Information in times of stress

I’ve just been told that one Paul Flynn, MP for Newport in Wales, had a go at me in the Commons a couple of months ago for my comments during the first days of the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm150617/halltext/150617h0001.htm).

On looking the good Mr Flynn up I find that by all accounts he appears to be on the Left of the Labour Party. Yet, oddly, he seems to be a kind of antimatter version of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has approached the Labour leadership contest saying he will only focus on the substance of the arguments and will absolutely refuse to indulge in personal attacks: Flynn seems determined only to attack the integrity of anyone who holds a different view and will absolutely refuse to indulge in reasoned debate on the issues. I can only hope they do not end up in the same room together as the annihilation explosion could be devastating.

I am not too fussed as I don’t imagine many people will be interested in the views of an obscure backbencher but I have written to him in the following terms.

Dear Mr Flynn,

I note that in Hansard a couple of months ago you are quoted saying that at the time of the Fukushima accident I was on TV indulging in “ludicrous PR spin” and “praising the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit”.

I wonder if you are in a position to offer me a reference for this quotation, as I do not recognise it? If I recall correctly, after the hydrogen explosion at Unit 1 at Fukushima I said something along the lines of “Bizarre as this may sound, in the context of what is happening at the plant the hydrogen explosion wasn’t a terribly important event”. I stick to this statement – indeed I did not realise it was anything particularly controversial. Presumably, given your attack on me, you take the opposite position – i.e. that the hydrogen explosion was more serious than the threats offered by the risk of the containment vessels being breached at Units 1-3 or of serious uncovery of the spent fuel in the ponds especially of Unit 4 but also of the other five units at various times. I do not agree with this point of view – in my opinion either of these latter events would have been immeasurably more serious. The hydrogen explosions resulted in very little release of activity in the context of the accident as a whole and very little if any structural damage to either cores or fuel ponds – but of course as a scientist I am always happy to change my mind if new information comes along. I would be interested to know your reasons for holding that opposite view.

But in any case I cannot believe that I “praised the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit” in the way you state and certainly have no recollection of doing so. It is indeed my opinion that the alternative to venting the hydrogen and risking its exploding in the outer containment – which was to let the hydrogen pressure build up in the reactor pressure vessels until the seals blew, releasing vastly more radioactivity – would have been far worse. From this point of view the action made operational sense. But surely that is not “praising” these explosions in the way you seem to imply? (Again, I presume had you been in charge you would have taken the opposite course?)

Once again, then, I would be grateful if you could provide me with the source of the quote so I can check whether you have provided an honest and balanced reflection of my comments. In return, below I offer a couple of references for things I actually did say.

As a final point, I am not saying I got everything ‘right’ during that first month – information and misinformation were coming thick and fast and commentating was at times sheer guesswork (as I frequently made clear when commentating live – recorded soundbites rarely allow such uncertainty to be expressed of course). As one example, I said (it’s still on the BBC website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13017282): “At Reactor 4, where there was an unusually large amount of spent fuel in the pond, there seems to have been damage to the zirconium fuel rods, and, possibly, a release of hydrogen – there was at any rate another explosion, which damaged the outer building.” As events subsequently showed this was far too pessimistic – the spent fuel was fine and the hydrogen had come from Unit 3 through a shared vent – and I have to accept that in making this point and unjustifiably ‘talking up’ the seriousness of the situation I may have caused fears that later proved unfounded. No doubt at other points I may have said things that proved too optimistic: I do recall at one point saying I thought they may have turned the corner on controlling Unit 1 which turned out not to be the case.  Though I did not set out to exaggerate (or understate) the effects of the accident but to give a balanced picture as I saw things, such ‘errors’, if that they be (I think they made sense given the information at the time), are inevitable in real time. If the standard needed to avoid having one’s integrity impugned under the cloak of parliamentary privilege is 100% accurate foresight then I suspect very few would venture to give their honest opinion of unfolding events.

Incidentally, since you did not make reference to it in your Commons speech I presume you missed it but this is what I told Channel 4 News on March 30 2011 (still on Channel 4 website at http://www.channel4.com/news/fukushima-clean-up-will-take-decades-and-cost-billions). “Malcolm Grimston, energy specialist at think tank Chatham House, told Channel 4 News that the process [of decommissioning the reactors] could take years and cost billions – but stressed the Japanese would be entering uncharted waters. ‘This is uncharted territory, a lot of new technology will be developed to deal with these reactors. The closest to this we have is Three Mile Island, where there was a partial core meltdown – I think about 40 per cent. The clean-up process lasted from 1979 to 1993, so almost 15 years, and cost £1 billion. That was £1 billion in 1993 money, so obviously a lot more now,’ he said. ‘Also now we have got four reactors damaged, not just a single one like at Three Mile Island, and the complicating factor of what state the spent fuel is in the ponds. At the moment there are huge imponderables, but whatever happens, the answer is long and expensive.’ Apart from exaggerating the problem again – we haven’t really got four ‘reactors’ damaged as the reactor itself in Unit 4 is fine – I don’t see how you can describe this as “ludicrous PR spin”, even though I did work for the UK Atomic Energy Authority over 20 years ago.

An academic’s reputation is vital to their standing: I believe you have made a very unbalanced and unfair attack on mine, offering me no right of reply – I think you should at least justify that I actually said what you attribute to me.

One horseman of the apocalypse and three also rans?

To an outsider who has resisted the temptation to put my £3 in and have a punt on the Labour leadership race it is proving high grade spectator sport. A slightly patronising attempt to ‘widen the debate’ from some of Jeremy Corbyn’s nominators, presumably in the hope that the far Left would be put back into its box forever, now looks like one of recent times’ most spectacular own goals.

The policies of the Left have never been sustainable in the UK. Corbyn has a kind of inverted charisma but we should recall that even Attlee’s landslide 145 seat majority in 1945 had all but gone by 1950 – just a five seat majority – and the Conservatives were back in power the following year with a 16 seat margin. But that is not to say they are without a certain allure.

The contrast between the way in which the Labour Party views Tony Blair and the Conservatives view Margaret Thatcher is extraordinary and I think speaks deeply as to the ultimate seriousness of the two Parties. On the face of it their prime ministerial careers were remarkably similar. Both served as Prime Minister for an unusually long period – almost ten years for Blair, more than eleven for Thatcher (only Harold Wilson’s interrupted eight years from 1964-1970 and 1974-1976 coming close since the War). Both had a perfect electoral record – three wins no defeats – unmatched in the 20th/21st century. Both were ultimately pushed out of office not by the electorate but by their own parties, albeit in different ways. And both faced deteriorating relationships with their Chancellors of the Exchequer, the key axis in any government (the closeness of Cameron and Osborne has been a central factor in the stability of the Cameron governments of both colours).

Yet while it would be an exaggeration to say that Thatcher has entirely retained the fanatical adulation that she enjoyed in the years immediately after her downfall among the rank and file of the Tory Party, her memory remains deeply respected within the Party today. The opposite is the case with Blair, whose reputation seems to fall lower with each passing year – ‘the most reviled former Prime Minister of the last century’ as he has been dubbed.

Those of the Left refer to the Blair years as ‘an anomaly’. Yet it is now over forty years (1974) since the Labour Party won a General Election while being led by anyone but Blair. Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Brown, Miliband all failed. (In the same period three different Conservative leaders won elections outright, with only two – Hague and Howard – never being victorious.) In effect the view of the Left is that winning General Elections is an ‘anomaly’ – retaining that slightly nauseating veneer of moral superiority and doctrinal purity is more important than actually being in a positon to implement some of their policies.

Everything about the current leadership election – ignoring the problem of ‘entryism’, a spectacular own goal but not I suspect the decisive factor in Corbyn’s rise by any means – suggests that this remains Labour’s attitude. The Conservatives went through their own brief period in the 1990s and early 2000s when they retreated into the margins of their own comfort zone but it didn’t last. Ultimately the reason the Conservatives are the natural party of Government and Labour the natural party of opposition is that this is the way they view themselves.

And yet … let’s try to look at this from a different angle. Where might Labour regain votes to give itself its next brief period in power? And which of the four leadership candidates is best places to deliver them? One might think that the easiest source of votes in from those who have not voted at all. That was around 34% of the electorate in 2015 – a jolly sight better than the 41% of 2001 but way above the 22% seen as recently as 1992. No fewer than 42% of eligible voters under the age of 25 failed to take the opportunity to vote this year (though in 2005 it was a staggering 62%, showing clearly that it is not true that young people today are more distant from the political process than they were a decade ago).

Which of the fantastic four is most likely to appeal to these non-voters, especially the young ones, and inspire them to engage? Just as Nicola Sturgeon hit a powerful chord with the young voters of Scotland (and the overall 2015 turnout was over 71% north of the Border), so one suspects that Corbyn is in a much stronger position, with his crypto rock star status, than any of the others.

Then we have the Labour defectors to UKIP and the Greens. I’ve never been convinced that UKIP is a ‘right wing’ part in economic terms whatever its social policy might be (I say ‘whatever’ because I have no idea what it actually is – it seems to lay claim to libertarianism while wishing to impose very heavily on lifestyles of which it does not approve): despite the assumptions beforehand, UKIP did much more harm to Labour, taking votes from it in relatively marginal seats, than it did to the Conservatives where its rural brand served generally to reduce embarrassingly large Tory majorities to merely comfortable ones. UKIP seemed to gain in areas where dispossessed people felt that New Labour had abandoned them. Which of the four candidates is most likely to persuade these traditional Labour voters to return to the fold, to make them feel that he or she is in it for their interests? Step up JC.

Much the same goes for the Greens but one social class up. The trendy, rich, slightly guilty middle class socialists who abandoned Labour for largely the same reasons as their northern working class counterparts may well find themselves drawn back if there were a leader who spoke the language of attacking big business, putting the environment at the heart of things, strengthening local ties and so on. Who could offer this best?

What about Scotland? Are Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham sufficiently different from Jim Murphy, the former leader of Labour in Scotland who was washed away alongside all of his colleagues, to take on the (partly but not wholly fictional) mighty image of Ms Sturgeon? Who could rival her ability to fill halls with enthusiastic fans and still have them queueing outside? Not such a tough question perhaps.

And finally, what about all those who are fed up with the spin and gloss of politics and just yearn for someone who says what they mean, mean what they say and present a ‘take me or leave me’ offer to the electorate?

I have no idea what these figures might add up to. But let’s indulge in idle speculation. Let’s say Corbyn inspires an extra 5% of the electorate to turn out (bringing the rest of the UK up to the Scottish level) and four fifths of those vote for him. Let’s say he manages to win back half of those 14% of those who voted who went to UKIP and an extra 3% of the vote from the Greens. In total this would add around 14 points to Labour’s share of the vote which had fallen to around 30% against the Tories’ 38%. It seems to me that the other candidates would be far less likely to achieve such gains within these groups. If we throw in say 20 extra seats in Scotland, again a higher likelihood under Corbyn that the other, and things look very interesting.

Against this of course must be weighed how many of Labour’s more moderate current voters might abandon them. That is a far more likely prospect if Corbyn does win – it could indeed include several members of the Party right up to Parliamentary level. But where could they go? It is hard to believe that the Liberal Democrats are in a fit state to regain their credibility rapidly, the Greens would need to start with a leader who actually made some sense, UKIP’s star is in decline and anyway many Labour voters would not dream of going that far and a direct switch to the Conservatives, perhaps the most likely option, has already largely been ‘banked’ by the Tories in their 2015 result. Do we see another new Party emerge, an SDP Mark 2? That didn’t really end so well.

We have in effect one out and out Blairite, two Ed Milibands (one with a working class accent, one female and neither as embarrassing if we are to be fair but still hardly a break from the recent failed past in England or Scotland) and a genuine visionary. The vision is bordering on frightening, as a look back say at housing policies in left wing authorities like Haringey (where Corbyn was a Councillor) or indeed Labour Wandsworth of the 1970s shows. But it may be that Corbyn is in a better position to increase Labour’s share of the vote, if not to make them electable, than any of his rivals. The cost may be ‘permanently’ (that tends to mean ‘for two elections’ in politics) to lose the ‘middle ground’ which is often, though not always, the space from which successful election campaigns are fought.

Even saying this makes me feel a bit silly. Every one of these factors, each unlikely in itself, would have to be fulfilled for Corbyn to move forward. Much more likely that his Islington trendiness will lose Labour more traction with the industrial working class in the North, perhaps to ULIP’s advantage, perhaps even to the Conservatives’.

But although Labour will never dominate politics in the way the Conservatives do, it is important for democracy to have an Opposition which is both credible in its attacks and which occasionally gets into power. The predominant party needs space to recharge and the rest of us need space to remember that life is not just about the money and that using our wealth to support the less fortunate is important as well. (Of course many Conservatives recognise that but over the last few decades, especially in Wandsworth, there has been something of a sense of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing which overlays the absolutely vital focus on getting the economy right.) It is actually a much more complex question than first appear as to which of the Labour leadership crop is in the best place to provide it.

The right not to be offended

THE RIGHT NOT TO BE OFFENDED?

I think it is quite a good starting point that society is better if we do not go out of our way to offend each other simply to enjoy the thrill of causing offence.  I have never made an image of the prophet Mohammed because I have not particular wish to do so and (not that I have really thought about it) it clearly would cause offence if I did so.  Actually I have felt a bit of pressure to do just that after the Charlie Hebdo atrocity – violent behaviour acts as a recruiting sergeant for the enemy in both directions – but I won’t, not because I am particularly afraid but because it is not quite a good enough reason to cause offence to the many Muslims who abhor the people of violence (yet – I could see that changing if there are repeat performances).  But I was very impressed by the passionate way that the likes of Nick Clegg popped up making very clear that ‘nobody has a right not to be offended’.

Yet a couple of days ago Benedict Cumberbatch felt he had to apologise profusely because he used the term ‘coloured people’ (or actors), which is offensive, rather than ’people of colour’, which is not.  I gather that a soap star in his 70s (Ken Morley – Ed.) was sacked from Celebrity Big Brother or referring to ‘negroes’.  And we all find ourselves in high dudgeon if a UKIP candidate makes a (in my view) bizarre reference of one kind or another, say about women or homosexuals.

Where is Nick Clegg jumping in defence of people’s right to be offensive when the people being offended are the ‘liberal establishment’ (a loose term I use for those who seem to have taken on themselves a role as guardians of what a ‘decent’ person should say and think)?  Where was Ed Miliband decrying the destruction of Andrew Mitchell’s career and putting huge pressure on his home life simply for (allegedly) using an offensive word ‘pleb’, which when all is said and done is simply the mirror image of the ‘toff’ insult that Miliband himself takes such pleasure in?  When Jeremy Clarkson insults Gordon Brown’s eye condition he nearly loses his job, when a right-on liberal comedian does it he gets great applause.

I’m not muslim or ‘a person of colour’ so I can’t know whether I’d be directly offended by iconism of racist language.  As it happens I find racist language personally offensive but I don’t find images of Prophet so.  But why should that give me the right to hound someone who does the one out of their careers but not the other?  (I am gay and I get pretty fed up by the LE telling me when I should be offended and when I shouldn’t – I find UKIP’s (or rural Conservatism’s or indeed that found in some trade unions or in a LibDem who can sniff a few votes) homophobic laughable and even a bit sad and have been told I am ‘letting the side down’ by doing so.)

Let’s at least be honest. The LE has created an atmosphere in which they have the right both to offend and not to be offended.  In this mindset people primitive enough to believe in a God of their choosing deserve to be mocked and the right to offend should be defended passionately.  But that right should not be extended to anyone who dares to offend the LE themselves.  Some people do not have a right not to be offended but some do.  Let’s not be surprised if some of those denied that right feel hard done by.

Merger or takeover?

On the surface of it a merger of the backroom functions of Wandsworth and Richmond Councils looks a ‘no brainer’ as the current phrase has it.  Considerable savings by reducing the numbers of staff have been achieved elsewhere by this route, though sometimes services have suffered as well.

Yet there is something wrong when the first a Councillor hears of it is in the Wandsworth Guardian; when the Leader of the Council gives an interview in which he never mentions the word ‘Councillor’ once, let alone shows any interest in engaging the elected representatives of the Boroughs of Wandsworth and Richmond in the decision.

It sounds very much like this is going to be another example of the majority group forcing through its will without even listening to alternative views.  The best recent example was when the Finance Scrutiny Committee took a decision to investigate whether Ward Budgets worked elsewhere and whether they might be an option here for engaging people more in their local communities.  The Conservative leadership’s top priority at the next Council meeting was not to discuss closing the Battersea Sports Centre, or threats to libraries or the Tooting running track – it was to prevent the Finance Committee from even talking to other Council about their experience. I still don’t really know why they were so scared of letting backbenchers find out what others were up to – maybe the fear of finding out that Wandsworth is not always the best in the business (something which is unarguable) was at its heart.

Shared management arrangements inevitably affect the work of a Councillor on behalf of local residents.  Senior staff only spend half the week in the building.  The degree to which one council can direct officers to devote time to a particular policy is severely limited by their obligations to the other council.  Scrutiny, which is supposed to be the opportunity for Councillors to monitor and challenge the performance of the Council, becomes more complicated.  Either officers have to face two separate scrutiny functions from the two Councils (what happens if they disagree?) or there have to be joint scrutiny panels made up of councillors from both authorities. At the moment from what I can tell Richmond values the contribution that backbenchers make through Scrutiny, allowing or even encouraging them to carry out investigations into matters of importance to local people, while Wandsworth prevents councillors from doing this.  Would Wandsworth Councillors on joint Scrutiny be allowed to join their Richmond colleagues in such work or would Wandsworth seek to prevent Richmond Councillors from doing it?

Evidence from the various councils which have gone through mergers like this suggest that if Councillors are involved from the start the outcome is a more positive one than when only the politburo has any say and other Councillors are whipped into agreeing or ignored.  In most of the cases I have looked at there has been a joint group of councillors set up at the start to go and discuss with other councils their experience of such arrangements.  Any attempt by a Wandsworth Committee to do that would be crushed by the Cabinet if past behaviour is anything got go by.

This is a bad enough start.  The timing makes it worse.  Wandsworth has lost a vast amount of experience recently as senior officers have retired, including the Director of Education and his Deputy, the Director of Technical Services, the Director of Housing, the Head of Corporate Affairs, the Director of Leisure and Amenity Services.  The new structure has not had time to bed in yet.  At the same time the Cabinet has chopped the amount of time the rest of us can spend looking at services and sharing our experience by slashing the times each Committee meets from six times a year to just four and cutting one Committee altogether.  This is obviously good for the Cabinet because it gets an easier time but it is not so good for local residents.  I wonder if the dreadful failure over the freedom pass would have happened if there had been more chance to scrutinise it?

Finally, the kind of management structure needed for the future depends on our shared vision as elected councillors of what that future should look like for our Borough.  But that is a question which is of absolutely no interest to the powers that be in Wandsworth. Richmond is rather more visionary.  If this continues it is inevitable that the new structure will be more tailored to the needs of Richmond than of Wandsworth – a takeover rather than a merger.  And those needs are dramatically different – the richest local authority in the country alongside one with enduring pockets of inner city depravation.

Stephen Knight, opposition leader in Richmond, is calling for a referendum on this issue.  I am generally not a fan of referenda – we elect governments (local or national) to take decisions on our behalf based on their judgment and if we don’t like their judgment we vote them out.  The one exception is if there is a change to the rules by which we are governed.  This clearly fits the bill.  If the Wandsworth leadership remains true to form and exclude all other views from consideration then this might be the right way forward.

Decline and fall

This evening’s Council meeting has clarified a lot of issues.

The most important was that at last I got a clear and unequivocal answer on the libraries. I asked the Cabinet Member, Jonathan Cook, if he could give a cast-iron guarantee that the out-of-town centre libraries would remain open until the end of the Council’s term in 2018.  His answer was no.  After all that stuff about ‘no plans’, ‘no threat’ and so on we now have the truth – the Council might close Southfields library and/or the others under some conditions.

To a political insider though there were other matters of equal interest. The Conservative whipping and the paranoia it represents is fraying seriously round the edges.  We had a debate on a paper I had brought to Committee proposing that we go and have a look at what other councils do with ‘Ward budgets’, small sums that can be used for local projects.  The Cabinet Member, Councillor Senior, had invested a lot of his political capital and credibility on trying to persuade the Committee to reject the proposal.  He failed and the Committee supported the proposal by 6 votes to 5.

It is really strange, to my mind, that the Cabinet even opposed it in the first place. But tonight they put forward an amendment that in effect prevented the Committee even talking to anyone else about whether giving a small budget for each councillor to use in the ward might in some circumstances be a good idea.

The arguments in favour were very powerful, admittedly. One was that Councillors are too greedy and would not use such a scheme properly.  (Where else would you get someone arguing ‘we shouldn’t do this because you can’t be trusted’ and get the response ‘oh yes, good point, I am selfish and unreliable so I had better oppose this’?)  Another was that people are too stupid to be allowed to make decisions for themselves even over tiny sums, so we have to make sure that we take all council spending decisions for them.  One of them had managed to find an example of such a scheme not working well in Great Yarmouth.  (Frankly I suspect one could find examples of any local authority activity you cared to name not going well in Great Yarmouth – is that an argument for abolishing local democracy?)  Councillors hold a ‘Let’s Talk’ meeting in their Ward every two years for between 30 and 100 of their residents so there is certainly no need for further public engagement.  The use of up to £200 and some officer time is far too much at a time when budgets were under pressure – the leadership had even taken legal advice to show the decision could be overturned.  (I have asked the Chief Executive how much was spent on getting this legal advice as in my experience legal advice can cost even more than paying for a few bus passes for councillors from Westminster or Kensington & Chelsea to come to the Town Hall and enlighten us as to their experience.)  It was claimed that, uniquely to Wandsworth, Council Wards don’t always follow community lines (in all the other London Boroughs which do have Ward budgets presumably everyone knows which Ward they are in, unlike here.)  And the most persuasive point of all – that in Wandsworth we don’t waste time discussing things or looking at best practice elsewhere, we just get on and do it.

A pretty powerful case, you’ll agree. In the event Martin Johnson, who had supported the paper at Committee, left the Chamber rather than vote against (I wonder if he had the same ultimatum that I did that he’d be thrown out of the group for such insubordination).  Only one Conservative Councillor voted to support the democratic decision of the Committee, though the Labour Group did.

There was a choice here. The leadership could have said fair enough, the defeat was a bit embarrassing but there’s obviously an appetite for this, let’s let them try it out before we come to a view.  Or they could decide that they couldn’t allow the slightest open thinking anywhere so would use their majority to behave as democratic dictators, crushing any minority (or in the Committee case majority) view with which it did not agree.  I stress this wasn’t a big budgetary issue, it was whether we should ask a few questions and get a bit of information.

Irving Janis identified eight characteristics of groupthink, itself a sign of an organisation usually in terminal decline;

Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.

Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.

Rationalising warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.

Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.

Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.

Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.

Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”

Mindguards – self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

Roman generals used to pay slaves to whisper in their ear “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento!” as they attended their triumph after a great victory. By the time of the decline the Emperors were declaring themselves Gods.  Scrutiny could be the body which whispers ‘look behind you – remember you are mortal’ to the politburo.  But tonight implies that Wandsworth will spend the next three years being led not by Pompey but by Caligula.

Crazy week

I’m just off to see my old mum who has had a minor and successful op in Leicester so it may be a moment for reflection on the week.

A week ago I was an (albeit disgruntled) Conservative Councillor in Wandsworth.  I had been given an ultimatum. Either I pull a paper I had put forward for discussion at one of the Committees or I ‘consider my position’ (or have it considered for me). The paper suggested we look at what several other councils are doing with ‘Ward budgets’ – small sums of money that individual councillors can spend in their own patch on public schemes that otherwise would not get any funds.  The idea is to engage people more in the democratic process and to add to the individual ‘quirkiness’ of particular neighbourhoods that make ‘home’ such a special place for all of us.  I wasn’t saying we should do it, just look around at what others were doing and see if it might work here.  But no, even that suggestion was unacceptable – “you cannot bring that paper as a Conservative Councillor”.  If after over 20 years serving the Party that is what it had come to then I had decided I wasn’t up for it any more.

I also knew that plans were emerging to consider closing the out-of-town centre libraries.  I knew that because we had specifically been told it in a paper to the Group on June 23, alongside a number of other measures.  Southfields library is a much-loved and well-used feature of the town centre that straddles Southfields and West Hill Wards, an area which in recent months has lost its boys’ club and its snooker hall (which could have been converted back into a cinema).  Of course people have to live somewhere but they also need it to be a place worth living in, not just a dormitory.

Rob Richman and his many friends and colleagues had fought a very effective, though ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to save the snooker hall (or ‘Southfields Plaza’ as it would have become).  He gained over 1000 votes as an Independent candidate in Southfields Ward the election this year, an extraordinary feat in a place so dominated by the political parties. We had a chat. We knew (or believed anyway) that no firm plans were in place to close the library and others, but equally thought that you don’t put things like that in a paper for fun or to mislead people and therefore that there was at least a possibility that these closures would happen.  We were faced with two options – to allow things to proceed and put together a fight if and when the closure decision had been taken; or campaign now to show how we as a community would respond if such a decision ever were to be taken.  The risk of the latter was that we would worry people unnecessarily when, if left alone, the proposal might simply have been rejected and put to bed; the risk of the former was that we would face a much more difficult fight if the proposals were to be passed and people started to defend a firm position.

What’s happened since then?  There have been two stories coming from ‘sources close to the Cabinet’. One has it that the promise to bring the item forward was a whimsy, a joke, maybe even a misprint, that there had never been the slightest possibility of closing the libraries.  The gist of it is that after over 20 years as a loyal Conservative councillor I had suddenly gone mad, invented a story and tried to make trouble where none existed. The attacks on my integrity, direct and implied, began.

The other story from a different ‘source close to the Cabinet’ had it that even before the Council election this year there were regular ‘savings’ (councilspeak for ‘cuts’) papers coming to senior councillors which proposed closing Northcote Library in Battersea – while these had not been accepted (after all the library is still there) neither had a message gone that the top councillor team never wanted to see hide nor hair of them again.  I of course was not there so I don’t know which if either of these stories is true but frankly it didn’t do much to make me think I was imagining the whole issue.

We have now reached the classic ‘non-denial denial’ stage, usually phrased (as in this case) as ‘we have no plans to close any of the libraries’.  Even when true this is of course meaningless – “no plans to do something” is different from “firm promises not to do it”.  Adding ‘absolutely’ to the ‘no plans’ just makes the statement ‘absolutely’ meaningless though it is (I think) an advance on where we were last Monday.  But worse, there is a claim that the libraries face ‘no threat’.  For me that crosses the line between ‘clever’ use of language that misleads without actually lying, and something else.  I can’t find a definition of ‘threat’ which wouldn’t include ‘frequent proposals to shut down’.

Rob and I never went into this to undermine anyone’s career or create pressure on them to resign. It is clear to me anyway that Ravi did not write all, maybe not even most, of the stuff coming out in his name because I believe him to be an honourable man (within the legitimate constraints of politics of course). He is getting some staggeringly awful advice – continue to deny things because that’s how you deal with this kind of story EVEN IF THERE IS DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE OUT THERE THAT SHOWS YOU ARE BEING MISLEADING. So I suggested to the Leader that we put out a press release together.  On the one hand Rob and I would acknowledge – as we certainly should – that Wandsworth has so far had a very impressive record of protecting its libraries when some other councils have not and this is a cause for congratulation.  Alongside a recognition that closure has been at least contemplated (since we were fed up with people being told we invented the whole thing for some mad reason), there would be a CAST-IRON GUARANTEE THAT THE LIBRARIES WOULD REMAIN OPEN UNTIL AT LEAST THE NEXT COUNCIL ELECTION (expressed in precisely those words). Not difficult, you would think, if they did indeed have no such intentions.

He declined, not least because on Friday this popped up on Wandsworth mumsnet: http://local.mumsnet.com/Talk/local_wandsworth/2193134-Southfields-Library-at-risk-of-closure.

 

“We have received an e-mail from another Conservative councillor (whose identity we have agreed to keep anonymous) confirming that there was a plan to close not just Southfields library but other non-town centre libraries including Northcote library. Here is the e-mail: “Obviously I don’t want to be named because I hope to have a council career, but feel the treatment of Malcolm Grimston has been very harsh. The council are lying to say there were no plans for library closures. Shortly after we were all elected we were herded into a room in the town hall and it was made clear that we would be expected to vote through the vast majority if not all the cuts proposed. Malcolm Grimston has done everyone a favour. I would have hated voting to close Northcote library, especially as you sometimes get the sense those in charge are not in control, but it was made clear we had no choice. I would have stayed quiet, but Ravi Govindia emailed us all saying it was “pure mischief making to create an issue where none exists” and that is a lie. The intention to close libraries was there.

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blowingthewhistle Fri 26-Sep-14 14:40:00

PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL CONSERVATIVE GROUP MEETING – 23rd June 2014 Major decisions affecting savings in the autumn and winter cycles of OSC ………. November / December / January …….. Closure of Tooting Bec Track and Battersea Leisure Centre …….. Consideration of closure of non-town centre libraries …….. N.b. ….. are deleted items which were mostly admin/managerial/staffing issues.”

 

Before you ask, no it wasn’t me who published it (though I did of course have the note), no I don’t know who it was, yes I was gobsmacked, in the vernacular, as even I did not realise the depth of discontent in the Group about the culture.

In effect, the charge that we were making this up has now been put to rest. But I have lost all trust that anything but an absolutely black and white unwriggle-out-of-able commitment, in the above words, to the libraries would be ‘bankable’. If we get that simple unequivocal assurance we’ll be more than delighted to drop the whole campaign and cheer Wandsworth Council on its good sense and community values.   Our instinct is that we might be quite close to that point.  But we have been pelted with a lot of eggs this week and so far not one of them has produced a chicken so we’re not counting on it as yet, so the campaign goes on.

A final reflection. Leaving the Party after so long was certainly prompted by a feeling, justified I think by subsequent events, that a public campaign might achieve what the usual behind-the scenes attempts to reach secret deals might not have done. But it was more than that. Political parties – and I include Labour in this just as much as I do the Conservatives – have become so unwilling to allow dissenting views to be heard, either in secret or in public, that ‘groupthink’ is taking over, fine when the instincts of those driving policy are perfect but fatal where, as in this case, those taking the decisions on communication are so clearly out of their depth. (OK, you may say it was every thus so maybe I have just noticed it more in the last two or three years.) The most difficult moment for me so far has been when Battersea UKIP sent out a tweet supporting me. One of the things I love most about the lovely West Hill Ward is our diversity – cultural, ethnic, religious, you name it. I entered into my civil partnership with my Cuban boyfriend (is that the right word for someone in their 50s?) in the Council Chamber just over two years ago, surrounded by friends of all shapes and (in my case anyway) sizes, and we intend to ‘upgrade’ to marriage when the legislation allows us to do so. I made these points to the tweeter and got back a very gracious response, actually probably more gracious than my less positive initial contact deserved. It struck me that this is something that should lie at the heart of what I personally would like to see the Wandsworth Independent Alliance growing into. I have major differences of view on life from those which are UKIP policy and philosophy. But it would surely be hypocritical of me to brand some people as ‘intolerant’ and so to fail to ‘tolerate’ and indeed value them, as long as to do so would not compromise my own principles. Political parties often don’t really do that because of the inherent tribalism involved.

The most helpful response came from one of my constituents who advised that we should be magnanimous as we move towards getting what we and I believe the community want.  It was very timely – Rob and I have tried not to overreact to some of the taunts aimed at us and we have had moments of frustration and even anger but our aim always was to save the library, not to upset anyone unnecessarily.  We do recognise that whatever mistakes are being made Wandsworth Conservatives, like all other basically volunteer organisations, is people with very many fine public servants and it was good to be reminded of that.

I had no real idea where this would lead – the Conservatives could have shut this down on day one by accepting that plans had been considered because you have to think the unthinkable; saying that closure of libraries was always the last option; giving the guarantee that they wouldn’t close; and making me look a right Charlie for going off on one for nothing. We’d have got our library, they’d get credit, we could all move on.  Instead they sought to mislead and created a much bigger problem. Time after time in politics the message is given – it’s never the event that destroys, it is the cover-up – and time after time it gets ignored.

Protecting from protection

What turned Fukushima from a medium-ranking industrial accident, of the kind the happens perhaps eight or ten times a year, into a disaster, with a reported death toll among the evacuees of over 1,000?  Not radiation.  Like at Three Mile Island there don’t seem to be any deaths from that source; even at Chernobyl the demonstrable death toll from radiation exposure was small compared to events like Bhopal or Banqiao.

What created the human misery at Fukushima was the response – not the immediate precautionary evacuation but what followed and ironically what preceded.  The only other area currently excluded because of human activity is Chernobyl.  It follows, to the rational non-expert, that the levels of radiation throughout these exclusion zones must represent a higher risk than any other man-made threat on the planet.

The public relationship with radiation is a complex one.  There is a no generalised fear of ionising radiation – it doesn’t show up for example in high radon areas.  The many examples of fatalities following leakages of radioactive materials from medical facilities do not seem to have been accompanied by much radiophobia, nor was the murder of Mr Litvinenko in London in 2008.  Clearly there is something in the way radiation from civil nuclear activities is being communicated which has created a set of fears which are not there in other contexts.

At a JAIF meeting earlier this year one speaker bemoaned how the Japanese public did not realise that man-made radiation was the same as the natural radiation all around us.  A huge effort was needed to correct this misimpression, so making nuclear power more acceptable.

Well, what does the well-informed Japanese member of the public know (or at least what unarguable facts are in the public domain)?

First and foremost, around 100,000 people were evacuated from a 20 km radius zone around Fukushima Dai-ini and have not (except for a few hundred very recently) been allowed back into their homes for over three years, causing untold misery.  In much of the zone doses from radiation (from all sources) are below 5 mSv per year, with fallout dose below 1 mSv per year.

Secondly, there are areas like Ramsar in Iran (average 130 mSv per year) and Guarapari in Brazil (peak levels on the beach equivalent to 350 mSv per year) which are not evacuated.  Indeed, there are almost certainly places in Japan (e.g. Kyushu island) where natural doses are above the total dose in some part of the exclusion zone.

What could the well-informed Japanese member of the public make of this?  There seem to be three potential explanations.

The authorities have gone stark staring mad (or are deeply uncaring) by blighting so many lives and incurring such vast costs for no defensible reason.

  1. The authorities are simply lying about the levels of contamination in the exclusion zone.
  2. Man-made radiation is significantly more dangerous than the ‘same amount’ of natural radiation, so comparisons are meaningless.

Assume that the Japanese nuclear family is successful in persuading people that their (sensible) rationalisation of the undisputed facts in front of them (option 3) is incorrect.  The facts won’t change, so a new rationalisation will be needed.  It is not immediately obvious that a switch to believing 1 (the true one) or 2 would improve people’s faith in the industry or in the concept of nuclear power.

Ironically, one suspects that the irrational exclusion was adopted in an attempt to reassure people.  In reality, there is a demonstrable, dangerous but almost invisible myth that one can ‘err on the side of caution’ in radiological protection.  Any action that is not justified on health grounds – let’s say any exclusion from an area which is safer than living in London or Tokyo with all their air pollution – will do more harm than good.

It can be argued, then, that an overzealous infatuation with reducing radiation dose, far from minimising human harm, is at the heart of the whole problem.  Maybe the key question is – how do we protect people not from radiation but from the effects of radiological protection?