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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Boris gets tough on climate change… but does he realise it?

Written by Simon Maynard | Thursday 15 May 2008

Yesterday Boris Johnson confirmed that he had taken the imminently sensible decision to scrap The Londoner – the taxpayer-funded propaganda sheet that blighted London letter boxes under Livingstone’s mayoralty. Johnson has further announced that he is to use £1m of the £2.9m saving to plant 10,000 ‘street trees’, particularly in London’s poorer, least green communities. Unveiling the initiative Boris explained:

Trees improve the street environment in which Londoners live and work so I will do all I can to save the trees we have and campaign for more trees to protect London’s open spaces.

Well, yes, this is all well and good. But surely on the PR front team Boris have missed a trick here? After all, trees, vegetation and water features in the urban environment – apart from making a more attractive city – work to combat the effects of climate change by dramatically cooling the surroundings. This is why air around the Thames or within urban parks is on average 0.6 degrees Celsius cooler than neighbouring built-up areas. So this tree planting business need not just be about making London prettier but also making it a healthier, more comfortable, greener place to live and work.

Boris should tell his detractors in the green lobby to put that in their rizla and smoke it.

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Europe leads the way on direct democracy

Written by Simon Maynard | Wednesday 14 May 2008

We’ve long known that the Swiss are big-fans but now it seems the Germans too are getting the hang of direct democracy. The Economist reports on the enthusiasm of campaigners for Tempelhof airport, who urged Berliners to vote yes in a referendum to keep open the airport; (which is seen as a symbol of the Berlin airlift of 1948-49). On the same day the citizens of Schwerin voted to oust their mayor for mishandling an investigation into the starvation of a five-year-old girl, while the Bavarian branch of the trade union confederation started collecting signatures on May 1 for a referendum on a minimum wage.

Supporters argue that direct democracy is stepping in where traditional democracy has failed. Membership of political parties has collapsed, as has trust in politicians – trends that should be recognisable to any student of British politics. A 2006 survey showed that nearly half of Germans think elections give them no say over government policies and that some 80% wanted referendums at national level.Yet in spite of such figures opposition still remains; most states do not allow votes on such issues as spending and taxation, and legislatures can sometimes overturn referendum results or have them modified in the courts.

The Swiss model certainly indicates that direct democracy improves decision-making. Lars Feld of the University of Heidelberg claims that Switzerland's taxes and spending are lower than otherwise, and its labour productivity higher, precisely because the Swiss can vote on fiscal issues. Now that Germany is adopting similar solutions in reponse to voter apathy, the qustion surely is, when will the UK catch up?

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Is New Labour breathing its last?

Written by Simon Maynard | Wednesday 07 May 2008

Over at the Spectator Coffee House blog Fraser Nelson has some typically cogent observations on Brown’s likely future course.  Perhaps most interesting, however, are his thoughts on the Parliamentary Labour Party.  He argues that ‘the Blairites have lost the argument with the party’, with the result that ‘we can now see orphaned Blairites and a resurgent Old Labour arguing over future direction.’

If the old Labour guard truly is in the ascendancy, then the key question surely is whether Brown has the ability – or indeed the inclination – to re-assert the importance of Blairite market reforms?  Given his own proclivity for centralizing, as well as his embattled position this seems highly doubtful: but does this represent the death-knell of the New Labour project?  Or merely a dormant phase prior to a re-awakening under a ‘post-Blairite’ (read Miliband) leadership?

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Do we need the GLA?

Written by Simon Maynard | Sunday 04 May 2008

Anyone who talked to voters on the doorstep in the run up to the London elections will have found themselves explaining time and time again exactly who the Greater London Assembly (GLA) are and what they do. The problem is that with such large electoral areas – typically equivalent to three regular constituencies – assembly members have a low-profile and are difficult to hold to account.

Now the New Local Government Network has proposed an effective solution. In a new research paper James Hulme argues that the GLA should be scrapped, with its power to scrutinize the London Mayor transferred to a London Leader’s Council (LLC), consisting of the 32 elected council leaders in Greater London. Hulme argues that:

The crux of the problem is that, put simply, members simply don’t have enough to do to justify full time engagement….Through day-today interaction with their local communities, Borough Leaders would be best placed to offer first-hand guidance on the views and aspirations of ordinary Londoners.

Not only would this make both the Mayor and those who scrutinize him more accountable to ordinary Londoners, it would also save a great deal of the £8.7 million allocated in the 2008 Mayoral budget to run the London Assembly. In fact, the report estimates that removing the Assembly would save £6.6 million – that’s an extra 165 police officers on London's streets.

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Interesting times

Written by Simon Maynard | Thursday 01 May 2008

Presumably with an eye to a swift recovery after a possible drubbing in today's local and mayoral elections, Labour is sensibly losing no time on the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. They have already taken the unusual decision to table the writ before the funeral of Gwyneth Dunwoody has taken place and it now looks as if they are lining up Gwyneth's politically active daughter – Tamsin Dunwoody – as their candidate.

The late Gwyneth Dunwoody had a 7,000 majority and the seat is only 165th on the Conservative list of target seats, requiring an 8.4 percent swing. This said, if the News of the World’s target seat data is to be believed then this could be a Conservative gain. Their ICM poll suggests that the Conservatives would make a net gain of 131 seats, resulting in a 64-seat majority – or, to put it another way, Tory donor Lord Ashcroft's field-ops team has done rather well.

Either way, we have an intriguing contest on our hands. If the Conservatives fail to make a significant inroad into the Labour majority Brown will use it to shore up his position, whilst if the Tory's cut the majority to anything below 3,000, Cameron will really be able to claim that his message is reverberating throughout the country.

The election is only three weeks away, on Thursday 22 May. It will be very interesting to see what happens.

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