John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for October, 2012

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George Osborne’s first-class train gaffe: Plebgate act II | John Harris

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

Have senior Tories and their aides learned nothing from the past few weeks? Do they think first-class fares don’t apply to them?

This is now getting silly. With Andrew Mitchell still in post and the phrase “fucking plebs” continuing to echo uncomfortably around Westminster, now we get an incident that suggests the same variety of behaviour. It’s like Plebgate Act II: another episode suggesting an almost surreal reluctance to respect the same rules as the rest of us.

It’s all laid out in the Twitter timeline of Granada TV correspondent Rachel Townsend, who today claimed to have watched George Osborne get on a London-bound train at Wilmslow (my hometown, and a key part of his constituency). “George Osborne just got on at Wilmslow with a STANDARD ticket and he has sat in FIRST,” wrote Townsend at around 3.45pm. Then this: “His aide tells ticket collector he cannot possibly move and sit with the likes of us in standard class and requests he is allowed to remain in first class.

Ticket collector refuses.” Respect! And while we’re here, what of Osborne’s recent revival of “We’re all in this together”?

There’s still some confusion over exactly who needed the upgrade: later word from Townsend suggested that it was the aide who had a standard-class ticket, and was insisting on staying in first class, because the chancellor “couldn’t possibly sit in standard class” (for fear, presumably, of the Olympics treatment). There was thus a “standoff”, an assurance from the ticket collector that there was “no chance” of the aide getting his way, and a subsequent refusal to pay a £160 upgrade – for which ordinary folks might be thrown off at Crewe, or something. As far as I can tell, around 15 minutes then passed, before the money was reluctantly handed over, while Townsend managed another couple of amazed tweets: the whole story is now on the ITV news website. The BBC has reported that Virgin Trains says it was Osborne himself who was “caught travelling” with the wrong type of ticket.

Whatever the precise details – and they’re likely to be fought over, as in Plebgate – all this prompts a few questions: was it so wise to have had this out in apparently loud voices? Have senior Tories and their helpers learned nothing from the last few weeks? Or are they so convinced of their own superiority that they think any such lessons, much like first-class fares, somehow don’t apply to them? Answers below, please.

John Harris

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Our high streets are under attack. We need to fight back | John Harris

Monday, October 15th, 2012

It suits big business for people to believe our town centres are dying. But local campaign groups are uniting to defend them

Four years or so it was: from the aftermath of the crash to the arrival of the double-dip recession. Circa 2008-9, there was a mass pang of worry about increasing numbers of empty shops, and the prospect of the UK following the trajectory of middle America – that of becoming a mess of dusty old urban centres and giant out-of-town malls. Now, we seem close to accepting all this as a matter of inevitability – even a sign of progress.

Between January and June this year, the proportion of British shops lying empty increased again, to an average of nearly 15%; the centre of Nottingham topped the rankings with 31% of shops unoccupied, up from 23%. But for those big corporate interests who have staked their money on retail parks, the news was rather different: in those places, the average vacancy figure is a lowly 9%.

From there, it is only a short hop to one of the most alarming beliefs of our time – that the high street has had it, and only charity shops, bookies and coffee outlets can even do business there, along with the supermarkets’ ubiquitous convenience stores. The latter are now spreading at speed into disused pubs, which represents a poetic development indeed: one-time centres of socialising now echoing only to the grim bleeps of self-service checkouts, as Jacob’s Creek, cigarettes and ready meals are ferried home to be consumed in private.

Not surprisingly, the standard explanation for all this takes its cue from the credo of the free market. Britain, it’s said, is so overjoyed with internet consumerism that the old-fashioned shop seems drab – but no one mentions the fact that Amazon pays no UK corporation tax, or that such firms as Play.com, the Hut group and Indigo Starfish use well-worn VAT dodges. Similarly, the dominance of the supermarkets is explained away with reference to convenience and customer service, as if everyone has forgotten about economies of scale, the squeezing of the big chains’ producers, and the fact that they can sell their most attractive lines – alcohol is the best example – at a loss.

“Supermarkets have reflected changes in society,” boasts Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King, blithely passing over the idea that the reverse is probably closer to the truth. “Where high streets are in trouble it is usually because they are not providing what the local population wants,” he reckons: we ought to be brave enough “to shrink the high street and allow empty shops to be converted for other uses”. How convenient, for him at least.

The truth is that big business has failed us, twice. First, while distant high street landlords endlessly put up rents, the boom years saw the accelerated replacement of independent shops with the chains whose names – Game, Peacocks, JJB Sports – denoted the stereotypical clone town. Soon enough, the same firms became bywords for the aftershocks of the crash – and left behind the retail equivalent of scorched earth.

Meanwhile, though they too have felt the pinch, the supermarkets are as powerful as ever and constantly eating into every area of our lives: this month, Sainsbury’s claimed that their sales of “non-food” goods – flowers, clothes, books, you name it – are growing at three times the rate of food revenues. In town centres or outside them, that points to a pathetically one-dimensional market in which local supply chains collapse we buy everything from the big four supermarkets, and life will suggest a Taste the Difference version of Orwell’s Airstrip One.

Politicians have a fleeting interest in all this, at best. With its eye on favourable headlines, the government commissioned last year’s review “into the future of our high streets” by TV’s Mary Portas, which had plenty of reasonable ideas but was backed with mere chicken-feed (witness the future high street fund, which totalled only £1m), and turned down some of its key proposals – not least an “exceptional sign-off” for out-of-town retail development that was knocked backed by good old Grant Shapps.

Besides, in terms of big policy, the government now follows the standard-issue Conservatism that always defers to big business. The 2011 Localism Act offers neighbourhood development plans which can be enacted at parish and town council level and put to a referendum – a proposal that set some local councillors’ pulses racing, until the government’s laissez-faire revolution of the English planning system appeared to cover such hopes in thick concrete.

Groups have sprung up to defend their towns from supermarkets and, increasingly, big coffee chains. But they ordinarily lose, and then disappear again. In Frome, my adopted hometown in Somerset, we have been campaigning for two years: one company wanted to drop a 40,000 sq ft supermarket (set to be our sixth) on a town centre that has the rare luxury of scores of independent shops; and now new developers have arrived who won’t rule out something very similar. Like all such campaign groups, our biggest weakness is that we’re up against multinationals, with only local resources.

While party politics averts its eyes, this is the chronic imbalance that defines whole swaths of our national life. So, with help from online activist network Tescopoly, we have a plan: to bring concerned people from all over the country to our town. We will then share information and campaigning techniques, debate everything from the supermarkets’ effects on farmers to the effective use of the planning system, hear such speakers as food writer Joanna Blythman, the author of Tescopoly (the book) Andrew Simms and Transition Towns trailblazer Rob Hopkins – and create the beginnings of what some activists believe should be called a “town centre movement”. The event, Independence Day, takes place on 17 November, and as far as we’re aware it’s the first national event of its kind.

The point at which you’re told something is inevitable is the point when fighting it becomes obligatory: before our towns fall into a deathly silence, there is an urgent need not just to talk, but to do something. Anyone, perhaps, for the Campaign to Protect Urban England?

John Harris

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Conservative party conference: what does the Tory message mean on the streets of Birmingham? – video

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

John Harris leaves the bubble of the Conservative conference and finds out what voters think of life under Cameron’s coalition

John Harris
Guy Grandjean

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Time to put the party back into conference season

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

The annual political gathering has never been more lucrative – or more alienating to the public at large. Is it time to find an alternative to all this corporate boredom?

Nine days ago, on the very muted first day of the Labour party conference, I met Dilys Fletcher MBE, a veteran Labour councillor from Oldham. “This is the quietest, most tame conference start I have ever seen in my life,” she said, and she didn’t seem to be exaggerating. She was particularly frustrated with the scores of pallid-looking young men in ill-fitting suits who were gathered around us in small clumps, staring at the regulation TV screens. “I feel like saying to them: this is not an educational exercise,” she raged. “You’ve not come here to bloody network. You should come here to say to Ed: ‘Get some balls.’”

The event may have flared into life two days later when the younger Miliband made his big speech, but the feeling of borderline tedium lingered. The same applied to the Lib Dems’ gathering in Brighton, a four-day demonstration of how to avert your eyes from an existential crisis by distractedly muddling through. Two weeks on, I’m writing this piece from the press bunker at the Conservative conference in Birmingham: it’s more lively than the other parties’ bunfights, but only just.

As now happens at all the party conferences, most of the people here seem to be either political aides, lobbyists, aspiring MPs or the poor souls who have to staff the exhibition stands. The constant soundtrack is the low hum of politics-speak: “renewal”, “engagement”, the obligatory tributes to the Olympics. The whole thing is happening under the unspeakably lame slogan “Britain can deliver”. As one wag joked yesterday, deliver what? Pizzas?

Every year, through the opening weeks of autumn, the same thing happens. Politicians continue to vent their angst about the public’s lack of interest in what they do. Post-expenses, polls show that Westminster is held in alarmingly low esteem. Yet while they fret about what’s happening to our democracy, the parties’ response is to spend millions on annual events that symbolise everything that has gone wrong. Think about it from the point of view of the citizens of Brighton, Manchester or Birmingham: one of the parties arrives in your city, wraps itself in an impenetrable security cordon that means you have to walk a different way to work, attracts thousands of people who seem very strange indeed, encourages them to lord it around your bars and restaurants, and then promptly disappears. This is not, perhaps, the greatest recipe for the renaissance of politics.

This is an era when people only need the slightest pretext to gather together in large numbers (witness festival season, or the massed response to the Olympics). But even the parties’ remaining activists are turned off. Across the board, membership is only a fraction of what it once was: from respective figures of around three million and one million 50 years ago, Conservative and Labour membership is down to around 177,000 and 194,000; the Lib Dems are at 50,000, down from 100,000 20 years ago. Some of those who dutifully turn up to local meetings and stuff envelopes still come to conference, but in ever-decreasing numbers. At last year’s Tory conference, there were noticeable empty seats, even for David Cameron’s speech, and small wonder: a survey by the activist website ConservativeHome found that since the party now favours big cities rather than seaside resorts, the cost of attendance to the average delegate comes in at a headache-inducing £722.

Yet the machine grinds on. In a recent edition of PR week, a survey of 17 “public affairs agencies” – lobbying firms, to you and me – found that although 64% of their people expected to see fewer activists and MPs at this year’s conferences, 70% expected the numbers of “public affairs practitioners” to either remain stable, or grow. For as long as they will stump up for a pass, and companies and charities still see the worth of paying for a stand, the parties will presumably leave things pretty much as they are. There is, after all, money in all the corporatised boredom: according to a recent report in The Times, the Tories turned a profit of £1,442,000 from last year’s conference, four times the figure they managed five years ago, and Labour sources say that their numbers “mirrored the trend”. In an age when the big parties constantly fret about money, that’s very significant.

But how can you have a mass conversation about anything important in a lobbyists’ version of the Ideal Home exhibition? For all politicians’ talk about “reaching out” and connecting with the world beyond Westminster, metaphorical light years separate the public and often Sovietesque conference proceedings. Beyond the hyped-up leader’s speech, is there anything to justify all that effort and expense, besides a bit of short-lived PR and the chance to refill the parties’ bank accounts?

Just before I set off for Birmingham, I had a long conversation with a senior figure in the Labour party, who said he found annual conference “life-denying”. From the weird food, through the absence of natural light, to the droves of what he calls “pasty boys” (pasty as in pale, not the Cornish snack), he agreed that everything about the conference ritual symbolises a democracy in dire need of repair. And there were, he assured me, simple enough ways of drastically changing what happens.

First, for a charge of £10 or so, the public should be let in. “You’re supposed to be embedding things in the community, and all that – so why not tear down the fence, and let people come and see you?” he said. Rather than the deadening speeches from the platform and the staid rigmarole of the conference fringe, the running order should feel more like a political book festival, based on big ideas, and featuring plenty of non-politicos: the appearance at this year’s Labour conference of the American philosopher Michael Sandel was a start, but a very modest one.

Those who hanker after a boost to party democracy, he said, shouldn’t pin their hopes on the conference: in the modern age, giving party members a meaningful voice can be an ongoing process, rather than five days of waving cards in the air and proposing emergency motions. But there was a strong argument for an annual session devoted to party business and rules, and thanks to fixed parliaments, a once-every-five-years event focused on a huge debate about the party’s election manifesto and its fundamental principles. In between all that, he told me, there are endless possibilities: speakers from abroad, musical events in the evening – anything that might break through the current sense of a couple of thousand people talking largely to themselves. “The next one will be better,” he assured me, though he acknowledged that the people who can conceive of no other kind of conference will offer plenty of resistance.

As I packed my case and headed for Birmingham with a quiet dread, I considered some recent thoughts from Channel 4’s Jon Snow: “News is the occurrence of the unexpected. [But] very little ‘unexpected’ is permitted in the set-piece plenary moments of any party conference these days. The unexpected, if it occurs, occurs on the fringe. Here there are flashes of passion. But when the hands go up for questions, the arms, more often than not, belong to NGOs and thinktanks. So how does all this go down in the wider world? Have the conferences become mere shop windows? If they have, where is the real debate? Is there one?” The answer, until these increasingly pointless bunfights are dramatically reinvented, will be a thundering no.

John Harris

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Conservative party conference: in search of the British Tea Party – video

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

John Harris talks to activists and big beasts at the Conservative conference in Birmingham and wonders: anyone for a British Tea Party?

John Harris
Guy Grandjean
Noah Payne-Frank

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