Still wanted – a Mayor who will take on Ken

Published in the Evening Standard

Well, for a moment there it looked like London was going to get a real contest. For a few short hours yesterday, it seemed as if 2008 was not only going to be the year of Hillary Clinton vs Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani vs John McCain, but of a heavyweight bout right here. We were told to get ready for Ken Livingstone vs Greg Dyke.

David Cameron clearly thought it was a runner, holding talks yesterday with Ming Campbell about a plan that would see no Conservative or Liberal Democrat taking on Ken as mayor next year, both parties rallying instead behind the former director-general of the BBC, anointed as a "unity" candidate.

You can see why the idea appealed to Cameron. It had everything: celebrity, surprise, a break from politics-as-usual. The only trouble was, the deal was not done. The candidate himself had not fully committed; then Campbell killed the scheme off entirely when he said the Lib Dems would never countenance a joint candidacy, no matter how attractive the personality involved. By teatime, Mayor Dyke was a distant dream, the former TV executive announcing that he quite liked Ken actually and thought he'd done a decent job as mayor.

The whole episode is pretty shambolic, but it's on David Cameron's face that most of the dripping, yellow stream of egg has landed. It would be embarrassing enough to let word leak of an approach to another party, only for that approach to be comprehensively rebuffed by all involved. But the discomfort does not end there.

For what the Dyke debacle has revealed, nay advertised, is the Conservative party's complete inability to field a credible candidate to take on Ken Livingstone. Indeed, Cameron has effectively admitted that his party's best chance of ousting the mayor is not to run a candidate at all. What does that say to the current crop of would-be Tory nominees? It says what everyone already knows: that the Conservative high command does not see a single winner among them.

You can't blame Cameron for looking at the existing shortlist and tearing his variously-parted hair out. Some of the names on it are comic, and not just metaphorically. Imagine, if you would, Mayor Lurline Champaignie. Or perhaps we should all hail Warwick Lightfoot, who sounds like a Shakespearean nobleman bringing news of a distant battle to Henry IV. There's also a Peter Hobbins and a Winston McKenzie. Going for the place names vote, we have Lee Rotherham. Though in this department surely Richard Barnes has the advantage: at least Barnes is in London.

"None of them would make Ken Livingstone even get out of bed," says one top-rank London Tory, who believes the mayor could snooze his way to re-election. "They're mostly local worthies whose only qualification is their own vaulting ambition and sense of self-importance." That's a bit harsh, especially on Nicholas Boles, the talented head of the Policy Exchange think tank, who's seeking the Tory nomination. Indeed, as a close Cameroonian he has every right to feel rather aggrieved by the botched Dyke manouevre: now he knows his leader and friend was ready to kibosh his chances of a shot at London's top job in a backroom stitch-up with a rival party.

If Cameron wants to look on the bright side, he might reflect that the collapse of this little scheme has probably saved him some trouble. London Tories were already spitting blood yesterday at the thought that they were about to be effectively shut out of the democratic selection process they'd been promised. Dyke could have become Cameron's Frank Dobson, a candidate imposed on his party against its will. As for getting Tory activists in, say, Bromley or Richmond to work with Lib Dems, that assumed they hate Ken more than they loathe each other - not a safe assumption.

Now David Cameron is back where he started, staring at a very empty hole where the Tory nominee should be: no Seb Coe, no Lord Stevens, no Michael Portillo. This is a serious headache for him, because if his brand of modern Conservatism doesn't play in London, if metrosexual Toryism doesn't flourish in the metropolis, what hope does it have across the rest of Britain? It's Frank Sinatra in reverse: if he can't make it here, he can't make it anywhere.

Next month's elections in Scotland, Wales and for local councils (excluding London) in England could well magnify the problem. For all the media love affair with Cameron, for all his successes in the Westminster village, the current polling and focus group evidence suggests the further away he gets from London and the south east, the more he struggles. Tories will hope that on May 3 they can make some inroads in the Midlands and the north west, to show this territory is at least not closed to them. But if they cannot break through in London, the city which should be the citadel of Cameronism, then the party's national electoral prospects would start looking distinctly shaky.

So London is a prize the Conservatives simply cannot afford to yield: they need to find a candidate who looks like he or she could genuinely become mayor, as well as a programme that appeals to the people of this city. But it's not only in the Tories' interest that they solve this riddle. It also matters to London.

Yesterday, Ken Livingstone told reporters he'd like to serve until 2016, winning re-election not only next year but again on the eve of the Olympics in 2012. Some might have reckoned he was joshing around, but Ken was deadly serious. If anything, I'm only surprised he set his departure date so early. I would have thought 2020 looked like a rounder number.

He's entitled to his ambition, and if voters keep re-electing him there's no reason why Ken shouldn't go on and on and on. But it's not healthy for that to become automatic, for the mayoralty of London to become a personal fiefdom, the capital a one-man, one-party state. Democracies are like economies: they need competition.

If the mayoralty is to become an enduring institution, Londoners need to see that it can work with someone other than Ken Livingstone. That means some big beast, plausible candidates coming forward to take him on. Greg Dyke would have been ideal. But when comes such another?

Just imagine if seven white children had been murdered on our streets

Published in the Evening Standard

The scariest thought is that we might not even be scared anymore. Children are killing children on the streets of London, and we?re gradually getting used to it.

Seven boys aged between 14 and 18 were either stabbed or shot dead in the capital since January, yet how many of us can name even one of them? The family of 14 year old Paul Erhahon won?t forget him, not after he died in his mother?s arms outside his home in Leytonstone last Friday. Nor will the family of Jevon Henry, 18, stabbed in the heart in St Johns Wood in January. Nor the loved ones of James Andre Smartt-Ford, a 16 year old shot dead at Streatham Ice Arena. Nor Michael Dosunmu, 15, shot and killed in his bed in Peckham. Nor Billy Cox, 15. Nor Kodjo Yenga, 16. Nor Adam Regis, 15.

The rest of us, though, read about these boys in the papers on the way home from work; we might see their pictures flashed up on the local television news later that night. And then, because they are not our sons or our brothers or our friends, we move on ? and forget.

That?s partly because we?ve all got busy lives and there?s only so much room in our crammed heads and over-stretched hearts. But, if we?re honest, we?ll admit there?s another factor at work here too. For too many Londoners, this spate of killing has seemed to be taking place at one remove ? as if it were somebody else?s problem. Specifically, too many white Londoners have been able to put this to one side, neatly labelling it a ?black problem.?

I don?t exempt the media from this charge. On the contrary, I?m trying to imagine the coverage if this had been seven white children slain on the streets of London: something tells me the media drumbeat would be much, much louder.

Yesterday the prime minister weighed in, calling for action on knife and gun crime. He also urged the black community to step forward and admit the truth: ?We won?t stop this by pretending it isn?t young black kids doing it,? Tony Blair said.

Of course, it?s good that the PM realises the gravity of this problem ? and most people will nod at his statement of the obvious. But there is an implied insult there, one which helps nobody.

For implicit in that remark was the suggestion that the black community currently does ?pretend? that this is someone else?s problem, that it is in a state of denial from which Tony Blair is stirring them. But that?s not true.

In February, an estimated 2500 people, mainly black Londoners, marched from Peckham to Windrush Square in Brixton in a ?prayer walk? to mourn the deaths of the teenage boys murdered in those bloody winter weeks. It was organised by Pastor Nims Obunge of the Peace Alliance, with the backing of several predominantly black evangelical churches, in less than a week. As anyone who has even dabbled in activism will know, assembling 2500 people in a few days is a huge achievement ? and it illustrates a community that is in anything but denial.

Instead, black leaders insist they have ?owned? this issue for nearly a decade, urging every home secretary since Jack Straw to take action. Black radio stations and newspapers wrestle with it constantly. There is no need to tell them to face up to what they already know: rather the rest of us should start listening.

What we will hear is that this epidemic of violence comes out of a grim confluence of several problems, which have come together in the black community in a lethal combination.

Top of the list is poverty and deprivation. It?s easily forgotten, amid all the hoopla about London as a financial centre and global capital, but this city still harbours some of the worst poverty anywhere in Europe. Combine that with a high incidence of single parent families ? though not the highest: that still occurs among white Britons ? and you have communities that are exceptionally vulnerable to the kind of breakdown these crimes represent.

There are other, specific factors ? with the gang culture central. That, says Lee Jasper, the mayor?s adviser on race relations, is itself the product of large, open drug markets alongside areas of great deprivation. ?Once that culture takes hold,? says Jasper, ?it spreads.? A decade ago, drug dealers might have shot each other over drugs. Now, you get children killing children ?over nothing, trivia.?

The police have acted, their Operation Trident targeting so-called targeting crime in the black community and jailing some of the most established gang members. But that?s had an unintended consequence, say community activists, as younger, more hot-headed gang members have replaced the old guard, now in jail.

And it doesn?t end there. Yesterday Ken Livingstone added the prevalence and availability of violent movies and videogames to the list of possible culprits. It sounded like a side issue ? after all, plenty of people saw Kill Bill and didn?t go out and stab a teenager. But black leaders argue that while those from stable, well-resourced families might be able to watch and dismiss such movies - helped by other, more positive influences - this easily-available diet of violence can have a terribly desensitising effect on the vulnerable. The white kids in the suburbs might listen to 50 Cent?s ?Get Rich or Die Tryin?? on their iPod with no great consequences, but for a black kid in Peckham it can have a rather more pernicious impact.

Luckily, black campaigners are not short of suggested remedies for this grave problem. The core solution is one the prime minister should embrace: if we want to get tough on this crime, we have to get tough on the causes of this crime. That means investment in employment and education, so that schools stop failing black boys. It means more black male teachers in the classroom, offering whatever incentives are needed to bring them there. It means London equivalents of America?s ?midnight basketball? schemes, in which schools and community centres stay open after hours, getting kids off the streets and giving them a place to go and things to do. After years in which youth services were run down in the Thatcher era, it means new investment ? soon to be helped by the mayor?s plan to put in a pound for every pound spent by the local boroughs.

This is not the problem of one part of London, but of all London. Unless we want to become the kind of city where children murder children ? and everyone else walks on by.

We’d all be better off staying at home

Published in the Evening Standard

Ah, Easter is upon us, the season of chocolate eggs, a long weekend and Jesus films on the telly. I'm not a Christian, and yet this has always been one of my favourite times of year. Nice Jewish boys are not meant to feel this way: indeed, the veteran Jewish politician, Greville Janner, used to joke that the mere word 'Easter' was enough to induce a migraine. (Janner was thinking of those Fiddler on the Roof days when commemorations of Christ's crucifixion had an unfortunate tendency to turn into pogroms against the Jews).

But for me, Easter is something to look forward to. It coincides with the Jewish festival of Passover, which I love, and heralds in earnest the arrival of spring. (Besides, you don't have to be a Christian to find the Easter story - whether told in church or in a re-run of Jesus of Nazareth - pretty compelling.)

Yet many Londoners are about to miss it. They could be on their way to Heathrow this very moment, ready to hop on a plane for a few days away from it all. I don't envy them one bit.

For one thing, they could well be about to become a statistic. Figures released yesterday showed that getting off a plane to find your bags have taken a journey of their own is not a freak accident, but a regular occurrence. The Air Transport Users Council found that last year 5.6 m bags went awry from flights run by the 24 major carriers operating in Europe. Top, or rather bottom, of the league was the self-styled world's favourite airline, with British Airways admitting that 23 bags went missing for every 1000 BA passengers.

It happened to me in January, at the start of a family holiday to Cape Town. After 12 sleepless hours, I watched, pale and red-eyed, as the carousel revolved emptily: when you're the last one left at baggage reclaim, and the same lonely cardboard box is all that's on offer, you know the curse has struck. What followed was 24 sticky hours wearing clothes you never wanted to see again, let alone wear. But the bags reappeared the next afternoon without too much trouble. Others have much worse stories to tell, of cases that never resurface, of meagre compensation payments, of honeymoons ruined by baggage that appears at the end of a holiday, too late.

Even without luggage separation anxiety, the notion of flying at a peak time like Easter fills me with dread. The sweat, the congestion, the delays: you need a holiday to get over the holiday. And by the time you've recovered from the ordeal of getting there, it's time to turn around and head back.

Enthusiastic flyers will laugh all this off. A few hours of logistics and then you're in Prague or Tangier. What could be more wonderful?

That's hard to dispute; the jet plane is indeed one of the great advances of human civilisation, enabling people to see places and cultures that would have remained forever out of reach. Having flown my family to Africa this winter, I'd be the last to denounce all air travel.

But, as in so much else, it's the degree that counts. An annual foreign holiday has come to seem like a basic requirement for many Londoners - even if our grandparents would have regarded it as the height of luxury - and few would want to eliminate that pleasure. But such trips will only account for a small portion of the air traffic taking off this weekend. The rest will be holidays for frequent fliers, who now see an aeroplane the way the rest of us see a bus or train. Think of the poster campaign for lastminute.com, urging consumers to 'Get your 5 a Year' , as if five annual trips to the likes of Phuket, Morocco and Sardinia were an essential staple of healthy living.

In fact, that's a habit the planet simply cannot sustain. The carbon emissions from flying are of a quantity and quality that puts them in a different, more stubborn category from almost anything else. The environmentalist George Monbiot estimates that on a return flight from London to New York, every passenger produces roughly 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide: the very quantity we would be allowed to emit over an entire year, were we to make the overall cut in emissions necessary to save the earth from catastrophic climate change. What's more, because aeroplanes release all kinds of gases and particles, flying is estimated to have a warming effect 2.7 times that of the carbon dioxide alone. Monbiot's grim conclusion is that "aviation's contribution to global warming must be reduced in the UK by some 87% if we are to avoid a 2C rise in global temperatures." In other words, lastminute's 5 a year is positively damaging to our global health.

If that all sounds a bit killjoy-ish, there are other arguments for avoiding Heathrow and Gatwick. Just ask those jetting off to Milan or Mauritius whether they've ever been to Inverness or the Brecon Beacons or St Ives. Often, we're so busy looking out to the world, we forget the treasures in our own back yard. That's especially true in London, where our new, and cherished, position as the global capital can make us gaze outward, missing the treats closer to home. There's a risk that our international status will increasingly detach London from the rest of Britain: by holidaying in this country now and then, we can make sure we stay connected.

New technology could help. This week the French TGV triumphantly set a rail record, bulleting between Strasbourg and Paris at a stunning 357.2 mph. (Remember that the InterCity 125 was proud to do, er, 125 mph). If we had one of those here, we could get from Kings Cross to Edinburgh in 64 minutes. Suddenly we could reach the furthest corners of the British Isles in a jiffy.

In the meantime, an Easter trip to Wales or the West country can mean hours stuck in traffic jams (a seasonal tradition in its own right). But my answer to that is not to get out my passport and fly. No, I'm going to spend this weekend in the greatest city on earth: I'm staying right here.