Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Big Brother is mildly annoying you

The prologue of the 1954 BBC adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 features two arresting images that are significant for Londoners in election week. The first is the face of Big Brother on a massive circular billboard, positioned roughly on the site of St. Thomas's hospital in Lambeth. The camera pans from this across the river, taking in a broken Westminster Bridge in the distance, to alight on the second image. This is the Ministry of Truth, rising up amidst the ruins of Westminster.

The ministry building is a steeply-angled, many-windowed pyramid, disappearing up into the sky, which looks a lot like the Shard. While Renzo Piano's building on the other side of the river is not emblazoned with slogans such as "ignorance is strength", it is a very visible symbol of the power of The City (Southwark Council aren't likely tenants) and the hubris of the noughties, dwarfing the nearby City Hall.

The character of Big Brother does not appear in the flesh, indeed there is deliberate ambivalence about whether he exists or ever existed. He is the "embodiment of the party". The actor/extra who provides the face of yer man for the BBC production was presumably chosen to reflect a contemporary image of an authoritarian leader. He has the jowls of a Churchill, a moustache somewhere between Hitler and Stalin, and the general bearing of a man who once played rugby but has now resorted grumpily to golf.

What I find oddly compelling is that he appears to be a cross between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. Ken's flattened hair (GLC vintage) and 'tache, plus Boris's piggy eyes and flabby cheeks. Despite the best efforts of the other candidates, the London Mayoral election is a straight choice between these two.

The role of Mayor is not unlike that of Big Brother, being more apparent than real. Since the evisceration of metropolitan government in the mid-80s, central governments of both right and left have been reluctant to allow the development of anything approaching the power base that Ken achieved at County Hall (directly behind the BBC billboard), as leader of the GLC in the early 80s.

The role of Mayor of London has been limited to those functions that must be managed at a city-wide level, such as transport and policing, but the powers vested in respect of housing, planning or the economy are negligible. Transport and policing are photogenic and symbolic, which has led to the mayoral candidates being judged as much for their performance as their policy: the narcissism of small differences.

Transport has focused on the congestion charge or the bike scheme (both of which impact a very small number of Londoners), while major policy initiatives such as Crossrail, HS2 or an extra runway at Heathrow are effectively controlled by central government. The Met police remain all too obviously a law unto themselves, while Johnson is roped in for hilarious drug bust photo-ops and is criticised for not returning from his holidays during last year's riots, as if he were expected to personally wade into the crowds in Tottenham.

Elsewhere in the UK, the lack of enthusiasm for elected mayors reflects the well-founded belief that these roles are intended to circumscribe the power of city councils and provide a platform for super-egos. Directly-elected mayors are routinely equated with CEOs circa 2005: they'll be dynamic, they'll get things done, they'll be big-hitters. Yet this equation doesn't work in reverse. There is no government desire to extend democracy to business, and no appreciation of the limited impact that CEOs actually have on business performance, despite the ample evidence of the last decade.

These roles have almost no powers as regards economic intervention beyond "bidding" for inward investment. The CEO template they have in mind is Branson: marketing the city brand. Comparisons with Joe Chamberlain and 19th century municipalism are ridiculous.

But elections still matter. To see the London Mayoral face-off as simply a popularity contest for a super-salesman is to accept the belief that democracy is the expression of a consumer preference, rather than the expression of popular will for specific action. As expected, Johnson has turned his capering buffoon tendencies up to 11, while his loyal press (the "mind-forg'd manacles") busily blacken Livingstone's name.

To vote for Boris is to vote for a London where the interests of the rich are vigorously pursued (see his loud support for the cut in the top rate of tax), and where living costs for the many (notably transport) continue to climb. Livingstone is hardly perfect, but he does have a track record of cutting fares (so his promise is credible), and he is likely to be more robust in tackling the Met's shortcomings. Also in his favour, a vote for Labour will be interpreted as a slap to the coalition government in Westminster. What's not to like?

What we shouldn't forget is that Ken supported both the Shard and Crossrail. While he did try to wring wider benefits for London from both while Mayor, they remain projects whose purpose and viability reflects the continuing power of The City and its non-democratic base. Regardless of whose face appears on the billboards next week, the Shard will continue to dominate the skyline, "all bright and glittering in the smokeless air".

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