The battle on the streets

Published in the Evening Standard 27 April 2006

A week from tonight, you won't be able to move for post-mortems of the local elections. Switch on the TV, open up a paper and you'll be stampeded by pundits explaining what the slew of results from London and around England mean. But be warned: these sages will not be talking about the impact for you or your area. They won't tell you whether your streets will be safer or your neighbourhood cleaner.

No. The Westminster village and the national media will interpret next week's local elections the way they always do - as a glorified opinion poll. As if your vote for a local councillor or mayor was really just a chance for you to express your views on national politics.

Politicians and journalists alike will wonder whether the electorate was keen to give a bloody nose to Tony Blair, a leg up to David Cameron or a helping hand to Menzies Campbell. I know this will happen - and I may well be as guilty of it as any of my colleagues.

But it is an insult. To the candidates themselves, fighting hard to do their bit for their community - yet seen as if they were ciphers, mere flag-carriers for the national party leaders. It's an insult to the voters, who won't make a trip to the polling station next week because they want to be part of a national focus group but because they actually want to do something about the state of their local school, swimming pool or roads. It's insulting to the very idea of local democracy, to treat it as a mere shadow play for the real drama in Westminster.

For local democracy is a more colourful affair than the conventional wisdom allows. Take my own area of Hackney, where the incumbent Labour mayor is seeking re-election. He is facing the predictable Lib Dem and Tory opposition - but also Communist, Green and Respect candidates. And what's true of Hackney is true of London. For this city, which already has more people, more shops, more theatres and more money than any other city in the UK also has more politics.

There are boroughs torn between every possible permutation: Lib Dem vs Tory, Tory vs Labour, Lib Dem vs Labour. In Tower Hamlets, Labour faces a serious challenge from Respect. The Greens threaten in several wards; the BNP are pushing hard in Barking. Whatever happens with turnout, the May 4 elections will be fiercely contested in London - a veritable festival of political pluralism. In this city, Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems all have a serious presence; each party controls boroughs. That's not true of the rest of the country: in Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle there are no Tory councillors whatsoever.

Nothing typifies London's pluralism better than the rise of the political independent. We have one in Hackney, a former Labour councillor by the name of Hettie Peters. She wants the police to "slap down unruliness" and promises to banish rubbish trucks, preferring to carry Hackney's garbage by barge down the River Lea instead. Sure, she's not about to become mayor, but elsewhere in the capital there are non-aligned individuals or groups that could make a big difference. They are fighting on intensely local issues, like the Enfield independents determined to stop the move of key hospital services to Barnet. Or the eight Lambeth parents who want to become councillors so they can create more school places for their kids.

These candidates are not just adding to the colour and variety of London politics; they are campaigning on issues that will have a genuine effect on their neighbourhoods. In the process, they're challenging that Westminster village view of local democracy. Their very stance declares: this is not a dress rehearsal for the next general election - this is a real battle that counts.

I'm glad to see Ms Peters and her like on the ballot. If I was a voter in Enfield or Lambeth, I can even imagine voting for one of those single-issue campaigns, just to get an urgent problem fixed. But independents cannot be a long-term answer.

For running a council is not a single-issue business. Yes, Lambeth need to sort out those school places - but they also have to worry about transport and parks and social services. What would the independents do on those issues? Voters might like the Enfield campaigners' views on their local hospital, but do they have any idea what they would do on, say, planning and building? The truth is voting for an independent is like writing a blank cheque - giving away a lot of power with too little knowledge.

There is a solution, one all the mainstream parties are looking at. It's the citizens' initiative, widely practised in several American states. Here's how it would work. Let's say I finally had enough of those accursed speed bumps which now seem to blight all but the widest main roads in my part of London. I could draft a petition. If I got enough signatures, it would go to the local authority which would then have to debate it. If the authority refused to act, I would have to get more signatures, so that eventually the question was put to people in a local referendum. Keep the bumps or take them down? If my side won, they'd be gone.

That should be possible with a hospital in Enfield or schools in Lambeth. To remedy one issue, you shouldn't have to take over the whole council.

Either way, this is the ground on which next week's elections should really be judged: what difference will the results make to everyday life? Will Tory victories in, say, Croydon or Hammersmith and Fulham bring lower council taxes but fewer services? Where Labour hold on, will victory mean the reverse? Will our streets be cleaner, our neighbourhoods safer? This is what should be at stake on May 4. Not the careers of Messrs Blair, Cameron and Campbell - but the places we all live in.

Most GPs are worth it

Published in the Evening Standard 20 April 2006

If everyone was shocked by this week's report that some GPs are earning upwards of #250,000, then those of us who live in Stoke Newington were all but knocked over by the Standard's revelation that one of the very highest earners works right here. There on yesterday's front page was Dr Satya Gupta and his Oldhill Medical Centre, a shabby looking building on a rundown street in one of the poorest boroughs in Europe. As if to demonstrate the contrast between his personal wealth and the community he serves, the photo showed Dr Gupta's red Mercedes parked outside - complete with personalised numberplate.

First instinct: there must be something wrong with that picture. Surely it can't be right for anyone to be trousering that kind of cash from the public purse. After all, it's our taxes that paid for that Merc. There's probably an extra queasiness that Dr Gupta and the other quarter-millionaire medics have made their money off the backs of the sick. That in an area like Hackney, rife with social deprivation and its accompanying ills, from drug abuse to diabetes, there's money to be made from the illness of others.

Those are the first instincts, but they might not be the right ones. For one thing, even the Association of Independent Specialist Medical Accountants, who carried out the latest study, admit it is only "a handful" who are earning

Forget the mayhem

Published in the Jewish Chronicle, 14 April 2006

There are no quiet times in the Jewish world, and these last few weeks have proved the point in spades. There's been an election in Israel, with a hesitant, but welcome outcome - a narrow majority in favour of further territorial withdrawals and a sound beating for the Greater Israel camp. We've had another episode in the ongoing Ken saga, with the Mayor of London telling two Jewish property developers to "go back to Iran" (even though they're from India): a dizzying return to the Alf Garnett street politics of the 1970s, when "go back where you came from" was the insult of first resort hurled at anyone vaguely "foreign." And we've had two top US academics write a lengthy paper, republished by the London Review of Books, insisting that it's the Israel Lobby (endowed with a capital L by the LRB) that really pulls the strings in Washington, even dragging the Bush administration into war on Iraq - a tale of a poor little superpower bullied by the Wales-sized behemoth that is the Jewish state.

So no shortage of action, no shortage of meaty topics for a JC columnist to chew on. And yet I don't feel like it. Maybe it's because Pesach is upon us and I'm looking forward to the deep sleep that follows a really good seder, or maybe it's because of the speed and intensity of the battles we Jews seem obliged to fight at the moment, one after another, but somehow I feel tired. I find myself sensing a diaspora equivalent of the sentiment Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Olmert, voiced so arrestingly in New York last year: "We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies."

He was speaking about Israel and the waging of real, physical conflicts. But even far away, it's possible to share his sense of weariness. Which is why I've decided to give you - and me - a break. We're going to talk about something fun: Prime, a new film starring Uma Thurman as a 37 year old woman who dates a 23 year old man. So far, so rom-com. The twist is that Uma is not Jewish but her young beau is. What's more, he's the son of her therapist (played by Meryl Streep).

I confess that I had low expectations for this movie, and not only because romantic comedies specialise in predictability. I also had a specific worry about the storyline. As anyone who saw James Spader in White Palace, or Ben Stiller in both Keeping the Faith and Along Came Polly, can testify, Hollywood has a very clear line on relationships between Jewish men and non-Jewish women: it can't get enough of them.

That's not because it has an enlightened approach to mixed couples, which would be fine, but because it has a marked antagonism to Jewish women. In White Palace, our hero is escaping the clutches of the pushy "Heidi Solomon". In the Stiller movies, the Jewish women are shown, variously, as demanding, humourless control freaks, pushed towards single men by a monstrous regiment of mothers. The Irish Catholic or Wasp heroines are, by contrast, calm, serene and blonde. No wonder, sighs the audience, James or Ben are rushing into their arms: who wouldn't?

The emotional logic powering these films is always the same. Those who marry within their tradition are playing safe; those who dare find a partner outside are pursuing their dreams, fully realising their potential. I strongly suspect that behind these movies stand a group of male Jewish executives who have made the latter choice in their own lives, and like seeing it reflected positively on screen.

So I assumed the worst of Prime. But I was in for a surprise. For one thing, it's blonde Uma whose head is bursting with neuroses, not some Jewish female caricature. Second, the Jews in the film are depicted warmly. It's true that young David Bloomberg lives with his grandparents, so that when he tiptoes in with Uma at 3am a voice instantly calls out from behind the bedroom door: "Did you eat?" True, too that when his parents are presented with a bottle of red wine, they put it in the fridge - so unfamiliar are these Jews with the protocol of alcohol. But mainly the Bloombergs are shown as a loving family, one that Uma admires for a warmth missing from her own upbringing. And the film elegantly avoids making a judgement on the merits or otherwise of mixed relationships.

I watched Prime on the plane back from Israel, after four intense days covering the election. It made a welcome break - and right now we could all do with one of those. Chag sameach.

A time to inspire us all

Reflections on Easter and Passover

Published in the Evening Standard 13 April 2006

It?s been a frantic week on my street. In this patch of Stoke Newington, the last few days have been dedicated to the mother of all spring cleans. Our neighbours have been turning over every cushion, sweeping out every corner, wiping every surface.

It?s not that the people of N16 are uniquely obsessive about household cleanliness. Rather this area is home to London?s largest community of ultra-orthodox Jews and today is the first day of Passover. At their simplest, the rules demand no eating of bread for the eight days of the festival. But the strictest interpretation insists there be not a trace of bread or anything like it in the home: hence the intensive bout of scrubbing and sweeping. The reward came last night with the first seder, the meal which brings extended families around the table ? the true Jewish equivalent of Christmas dinner.

I don?t doubt that Stoke Newington?s churches have spent the last few days doing some pretty serious preparations of their own. For this is holy week with Sunday the most sacred day of the Christian year, recalling the resurrection of Jesus. If this is a spiritually intense time for both Jews and Christians, that?s hardly a coincidence. The Easter and Passover experiences overlap: lest we forget, the Last Supper was a seder.

That gives committed Jews and Christians something in common, but what about everyone else? Of course, plenty of Londoners have their own traditions and faiths, but an even larger number will let the next few days simply pass by. For them, what?s coming is a welcome long weekend, an extra couple of days off work. If Easter registers at all, it will be in the form of the myriad chocolate bunnies and eggs that seem to sprout from the supermarket shelves a few days after Christmas.

No one objects to a spring break, but if that?s all it is, then I fear we?re missing out. For these two great festivals are powered by extraordinary stories, ones that could have meaning for everyone ? even those who would never describe themselves as religious.

Start with Passover. It tells the story of the Jews emergence from slavery to freedom, from captivity in Egypt more than 3000 years ago to liberty in their own land. It is the central narrative of the Jewish people, but it is also now one of the key stories of human civilisation.

As the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, rightly pointed out on the radio this week, it was the biblical exodus black Americans recalled when they demanded their own freedom in the 1960s, singing the words of Moses: ?Let my people go.?

You don?t have to be a firm believer in God to feel the power of that story. One of my fondest Passover memories is of a seder I spent some 20 years ago on a kibbutz founded by Israeli communists. As far as they were concerned they were celebrating a festival of workers? liberation: the oppressed proletariat escaping the shackles of their masters. In their version, the Jews were rescued not by the mighty hand of God, but the mighty hand of workers? power.

Any number of readings of the story are possible, with or without faith. Which is why I took delight sitting around the seder table with my family, including my two children, last night, retelling the story of how ?we ourselves were slaves in Egypt? and then broke free. Even for someone who has doubts about God, that?s a story of hope and inspiration, one worth passing to the next generation.

The Easter narrative doesn?t carry the same personal meaning for me, but I can see its power all the same. (Indeed, a regular, if unlikely, aspect of my Passover experiences as a child were Jesus movies on the television: I had a weakness for them then and still do.) It also tells of the emergence from great suffering into a new beginning ? from a death on the cross to resurrection. For Christians this is a central article of faith. But even those who are not believers can surely see the value in this story. It addresses one of the central anxieties of mankind: why is there so much suffering in the world? Easter says that suffering need not be in vain; that out of great despair, a new start is possible.

Of course, there are unappealing aspects to both narratives. I wonder what we are to make of the cruel fate that befalls the Egyptians in the Passover story, as they see their first-born sons die. And I can feel queasy at the lingering, morbid fascination with the blood and gore of the crucifixion that marks out some versions of the Easter story. But the core themes remain compelling.

Yet too many Britons are oblivious to all this, writing it off either as mumbo-jumbo or as the exclusive preserve of the ?God squad.? But they are cutting themselves off from the myths that form the foundation of much of world culture.

Even if these stories don?t appeal, the way religious people mark them has something to teach the rest of us. For they have found a way to break the usual routine of work-spend-work that seems to dominate so much of contemporary life. At Easter or Passover – or Ramadan or Diwali ? they step off the hamster wheel and reflect. A few days, or even a few hours, are set aside as a time not to work or shop, not to acquire more stuff, but to reflect.

This is a need that is not peculiar to people of faith: all of us need to recharge our emotional, spiritual batteries now and then. Which is why I have some sympathy for those keen to block any further extension in Sunday trading hours. Shop workers and others are fighting to keep a few hours clear of the usual stampede of work and commerce. We all have a chance to do that this weekend and we should seize it – whatever we believe.