There is something curious about this current Labour infighting against Jeremy Corbyn. A party built on public engagement with politics, of the individual having their voice within a system that seems to so often be played out by people and positions above them, should surely be celebrating that hundreds of thousands of people registering to become directly involved in that process and have turned out in their thousands on wet evenings to hear a politician speak. Labour should be proud that people turned away from politics have returned with energy and that those who are now of an age to participate are intently doing so and are not swept along as a generation of disenfranchised and disinterested. Surely those within the political system from all sides should be excited, invigorated by an engaged population wanting to have massive discussions.
But they aren’t, and what annoys the public most – indeed drives them on to shout louder – is being told that their voice is unimportant, that they are deluded or ignorant of bigger truths. No discussion, no widening of debate, no answering of questions and adult discussions, just more of the same patronising spin and reduction of the issues to fit within preconceived soundbites and deliverable narrative. And this at a time when it is easier than ever for public engagement, action and discussion in all things social and political.
Most politicians I have contacted regarding the Garden Bridge have replied and been engaging. Some, however, are notable by their silence – and it is not party political. Kate Hoey is my local MP and also governs the South Bank area in which the Garden Bridge lands. It took me five emails over two months to get a reply from my representative and then all I got were terse and seemingly angry responses claiming she didn’t have the time to deal with the Bridge and that there are bigger problems. I am sure there are bigger problems, but that is not to say everything else should be ignored. Just two weeks ago she found time to tweet about a single tree behind the Durning Library in Kennington being removed, so it’s a real shame she does not have a moment to consider the removal of thirty mature trees, and other associated green issues, of the Bridge.
Similarly, Tessa Jowell – the leading candidate for Labour nomination for next year’s mayoral election – is in favour of the bridge but has resisted responding to the many, many attempts at contact from myself or other Garden Bridge protesters. It’s somewhat odd seeing as all other Labour nominations are firmly against it, and she has remained fairly quiet on the reasons as to why. We can only be left to wonder if she think’s of critical transport infrastructure, whether she thinks it’s a good use of £60m of public money or if she has relationships with people involved in the project (though it’s interesting to note that her election campaign is partly funded by a PR company also promoting the Garden Bridge). Neither Hoey or Jowell want to actually have a conversation with the public they want to vote for them. We should expect more from politicians than selectively choosing what they want to talk about and what they’ll ignore.
Also in Labour is Neil Coyle, new MP for Southwark. His constituents have complained to me that they are not being listened to in their opposition to the Bridge which while isn’t in his constituency is so tight to the border that many of his number are near to it and would be affected. He has been in support of the Garden Bridge all through his successful election to MP and since, but it wasn’t until a Private Eye article a few months ago that people realised his wife is a partner in the landscape firm working on the Bridge.
I see similarities with the proposed Garden Bridge development in London and the way in which we are patronised rather than consulted. There are claims of a ‘big conversation’ in politics – from all parties at various times – but it is one not had with us but about us. Similarly, the development of the Garden Bridge has passed through the supposedly democratic system of planning with those behind the scheme proudly stating to have delivered on all public consultation required. But the fact remains that people largely do not know any more about the scheme than it is a bridge somewhere in London, that it has trees on it (so therefore must be environmentally good) and that Joanna Lumley is somehow involved. It could be suggested that those behind the Bridge, and with interests on it being delivered, have deliberately kept at this low level of public understanding so as to avoid questions, debate and questioning. Why else would the project’s flagship render be drawn from an imaginary position in the sky which makes it hard for most people to really get a handle on the true location and in no way provides a vantage showing people the true effect from pedestrian eye level? So I propose that the current levels of “all public consultation required” is woefully inadequate and no conversation is being attempted with the public.
It is entirely the same as we are so used to in the political process, being presented only with half the information and the minimal amount of dialogue to open up true conversation. A few weeks ago The Garden Bridge Trust commissioned a telephone poll of 2,000 people. The questions asked were incredibly simplistic and clearly loaded to give them the answer they wanted. It was brief and not once in the brief telephone call were mentions of the blocking of historic views of St. Pauls Cathedral and Somerset House, that it is a private bridge with no public right of way, nor that it would be closed through the year for corporate entertainment or that 30 mature trees and an existing public grassed area would be sacrificed for commercial units, queuing platform and private entertainment space.
Telephone interviewees were not told that £60m of public money has been pledged towards this private project, or that Londoners are underwriting the £3.5m annual maintenance bill. They were not told about the procurement process now under investigation. Nor that the Green Party and Wild London are against it as a project which offers no benefit to environmentalism and have proclaimed it as greenwash. They were, however, told a couple of statements offering vague benefits the bridge would provide. Then they were asked if they support it.
How is a citizen supposed to make an informed, educated opinion when not even given all the facts? This is a project largely paid for by public money and will have a huge effect upon the very people who are footing the bill – in effect we are being tricked into allowing a project we are also paying for.
And so we return to politics and the position of the Labour party. That hundreds of thousands people are up for engagement is only a good thing, whatever your political persuasion. That people are discussing politics in pubs, workplaces and on buses can only be an empowering quality of a functioning democracy. But repeatedly there’s the uneasy feeling that a real democratic vote was never really intended – both from the Labour party itself and the wider political landscape. The number of people who registered to vote in the Labour leadership elections who are being contacted, reimbursed and told that their politics did not align with that of the Labour Party is embarrassing. How can politics be discussed if people who care about it are shut out of having a say? It’s all too similar to the Garden Bridge Trust’s poll which was designed to come up with a predetermined answer which suited their needs.
Outside of the Labour party discussion is also being shut down. Media, whether that which only operates as a political mouthpiece of the proprietor and thus does no journalism, to others which try to reduce anything of substance into a soundbite-nugget which fits a simple narrative. This is all problematic for any hope of an informed and engaged democracy, and is similar to the ‘public consultation’ documents sent out by the Garden Bridge Trust which only contain one-sided spin and half-truths. Real public consultation from the Garden Bridge Trust would clearly outline all the overwhelmingly negative elements of their project – the closure, the private ownership, the public finances, the loss of greenspace etc – as well as their perceived positives, just as we would hope a media to also operate impartially and give its readers full stories and facts rather than conjecture and propaganda.
And so we see what happens when a citizenship is deprived of a voice and open platform for discussion. It makes the voice itself. Whether that is with thousands turning out to listen to Jeremy Corbyn speak and then discuss and spread on social media that which isn’t being covered in the main stream media, or whether it’s citizens campaigning against The Garden Bridge, Norton Folgate, proposed demolition of historic buildings on the Strand or other changes to our city which seem to happen despite us and not with us.
The sooner that politics and developers realise that they cannot try to pull the wool over the public eyes as much as they once could, that new networks for solidarity and dissemination are available to an engaged population, the better. The sooner that politics and organisations try to use these new networks to genuinely open up discussions and have adult conversations, the better.
© Will Jennings, August 2015
Will Jennings is a visual artist.