You have an appointment with the Doctor

Although Justin and Ben have both expressed their deep fears over the fact that John Reid is the new Home Secretary, I have to say I’m not that worried. Yes, he looks and sounds like someone who was mistakenly released under the Good Friday Agreement, but given the current choice of Nu Lab politicians, better a blunt and pugnacious Home Secretary than a scaremongering headline-grabber like Clarke, or a totally inept bureaucrat such as Hoon or Hewitt, or someone oily and deceptive, like, well most of the rest of the Labour Cabinet.

Reid has this reputation as a “bruiser” and “fixer” but to me it seems it comes from his internal control of departments and the civil servants beneath him, not the country at large. While I don’t think we’re witnessing the dawn of a new liberal age, with Reidy bravely standing up for the rights of terrorist suspects, protests etc., to me there is nothing that suggests he is any more illiberal than any of his immediate predecessors. It’s not fair to pick on him specifically when the entire Project seems to be united in its illiberalism and contempt for the electorate.

Results finally in

Well, they finally declared Newham’s results at 7pm last night. As it turned out, RESPECT didn’t make the inroads it expected in Newham; they only won 3 council seats out of 60, the same number as the slightly creepy Christian People’s Alliance. Neighbouring Tower Hamlets got 12 councillors, which makes the result all the more disappointing for them. I wonder if it was just demographics (though there are lots of Muslims in Newham they tend not to concentrate in a few wards) or a deceptively effective Labour campaign (I saw nothing of them during the run-up to election day). I dunno. Either way, I’d be bitterly disappointed if I were a RESPECT supporter

In the summertime

Yesterday was a lovely day to vote. In fact a bit too lovely, perhaps; a friend standing in the elections worried that the first really nice hot day of the year meant everyone would go to the pub rather than vote. I of course still went; just like Jamie K says, the stealthy nature of elections is a charm in itself – schools, church halls and leisure centres all over the country quietly become something else for one day, thanks to the “visit from the democracy pixies”. For me it was especially weird, revisiting my former primary school and having to deal with quite how ordinary and small everything was compared to when I was eight.

One gripe though – Newham council (like a lot of others I suspect) now employ computer-assisted counting: ballot papers are scanned and counted electronically. Fine, speedy and accurate counts are a desirable thing. The downside is that you are not allowed to fold your ballot paper; additionally, the ballot box no longer has a slot on top, but some sort of ridiculous loading tray not unlike your average laser printer’s; you put your ballot in face down and push it in. The result is a usability nightmare: unfolded, the ballot paper flops about a lot and it is quite difficult to put it in without showing your vote to everyone. For me this was OK as I was the only person in the polling station when I voted – no snooping eyes, and I could take my time; for my father, who voted later in the day and with people all over the place, it proved more difficult. The “helpful” official at the polling station decide to give him some entirely unsolicited help – first taking the ballot paper out of his hand as he moved to put it in the box, and then turning it face up as she inserted it into the ballot box. It was only for a second and was probably inadvertent, but it still rankles me somewhat.

Incidentally, Newham still has not declared a result (council website gives an ETA of 12 noon). So much for speedy computery goodness making the whole process more efficient. Maybe they should just go back to the manual counts.

Update (1700): The BBC say 175 councils have declared out of 176. Guess which one has been left out?

And finally, on a totally unrelated note, the BBC report “Seat won by pencil test after tie”. Sadly they’re not referring to this sort of pencil test, more’s the pity…

The death of a market

I didn’t catch this until today – Sunday’s Observer covered (in part) the impending destruction of Queen’s Market, which is the first time I’ve seen it covered in a national paper:

It’s a Tuesday when I meet Neil and he is clearing the decks for the busy end of the week. Today you can get 25 satsumas for a pound, or 15 apples. Women, some in jeans, some in saris, some in shalwar kameez, line up to buy. No one can beat him on price or freshness or range, least of all the supermarket that is looming over his future, but none of that will matter if the council gets its way. The site of Queen’s Market is being sold to a city developer, St Modwen, owner of Longbridge and Elephant & Castle among other properties. In a ?75 million deal St Modwen plans to put the entrance to an Asda mall where Neil has his pitch.

Queen’s Market is my local market, and in some respects it is the antithesis of Borough Market. The food on offer is cheap, and usually not organic or hand-tendered, though it is still fresh, tasty and healthy. Like Borough, it is a covered market, but the architecture is decidedly more functional than elegant, and it is in need of attention; it is structurally sound but could definitely do with a clean and a refurbishment. But it’s as vitally important to the nation’s cuisine as it’s much more upmarket cousin. The food is not just affordable but diverse – the native staples most people are familiar with sit cheek-by-jowl with diverse foods bought by the local Indian, Bangladeshi, Caribbean and African communities.

Newham council see the market as just an eyesore, one which is on a prime bit of real estate (it is a minute’s walk from Upton Park tube station, making it ideal for commuters), and has neglected to provide the correct maintenance (e.g. not providing litter bins, dallying over sewer repairs) in the past few years. In its place, an Asda and flat complex are proposed; there is the concession of a “market mall” alongside, but it has considerably less floorspace for stalls, fewer shops and much more restricted delivery access. The end result will probably drive most of local traders out of business, decimating the local market. The diverse range of fresh, healthy produce will be displaced by a narrow mainstream-friendly range of processed food. High-skilled specialist jobs will be replaced by mundane deskilled ones. One letter to the local paper has referred to it as “ethnic cleansing”; a misuse of the term, but you can understand the sentiment, especially given that the first artist’s impressions of the site produced by the developers featured only white people (in a borough where 60% of the population is from an ethnic minority).

To make things worse, there isn’t even any real need for another supermarket in the area – there is already a medium-sized Tesco up the road, while a short bus ride away you can get to the Morrison’s and Sainsburys at Stratford, or the vast Asda and Sainsbury superstores in Beckton. Despite widespread local opposition (only 3% of survey respondents wanted a new supermarket), the property developers seem to have the council’s ear, with the result being that they’re willing to push it through at any cost. Council debate on the issue has been stifled; three of Labour’s councillors have defected to other parties (though they still occupy 56 out 60 seats on the council, so it doesn’t make much difference).

There is one hope, however. Like all the other London boroughs, Newham council is up for election this Thursday; to make it even more exciting, Newham has a directly-elected Mayor, Robin Wales, who proudly proclaims he never shops there and is spearheading the redevelopment. Both council and Mayor have been Labour certs, but that could all change: Local Labour campaigning has been virtually non-existent, and where it has popped up, it has been quite subdued (the leaflets through my door have dropped the red rose and relegated the word “Labour” into the small print). The opposition parties (chiefly RESPECT and Conservative – the Lib Dems and Greens have very little presence here) have been united in opposing the destruction of the market. They might split the anti-Labour vote though, and on a low turnout Labour might just squeeze through. Then again, they might not.

If Labour loses a good chunk of Newham council, or if Wales is toppled, it will probably be explained or excused as a local thing, a single-issue campaign. But in truth it’s a microcosm of what New Labour has been about: the grim fascination with “progress” and destroying the old and established no matter what its merits, the cosying up to big business, the total defiance in face of the opinions of the people affected and the arrogance of a man in charge who wields near-absolute power. And I’m sure Newham is not an exception; every issue of Private Eye‘s “Rotten Boroughs” details similar actions taken by other Labour councils. I will be voting against Labour tomorrow primarily because I’m concerned about the market, but I am also voting to express my dissatisfaction about Labour’s policies at all levels of government. If Queen’s Market is destroyed it will not just be a setback for those directly affected, but a setback for anyone who cares about the preservation of diversity, opportunity and local communities over the schemes of the rich and powerful, no matter where. Saying that this election is just about “local issues” falsely separates them from “national issues”, when in actual fact they are irretrievably bound together; the New Labour philosophy doesn’t just occupy the very top. Please bear that in mind when marking your ballot paper tomorrow.

(Much more information is available at the Friends of Queen’s Market website. Londoners outside of Newham can make their feelings known to Ken Livingstone, I strongly encourage you to do so. An Indymedia report has some good photos of how the market currently is).

Apology: Somehow (not sure how), soon after publication I accidentally marked this post as “Private” when I was making a minor copyedit to it in WordPress. A feature (or as I prefer to call it, bug) of WordPress is that when you’re logged in, it shows all posts made, private or published, so I had no way of knowing that no-one else could see it until it had been pointed out to me, both by Ben (here) and Tom (in the pub). Apologies to all.

Why compulsory voting is a terrible idea

The IPPR have proposed “compulsory voting for the lot of you”, to answer the problem of falling turnouts. IPPR are a New Labour thinktank and the idea is enthusiastically backed by Geoff Hoon (remember him?). That alone should be enough to tell you it’s a bad idea, though as it turns out there are plenty of proper reasons why.

Firstly, while high turnout is desirable, that does not mean that turnouts of 95-100% are necessarily a good thing: While it would be nice if everyone voted, no matter how politically engaged the populace are, there will always be people who will want to opt out. In any sort of free democracy, their wishes should be respected. High turnout is desirable but this is very different from maximal turnout; in the “good old days” of high turnout in general elections it only ever twice (1950 and 1951) exceeded 80% nationwide.

Secondly, it goes against the common-sense rule that in any aspect of life, compulsion should only ever be done as a last resort. Other measures, such as making election days national holidays (or moving them to the weekends), reforming party finance rules to widen the playing field, or adopting more proportional electoral systems, have not yet been tried at all. It is stupid to pick the most desperate option when none of the more moderate ones have even been attempted.

Thirdly, any compulsory voting system is inherently unfair, by being biased towards the candidates standing – you have to pick them, not anyone else. The concession of adding a “None of the above” (NOTA) box on voting papers is totally meaningless, unless along with it there is a guarantee that if NOTA wins with a majority, that seat does not return an MP or councillor for the duration of the entire term. Re-opening nominations is not enough – if the majority of people did not want an MP, their wish has to be respected. Else, hypothetically, 80% of the electorate could vote NOTA and yet still an undesirable candidate would be returned; the “turnout” would effectively be 20% and you would be in exactly the same situation as before: the high turnout thanks to compulsory voting is entirely cosmetic.

What’s more, even if NOTA was given the same status as other candidates, it would not receive the funding or party political backing actual candidates would, which would be an unlevel playing field. Unless of course, you have some sort of subsidy provided for people to campaign on NOTA’s behalf, which would lead to the bizarre situation of the state on the one hand telling people to vote, yet on the other to vote for no-one. That does not strike me as particularly logical.

Finally, and most importantly, the entire sentiment behind it, to “restore” universal suffrage and re-enfranchise the poor, is nauseatingly moralising and hypocritical. Despite all the hand-wringing about the poor and working-class being disenfranchised, they have failed to realise that it’s the Labour party that has disenfranchised them more than anything else. By moving to the right, they have deserted a whole swathe of society, the very ones whom the Labour party was originally founded to represent. Turnout in socially deprived areas has suffered the most in recent years; without a national party for them, people have felt deserted. Contrary to conventional belief, the majority of them don’t start voting fascist in response – they just stay at home, in their thousands. That’s chiefly why turnout in my permanently “Labour” constituency has fallen from 77.8% in 1950 to 49.8% in 2005. To first punish poor people by betraying the ideals that were meant to defend them, then to bully them into voting with the threat of a fine, in order to make election results ostensibly “legitmate”, is totally reprehensible.

What’s the solution? Ideally, provide poor people with a Labour party worth voting for; one that is in their interest, not that of supermarket owners, billionaire media magnates and piss-poor IT contractors. Since that won’t happen, then the very least they could do is reform the electoral system, abolish first-past-the-post and replace it with a more proportional system that allows a political spectrum that contains more than the two-and-a-half parties we have at the moment. Either that will allow a genuinely left-wing party into the political arena, or it will give Labour a bloody good incentive to reclaim the ground and people it has abandoned.