Tag Archives: Elections

How the BBC cover their backs

Complaining is usually a frustrating experience. We hope it will be cathartic, perhaps even effective. The BBC is among those grand institutions that, when they respond at all, make clear that your views are wrong, irrelevant, and that you are so infinitesimally small a concern that one should be grateful for any response.

When the BBC first responded to my complaint about their coverage of the European Election results on the 25th May, they managed to ignore my every point. Going by responses to previous complaints, I wasn’t entirely surprised.

I wrote about their ignorance of the politics of the European Parliament, their focus on Westminster (yet again) despite the large public interest in recent European matters such as the ban on fishing discards (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s fish fight).

I wrote about their scant coverage of the Green Party, not interviewing a single spokesperson for the party until 2.30am, having constantly interviewed representatives from other parties in the preceding four hours.

Their first response told me they had received a lot of complaints, and they were right to cover UKIP to the extent, and in the manner, which they did.

At least the irony of their first response made me laugh, managing not to mention the Green Party or European politics in response to a complaint that they did precisely that.

My follow-up complaint pointing this out got a proper reply.

Now there are three ways to respond to a complaint: humbly apologise, robustly defend, or distract and dissemble. You can judge which they opted for.

They first told me:

The amount of airtime the BBC gives to a party in the run up to an election is based on evidence of past and current levels of support. This can include the number of candidates a party is fielding, how it performed in the last equivalent election and other evidence of current electoral backing.

This calculation was informed by Ofcom’s decision in March to downgrade the Green Party to an also-ran, despite running a full slate, being part of the fourth largest grouping in the European Parliament, having substantial achievements under our belt, having coming third in the most recent London elections (in 2012). The decisions by Ofcom and the BBC wrote us out of the script, even as our polling picked up (as it always does) weeks away from the elections as we pulled up alongside and even went ahead of the Lib Dems.

They continue:

We showed the Greens as part of the permanent on screen tally from the first result of the night. We also took care to mention the Green share of the vote after every declaration – even where the party did not win a seat.

It is true that the Green result was always on the screen, but it was rarely on the lips of the presenters and guests. The usual refrain, “the Lib Dems have been pushed into fifth place”, made clear that we were an invisible nuisance to the Westminster party they were interested in. The constant interviews with Lib Dems about falling into fifth place only confirmed this.

So why weren’t Green Party people also being constantly interviewed about beating the Lib Dems, and even winning seats?

Natalie Bennett was interviewed towards the end of the results flow at 2.30 am. The reason for such a later interview was in part because we were waiting until the full picture for the Greens was known. Every extra seat matters for smaller parties and we wanted to know how close they would come to their prediction (made on our local election programme) of 6-7 seats. The other reason is simply that this was an election results programme and later interviews are not unusual.

By that logic, they would have waited until the night was over before interviewing any Lib Dems. Surely the story was, will they lose all of their seats or will they hold on in any region? What of UKIP? Why not wait until 2.30am before interviewing them about the “earthquake” the BBC kept on about?

The truth is that the BBC’s editorial team simply aren’t interested in the Green Party. We aren’t an attraction in their Westminster bubble. Nick Robinson admitted at one point that he had only ever been to Brussels once, to cover a Cameron trip there. Journalists who, if they ever leave the gossip in the Gothic halls of Westminster struggle to adjust to the notion of politics at a different level of government, inevitably see the Green Party as nary a threat to either of the Big Three. UKIP are not doted on so much for their support across the country, but for their ability to pull the Conservative Party every-which-way, even to panic the Labour leadership or dictate the tone and focus of the Liberal Democrat campaign.

Regional BBC journalists are quite different. In London, for instance, they fully understand that we are on a level pegging with the Lib Dems, that we have interesting contributions to make in debates on policing, housing and transport as well as the environment. But at a national level the BBC just don’t understand that, yet.

Thankfully the petition organised by Portia Cocks was handed in with almost 50,000 signatures, and the BBC was forced to respond to mine among 1,200 other complaints about their election coverage, prompting several discussions on TV and radio as to whether their coverage was appropriate.

This discussion with Nick Robinson shows them covering their backs.

Perhaps, over time, we will be able to persuade those editors and journalists that the Green Party does have some interesting contributions to make to their debates. I suspect that we will struggle, though, so long as the Beeb frames everything in terms of the narrow consensus of the Westminster bubble.

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Super cycling in Peckham

In April 2012 I joined 10,000 soggy cyclists in the rain to call for a big change to our streets, so whoever won the imminent Mayoral elections would ensure our streets would be safe and pleasant for cycling.

In response to months of fantastic campaigning, and not wanting all the cycling votes going to the Green Party, Boris Johnson duly signed up, telling cyclists: “I am fully committed to meeting the three key tests of LCC’s ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign”.

Eight months later, TfL began to consult on the plans for Cycle Superhighway 5, from New Cross Gate to Victoria via Peckham, Camberwell and Oval. Here was a golden opportunity for Boris to “make sure all planned developments on are completed to Go Dutch standards, especially junctions”, one of those three key tests he signed up to.

Months of consultation and roadworks later, this is what we got:

Super cycling in Peckham

Does that look fun to you? Does Boris really think lots of people are going to rush to buy a bicycle to enjoy that?

This road has a 30mph speed limit. TfL refused requests from Southwark Cyclists and Southwark Living Streets to reduce it to 20mph, given how many homes, schools and shops front this busy road.

It’s gets worse, though. Here’s a before-and-after photo of a stretch of Peckham High Street:

Super cycling in Peckham

That’s right. TfL removed an advisory lane that ran the whole way across the junction, and replaced it with a couple of blocks to indicate cyclists might be expected.

It’s not as though Boris and TfL were unaware of problems with their designs. Last October, Jenny Jones, with whom I work, brought one example to the Mayor’s attention and asked him to look again:

In that exchange, if you can’t make it through, Boris promises to look at the plans again and to do his “level-headed best to make it as safe as [we] possibly can”.

Here are TfL’s plans for the relevant stretch of the Cycle Superhighway, with a big red arrow pointing to the junction Jenny was talking about . You can see how the route going each way along this stretch of Peckham Road changes from a mandatory lane (dark blue) to an advisory lane (mid blue) then no more than a bit of blue paint as you go past a junction:

going-super-3

Here is what that junction looks like now that the ‘super’ highway has been implemented:

going-super-4

On the left, there is finally some good news, with a nice wide mandatory cycle lane painted onto the road. Before that soggy day in April 2012 I would have described that as a very good bit of provision for cyclists. But the ‘Go Dutch’ campaign the Mayor signed up to raised the bar, and that lane no longer clears it. There is no segregation – no protection from the traffic – and no attempt to route cyclists around the back of the bus stop so they don’t get squashed or held up by buses.

In the middle and right-hand photos we can see the promised unbroken line of blue paint replaced with a couple of squares. There is absolutely no protection here for cyclists against motorists cutting across to head north on the rat-run Southampton Way. Nothing.

And there we have it, folks. Two years after our “cycling Mayor” signed up to “make sure all planned developments on are completed to Go Dutch standards, especially junctions”, we have more millions spent on another bungled Cycle Superhighway that would embarrass any qualified Dutch road engineer.

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Space4Cycling in Crystal Palace

I’m supporting the Space4Cycling campaign in the Crystal Palace ward, where I’m standing for the Green Party.

I often cycle up and down Anerley Hill on the way to work. It’s a steep bit of road, difficult for those of us who aren’t zipping up to Cadence every weekend on expensive road bikes. Cycling uphill without wavering a little is hard work, so providing some protected space at the expense of a little car parking makes perfect sense.

Of course some people who currently park their cars there will lose out. But I want to see streets in Crystal Palace, London, the whole of the UK transformed to serve the needs of people on foot, bike and public transport, and this can only happen at the expense of cars because we have limited road space.

The alternative is to leave almost 20,000 vehicles a day trundling along Anerley Hill, creating peak hour traffic jams. This level of traffic is responsible for illegal levels of air pollution, which will remain until at least 2020 if we don’t do something drastic. Find out more about this here. If you walk down to Anerley Road on a school day, you’ll see dozens of children buying fast food, but very few on bikes. Designing roads for cars at the expense of bikes is unhealthy and bad for the environment.

I would also like to introduce 20mph limits on far more roads in the area, particularly for rat runs like Thicket Road, introduce ‘filtered permeability’ to more roads to reduce traffic, and fix the various barriers, potholes and speed humps that make cycling through Crystal Palace Park confusing and unpleasant.

I want to make it easy, safe and pleasant for everyone to cycle in Crystal Palace, whether they’re an 8 year old going to school in the morning, or a fit 80 year old heading up the hill to the shops.

Some thoughts on the Space4Cycling campaign

I think this new campaign from the LCC and all the local cycling groups is brilliant. It is showing yet again that cyclists can be mobilised to make their voices heard in the democratic system, and I only hope it has a big an impact on local councillors as their lobbying of the London Assembly has had.

I also hope that councillors elected in May honour their promises. I do wonder at the Labour councillors signing up in Southwark, a borough I used to live in and cycle through every day. The council has spent four years doing next to nothing for cyclists, while scrapping the London Cycle Network from its Transport Plan and actually removing cycle lanes from busy roads.

As the Stop the Killing campaign found, many other councils are just as bad. Are all these candidates honestly going to push for the cyclists’ proposals having failed to do so in the past four years? One can only hope.

My one other reservation is that it is difficult for smaller parties and independent candidates to get onto the site. For those who have never fought an election, I can assure you that it’s a huge challenge for small parties dependent on volunteers with full-time jobs just to get all the paperwork in to the returning officer, let alone get a list of candidates out to anyone who asks and respond to lots of lobbying requests.

This campaign web site has been live for some time now, and while very well organised parties can get their candidate lists out nice and early, many others won’t have a final list until nominations close next week.

At the moment, the web site gives a very poor impression of the Green Party, for example, even though we have consistently been the most pro-bike party in the capital. That isn’t just my biased opinion, it was also the view of the Londoners on Bikes campaign in the 2012 elections.

So at the time of writing over 12,000 people will have contacted an incomplete set of candidates, and might think the missing candidates and parties have nothing to say about cycling. I hope you, dear reader, will bear that in mind and hold off sending your lobbying email for a couple of weeks.

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Problems and possibilities with ward boundaries

Being actively involved in my local branch of the Green Party means I’ve spent a lot of time wandering around carrying a map of a local ward.

Almost nobody seems to know which ward they are in, often because the names are a bit abstract (e.g. “The Lane” in Peckham, which I presume is because “Rye Lane” runs through the middle) or because almost nobody would say they live in the area described (e.g. “Peckham Rye”, which has Peckham Rye Common and Park in the middle and includes areas normally thought to be part of East Dulwich and Nunhead).

Since the Ordnance Survey published open data, including political boundaries, it’s been possible to put this information into OpenStreetMap. I’ve finally bothered to start doing this for Southwark – you can see the results on this nice ITO map.

Unfortunately the default map on the OpenStreetMap homepage draws the names of the wards along the rather nice dotted boundaries, displacing actual road names and leaving junctions that could easily confuse the user. Here are three examples:

You’ll notice I’ve added “ward” to the end of the names to try and help, but it’s not much of a solution. Three different proposals have been put forward on the OpenStreetMap bug tracker (a dedicated map, hide them, make them less bold).

A simple solution to the problem above would be to remove the names; a more sophisticated solution would be to give road names priority, change the text colour to the purple of the boundary lines, and hope Mapnik allows us to offset the labels so you can have the two ward names either side of the line).

It’s a bit of a shame that they create a mess because they’re useful data to include in OpenStreetMap (much like trees, which I’ve asked for a solution to).

For example, the holy grail of software to help us canvass voters would be to connect the electoral register to the OSM database of houses, allowing us to visualise and manage information on voting intentions and canvasser visits by ward on a nice map.

Another useful application could be Nominatim, which could tell you the political boundaries that any chosen OSM-mapped home, business, park or set of co-ordinates lies within.

For now I just need to finish getting all those Southwark boundaries into the database…

Data quality

One other quick point. The London Borough of Southwark boundary was already in the database, but it’s not very well mapped.

It’s really important to know if a boundary runs down the middle of the road, so that homes on one side belong to one borough and homes on the other side to another borough; or whether the boundary is offset away from the road, usually down back gardens, so that all homes on both sides are in the same borough.

Fellow OpenStreetMappers should be careful to put the boundary in exactly the right position, ideally sharing nodes/ways with the actual roads where the boundary goes down the middle so it’s precise and won’t go wrong if somebody adjusts the road position.

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Selecting a good politician

It’s selection time for the Green Party. In London we are voting not only on our list for the House of Lords (in case we get offered another seat there), but also for the London Assembly and Mayor. Since I work at the Assembly and I’ll be writing the manifesto for whichever people are chosen, I don’t want to endorse anyone here. But I do want to share a a few thoughts on what I’m looking for in a politician.

The most important thing for Greens to consider is that we will most likely only get one, two or three London Assembly members out of 25. There’s no room for colourful characters with narrow interests, bad tempers or a tendency for self indulgence. They need to be good communicators, both practical and radical, collegiate and disciplined.

We need to pick people who can get complicated and often innovative messages across to the mainstream media, to other politicians, to the public. It’s no use being Mr or Mrs Brains if you baffle people when you talk to them, or bore journalists with predictable soundbites. Politicians have staff to help with policy research and messaging, but nobody between them and their audience.

We rely on our Members to put across a good, rounded image of our party. Whatever your particular politics, will your choices show that the Green Party is both practical and radical, that we are able to achieve significant changes to Mayoral policy at the same time as advocating a radically different vision of London? Radical idealists might spend four wasted years making good speeches; practical realists might forget the reason they’re Green while working for minor concessions.

Our two/three members have, in the past, won a great many gains for London by working with other political parties and at times with the Mayor. The comparatively collegiate culture of the Assembly is one of the joys of working there. People who enjoy tribal politics, who thrive on factions and who find it difficult to work with others – especially if they’re those hated Lib Dems or “sell out” New Labourites, won’t get very far in the Assembly.

To focus on these basic political skills takes the final quality: discipline. Watching Caroline Lucas over the past few years, it’s been remarkable to see how hard she works to find realistic radical ideas, get them across to the public and the media in a compelling way, and work with NGOs, politicians across the political spectrum and anyone else willing to help her achieve our goals. To compare her to someone like George Galloway, who is an excellent speaker and fires a lot of people up, is to compare an effective small party politician to a character that can only be tolerated in a large party.

Of course this portrait of an effective small party politician reflects my politics; you may think we’re in this game for an entirely different reason. If you think there’s no progress without revolution or the Mayoralty, these reasons may not sway you.

It’s well worth actually watching the webcasts of a few Assembly meetings, perusing some committee reports and reading some press releases to get an idea of the work they do.

If you like the look of that work and can see its value, you might ask yourself: would this candidate be able to work cross-party on affordable housing funding and river deculverting, gain media coverage on these issues, and win some real gains for London?

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Never mind the narrative

Aled Dilwyn Fisher and Adam Ramsay have kicked off another little debate about the recent past and possible future of “the left”, following a total failure to seize the much-vaunted opportunity created by the massive financial crisis in 2008.

Why did anyone except the hard left – not known for their astute political realism – believe that we were likely to see a reshaping of international capitalism in 2008? Governments regulating and administering the major economic powers and their possible successors approaching national elections almost all lined up behind what Aled succinctly calls “deficit fetishism”. Even Obama’s green-tinged stimulus is undermined by States doing the exact opposite.

Adam is interested in narratives about greedy bankers and corrupt politicians, governments running out of money and youth unemployment spirally. Me too, but his writing verges on a pointless delusion – that “we”, a small rabble of bloggers and activists on the fringes of political power, can do anything to effectively resist the onslaught of cuts that the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems all signed up to during the General Election, and to bring about a fundamental reshaping of the global political economy.

When I read the language of resistance to today’s cuts, I’m reminded of Neil Kinnock’s most famous speech attacking Labour councils who brought cities to their knees in a vainglorious attempt to ignore (or in their language, resist) government cuts.

If we spend too much time fretting about our narrative we are in danger of falling into the trap of fighting an illusionary battle between the forces of the left and the right, as though they were two divided communities battling for the soul of the nation. A coalition of resistance might create a space for debate, as Romayne Phoenix has suggested, but it isn’t going to stop all the cuts. Debate will be healthy because there are many more than two positions on our current fiscal predicament, and accepting this is the first step towards focusing – as Aled suggests – on organising communities of interest to resist where there is a real chance of reversing a cut (such as housing benefits) and on getting significant sympathetic space in the media to decry cuts that are clearly abysmal and clearly unstoppable.

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Turning green shoots into political roots

Rupert Read has posted some useful thoughts on how the Green Party in England & Wales can build on the historic election of our first MP, and on the rapid growth in membership in recent years. There’s much to agree with, particularly on making the internal systems and finances work. If anything, I think he has understated the importance of finances… even to stay still and retain our two London Assembly Members in 2012, our two MEPS in 2013, our MP in 2015 and over a hundred councillors in between.

Here in London, a lot of thought has gone into our electoral strategy following the near-wipeout in May. I won’t digress into the London strategy here, but Rupert echoes comments from many party members I have spoken to in emphasising the need to blend realism and ambition.

Rupert is also right to ask how we can tighten up our policies, which needn’t amount to a removal of anything radical as Jane Watkinson has suggested. My first concern is that we need to go beyond the dry policy documents to think about how we engage those high-profile elected politicians with changes, so we don’t get (justifiably) bad press like this after so much effort improving policy.

I have provided some advice to Caroline Lucas MP and the office on intellectual property issues, but I can’t be as quick in helping Caroline as I can be in my full-time job supporting our London Assembly members. How can the party provide the politicians with swift responses and germane guidance whilst relying so heavily on volunteers? When researchers employed for the politicians are often restricted in their dealings with other branches of the political party (as civil servants), how can we ensure consistency between offices? More money for researchers in the party office would be a big help.

Though I think Jane’s worries are unwarranted, she is right to ask how we resolve radicalism with realism. My second concern in building on recent success is that our politicians are actually effective, and that we are able to tell the stories of their successes. This is an age-old dilemma for a small party in a big-media world (new/social media are still a bit player when it comes to getting the message out beyond activists).

Trying to be a party of radical politics in Westminster, and one that bucks the “green = environmentalism” label without shrugging off environmental issues altogether, is a tough job. Trying to pick radical policies to advice where there is a realistic prospect of a political gain – i.e. actually changing something – or a prospect of good media coverage to inform the public debate – only makes it harder.

Our Policies for a Sustainable Society run to thousands of words over hundreds of topics. Our 2010 general election manifesto has detailed proposals across most areas of government. Caroline will only be able to notch up limited political gains and big media hits on a handful of national topics; she is only one MP.

Take the Green New Deal, for example, which Caroline is rolling together with an opposition to public service cuts. The current government is going to appear very green to most voters. That is partly because the previous government had such a terrible record; and partly because it is inheriting some fairly radical proposals such as these on energy efficiency. Will Caroline just look like the impossible-to-please nutcase on the fringe, or will she be able to establish a credible line of scrutiny, attack or productive lobbying?

So I am looking forward to hearing at the Autumn conference what she is going to focus on in Parliament, how that will connect with the work done by canvassers and councillors up and down the country, and how the party can continue to forge a distinctive and very focused image for the next tranche of Green voters.

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Ken vs. Oona – anything new?

Being a Green, I’m not following Labour’s hustings for their Mayor of London candidate too closely. But being a realistic left-of-centre Green, I’m hoping that either Ken or Oona get elected into City Hall in 2012.

Oona King hasn’t impressed me much so far. Her candidacy seems very light on detail, her policy pronouncements full of nice language but no specifics. As Martin Hoscik writes, Ken Livingstone is simply rehearsing his 2008 manifesto, with a few innovations (such as borrowing affordable housing money on the bond market) that are basically unfolding behind the scenes in City Hall already.

But on the BBC Politics Show on Sunday, King did get one impressive point in. Livingstone is basically gearing up for a re-run of the 1980s, when he battled with Thatcher from the GLC. He wants to fight, fight, fight every cut (transcript here). But as King pointed out, once the Mayor gets a cut-down grant she/he can’t do very much about it.

In the face of cuts beyond our control we need to innovate (whilst of course speaking out against the cuts and making them very uncomfortable for Lib Dem and Conservative MPs in London). King cited the example of co-operative home ownership, something I have recently worked on with Jenny Jones. I have also written in the past about opportunities for local communities to regenerate their area without waiting, cap in hand, for big chunks of government funding.

Given that Livingstone has jumped on the bond market bandwagon to raise money for affordable homes I hope he will use the next two years to take up other innovations, as King suggested. I also hope Oona King puts some substance behind her slightly vague but insightful suggestions.

A campaign of positive ideas for London’s very varied communities would be much more interesting, and beneficial to London, than two years of simply attacking the coalition Government’s disastrous budget.

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Should local elections coincide with the nationals?

This chart shows the 2010 local election results for The Lane, the ward I ran for. After a year of really hard work I doubled the top Green vote to 1,265, but as you can see an incredible surge in votes for Labour stole the show.

The Lane election results

The Lane 2010 election results

To get an idea of how much of a difference having the national and local elections on the same day had in London, look at the black lines. I’ve drawn those into to show, roughly, where the votes were in the 2006 local elections. The increased turnout was massive, and it almost all went to Labour/Lib Dem/Conservative candidates. Across Southwark their vote increased between 50-300% whilst the Green vote was up much, much less; we just got left behind.

In The Lane, the Lib Dems didn’t even campaign. Their candidates didn’t attend the hustings, they only really put out general election leaflets in the area, they didn’t door knock, they’re not particularly active in local groups and their 8 year rule of Southwark Council didn’t do much for the area (to say the least). Yet their vote more than tripled to surge past us. We have been active in the area since 2006, campaigned hard on the doorstep and involved ourselves in lots of local campaigns and community groups, but even doubling our vote wasn’t enough to stop paper candidates overtaking us. That sucks.

It raises the old question: should general and local elections be on the same day? With the Brown/Cameron/Clegg show on TV and all the papers, two years of a Tory Mayor, eight years of a Lib Dem/Tory council for Labour activists to be angry at, and so many voters being unaware of the local situation, how could we ever compete?

For my part, it’s back to the local groups and streets to fight on. Next up: GLA elections in 2012!

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Growing the Cossall Estate

After a week speaking at a digital rights demonstration, a free map meeting, a 600-strong Critical Mass and lots of electioneering capping off days at the office it was quite a relief to complete the weekend with a spade, wheelbarrow and several tonnes of soil. Growing Southwark, who I first came across last September, have been running a community food growing project on the Cossall Estate in Peckham.

I planted my broad beans at the event in February – here’s a pic of me with my pots – but this time the work was much more heavy going. Residents, Growing Southwark volunteers and a team from Veoila with 2 master carpenters worked together from Thursday-Sunday to erect a 18×1.5×0.6 meter raised bed. When I got there on Sunday they were filling them up with 16 tonnes of organic soil and soil improver.

Volunteers and residents filling the raised beds

Volunteers and residents filling the raised beds

After a couple of hours lugging large quantities of soil around in wheelbarrows, including racing back with kids giggling away in the empty barrow, I finally got to plant my fledgling broad beans. They look a bit sad here because I didn’t have any stakes to tie them to, or water to cheer them up, but I’m assured by growing legend Lesley that they “are looking good”.

My slightly sad looking broad beans

My slightly sad looking broad beans

Back home, after a lengthy phone interview with Benjamin Mako-Hill about my involvement GNUPedia (one of the predecessors to Wikipedia), I added the raised bed to OpenStreetMap, bringing my week full circle.

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