For two months in the run-up to Christmas 2015 I worked the night shift at a Royal Mail sorting office in Peterborough. Media commentators are often quick to appoint themselves as experts on the labour market, but most have never stepped inside – let alone been employed in – places where Brits work alongside Eastern European migrants. I have, and the experience made me even more determined to vote Remain in the EU referendum today.
If there is an EU migration crisis in Britain then Peterborough is its ground zero: the city has seen one of the biggest influxes of EU migrants in recent years. According to the 2011 census 9.3% of its population moved to the city from overseas between 2004 and 2009. The 2011 census found that 18.4% of Peterborough’s residents – and in reality probably more today – were born outside the UK: one of the highest percentages for any council area outside London.
The workforce at the sorting office was roughly a third EU migrants, a third working-class young Brits, and a third older British workers – mostly men like me – who wanted a bit of extra spending money for Christmas. Migration has caused pressures in Peterborough – the council is considering opening primary schools in converted railway depots – but in the sorting office there was little friction between the three groups. Continue reading
A month on, how mould-breaking does Sadiq Khan’s election as mayor of London feel?
Yes, it was a historic moment: the first time that a Muslim was elected as mayor of a western capital city. The message it sends to black and ethnic minority Londoners, and to Islamists who argue that there is no point in Muslims engaging in western democracy, is resonant. The New Statesman’s George Eaton was right to describe Sadiq Khan as “The anti-Trump [who] shows the politics of fear can be beaten.”
And amid generally lacklustre local election results for Labour the election of Khan – and a similar victory for Marvin Rees as Mayor of Bristol – were a vital lifeline for Jeremy Corbyn, helping to scotch talk of a leadership challenge.
But Khan’s victory is also a return to politics as usual. The 2016 mayoral election was in many ways just like every other mayoral election since 2004: a maverick Tory candidate (Steve Norris/Boris Johnson/Zac Goldsmith) is pitted against a left-leaning Labour candidate who has beaten off a challenge from centrist rivals (Tony Banks and Nicky Gavron in 2004, Oona King in 2012, Tessa Jowell in 2016). An acrimonious election campaign has been accompanied by accusations of dog-whistle messaging, name-calling and dirty tricks. He (the victorious candidate always has been a he since the post was created in 2000) distanced himself from his party’s leader, seeming happier to share platforms with members of other parties. And a newly-elected mayor has once again been accused of reneging on a key manifesto pledge within weeks of entering City Hall. In all these respects Sadiq Khan’s successful run for Mayor of London was identical to Ken’s and Boris’s. Continue reading
Across the Nene Valley towards Aldwincle and Titchmarsh
German has a good word – unheimlich – for this eerie feeling: when something mysterious or unfamiliar somehow makes uncanny sense. Over the last year I’ve felt it in the most unlikely of places: Northamptonshire. Let me explain why.
Nearly 18 months ago my partner and I moved out of London. We had grown tired of city life – not an active dislike, but itchy feet. After 35 years living in the capital – sixteen of them as a Labour councillor, the last two years much less happy than the others – I had hit 40 and stepped down at the elections of May 2014, no longer legally required to live in the borough of Greenwich. My partner Liz had enjoyed teaching in London for five years but wanted a fresh challenge. With our daughter approaching her ninth birthday, we knew that it was either move now – before decisions about secondary education reared their heads – or never.
Serendipitously we ended up in Northamptonshire (Northants for short), and to many of our London friends it felt like we had moved to the dark side of the moon. The county does not get a good press, if it gets any press at all. It’s often completely ignored by tourists, who flit directly from Shakespeare Country to Cambridge without pausing to explore Northants on the way. Continue reading
What goes on at Town hall planning committees these days? In theory it works like this. A committee of about a dozen councillors, politically balanced to match the composition of the council as a whole, assesses planning applications based on recommendations from professional officers about what to refuse and what to allow. Councillors hear the evidence, listen to objectors and the applicant, and then decide. They must base their decision on “planning grounds” only – in other words whether the proposed development confirms with local and national planning policies in terms of its size, scale, design and environmental impact.
Ideally, councillors who sit on planning committees will have received some training in planning law, design, and the right way to handle the public and each other. Most of them – possibly all – will be backbench councillors, who will leave their party colours, tribal loyalties and manifesto pledges at the door. Even when a large application could benefit the council financially – either through planning gain (money from the developer, given to the council to provide services to new residents and mitigate the impact of what they’re building) or through the disposal of valuable council land – financial considerations, the identity of the applicant, or whipping (parties telling councillors how to vote) should play no part.
In most authorities the process works well. The Town and Country Planning Act of 1949 was one of the under-rated achievements of the post-war Labour government and has been used as a template as countries around the world have set up their own planning systems. Planning decisions in Britain are “quasi-judicial” – rooted in decades of case law – and are remarkably free of the graft and corruption apparent in many southern European countries. This is partly because the British have always ostracised those who commit bribery: the reputational risks to politicians, and developers, are simply too high. But another reason is that in many councils – though not all – corruption and bribery are not necessary. Politicians often bend over backwards to appease large-scale developers in the interests of nebulous “regeneration”, investment and jobs, or even just out of vanity. Continue reading
Sorting through some old photos in my cellar a few months ago I came across a snapshot of the London skyline I took, as a callow 17-year-old, in the autumn of 1991. Out of curiosity, in late 2014 I went back to the exact spot from which I had taken the photo in 1991 (on the Queen’s Walk on the south bank of the Thames, about halfway between HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge) and took another shot.
My 1991 snapshot, seen on the left above, is not a great photo technically (though less blurred than most of the others I took that year). But it tells a fascinating story. Two things leap out: firstly that the early 90s recession meant that there are hardly any construction cranes (two can be glimpsed to the immediate right of 20 Fenchurch Street, the large silvery block towards the left of the photo, but there are no others). The second, of course, is the dominance of the NatWest Tower (now called Tower 42), the tallest building standing dead centre.
Looking at the same view in 2014, on the right, it’s immediately obvious how much the City of London has changed. At first glance the dominance of the Walkie Talkie and the other new buildings might even make you think I’ve got it wrong, and this is a photo of a completely different part of London – or at least taken from a vantage point very different from where I snapped away in 1991. Tower 42 has gone from being easily the tallest tower to being one of the shortest. Continue reading
I like Jeremy Corbyn. I met him once on a dark railway platform in Blackpool, catching a train back to London towards the end of a Labour conference in the early noughties, and we got talking. Although I was a mere conference delegate from Greenwich he gave me his verdict on the Blairite stitch-ups, stage management and backstage arm-twisting that had gone on as generously and candidly as he would have spoken to a fellow MP or indeed anyone who had asked him for his opinion.
Everyone who lives in his Islington North constituency says he is a dedicated, hardworking MP. He lacks the vanity that afflicts so many other long-serving left-wing Labour MPs (step forward, Diane Abbott). Nor does he have the pious self-righteousness of John McDonnell, George Galloway or Tam Dalyell. And his serial rebelliousness has never quite crossed the line into outright support of candidates opposed to Labour (unlike Ken Livingstone, he has steered well clear of endorsing the odious Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets, just a few miles down the road from Islington North).
Many of the “loony left” causes that Corbyn backed in the 1980s – gay rights, a negotiated settlement to the carnage in Northern Ireland, justice for the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, public control of the banks, an end to the Apartheid regime in South Africa – look, with hindsight, very unloony: all became mainstream orthodoxy in the nineties or noughties. Many of his current policy proposals – a national investment bank, renationalisation of the railways, and investing in green technology rather than Trident renewal – are spot on. Continue reading
Just occasionally, you meet someone with a life story so extraordinary that you pinch yourself as you hear it. Jeremy Hutchinson – one of Britain’s leading criminal barristers throughout the 1960s and 1970s, former chairman of the Tate Gallery, former husband of Peggy Ashcroft, and still going strong today – is one.
A biography, Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories, was published by John Murray earlier this month to coincide with Hutchinson’s 100th birthday. Its author, Thomas Grant QC, is himself a high-flying barrister – better known to me as my older brother Tom – but has produced a ripping yarn easily accessible to those, like me, with no legal training (all my lawyering has been of the barrack-room kind).
Meeting Hutchinson, as I was once lucky to when I accompanied the author at one of his interviews, it’s unnerving to hear him reminisce about meeting Virginia Woolf or Duncan Grant (no relation), or being a Labour candidate in 1945, as a first-person witness rather than a historian. Modestly, he says that “the life of the advocate is enjoyably ephemeral” and he took some persuading to co-operate with his biographer. I am glad he did. Continue reading