Can anyone stop Ken?

Published in the Evening Standard, 29 September 2005

So Ken learned something from his old nemesis. Like Margaret Thatcher, the mayor wants to go on and on and on.

Yesterday's revelation that Livingstone plans to seek a third and then a fourth term ? so booking his place on the Olympic podium for 2012 ? is hardly a surprise. I remember interviewing him shortly after his election in 2000, jokily suggesting that he would surely model himself after Ed Koch, the New York mayor who served so long he eventually came to personify the city. No, said Ken. Koch only served three terms.

Was five more like it? ?Twenty years is a nice round number.?

With the exception of the prime ministership, most political jobs aren't like that. If the Deputy Under-Secretary for Fisheries tells you he adores his job and wants to do it forever, you know he's lying. Most politicians itch with ambition and want to move on.

But Ken is different. He clearly loves being mayor and lusts after no other post: it's the job he feels he was born to do. His ambition is to be Mr London, the way Fiorello La Guardia was Mr New York ? a big city figure, remembered for generations. (Though few would bet on our kids ever flying in and out of Livingstone Airport.)

Even more unusually, given that this is politics, Ken may well be able to realise his plan ? and hold office for years to come. That was certainly the thrust of Tony Blair's endorsement at the Labour party conference on Tuesday. A man the prime minister once predicted would be a ?disaster? for the capital was now hailed as ?a great London mayor.? So long as Blair is in charge, Ken's hold on the Labour franchise seems safe. According to the ultra-Blairites, the PM wants to stay until at least 2008: that would see Livingstone comfortably through to his next election.

What then? If Gordon Brown does at last inherit, things will become more problematic. The chancellor is no fan of the mayor, an enmity nurtured since Livingstone rashly called for Brown to be sacked when the Chancellor had barely settled into Number 11. Still, as PM Brown would probably put aside that grudge. If Livingstone was still popular, he would let him carry the Labour standard in London: after the mess Blair got into six years ago, Brown would know better than to try to block him again.

Only a spectacular error, or scandal, could see Labour dropping Ken ? making way for a rival like Trevor Phillips. Otherwise, the challenge to the Livingstone hegemony will come from outside.

The Liberal Democrats won't be keeping Ken up at night. Even an appealing candidate like Simon Hughes could not break through the solid Labour and Conservative bastions that pepper this city. The Lib Dems enjoy the odd pocket of support ? in Islington, Richmond or Bermondsey ? but not enough to construct a London-wide majority.

Which leaves the Tories. London is a test-case for the Conservative Party. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra's hymn to New York, if the Tories can't make it here, they can't make it anywhere.

For one thing, this is a place rich in Conservative votes. From the plush neighbourhoods of Kensington and Chelsea to the suburbs of Bromley and Barnet, Greater London should hardly be hostile territory. There was a time ? 1967 to be precise ? when the Tories could win 82 of the 100 seats on the GLC.

There have been modest signs of revival, with the Conservatives winning back the likes of Putney, Ilford North and Enfield Southgate in May. But if they are ever to form a government they will have to do much better than that. They will need to repeat Thatcher's success ? turning much of London and the South East Tory blue. Wresting City Hall from Ken Livingstone will prove they can do it.

That will require a candidate. Conservative strategists know what they're looking for: someone credible, well-known and who badly wants the job. That last requirement is a reference to Steve Norris, whose refusal to quit the chairmanship of the Jarvis engineering firm hurt his mayoral bid last year. The Jarvis name was a PR headache, but it also suggested Norris didn't truly believe he could win ? or was at least hedging his bets. To beat Livingstone, the Tories need a candidate who wants to be mayor as much as he does.

When pressed, they can come up with a short-list. Sebastian Coe is at the top of it. He has high name-recognition and, thanks to the Olympic bid, a proven record of getting results. But he has his hands full running the 2012 Games. It's possible he could do both, but Londoners might suspect over-stretch or, worse, megalomania. Besides, says one Conservative glumly, ?Seb's ambition is to become President of the IOC,? the top job in world sport.

The next name is no less impossible. Michael Portillo could beat Ken, Tories say with certainty ? confident their theory will never be tested by reality. His post-1997 creed of tolerance and recognition of diversity would fit perfectly with London. The trouble is, Portillo has lost his appetite for politics. ?He's been there, done that and got the T-shirt,? says one who knows him well.

Maybe the Conservatives could copy New York's Republicans, who co-opted a businessman, Michael Bloomberg, as their candidate. Except the Tories have few high-flying entrepreneurs in their circle these days. Business stars are still more likely to be found sucking up to Tony Blair than Michael Howard.

And that's the heart of the matter. To beat Ken, the Conservatives don't just need a winning person, they need a winning message ? an improvement in the Tory ?brand? that would bring success not just in London but across Britain. As the party heads to Blackpool next week, still leaderless, that day looks as remote as ever. Ken can get comfy in his mayor's chair: he's not going to lose it any time soon.

Give us our money back

Published in the Evening Standard, 22 September 2005

We've become so used to politicians wriggling and writhing in response to a tough question, that when one gives a straight answer, it can come as a bit of a shock. So it was on Tuesday when the local government and communities minister, David Miliband, announced he was going to postpone the long-dreaded revaluation of council tax. ?If the question is, is this a U-turn,? he said, interrogating himself, ?the answer is yes.?

Well, he deserves credit for that. Not only giving the painful answer ? but asking the painful question, too. In fact, he gets points just for making the announcement at all. Plenty of Miliband's Cabinet colleagues would have suddenly found a pressing engagement, perhaps reviewing refuse arrangements in the Shetland Isles, and sent their junior minister out to give the word instead.

And it's certainly an embarrassment. The reassessment of homes for council tax was meant to happen by next spring. Now, having spent #50m on it, the move has been delayed to 2010 at the earliest.

The motives are not hard to guess at. When houses were revalued in Wales a third of them were put into new, more expensive brackets ? sometimes moving up two or three bands at once. The rise in house prices was to blame. If that was true in Wales, imagine what it would do to homes in London and the south east. Once classed as a modest home, your place could become a millionaire's pad overnight ? and you'd get a whacking council tax bill to prove it.

So the government has decided to put off that moment of pain ? leaving it to Gordon Brown to inherit. Of course, even the straight-talking Miliband didn't admit that that's what they're up to. Instead, he said he wanted to ensure a top-to-bottom look at the whole way our towns and cities are governed. Now Sir Michael Lyons ? initially charged with a review of council tax alone ? is to consider the whole business of local government.

So let's take the minister at his word. If he wants us to ask the big questions, let's ask them. For there is indeed much at stake here. Not just the immediate matter of how much we're all going to pay in council tax, but a larger one: how doe we organise our society?

Stroll along the South Bank and you can hear the question getting an airing already. Last night saw the National Theatre opening of Playing with Fire, a thoughtful new play by David Edgar which weighs this most neglected of public dilemmas: where should the balance lie between central and local? His play follows a Whitehall apparatchik, despatched to bail out the failing, northern council of Wyverdale. She is southern, well-spoken - and resented. To the Old Labour stalwarts of Wyverdale, she is London, come to condescend to the provinces.

That speaks of something real about Britain, an over-centralisation matched in the democratic world perhaps only by France. Except even the French have long had strong mayors in even the smallest towns, able to run their communities the way the people who elect them see fit.

Britain has been governed another way, with the man in Whitehall knowing best. The paradox is that, even though London is the over-mighty master in this arrangement, it is also the victim. For the central government dominates this city just as much as it dominates the rest of the country.

The creation of a mayor has changed some of that. But Ken Livingstone still has to look to central government for about half the money he spends. London's boroughs are in an even more dependent state: of every pound in their budgets, 75p comes from a Whitehall handout.

This is no way for a grown-up city to operate. In New York, currently enjoying the carnival of an election campaign, the mayor raises about 70% of his own income from an array of city-wide taxes ? almost the exact reverse of the ratio here. In New York, if it's spent locally, it's raised locally.

Does that matter? So long as the money gets spent the right way, who cares where it comes from? Except the two are linked. If our borough councils had to raise most of the money they spend ? rather than acting as mere recipients of a government cheque ? they would instantly become more accountable. And something else would happen, too. The quality would improve. Power follows money and talent would come right behind it. Once local government had the muscle to raise and spend its own money, people of ambition would flock to be involved. Right now, they want to skip over the town hall and head straight to Westminster, to be where the action is.

It wouldn't be impossible to make the switch. The Liberal Democrats are still committed to scrapping the council tax in favour of a local income tax. |If that's too bold a step, there are two things to do. First, bring the business rate, which used to be local before it was snatched by central government, back to the towns and cities where it belongs. Then, simply take the chunk of our national taxes that ends up being spent locally, lop it off the income tax bill and levy it locally instead.

Tony Travers, the local government guru at the LSE, reckons that if we now pay 20p in the pound in income tax, about 4p comes back to London. So why not cut out the middleman: reduce the national tax to 16p and charge a 4p local income tax, so that those we elect in our boroughs and our city raise the money they spend. Then if that works, and residents feel they are getting value for money, one council could ask for more ? while another cuts taxes and charges less.

It works in Scandinavia and a host of American cities already ? and it could surely work here. Something for Mr Miliband to think about. After all, he has plenty of time.

Amos Oz is a lawful heir of Judaism

Published in the Jewish Chronicle, 16 September 2005

As if to signal that Rosh Hashanah is coming, British Jews have once again sunk their teeth into a first-class row. Three years ago, the September spat was over some remarks made by the Chief Rabbi. This year, it?s the Israeli novelist Amos Oz who?s in the frame.

To fill in JC readers who were on a sun-lounger at the time, in late August, Oz had a piece published in The Times in which he described the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as the first round in an ongoing battle between Syn-agogue and State. Religious settlers who opposed the pull-out had, in effect, challenged the right of a democratic government to give up sacred land. By overcoming those protests, Ariel Sharon had shown that democratic, rather than ?fanatic,? rule still prevails in Israel.

The timing of these remarks and their publication in a British newspaper and broadcast on Radio 4 appalled Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen of Stanmore synagogue. He denounced Oz from his pulpit, calling the prize-winning novelist a ?Jew-hating Jew.? Cohen was joined by my fellow JC columnist Melanie Phillips. She accused Oz of arguments that were ?dishonest? and ?despicable,? said he was an exponent of ?anti-Israeli bigotry? and had a ?pathological disdain for his own people.?

There is a central mistake in this line of reasoning. Stated simply, Oz is about the last person on the face of God?s earth who could be accused of being a ?Jew-hating Jew.? He is, of course, a Jew-loving Jew, as anyone who has ever heard him speak or read his writing will know.

The evidence is not only to be found in Oz?s passion for the Hebrew language or his record of military service defending Israel in two wars, from which he still bears the physical scars. It is to be found in the arguments he has made with unrivalled eloquence for nearly four decades.

Cohen says it is a ?pathetic sight? to see ?a Jewish novelist courting the acclaim, adulation and royalties of a left-wing, anti-Israel gentile world.? So it would be. But Oz is no such creature. He appears before non-Jewish audiences not to court their adulation but to tell them truths they might not want to hear. ?I have news for you,? he says. ?Israel is not a Christian country.? It does not believe in turning the other cheek, but in fighting for its life.

Why, he asks, is Israel the only nation in the world which is ?on probation,? its existence conditional on good behaviour. Could it be because anti-Semitism still warps the way Christendom (and now Islam) sees the Jews and therefore the Jewish state? If that is the case, then it is the rest of the world, not the Jews, who have to change.

These are the arguments Oz makes to the non-Jewish world, challenging it to ditch its prejudices and see Israel and the Jews through clear, unjaundiced eyes. He has voiced that same, robust view in hundreds of essays, lectures and interviews across the globe. All Cohen and Phillips had to do was listen.

So yes, Oz wins acclaim from non-Jewish audiences. But that?s because he speaks with a clarity and humanity rarely heard on either side of the bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He does not pander to anti-Israel prejudice; he has spent a lifetime challenging it. Politicians, journalists and even Stanmore rabbis do their bit, but few can claim to have made a better case for Zionism ? for the Jews? right to determine their destiny ? than Oz has for 40 years.

Nor is this mere Israeli patriotism. Oz?s interest is in Israel as a Jewish country. That?s clear from the language of his work, rich in biblical allusion. He sees his place in a Jewish story that stretches back thousands of years. In that still-seminal text, ?In the Land of Israel,? published in 1983, he described Judaism as ?a broad and abundant inheritance. And I see myself as one of the legitimate heirs: not as a stepson, or a disloyal and defiant son, or a bastard, but as a lawful heir.?

So Oz does not, as Cohen and Phillips would have you believe, ?revile? Judaism. On the contrary, he believes that Judaism should be a living, breathing force ? not a museum piece, preserved and unchanging behind glass. He is, of course, against religious coercion and believes in the rule of democratic governments rather than the rule of the rabbi. That was the prime thrust of the essay at the heart of this row. Its target was not religious Judaism, nor even religious Zionism. Oz was taking a stand against the militant wing of the settler movement, against all those who would replace democracy with theocracy.

He is a Jew who loves his people, his culture and his country ? and is willing to fight for its democratic soul. To call Amos Oz a Jew-hating Jew is to deny language its meaning. It is an insult which demeans only those who hurl it.

Oz himself is used to such vilification and those who make a progressive case for Israel should get used to it, too. Suggest that an end to the occupation and greater regard for human rights are, in fact, in the practical and moral interest of Israel itself ? a country whose fate matters to you deeply ? and eventually you?ll be called a traitor, a fifth columnist or a Jew-hating Jew. Even Ariel Sharon, of all people, has had a dose of that treatment in the past few months.

So let the accusers spit out their abuse. Oz?s name will be remembered among the giants by future generations of our people. Who among his enemies can say the same?

Did 7/7 really change us?

Published in the Evening Standard, 15 September 2005

When is the last day of summer? When the thin-strapped vests and floaty skirts finally get put away and no man dares wear a cream suit? When a cricket contest that gripped the nation at last reaches its climax in a drunken procession through the capital city?

Perhaps it?s when the experiences that defined the summer lose their urgency and slide into memory. Something like that seems to be happening with the event that shook London ten weeks ago today. The 7/7 bombings are not the immediate matter, at the forefront of the city?s collective mind, that they were. The passing of the summer months has pushed them back.

So Tuesday could see hearings into the July attacks ? with MPs grilling the Home Secretary, police commissioner and mayor ? and we barely noticed. London?s eye was elsewhere, trained not on a Westminster committee room but on Trafalgar Square, Freddie Flintoff and a tiny, precious urn.

That?s how it should be. A city that can work itself up over the state of cloud cover at the Oval is not the city on the verge of a nervous breakdown the terrorists hoped London would become. The late summer outbreak of Ashes fever stands as a kind of rebuff to the bombers and their plans for us.

And yet, the angst has not vanished completely. Take the Tube, and you?ll see the sideways glances that greet anyone who fits the mental photofit most Londoners now carry. On the Piccadilly line on Monday, a bearded, Asian man slumbered in his seat: each snore, each breath in and out, was monitored by his fellow passengers - closely.

Something of that mood was detectable in a less expected place the other night ? at a cinema, showing what the promoters are doubtless calling the ?most talked-about movie of the year?: Crash.

Set in Los Angeles, it weaves together a series of stories and characters, brought together when cars collide on the LA freeways. Crash?s theme is the relationship of the races in one of the world?s most diverse cities. We see a black cop and his female, Salvadoran partner (and lover); a white District Attorney and his pampered wife; two black carjackers; a Kurdish store owner; a Chinese people smuggler; a black TV executive humiliated when his car is pulled over by an overtly racist cop, a Hispanic locksmith and more.

What makes the film compelling is its refusal to allow anyone to be a complete hero or complete villain. Instead, the characters are studies in ambiguity, No one is without prejudice; no one is irredeemably bad. In a story about black and white, the moral palette is grey. For all that, LA?s different communities are shown in a state of constant tension, suspicious of each other, with the threat of murderous violence never far away.

LA may be 5000 miles from London, but the story felt unsettlingly near. Crash is playing to audiences here every bit as diverse as those on the screen. Each one of the characters there has a counterpart here. The result is that when the credits roll, a question hangs in the air: could that be us?

Most Londoners would want to answer with an instinctive No. On the day before the bombings, we beat off some of the world?s greatest cities thanks to our diversity, bagging the Olympic games by showing that London is the world in one city. A day later, we proved the point again with a roll-call of victims from all points of the globe. Both 6/7 and 7/7 told the same story: London is the city of many colours.

Of course, Los Angeles is diverse too: the trouble is, if Crash is any guide, all those diverse communities are at each other?s throats. We like to believe London is different. It?s becoming part of our self-image that we have attempted the great mix once associated with the major American cities ? and made a go of it. Race riots in London are a 25 year old memory. To paraphrase Rodney King, the black motorist whose beating by white police sparked the LA riots of 1992, we are the city where ?we can all get along.?

This is not just a cosy self-delusion. Figures released by the IPPR think-tank last week showed that one in four Londoners was born outside Britain. Factor in those whose parents were newcomers to this country, and London?s boast looks real: truly, this is a city of immigrants. But this is also the place where tolerance seems most deeply embedded. Talk to government officials and they?ll tell you that the MPs who report the greatest opposition to asylum and immigration in their constituencies also represent the areas with the fewest migrants. In London, with the greatest diversity in the UK, acceptance is greater.

And yet the Crash question still nags. Have we really woven all these different threads into a single fabric ? or are there some among us who cannot find their place? If we do lack the friction and confrontation on show in LA, might that not be because we are nicer, more tolerant people ? but because we simply encounter those different to ourselves less often?

That?s a live issue in London, where communities often exist in their own enclaves, behind invisible walls. Think of the stretch of Edgware Road where men walk arm in arm, sipping coffee and twiddling beads, as if in an Arab capital; or the streets of Stamford Hill, where ultra-orthodox Jews live, work and pray as they might have in 18th century Poland or Russia.

There?s a risk that the only Poles other Londoners will meet are those who serve them in a bar or repair their drains. That this city?s Kurds or Germans or Bengalis will remain as far apart from each other as if they had never left home.

This is a danger, one whose risks we don?t need a film to point out. We saw them all too clearly ten weeks ago, at the height, and depth, of this strange, bittersweet summer.