Hobson’s choice

Our poll cards for the May elections came in the post last week.

Because we live in Newham, in addition to the mayoral elections, we have a referendum on how the council should be run. The current Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, campaigned on allowing this referendum to take place—after ousting Sir Robin Wales, who had run Newham Council into the ground for the best part of twenty years. For some reason, some local residents who are way too obsessed car parking are treating this as a referendum on car parking. I am still not sure how I shall vote in this referendum, but it is hard when people muddy the waters as to what you’re actually voting for.

In any case, most eyes will be on the London Mayoral and Assembly elections. These will likely be the last ones where people can cast a first- and second-preference vote. The (Conservative) national Government plans to turn these into first-past-the-post votes, effectively securing a Labour/Conservative ping pong for ever more. (The pretext provided by Priti Patel for this, by the way, claiming that “transferable voting systems were rejected by the British people in the 2011 nationwide referendum,” is a lie.)

This is unlikely to make a difference in the foreseeable future. Sadiq Khan, the present Mayor, remains very popular (unusual for a Labour politician.) The Conservatives’ candidate for this election, Shaun Bailey, is appallingly bad and his campaign has resorted to sending letters warning of tax rises using fake ‘CITY HALL’ insignia, the kind of underhand tactics usually reserved for scamming elderly people out of their life savings.

We also have an alarming number of extremely bad independent candidates this time around: honourable mentions for the UKIP candidate whose name is literally ‘Doctor’ Peter Gammons; David Kurten, whose platform is to remove all cycle lanes and allow people to be harrassed on the street outside abortion clinics; and Brian Rose, an ex-banker who now runs a YouTube channel on which he platforms David Icke, who believes the royal family are lizards. We also have Laurence Fox, a failed actor who accuses gay men of being paedophiles and freely admits to having been radicalised by ‘anti-woke’ videos on YouTube.

It’s easy (and correct) to laugh at these awful people, some of whom probably genuinely believe they could be the next mayor of London, but really this is being used as a front in a culture war. Realistically, the people of London will choose Sadiq Khan for their next mayor, probably by a landslide. I expect I’ll be casting my first preference vote for Siân Berry of the Green Party, because although she has no hope of getting in, someone needs to speak up about some of Khan’s less sensible policies, viz. the Silvertown Tunnel. But that aside: Sadiq Khan is one of only a few credible candidates, and the only candidate full stop with the numbers to win.

So it’s obvious that, when serial liar Boris Johnson uses the national COVID briefing to lie that Sadiq Khan is responsible for TfL’s dismal finances (as opposed to the loss of the operating grant from central Government and COVID-19 causing fares income to dry up) he is doing this to play to a national audience. I would not be surprised to see it as a pretext for a power grab. The Greater London Council was abolished under Margaret Thatcher—something similar could easily happen again.

I fully expect to see Londoners punished after 6th May for voting for the wrong people. I expect higher fares on public transport. I expect a hike in council tax. I expect more cuts to vital services. Mercifully I don’t expect things like the wholesale removal of cycle lanes (one of Boris Johnson’s rare good points is that he’s pro-cycling and pro-cycling infrastructure, although that’s in large thanks down to him having a journalist who writes misleading anti-transgender articles for newspapers as an adviser)—or rather, I don’t expect things like this yet. If Boris Johnson were to be replaced by, for instance, Jacob Rees-Mogg, or Priti Patel, or Michael Gove, I fully expect to see more of London ripped up to appease Jeremy Clarkson wannabes for whom driving a car is a personality type.

It’s often said that we should be glad to live in a democracy where we get choices like this (usually by the kind of people who say ‘yet you participate in society. Curious! I am very intelligent.’) And it’s true that we do get a choice, although I don’t like treating this as a privilege rather than something that should be a basic right for everyone, everywhere. But it does rub me the wrong way that there appears to be so little choice—and when there is more than just a binary choice between two ancient political parties, neither of whom appear to have your best interests at heart, the machinery of national politics is willing to snatch even that away.

Theresa May will resign in two weeks, on 7th June. This means we shall soon have a new Prime Minister, chosen by the insular and geriatric Conservative Party membership rather than the public at large. All the while, the clock ticks down to the October Article 50 deadline (at the granting of which the European Council’s President remarked: “please do not waste this time.”)

Theresa May composed herself in her announcement until the final moment, where she tearfully spoke about her gratitude to “serve the country I love.” Part of me feels like I should feel sympathetic, or even sorry for her.

I can’t.

As hard as Theresa May’s job was; as much as Brexit was a poisoned chalice, a mirage where the end result could never please everyone; as much as she is just human… I truly cannot feel ‘sorry’ for Theresa May, the architect of the Home Office’s Hostile Environment policy.

I remember, as a student, sitting on the top deck of a number 25 bus into central London; white vans with a Home Office logo and the words “IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT” on the sides parked up at Whitechapel Market; a young woman sobbing as she rummaged for her documentation, surrounded by burly quasi-police ‘enforcement officers.’

I remember, when I lived in that little flat in Wanstead, seeing the infamous “racist vans” being driven around places where people of colour lived. I remember her snarling at human rights laws by repeating Nigel Farage’s (lying-by-omission) story about the shoplifter with the pet cat. I remember her Brexit red lines being parroted almost verbatim from the Daily Express, about ending free movement and deciding how we label our food.

It’s true that this is not all Theresa May’s doing. The last Labour government had a similar trajectory. I remember having to shell out a large amount of my total pay from my first summer job to apply for a passport, to prove to my employer that I had the right to work in the country. My British high commission birth certificate showing my birth to a British mother and a British father wasn’t good enough.

But still—I don’t feel sorry for Theresa May. I can only feel a distant pity, the kind displayed by Bilbo towards Gollum in The Hobbit. Pity for someone who, for so long, has seen people as fair game based on the circumstances and location of their birth. Pity for someone who stoked the flames of hatred, and cried when the house burned down.

I doubt she will go down in history as the worst Prime Minister of all time. That will, for now, go to David Cameron: the man who let xenophobic unrest within his own party tear the country apart, and then ran the other way. But he could easily be usurped by whoever succeeds Theresa May in a few months. Prime Minister Boris Johnson meeting President Trump? Not too long ago, it was a punchline—now it’s a nightmare within touching distance.