment.” A quick perusal of his website reveals a bit more imagination – he pledges to plant thousands of trees to make London “the greenest capital in Europe”, boost recycling, scrap the Public-Private Partnership which runs the Tube (a likely tale, given that Ken Livingstone was heartily opposed to it in the first place and still couldn’t stop it happening), introduce bike hire schemes, and, intriguingly, put in place a tram and a light rail system. Unfortunately, he seems to think that taxi drivers form one of London’s most important constituencies: his “Black Cab Manifesto” to ban pedicabs and give taxi drivers a seat at the table in Transport for London gets rather more attention than his tram scheme.

Which brings us on to the two dueling muppets in front of the pack. The Economist memorably described the 2004 US Presidential election as being a choice between the incompetent and the incoherent; last week it painted another amusing picture of the buffoon versus the megalomaniac. Boris Johnson is the challenger: an old Etonian who was president of the Oxford Union and the Oxford University Conservative Association and a member of the Bullingdon Club (three qualifications of less than dubious appeal, as most Oxonians will tell you), Johnson is well known for being amusing in a ramshackle sort of way and for reducing the editorial offices of the Spectator to a venue for vast quantities of hanky-panky while he was its editor. An MP, his most recent distinction was being fired from the Tory front bench by Michael Howard after saying one offensive thing too many. Nevertheless, he is amusing in a ramshackle way, and there’s no denying that his buffoonery has an ability to inspire a certain degree of affection. His policies, while more distinctive than most, are still less than inspiring. The top priorities are, naturally, reducing crime (extra police, less bureaucracy, more community projects for the young, and, intriguingly, New York-style crime maps to improve the intelligence of policing), improving transport (mainly a play to nostalgia with the intention to remove the disliked “Bendy Buses” and replace them with a new Routemaster – that beloved old warhorse – with full disabled access, clean fuel, and conductors; but also a nifty idea for “live, interactive bus tracking” at bus stops, an air conditioned tube, the revocation of the £25 congestion charge fee for “Chelsea tractors” (SUVs, for any Americans out there), free travel for injured veterans, and lobbying for an Oxford Street tram and against a third runway at Heathrow), more greenery (zero tolerance for graffiti and littering, and various other minor platitudes), more affordable housing, and, possibly the only candidate to mention this, a pledge to fight for the international competitiveness of the City and for London’s small businesses.

The mop-haired oaf’s competitor is the incumbent of 8 years standing, Ken Livingston. Ken has a long history with London – he headed up the Greater London Council "until, not unrelatedly, Margaret Thatcher abolished it” (as the Economist puts it). He has done some decent things as mayor: the congestion charge for the city centre is working well, buses have been improved, business has thrived, and he has won £16bn from the government to build Crossrail, on top of the £9bn (and counting) he got by encouraging Tony Blair’s grand enthusiasm for the Olympics (or “three weeks of sport”, as he dismissively referred to it recently), which is to be pumped into some of the most run-down parts of East London. London has thrived under Livingstone. But he, too, has his quirks. Not for nothing is he called Red Ken: his obnoxious far-left grandstanding has seen him associating with extremist Islamic preachers like Yusuf al-Qaradawi and authoritarian Latin American leaders like Hugo Chavez. He has a tendency, having made a mistake, not to apologise for it goofily like Johnson, but rather to angrily defend himself; as a result, incidents such as the one where he irascibly compared a reporter to a concentration camp guard (the reporter was Jewish) have been blown out of all proportion. His personal affairs are no less tawdry than Johnson’s, and the unmistakable whiff of corrupt relationships and behaviours has been wafting out of City Hall for the past year. Eight years, many will think, is long enough. Livingstone initially agreed (he said he would step down after one term), but, like Mr Chavez, has decided that limiting his tenure is a bad idea. His manifesto includes pledges for better transport (by keeping on doing what he’s already doing), more affordable housing, less crime, and, indeed, more greenery. What is striking about Livingstone’s campaign is the dearth of new ideas. Johnson and Paddick both have numerous small but specific ideas which differentiate them; Livingstone is essentially running on his record.

So where does all this leave us? Livingstone has a surprisingly strong record, given how much he is disliked. Johnson has a surprisingly well-developed set of ideas, given how much he is ridiculed. And Paddick has surprising depth, given that everyone is convinced that he is simply running as the gay policeman.

In reality, of course, only Livingstone and Johnson are actually in contention. But the beauty of the choice that Londoners face stems from the nature of the electoral system itself. (Labour devolution may have left London’s mayor a bit of a weakling, but if there’s one thing Labour got right, it was the new electoral systems.) The abbreviated version of the Transferable Vote that will be on the mayoral ballot means that Londoners vote for their first choice and their second choice candidates. The first choice votes are all counted to begin with; if no-one gets more than 50% of those, then the top two candidates in the first round go onto a run-off, and the first choice ballots for everyone else are redistributed to their second choice candidates. In practice, what that means is that, if you have a preference for one of the eight unlikely candidates over the two front-runners, you can have it both ways: you can vote for your favourite candidate as your first choice, and the “least-worst” of the two front-runners as your second. That way, you make your point, but when your first choice candidate gets knocked out, you can still vote against either Ken or Boris.

Which leads us to the real question. Ken or Boris? It is difficult to decide. The one is a bit of a psycho. The other is a bit of a moron.

It’s a tough choice. But at the end of the day, it does all boil down to one simple fact. There are only two real candidates – and one of them’s been in power for too long. Given the complete lack of differing policies between the leading candidates, that is reason enough to hope for a Tory in City Hall for the next four years. But does that mean that Boris will be my first choice? Probably not.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


To fight another day

Pennsylvania didn’t really expect to be a major state in the current nominating process, but as a key swing state it can’t fail to appreciate the extended national attention to its problems that the last six weeks have afforded. The Obama and Clinton campaigns have been furiously courting its voters and its politicians, and its politicians – governor, senators, mayors – have been making endorsements and getting national airtime heroically. The world now knows far more about the commonwealth’s rustbelt and high tech corridors, and its urban, suburban, exurban and rural voters, than the state has been used to for a long time.

Things have, naturally, been quieter during the big gap between Mississippi on March 11th and Pennsylvania on April 22nd than they were previously. While it wouldn’t be fair to say that the issues took centre stage beforehand, much of the media attention shifted during the Pennsylvania campaign (in its boredom with continuing arguments about health care, Iraq, the economy, etc) to a series of amusing diversions. Obama got in trouble for the controversial sermons of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who was pictured on television shouting “God damn America!” Obama managed to eloquently extricate himself by making a speech on race which has been hailed as one of the greatest political speeches in modern American history, but which nevertheless failed to dissociate himself from his former pastor, ensuring that grumblings on the subject will continue for the duration of the campaign. Clinton also got in trouble early on for trying to emphasise her foreign policy credentials by recalling a troubled landing in Bosnia during the 1990s, where she had to be whisked from the airplane because of the threat of sniper fire; unfortunately, contemporary news reports soon surfaced showing her grandly shaking hands on the tarmac with a welcoming committee, and even giving a hug to a little girl who had drawn a picture for her. Supporters were amused; opponents felt that it just showed how manipulative she was. Obama, in turn, had a moment of his own (“bittergate”) when he made some remarks in a closed-door fundraiser at San Francisco: “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” (Obama’s own preference for inflammatory religion and “antitrade sentiment” notwithstanding.) Obama supporters were torn between lining up behind their man (the argument doesn’t sound so implausible to more cosmopolitan Americans) and feeding a backlash against the blogger who reported the remarks (comments made at fundraisers are commonly regarded as private). His opponents, meanwhile, were quick to pay tribute to the small-town culture of hunting and churchgoing that Obama was perceived to have demeaned. Again, this didn’t turn on anything substantive. Attention shifted back to Clinton a few days later when her campaign strategist, Mark Penn, was forced to resign when it emerged that he had attended a meeting with the Colombian government to help them plan a lobbying effort for the Free Trade bill currently going through Congress; Mrs Clinton opposes the bill. (He may have lost his client along with his campaign job: the Colombians weren’t particularly impressed with his denials about supporting their position.) Despite this, the tone was kept civil, with candidates making appearances with Hannah Montana at the Country Music Television Awards ceremony and on the Colbert Report, while both Democratic candidates sponsored a non-binding Senate resolution emphasising John McCain’s status as a natural-born citizen and thus his eligibility to be President.

In short, this was a primary campaign with a life of its own, with its own dynamics and a stand-alone result that wasn’t contingent on momentum (that key magical factor in primary campaigns). And the result? Hillary Clinton won a decisive victory, eroding the likelihood of her withdrawing from the race before she is compelled to. It is even possible that her victory (taking 55% to 45% for Obama) might position her to take the nomination, although her chances remain heavily contingent on her performance in the last big state, Indiana.

Clinton’s victory came from a number of diverse sources. 69% of Democratic primary voters were aged 45 or over, despite the sharp increase in registered Democrats amongst the young before the primary; older voters favoured her heavily. Another group which swung in her direction was the state’s women, who made up 59% of those who voted. Intriguingly, voters who made up their minds at the last minute decided in her favour as well, reversing the usual trend of this group going for Obama.

These results were the outcome of a number of factors, foremost amongst which is the economy: since the last primary, a majority of Americans have become convinced that the country is now mired in recession (a judgement shared by The Economist, if not yet by official statistics). Economic pain has long been concentrated in rustbelt towns where Clinton’s policy detail plays well and Obama’s vague message of hope and change is less than convincing; Obama’s “bittergate” comments on conservative culture in such places were condemned as being patronizing and condescending as well as ignorant, and certainly didn’t help him in such areas. Clinton was also helped by good organization on the ground: as in Ohio, she had the endorsement of key Pennsylvania Democrats including the governor and the mayors of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and their ground organizations worked hard for her. She also ramped up her toughness on foreign affairs, with an ad implying that Obama wasn’t ready to take on important global challenges, continuing on the day of the primary with a rare answer to a hypothetical question (what would you do if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons? “If I’m the president, we will attack Iran... we would be able to totally obliterate them.” Scary word, ‘obliterate’? Well, “it is a terrible thing to say, but those people who run Iran need to understand that, because that perhaps will deter them from doing something that would be reckless, foolish and tragic”) which should serve to bolster her hawkish credentials on foreign policy. Less affluent and less educated voters strongly voted for her as well, helping her to take the majority of counties in the state, including the big cities of Pittsburgh and Scranton (her father’s hometown), confining Obama mostly to the affluent belt around Philadelphia. In this challenging context, Obama’s argument that he did well to close the gap in Pennsylvania sounds highly plausible, even if he did outspend his opponent by a large margin.

Clinton emerges from Pennsylvania stronger than she did before, and Obama emerges from it weaker. While her campaign gaffes simply served to make her look foolish, his were genuinely alienating, and opened up charges of elitism (which the Republicans were able to exploit heavily in 2004 against John Kerry) and a lack of patriotism. Her argument that she has what it takes to win in the big states is burnished; her grasp of policy detail and ability to appeal to hard-up Americans look much more appealing now that the economy has taken a turn for the worse. She still has a long way to go to make that argument compelling, however. Her victory reduces Obama’s lead in the popular vote by only about 200,000, and his lead in the pledged delegate count by a small number (he still has an overall delegate lead of 150). Superdelegates will still take a lot of persuading if they are to abandon the winner of both the popular vote and the most pledged delegates.

But everyone knew that to begin with, which means that the Pennsylvania victory needs to be put in the context of the quality of the argument that Clinton can make to those superdelegates. Her record of winning pretty much all of the biggest states which will be in contention in November is hugely impressive. Her foreign policy knowledge (and toughness) will be able to take on John McCain in his own area of expertise. Her command of policy detail on the economy and healthcare is becoming more important to voters as the economy continues to sour. In short, she is becoming increasingly attractive. Obama’s image is no longer as untarnished as it once was, and the electorate’s changing priorities are reducing the importance of his transcendent appeal next to the command of policy shown by Clinton; McCain is trusted significantly more than Obama on key issues of foreign policy and national security (deservedly) and on the economy (not so deservedly). Obama’s leads in the delegate count and popular vote, moreover, are largely based on outcomes in states in the West and South which will almost certainly go Republican in the general election; Clinton has won all of the big states that the Democrats need to win in November. Obama’s point, made recently, that this is irrelevant as big states like California and New York will certainly go Democratic anyway is correct but moot: it is states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana that the Democrats need to win. Only Illinois, out of all the big states in contention, has so far plumped convincingly for Obama, and that is his home state. A telling statistic comes from asking voters for both Democrats who they would go for in the absence of their preferred candidate: while both sets of voters would still vote for the other Democrat by a majority, many more Clinton voters would rate McCain as their second choice than would Obama supporters. This shows a crucial fact: middle of the road voters who are worried about their prospects prefer Clinton’s grasp of the detail, but have more confidence in McCain’s ability to empathise with them and help them out than they do with Obama’s. Clinton, in other words, is attracting more of the independent-minded voters (outside of the young) than Obama is. What all of this adds up to is a sense that Clinton’s long-standing (and oft-dismissed) arguments about general election viability may in fact be correct. Democrats are haunted by a nagging worry that, like liberal crowd-pleasers before him such as Adlai Stevenson and Walter Mondale, Obama might end up losing by a landslide.

Nevertheless, comparisons that the Obama campaign likes (John F. Kennedy) are still much more common, and it would really take something to persuade those superdelegates to force the selection of a candidate who did not win the popular vote or the most delegates. Superdelegates have been breaking much more for Obama than for Clinton recently. Her continued fight is thus an exercise in desperate optimism: she is hoping that she will continue to win big states (which she is doing), that the political climate will change in her favour (which it is doing), and that Obama will shoot himself in the foot in a way which will benefit her (which he is also doing). Things are, in short, going as well for her as could be hoped, but it still doesn’t look likely to be enough. But this nomination is still impossible to call. Clinton is $10m in debt and spending $1.10 for every dollar that she receives. Her efforts to persuade Florida and Michigan to re-run their primaries have failed. The next primaries are North Carolina (which will likely go to Obama) and Indiana (which is a key battleground): if she doesn’t win Indiana, then the pressure for her to drop out will intensify significantly. But it seems ever more likely that this will run all the way to the last primaries on June 3rd, at which point all the pledged delegates will be counted and it will officially be up to the superdelegates. A landslide rush of these superdelegates is still possible in either direction, especially if the key party grandees Howard Dean (Democratic National Committee chairman), Nancy Pelosi (Speaker of the House of Representatives), Al Gore (former presidential candidate and Nobel Laureate) and John Edwards (who dropped out of the nominating race before Super Tuesday) make endorsements one way or the other. Unfortunately for Clinton, all of those grandees seem more likely to endorse Obama; either way, pressure from the party leadership is now on for superdelegates to make clear their choices quickly once the last nominating contests are over, so we may find ourselves with a Democratic presumptive nominee in advance of the August convention anyway. That nominee will still, in all likelihood, be Mr Obama: but with Clinton’s Pennsylvania win, things have become that little bit less predictable.

On the Republican side, meanwhile, John McCain won Pennsylvania by a handy 73%, with Ron Paul picking up 16%. He sat out most of the Pennsylvania campaigning, using the time to traverse the country and enjoy watching the Democratic candidates shower each other with insults that he can happily appropriate come autumn. Life, for the Republicans, is good.

Next Up: The states of Indiana and North Carolina will vote in their primaries on May 6th (the Tuesday after next).

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


Facebook Quotes 3

A third batch, captured for posterity and deleted from my profile. Enjoy.

"My favourite movie is 'Deep Throat'... I've watched that motherfucker six times."
- US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas

"Green walked over the lectern, looked the analyst in the eye and said, 'What you're asking is, "what do we do if it gets tough?" I'll tell you what we do.'
The audience fell silent.
They could tell from Green's tone of voice and demeanor that they weren't hearing a rehearsed answer.
The usually self-contained executive growled, 'We grab the bayonet and we snap it off the end of the rifle and we put it in our teeth and we get down in the mud and the grime in the jungle and we kick and scratch and we stop at nothing. That's what we do when it gets tough. And we won't lose!'
A stunned silence followed."
- 'Values. Driven. Leadership. The History of Accenture'. (Bill Green is now Accenture CEO. He knows what it takes to be a tiger.)

Slightly more typical work quotes:
"Then PT - that's P for Penelope, and T for tea"
- Marie, to a senior manager
"I'm going to get a sodding coffee"
- Mike
"Can you sign my Sharepoint?"
- Marie again

"It was always going to be weird, being the girlfriend of Gordon."
- Hanna
"What I meant to say was, it was always going to be weird being the girlfriend of the group's alpha male."
- Hanna, slightly later

"I would rather have it said, 'He lived usefully', than, 'He died rich'."
- Benjamin Franklin

"You should come with a supply of cheese to match your vintage whine."
- Miles Edgeworth, in Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Justice for All

"I think it will be entertaining and I'd love to learn a bit more about grammar."
- Prospective housemate in DC on living with a Brit

"Imagine how terrible it would be, never to see anything beautiful, never to eat anything savoury, never to say anything clever."
- Winston Churchill on life in Liverpool

"Dank, cloudy and small."
- The Economist on Britain

"It is not that [it] is badly written... [i]t is, however, very much written."
- Danny Leigh in the TLS

" 'I pray to God that I will never know about economics,' President Ahmadinejad once said when questioned about apparent contradictions in his economic policy. The Lord appears to have answered his prayer."
- The Economist

"An end to WELFARE BENEFITISM for the parasitic vermin feeding off the state. From now on the message must go out. No work, no money! No money, no food! DEATH! Vote Labour."
- G Brown, Supreme Leader (via Private Eye)

"I told him to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words."
- Woody Allen

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