Reading the various accounts of Boris Johnson’s shockingly poor approach to his day-jobs reminded me of the few times that I’ve met him. Most of those times have been fairly incidental, when he came to formally open the London Overground at Clapham Junction, for example, or ground-breaking some bland, identikit development at Nine Elms. The one time I had anything approaching a policy discussion was during his first London Mayoral campaign.

The Johnson campaign were having discussions with people from the London boroughs and, being Wandsworth’s turn, a group of us made the short trip to County Hall where the campaign had its offices. One of the first topics of discussion was the idea of having 24-hour Police Safer Neighbourhood Teams (or SNTs).

At the time, SNTs and neighbourhood policing were very much in vogue but a common complaint, mainly from people like councillors rather than actual residents, was that the SNTs weren’t always immediately available. It seems to have been particularly upsetting when they were off duty for a few days (perish the thought they have the equivalent of a weekend). This was largely down to a misunderstanding of what SNTs were meant to do. Neighbourhood Policing should be longer-term, building relationships and problem solving and not responding immediately to issues which is the function of, funnily enough, response policing.

Johnson was enthused by the idea of 24-hour Safer Neighbourhood Teams. They had been trialled by Hammersmith and Fulham Council (at that stage in its brief period of Conservative control) who were funding round-the-clock teams in two areas. I’d actually visited them and found the scheme under-whelming. It was expensive and without any robust evaluation of effectiveness but had strong political support which was evidenced, perhaps, by the lack of any exit strategy. An exit strategy wouldn’t be needed, I was told, because they would be successful. I was unconvinced.

Johnson, however, had no doubt they would be a fantastic success. I presented the alternative view that it would be an expensive white elephant. For around the clock coverage you’d increase the SNT wage bill by three or four times to satisfy a need that simply wasn’t there. London, outside the centre, is not really a 24-hour city and people, including criminals, tended to sleep at night. Realistically no-one needing the police at 5am would dream of looking up their SNT number rather than dialling 999. And if there were a few places that a middle-of-the-night problem was suited to SNT intervention SNTs would change shift patterns to match.

I did not persuade him. Johnson suggested that SNTs could be grouped to cover off-peak policing more cost-effectively. That this was in essence just replicating the sectors in which response policing was already organised was an irrelevant operational detail. His new area-based SNT-response team would, in some nuanced way, be different to the existing area-based non-SNT-response teams. Johnson voiced his opinion that 24-hour SNT policing would be hugely popular and the discussion moved into some other policy area.

Ultimately the idea did not make Johnson’s election manifesto. I don’t think that discussion had anything to do with that. While possible it prompted him to give the idea the few moment’s thought it would take to realise it was unworkable I think it more likely some advisor managed to quietly sideline the idea. Throughout his time at City Hall there was the fiction that it was a mark of his leadership qualities that he appointed high-quality staff to do the work. It seems more and more people are interpreting that less as a leadership quality as more as a reflection of his laziness and lack of ability.

The fact he’s anywhere near becoming Prime Minister should be terrifying. Especially when his likely Cabinet would surely be one of the lowest calibre the country has ever seen. That he’s somehow the favourite among the small, unrepresentative, Conservative party membership is just more evidence that our political system is broken and utterly unsuitable for the 21st century.

I took my children with me to vote today.

It has become a custom. Since they are barred by age from taking part in democracy I appoint them as my proxy. Then they can play some physical part in the process, whether it’s marking the ‘X’ or putting the ballot in the box they get to feel they have voted, that they aren’t just the passive victims of grown-ups’ decisions.

It might be a silly thing for me to do: the consequence of some naïve faith in democracy, a belief that it is intrinsically important. Whatever the reason I make sure we do it at every election.

So we joined the short queue and I answered their questions while we waited. What was the election for? Could we get rid of Theresa May? Would we stop Brexit? My answers disappointed them and I feared they didn’t help my aim of engaging them in the democratic process.

It’s hard not to feel pessimistic. Losing a rational debate is one thing. Losing to an irrational, right-wing populist argument is another thing entirely.

My children continued asking questions and made me realise that perhaps there are reasons to be more optimistic. Future generations are naturally far more global than their predecessors. As long as we can stave off a complete retreat into populism this will just be seen as a spasm. Brexit may or may not be inevitable. Remain may or may not win this particular battle. But what we’re really deciding is not about the bridges we burn, it’s about how many bridges the next generation have to rebuild when they inevitably take us back into Europe and the world.

I increasingly see things not in the light of a battle about the 2016 referendum result but instead about how we rectify the mess that vote created. In that light putting a cross in a pro-Remain box is an incredibly empowering act.

The French ambassador presenting the LabelFrancEducation certificate to the school

My children’s school, Shaftesbury Park (where I’m also lucky enough to be chair of governors), has become the first school in the country to get LabelFrancEducation accreditation from the French ministry of education. The certificate was formally handed over by the French Ambassador, His Excellency Jean-Pierre Jouyet in a short ceremony this week.

The French promotion of their language is, obviously, a diplomatic tool. And a very good one. Listening to the ambassador during the presentation I realised that, despite Brexit1 and my execrable French, I felt a vicarious membership of a wider community. It also highlighted to me that, aside from the technical and economic difficulties that will leave us poorer after Brexit, we will also be culturally impoverished by cutting ourselves off from global interchange. Theresa May seems determined that whatever the cost of Brexit we will stop those foreign types from coming here and making our country better.

That is a shame. The international perspective is a big part of the school (it also got its International School Award accreditation from the British Council recently) it offers a unique curriculum mix. The school uses the international primary curriculum to encourage children to not just learn facts, but to make connections and really think about the world. It also offers the enterprise approach which teaches them the ‘soft skills’ they will carry with them for their life. One bit of research showed that children given just a few years training in those skills at a young age were still outperforming their peers on pretty much every measure when they were forty2.

But if the curriculum is teaching them to think about their world and the enterprise approach is teaching how they can change their world then French is the gateway that enlarges their world. I know from taking my own children abroad how much it has improved their confidence and there’s something rather nice knowing that even at a young age they don’t see arbitrary borders or different languages as barriers.

There’s also something intrinsically hopeful in it. I think the Brexit vote was the result of the EU getting the blame for long-term failings of English (and I think primarily English) national and local government and I am not sure we will find any way out but by paying the consequences of that vote. But if we can create a skilled, thoughtful and outward-looking generation perhaps in the future we will rectify both those failings and our current insular trajectory.

    1. The ambassador expressed some frustration about the whole process in comments he addressed to Marsha de Cordova, although I fear she is Corbyn before country on this one.
    2. Heckman et al, The American Economic Review vol. 103(6), pp. 2052-2086

Thinking about my routines, processes and operational rhythm (because I love that phrase). But the best part of any New Year’s resolution is the geek shopping, so just sprung for some NFC tags to go with Launch Center Pro.

Spending way too much time thinking about the electoral system for parent governors at my children’s school. But given some other elections over the past few years maybe no unit of democracy is too small to worry about.

Conservative success in Wandsworth has been underpinned by financial control. Even if people aren’t natural Conservatives, the wisdom goes, they’ll vote Conservative in local elections because the borough is efficiently run and keeps its hands out of tax-payers’ pockets.

There is something to that; historically the Conservatives have polled better in local elections than in national elections; defeats for the Conservatives at general elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005 were all followed within a year by easy victories in the local election. The discipline that held all the way through that period cemented their reputation as a low-tax borough. I’m not sure the pain that discipline caused just to be a few pence a year cheaper than Westminster Council1 was worth it, but it was unquestionably there and a source of some envy from other councils.

That’s not to say the council was always mercenary. I remember when the group voted to close York Road library (which served the Winstanley and York Road estates) the then Leader, Edward Lister vetoed the decision because, I like to think, he knew it was just wrong: closing a library in one of our most deprived neighbourhoods to save a few pence was going too far. It may have been hard-edged when it came to cash, but it wasn’t ruthless.

Recently it’s become clear the council’s efficiency is not what it was, you only need to see the state of the roads and pavements (which they won’t let us know). But it kept a grip on the finances.

Now it just makes it up.

The last council meeting of the 2014-2018 council took place last Wednesday. It was an acrimonious affair. The main part of the meeting was the setting of the council tax: an annual event that used to be something of a set-piece at which Conservatives would take turns to praise the council then vote through the council tax before retiring to the pub for a self-congratulatory pint.

But on Wednesday the Tories abandoned years of responsible financial management. Panicking about the election they threw out a last-minute election bribe.

We all knew there was a Conservative amendment to the council tax recommendation but few people, including most of the Conservative group, had no idea what it was. The council was being asked to set a council tax on information it wasn’t allowed to know until the time came for the Leader to read it out while a council employee moved through the council chamber distributing the copies of the amendment. The amendment was printed hours earlier but kept under wraps because the leader needs every advantage he can get in the council chamber. It announced £10 million extra (perhaps) for nice things just in time for the election.

There were complaints about this, of course. It is illegal to set a budget that does not balance (there was no sign of where this money was from) and council standing orders prevent the introduction of an amendment that increases spending at the meeting. There was a degree of confusion while officers checked, trying to find a way to allow it, and the Leader was eventually saved by a backbencher who pointed out that the amendment wasn’t even a spending commitment but merely a commitment to look for £10 million.

In other words it was meaningless: calling it a bribe is probably an insult to bribery – it’s an IOU with no indication of how it will be paid.

The Leader was a little more blunt about it later: the money was to come from reserves. There are several possible interpretations to this. One is that they have built up reserves purely to use as an electoral bribe. Another is that if the level of council reserves isn’t artificially high, they were also implicitly announcing that there will be a £10 million tax hike, or £10 million of cuts after the election.

Whichever it is, there is no doubt that the £10 million is a sign of desperation. A last throw of the dice from a worried council leader hoping to buy votes in an election that looks dangerously close.

Of course, it’s lovely he feels the need to stump up £10 million from reserves to bribe the electorate with nice things. But some might argue the money would be better spent on repairing the crumbling roads and broken pavements. Maybe even paying for the Fire Risk Assessments not carried out in council blocks despite the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Or, just perhaps, they could invest in the children’s services department which is still failing two years after Ofsted’s original damning judgement.

Of course, bribing the electorate might have been a good tactical decision. We won’t know until 4 May. If nothing else it gave a Conservative group that are questioning his leadership something to cheer about as they head into a council election.

But when sound financial management is not just your unique selling point, but your only selling point, is a last-minute bribe for the electorate—highlighting that you play fast and loose with the council coffers for electoral gain—really a good strategic move?

I suspect not.

  1. A bizarre competition, the structure of local government finance meant Westminster could have easily set a lower tax, but it was politically expedient for them not to be the lowest: they were the ones setting a reasonable budget, not the ones cutting services just to set a low council tax like Wandsworth.

I am proud to be standing for Renew in the Wandsworth council elections in May. I had spent a long time quite happy as an independent with no intention of standing as a candidate, of any type, for some time. So what changed?

Becoming independent

Leaving the Conservatives was a long time coming for me. I felt the Conservatives had ceased representing me both locally and nationally, and on Wandsworth they were feeling increasingly tired: interested only in control and lacking any positive vision for the borough.

I have enjoyed being an independent councillor and feel I make a difference (much bigger than I ever could as Conservative). But that was limited.

While I enjoyed the freedom to, say, help Tooting parkrun get started or advise the Save Battersea Park group in getting rid of Formula E it was a pretence to say I was alone. I was able to help because I was an independent, free from the shackles of party control (although I had been surreptitiously helping both, even while in the Conservative group), the fact is that those campaign’s successes only came about because everyone involved was part of something larger.

Joining Renew

And that brought me to Renew. The choice between the mainstream parties is no choice at all. It would be unimaginable to re-join a Conservative Party that seems to want nothing more than a return to the 1950s, or a Labour Party moving further and further to the left, especially while both are propping up each other’s hard Brexit delusions.

The Liberal Democrats might have some attractions, being at least anti-Brexit. But it’s hard to see how they can have any impact: tainted by their involvement in the coalition and led by Vince Cable they are simply not the right choice for challenge we face.

And that left Renew: an anti-Brexit, centrist party, a home for all those people, like me, who have found themselves politically homeless since the referendum.

What Renew offers Wandsworth

Renew is not looking to control Wandsworth council, it is quite purposefully not putting up a full slate of 60 candidates, but instead offers a compelling opportunity to voters to make their voice heard; to send a message from a 75% remain borough that hard-Brexit is not what we want, and that a choice between two extremist parties is no choice at all.

I have seen the difference that a couple of independently minded, evidence-driven councillors has made. Malcolm Grimston and I were the leading councillors forcing the council to take an aggressive stance in defending the rights of EU citizens while Conservatives were still busy crowing about the referendum result. And Malcolm has led the campaign to stand up for leaseholders being forced to pay thousands for unnecessary sprinklers.

Renew councillors can continue that role; holding whoever controls the council to account, and promoting a centrist view to balance the extremes of either a Conservative or Labour administration.

The council elections are the last scheduled election before the two-year article 50 notice period expires. You will have three votes. If you want to send a message about Brexit to the main parties, and if you want councillors that will represent you and not a few from their extreme fringes, then use one of the three votes for your Renew candidate.