Friday, September 15, 2006

Oil acquaintance

It’s a cold day in September when the Tories start making sense and the Lib Dems are in the same ballpark as a valid point. This is how low the bar has descended I’m afraid. I guess Ken thought that Tony Blair was having too much fun messing around with Texas oil billionaires and wanted a little of it for himself. He reminds me a bit of Cliff Barnes in Dallas. Always on the outer, Cliff was forever making business with dodgy partners and embarrassing himself at the Oil Barons’ Club.

Ken has made himself a little deal with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela to supply the best of British expertise in housing policy and environmental management in exchange for cheap diesel to fuel London’s buses. This is about as fair an exchange as the Victorians swapping British missionaries for Chinese opium.

‘I'm sure the Venezuelans who struggle below the poverty line, many of them critically so, would be shocked at the cynical siphoning off of their main asset to provide one of the world's most prosperous cities with cheap oil’, said Angie Bray, Tory leader of the GLA. Ooo, sounds very sensible to me.

Even Mike Tuffrey, leader of the Lib Dem group made a credible grab for the green agenda, ‘This reduces us to the status of a third-world barter economy. We should be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, not trying to get them at subsidised prices from Venezuela.’

You can see where this is all coming from. You’ve got people who share ideologies but not necessarily practices and maybe can’t distinguish between the two very well. It may be torture to work in Ken’s ‘hedgehog’, with its lack of shelf space and glass walls that give the impression of closing in on you like the compactor in Star Wars, but it’s not actual torture. Travelling on the tube may feel like being in a cattle truck but it’s not an actual cattle truck. So when they have conversations they may be talking about entirely different things.

When Chávez for example says things like it was the Americans who blew up the twin towers, maybe Ken thinks he is speaking metaphorically. Chávez means he thinks the Americans laid actual dynamite in the buildings and detonated it. Ken maybe thinks he means the Americans were playing with political dynamite poking their unwelcome noises into the Middle East and trying to steal its oil.

It is a bit of a shame that it’s all come out so muddled. In a way, you wouldn’t mind these men who champion the poor giving one in the eye to oil oligarchs. They’re a bit like the Seven Samurai, except there are only two of them and they’re not Japanese.

Chávez has managed to make similar deals with Boston and New York with the insistence that cost savings go directly to the most deprived. It has proved extremely difficult to establish how this might work in London. We are not very good at getting money to the poor in the easiest of circumstances. We frequently can’t manage it even when they know how much they’re entitled to and where they need to go to get it. Imagine queues of people in Tesco waiting to redeem their petrodollar points or trying to swap them for Computers in Schools vouchers.

The proposed solution is to offer subsidised Oyster cards. This does seem like a good idea but will it require the kind of odious and degrading assessment system that repels potential beneficiaries and will recipients have to make a declaration and find their benefits stopped for months while someone investigates? Will there be a need for inspectors in every tube station to ensure that the system is not being abused? Ho hum. Ken – there is slick and there is oil slick.

Picture Scanpix/AFP

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