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Archives for April 2010

Why so quiet during the election campaign, Boris?

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Tim Donovan | 21:51 UK time, Thursday, 29 April 2010

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Boris Johnson c/o Getty Images

It's two years since Boris Johnson won the mayoralty and signalled, said the Conservatives, that they were back as an electoral force.

There's no reason to think there's been any significant falling off in that personal popularity which conveyed him to City Hall.

In this campaign you might have expected the Conservatives to trumpet his record and launch a bold manifesto for the capital, a vision of loveliness for the future.

But a week to go, and no such manifesto nor launch. Instead a list of promises, conveyed to the capital by email.

Why such reticence?

One theory could be that those pledges the Conservatives might like to make fall into three broad categories.

Either they are things that they cannot afford, or at least guarantee at this stage because they cannot be expected to 'write their budget at this time'.

Or they are things where they can't safely paint a miserable picture of decline because the mayor claims he is already dealing with those things successfully, using money from a Labour government.

Or they are things which involve presentational difficulties because of inconvenient positions adopted by that self-same convivial and free-speaking Conservative mayor.

Into the first camp falls Crossrail, of course, and the upgrade of the Tube. Arguably here too should be their proposal for a temporary moratorium on current plans to close a number of Accident and Emergency and maternity units in London. That is far from being a guarantee that no such closures will happen under them.

Into the second category come crime and housing. Boris Johnson claims he is presiding over a fall in crime - including the number of murders and in particular deaths of young people from knife attacks. It does not sit easily with the party's depiction of a broken society.

The mayor also claims that he is delivering a record number of new affordable homes which - if true - will in no small part be down to the extra hundreds of millions of pounds that the mayor has been put in command of specificially for housing since 2008.

Heathrow aircraft montage

And in the final group:

Opposition to Heathrow expansion, blurred by the mayor's enthusiasm for aviation and exploration of the idea of a new seagull-decimating airport in the Thames Estuary.

Annual cap on immigration, contrasting with Boris Johnson's pursuit of an amnesty for people living here illegally which is also supported by the Lib Dems.

The plan for elected police commissioners, heralding Boris Johnson as the 'model' just as he was deciding, due to workload, to remove himself as the head of London's existing police authority.

So perhaps it's logical that the Conservatives are foregoing the chance to make a song and dance about their vision for the capital.

Perhaps it explains too why the proven electoral winner that is Boris Johnson has not combined with the talented Shadow Minister for London Justine Greening to launch anything resembling a withering attack on Labour's record in the capital.

There may be more to lose than to gain.

Are campaign gaffes political game-changers or mild diversions?

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Tim Donovan | 11:01 UK time, Thursday, 29 April 2010

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My colleagues are unanimous.

The blogosphere froths.

Why then feelings of unease?

On reflection, should Gordon Brown have called Mrs Duffy a 'bigot' to her face, and be done with it? Would that have been better?

One of the grave sins here is the disparity between the attitude displayed in private and public?

So how could or should he have dealt with her persistent assertions?

Politely as he did? Or with perhaps a little more edge?

Prime Minister Gordon Brown with Gillian Duffy in Rochdale. Getty Images

'Mrs Duffy. Sorry, I know we've just met. But I really can't allow you to say this stuff unchallenged in front of the cameras and to criticise me in this emotive, unevidenced way. What on earth is your problem with Polish people anyway?

'Are your grandchildren prepared to work the hours and in the jobs that these guys are? I doubt it! Don't you know how much time and energy we have spent trying to deal with this issue?'

Would the news channels then have rushed to praise (rather than bury) him as an honest and fearless man prepared to speak truth unto prejudice?

Would the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts have found it a hilarious diversion and told everyone to leave Gord alone?

Er, no.

Would it have been preferable, even, for that rogue microphone to have heard him telling his aide in the back of the car: " I tell you what. She had me bang to rights there. We have soooo screwed up on immigration?"

Such confrontations now seem to happen to one or other leader on a daily basis (each one having the potential to wound).

And the rules of engagement are that the customer is always right and always wins? In public anyway. And especially if it involves a 'plucky pensioner' from Lancashire.

It seems to be widely-held now that 24-hour news and the online/social media revolution have given democracy a shot in the arm.

Unspun. As it happens. Empowers the citizen,innit?

Is it also possible that it stifles, compresses and shrink-wraps political debate?

Enlightening? Or quite the opposite?

The campaign is now a series of heavily choreographed photo-calls and speeches, worked up into a tapestry of tension, where party supporters gaze longingly at the back of leaders' heads as they speak (breaking the basic rule of amateur dramatics.)

Walk-abouts are a tortuous process of glad-handing amidst the media melee, with a potential peril lurking in every encounter?

They are performances to be survived not enjoyed - and everyone knows that it's only the angry confrontations - the ambushes - which will make the 'cut'.

(As Ann Treneman writes in the Times today, few are better-equipped to deal with the false theatrics of the walk-about than London's mayor)

TV debates have transformed this election landscape.

And TV has just intervened again.

TV is now watching round-the-clock.

And for this month in their lives these three leaders are fair game for attacks from each and every direction.

Poked with spears often dipped in poison, ignorance, misunderstanding and prejudice?

But are these ever game-changers, as opposed to a mild diversion?

Listening again to the recording of him in the car, you hear Gordon Brown actually sounding fairly calm and mellow given he thinks what's just happened with Mrs Duffy has gone so badly.

Imagine what it's like when he gets really angry.

Lib Dems must do better on their education sums

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Tim Donovan | 11:21 UK time, Tuesday, 27 April 2010

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Nick Clegg with young people

The Liberal Democrats have enjoyed a campaign beyond their - and our - wildest expectations.

An interesting question arises about the range and depth of their manifesto promises.

And whether anything pledged on the big policy areas of the moment would have been honed or toned down if they had known the scrutiny that was coming.

We know the pressure on the third party to muscle in on the big debate means that there may be a tendency to err slightly on the side of the eye-catching rather than the credible.

What, for instance, to make of their promises on schools?

Their manifesto says there would be money available to reduce the average primary school class to 20, so by a quarter in London where it's currently 27.

There's no equivalent pledge in the manifesto for secondary classes but Nick Clegg has said during the campaign that they could come down from 20 to 16.

By any stretch of the imagination, this is a tough ask.

To assess exactly how tough, we draw on help from our crack squad of fact-checkers, number-crunchers and data monkeys.

Their complexions may be waxen from lack of exposure to sunlight. But they do have calculators.

The Lib Dems have ear-marked £350 million for London's boroughs.

Reducing class sizes to the Lib Dems' promised level would require the creation of about 11,850 extra classes in London.

Extra classes need extra teachers, paid on average £30,000 a year in London. So total cost: £355m. Already exceeding the Lib Dem budget.

But, of course, these 11,000 or so extra classes of pupils also need to be found somewhere warm and dry to function.

Space permitting, the minimum cost of creating a new classroom is about £150,000. But space often doesn't permit. And unless the demand for Portakabins is about to receive a huge boost, there will need to be a considerable number of new schools, costing many hundreds of millions of pounds.

The Lib Dems insist that the class reduction plan is notional - it assumes that every headteacher chooses to spend the extra money on cutting class sizes rather than, for instance, providing more one-to-one tuition or special needs support or broader curriculum choices.

But our sunlight-starved stat-munchers don't feel it adds up.

UPDATE: 19:14

The Lib Dems have responded to this post. This is what they've said:

"You are absolutely right that we're not pumping in enough money to pay to cut every class size down. But we never said we were.

"The manifesto states 'the extra money could be used to cut class sizes, attract the best teachers, offer extra one-to-one tuition and provide for after-school and holiday support.' This is something you have only acknowledged in the penultimate paragraph, leading those who read the first few pars of your article to reach an unfair conclusion.

"You also fail to understand how the pupil premium works when making your calculations. Your assumption appears to be that there's a uniform grant to every school. There isn't - it is entirely dependent on how many poorer pupils (those eligible for free school meals) they have.

"The more of these pupils they take, the more money they have. It is those schools that take the most of these pupils, such as those in deprived areas, that will be given enough money to slash class sizes - the areas where large numbers of pupils fall behind early and need the extra investment.

"Take, for example, The Stonebridge School in the London Borough of Brent. There, 58.3% of pupils receive free school meals. The school currently has 276 pupils on its roll, of which 161 receive FSM. This academic year it would have received £257,278 extra under our plans.

"The average class size for Brent primary schools is currently 30. With 276 pupils, that suggests there are currently nine classes in Stonebridge. To get that down to an average of 20 it would need 14 class rooms. Five teacher salaries (at £30,000 each) equal £150,000. Leaving more than £100,000 extra to be spent on bricks and mortar. And if it retains roughly the same number of pupils on FSM each year, that's a spare £100,000 each and every year."

Tories split on Mayor's immigration amnesty idea?

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Tim Donovan | 11:33 UK time, Monday, 26 April 2010


On a campaign visit last week Boris Johnson confirmed that he was keen to explore the idea of an amnesty for people living in London illegally.

The Conservative parliamentary candidate Tim Archer at his side also revealed that he too supported the idea of regularisation.

"It would be better for them, and it would be better for the communities in which they live", said the mayor.

Boris Johnson with the St. George's Cross

The London School of Economics estimates that at least 600,000 people without the correct papers are living among us. Other studies in the past have put the figure even higher.

At the moment, although some may have found ways to exist in a quasi-legitimate state -for instance, paying taxes by somehow obtaining a national insurance number - most are assumed to be surviving through work in the black economy.

The LSE study claimed regularisation could boost the country's coffers to the tune of £3 billion a year.

Polling research commissioned by BBC London at the beginning of the campaign suggested that people in the capital took a more relaxed view of immigration than may have been commonly assumed.

When the Conservatives made 'less immigration' a key plank of their 2005 election campaign, there was anecdotal evidence that some of their candidates in London felt very uneasy.

In inner London particularly, immigration was not prominent in their campaign literature.

So if this one Conservative candidate -Tim Archer - would publically back an amnesty, would others? Conversely, would they come out definitively against an amnesty?

We spoke to the candidate, or a member of their team, in 14 top Tory target seats in and around the capital.

In these seven, there was a clear rejection of the policy favoured by Boris Johnson:

  • Harrow East
  • Watford
  • Enfield North
  • Kingston
  • Bethnal Green and Bow
  • Brent Central
  • Hampstead & Kilburn

In Hammersmith, a spokesman for the candidate Shaun Bailey said he would not be commenting either way.

Finally, in the following six seats, we received no call or email back to clarify the candidate's position:

  • Richmond Park
  • Ealing Central & Acton
  • Finchley & Golders Green
  • Westminster North
  • Tooting
  • Brentford & Isleworth

They are, no doubt, busy people.

So we can't know what this means nor whether some policies are easier to endorse than others.

Will London be wowed by the Clegg factor?

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Tim Donovan | 12:47 UK time, Friday, 16 April 2010

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Nick Clegg

So Nick Clegg eh?

Not just a prolific lover in his youth (apparently) but a politician who puts the other leaders in the shade?

It may prove to be akin only to a lower league club winning the first leg of a cup clash, while the giants had their minds on the Premiership.

But may it still have done wonders for Lib Dem gate receipts?

In London, the Lib Dems currently have eight MPs and experts seem to think they fall into two broad categories: safer bets or trickies.

By longevity alone - institutionalised incumbency - Simon Hughes in what was North Southwark & Bermondsey is considered to be in the first camp.

So too Vince Cable in Twickenham whose beatification awaits only a final signature in the Vatican.

The Tories lost Kingston & Surbiton for the first time in their history to Ed Davey, now Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman while Lynne Featherstone won Hornsey & Wood Green from Labour in 2005 at the height of the Iraq War furore.

The trickiest of the trickies is Sarah Teather whose Brent East consitituency is disappearing under boundary changes. She contests the new seat of Brent Central, needing a notional swing of 9% to beat Labour's Dawn Butler whose Brent South seat is also vanishing.

And then there's the cluster of Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), Sutton & Cheam (Paul Burstow) and Carshalton & Wallington (Tom Brake) which went to the Lib Dems in the 1997 Tory wipeout, but which the Conservatives desperately want back.

If a genuine Clegg factor does now emerge, the seats of Hampstead and Kilburn and Islington South and Finsbury look increasingly vulnerable for Labour where the Lib Dems need a swing of under two percent.

However, the instant momentum generated by the outcome of the first TV debate doesn't clarify the conundrums which surround the inceasingly strong suggestions of a hung parliament, and the potential for tactical voting. In fact, it reinforces the volatility and variability of the permutations.

Whether you are an existing Lib Dem voter already or an instant Clegg convert, what do you do?

Do you want Labour out more than you want the Conservatives in?

Do you risk trading your vote in the tactical market?

Are you players? Or are you substitutes not yet clear which side to play on?

Would 'free schools' really empower parents?

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Tim Donovan | 17:47 UK time, Wednesday, 14 April 2010


Michael GoveBarely a week goes by without the Spectator magazine praising Michael Gove's plans for 'free schools'.

One of the reasons they like it is that it is one of the areas where they think the Tories have really come up with a more fully developed policy.

Gove says the idea draws heavily on the system in Sweden where - after an overhaul in the early 1990s - about 15% of schools are now run by private bodies funded by the public purse.

But while the impression may have been created that any group of parents with a decent business plan and an available building will be able to open a new school, the 'need' for that school will still have to be demonstrated to a high degree to Gove and his Whitehall team.

Those not insignificant factors, money and current school capacity, will remain.

So fast-forward to an imaginary London four years from now, and assume a Conservative government coming to the end of its first term.

Whether or not the free-school idea is deemed a success may depend on how you answer the following questions:

  • Would you welcome a new secondary school being set up close to your child's secondary school?
  • Would you welcome a private school close to your child's school changing its status and becoming a 'state' school?
  • Would parents you know - with a child coming up to secondary school age - feel more or less anxious about the 'choice' now presented?
  • If you yourself are a parent of a child at primary school, would you welcome an additional school?

The Conservatives say the test will be whether parents have become 'empowered'.

Parties at loggerheads over policing in London

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Tim Donovan | 19:51 UK time, Tuesday, 13 April 2010


Battersea Power Station launchThe Home Secretary Alan Johnson today accused London's mayor of cutting police numbers and putting community safety at risk.

He alighted on figures showing 450 police officers will be lost in London by the end of Boris Johnson's mayoralty.

He said the mayor had refused to guarantee the size and composition of safer neighbourhood teams currently consisting of one sergeant, two constables and three PCSOs tied to each of London's 624 electoral wards.

His Conservative shadow Chris Grayling said it was 'desperate' of Mr Johnson. The Conservatives were fully supportive of neighbourhood policing.

The real issue was the failure of Labour to provide release from the strangulating bureaucracy which meant, for instance, that before going off to monitor a suspected burglar, about to embark on his evening a prowl, an officer must fill out a form.

Chris Huhne, for the Liberal Democrats, said that, of course, they would deal with cloying red tape but they were the only party which offered the cast-iron pledge to increase the number of police. Compared to Europe, we had a ratio of police to head of population that was far too low, he said.

The Conservatives launched their manifesto inside Battersea Power Station. "It's symbolic. A revival", a Tory aide told the Evening Standard.

For some, Battersea power station is certainly a symbol.

A once mighty institution which has proved really difficult to re-construct and which has defied the dreams of a long succession of architects and developers who have attempted to transform it.

Still too many questions over Baby Peter

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Tim Donovan | 17:59 UK time, Monday, 12 April 2010


Just questions today:

Why is more still emerging about the case of Baby Peter?

Baby PeterWhy after two criminal trials, one high court legal action, numerous inquiries and reports is there an uneasy feeling that we are some distance from a true picture?

Why have we found what we report today?

Why does howling outrage usually win the day and defeat reason?

Who is responsible when a child dies?

Where do we find the answers?

Who's next to catch the gaffe virus?

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Tim Donovan | 08:37 UK time, Sunday, 11 April 2010


David Cameron c/o PA ImagesPerhaps it was being out with Boris Johnson on Friday.

This gaffe virus is getting so infectious that now David Cameron has caught it.

Writing in the Guardian Mr Cameron said: "The one progressive new idea we hear will be in Labour's manifesto - the living wage - is actually a Conservative policy: Boris Johnson has already introduced it in London.

"But Gordon Brown has signally failed to speak out on fair pay, whether in the public or private sector, and it falls to a radical Conservative party to take a lead."

Come again?

The living wage was introduced in London by Ken Livingstone.

He wrote in the Guardian on Saturday: The London living wage was introduced by my administration five years ago, after I gave a commitment to do so during the 2004 mayoral campaign.

"If Cameron wants to fight Labour by showing that he's forward-looking he will need a better example than a policy Labour introduced five years ago. With this error he actually demonstrates the exact opposite of his case - he shows that once again the Tories are way behind the curve at best, and outright fakers a lot more of the time."

It's true though that Gordon Brown hasn't adopted it but Mr Cameron will no doubt continue to praise the idea of a living wage now he knows who first thought of it.

More to unite Boris and Dave than divide them

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Tim Donovan | 07:29 UK time, Saturday, 10 April 2010


My colleague Matt Morris watches on as David Cameron and Boris Johnson are let loose among some Chelsea pensioners.

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The discussion turns to a National Citizens plan - good works etc - touted by the Conservatives. Pensioners bemused.

The Tory policy is that it should be voluntary. Boris Johnson says perhaps it should be compulsory. Attendant hacks get the faint whiff of a gaffe in their nostrils.

Aide steps in promptly to move things along. More bemusement among pensioners.

Dave and Boris do a double-header interview where Matt asks about their relationship and what would happen whenever DC - if ever PM - disagreed with BJ on policy.

" I would prevail, " says BJ. Much laughter from BJ and DC.

The mayor has made things awkward for his party leader on occasions - often even on principle.

But the truth is that much more unites them, not least the fear and loathing they inspire in their political enemies.

Certainly all smiles today, with Johnson manfully concealing any sign of the resentment that some say still burns.

Of his Eton contemporary, BJ has sniffed in the past: "He wasn't even a prefect."

Your chance to put housing on the election agenda

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Tim Donovan | 15:33 UK time, Wednesday, 7 April 2010


Yesterday was less about policy and substance than momentum and image.

The starting gun fired, the three leaders simply wanted to make a good impression.

Estate agency in LondonBut one theme became immediately apparent, eventhough it would have been expected: their likely and necessary pitch for the vote of what we still find ourselves calling (in the absence of any other quite adequate shorthand) the middle-classes.

Gordon Brown said he was an 'ordinary' bloke. Nick Clegg said he offered something 'new'.

On the South Bank David Cameron talked about his concern for the 'great ignored'.

Put aside that this was as opposed, say, to concern about the great unwashed, who'll have to wait another day.

The phrase was interesting in another respect.

And possibly revealing.

It's not rocket science - and of course David Cameron would quite reasonably have been expected to get to the thought on his own - but the words had a striking echo of what his friend and colleague Boris Johnson has been saying at City Hall.

Last year the mayor marked a significant departure from his predecessor Ken Livingstone on the issue of housing when he announced that his aim was to help the 'forgotten middle'.

What this meant, in short, was that Mr Johnson had decided to use the millions of pounds at his disposal each year to focus less on providing social rented housing and more on so-called intermediate housing such as part-buy or shared ownership.

He says explicitly that he's very much a believer in 'getting a foot on the housing ladder'.

And his policy has explicitly raised the eligibility for subsidised housing to couples with a joint income of nearly £60,000.

The effect of this is that the notion of affordable housing - under the Conservatives - is shifting: from 'affordable' rent to 'affordable' ownership.

David Cameron wasn't talking about housing specifically, but he might have been.

When those Tory (likewise Labour and Lib Dem) candidates and canvassers come knocking, ask them about any changes that they propose to housing. Listen carefully to the answers.

And nevermind what we believe are - and have been - tensions between Dave and Boris.

In time of battle, a general will take ideas from anybody.

Where were you when the election was called?

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Tim Donovan | 10:58 UK time, Tuesday, 6 April 2010

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So we're off.

The formal choreography of a Prime Minister going to Buckingham Palace to set the election in motion.

We know it's important because every moment of the journey is monitored from air and ground, and the full range of the broadcasters' gadgetry is deployed.

Heli-cams; bike-cams; sat-cams. Only Sam Cam missing. For now.

(Though yesterday saw the launch of Sam Cam-Cam, the Tory Spouse-in-Chief's trial venture onto the web).

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From the sky, today's event is just slightly less engaging to watch than an anti-war protest. Or OJ Simpson fleeing along a US freeway. Or the London Marathon.

(How soon in fact before we hear it said that the election, like government - or life even - is one of those very long runs rather than a sprint.)

But it marks the start.

When a PM embarks on this formal dissolution duty, what do opponents do?

The moment Mr Brown arrives for his royal audience is the time to ring Mr Cameron's chief press person. Where's he watching events? Who with? Anything he said that might be quotable? Sadly, it goes to her voicemail.

What about the mayor? His press person does answer:

Where is he this minute?

A) Probably playing with his kids.

Is he watching this on TV?

A) He's more a newspaper person than a TV person. I'm sure he'll be reading about it all in the morning. I think he's probably pruning his daffodils.

And on that note......

Urgent update: Boris Johnson is not playing with his kids but looking after an elderly relative.

He has sent a text to his leader this morning:

"Good luck Dave. London is behind you."

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