Fancy predicting the future under an Ed Miliband administration?
Well, look no further than Labour-run Camden Council at present. Proudly serving their 229,000 constituents (or just 56 of them, as we shall read later) since gaining control of the Town Hall back in 2010.
Like any emerging Socialist state, a powerful nemesis has to be created. The purpose: to frighten residents into compliance and mollify public dissent when badly managed public services start to unravel.
So, what is the threat to the poor embattled residents of Camden and their plucky community representatives?
What hostile force is a clear and present danger to those Labour Camden Councillors who risk life and limb every few weeks by bravely meeting in a warm Council Chamber, in one of the world’s safest capitals?
Not ISIS, not Al-Shabab, nor even a resurgent IRA.
But marauding troops of “buskers”.
Labour in Camden has now made unlicensed street music a criminal offence. Councillors brought in a regulatory system to supposedly take the fight to various busking-related public nuisances, including … er… alleged noise pollution, and …umm… its vague “links” to organised crime. Pickpockets, apparently.
(On that basis, let’s start closing down bus and railway stations then, or start banning trouser pockets, shall we?)
Admittedly, playing music and or/singing in public places in hope that passers-by will show some monetary appreciation, sometimes referred to as ‘busking’, is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea.
But one place where practicing musicians could expect at least some degree of tolerance is Labour’s Camden.
For Camden is literally one of the world’s largest tourism venues precisely because of its market and live music scene, according to inward investment specialists Visit London.
Moreover, wasn’t it Labour’s baby boomer ministers who used famous musicians to promote themselves, and an image of ‘Cool Britannia’, in the nineties?
So, what, in practical terms, is the scale of the problem?
Well, under cold, hard analysis, it hardly registers as bantamweight.
After months of being pressed for hard evidence of formal complaints by a Court, and also by a number of residents who support the musicians (larger in quantity than those who oppose), Camden Council could only provide 56 genuine complainants.
To be fair, several people have complained repeatedly.
Existing police and Council public order powers can more than adequately deal with any violence, threats, excessive noise, or otherwise.
Yet Camden Labour’s new local government law, to target unlicensed musical performers in public spaces, provide for fines of up to £1,000, a formal criminal record, and the seizure of music equipment; a person’s tools to make their living.
I can think of only one other territory where public music and dance has been tangibly outlawed: Afghanistan, under the Taliban between 1996 and 2001.
At a recent Camden Council meeting to implement (as opposed to debate) local control of street musicians, one Labour councillor described busking as a “lucrative” business.
Answering this point, a frequent musician to Camden’s streets told me that “£15 per hour in a decent spot is to be expected.”
Now, compared to the said Council Cabinet members’ tax-funded remuneration of £23,000 plus (and most of these councillors also have a day job), the street musician’s lot is hardly “lucrative”.
A ‘Standard’ permit for Camden’s street musicians will cost £19 per year, or £47, if entertainers want the right to use an amplifier by being granted a ‘Special’ licence. This super licence takes up to 20 days to arrive says Camden’s helpful website.
But will it actually solve the stated problems?
I’m not an audio expert. But I’m assuming that if I play Bach’s uber-relaxing Air on a G String on my electric organ at 70 Decibels underneath somebody’s open window, then the sound still resonates at a maximum of 70 Decibels, and that this could be potentially annoying or inspiring to a listener, whether I have a £19 normal licence, a £47 special permit, or I didn’t actually purchase one in the first place.
Moreover, although, I have not had the chance to interview any ‘organised’ pickpockets for this piece, it’s a safe bet to say that even the most diligent villain would hardly pre-condition his thieving spree by first checking with a potentially deviant musician to see if they had a valid performers’ licence:
“Sorry mate, you don’t have a Camden Council-approved licence… right, that’s it… I’m going to start robbing your audience right now. Now come on … it’s your last chance … apply online at: www.camden.gov.uk…”
In fact, if one follows the line of logic from the Council’s argument, that buskers are the source of organised crime clusters, then it seems to me that the principal victim of pickpocketing would, ironically, be other attending pickpockets.
“Oi, get your hand out of my pocket…”
“Oh, Reg, sorry mate, I didn’t recognise you from behind, I thought you were up at Belsize Park today robbing, cos there’s that young violinist up there playing without a permit … Vanessa somebody…”
Among all of this municipally-contrived nonsense, whatever happened to the time-old art – and cheaper solution – of trying out some decent human conversation and mutual common sense?
Perhaps appeal to a performer’s more harmonious side; just ask a musician politely to move on in a while.
Surely they too, being pupils of highbrow musical art, can understand the innate essence of our human condition… a need for tranquillity, undisturbed Socratic reflection… et cetera?
After all, that’s why some people move into the centre of the world’s largest street-music hub … isn’t it? For the peace and quiet …
For me, although by nature a sucker for sob stories, choosing to live in Camden and ordering the closure of street music smacks a little bit like an ecologist, with a dust allergy, relocating onto the Hanger Lane, only then to rant and rave about the perils of traffic pollution.
Legal protections do already exist. If dialogue with an entertainer turns nasty, then residents or the musician can lodge a complaint or seek help from the Police.
But I’m guessing, if a misty-eyed musician has just banged out a set which includes ‘Imagine’ and ‘Let it Be’, then it doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to work out that they’re probably not the sort to carry around a spare Kalashnikov in a guitar case.
Furthermore, if we start issuing £1,000 fines in Camden (to the buskers, not the pickpockets), then aren’t we just shifting a problem elsewhere?
It takes up to one hundred hours of additional music playing for a busker to pay a fine of that magnitude.
We couldn’t then blame fined musicians for hopping onto the Northern Line, smacking their unlicensed amplifiers into passengers’ shins, and pitching up at neighbouring Barnet to rattle off a rendition of Travis’s ‘Why does it always rain on me?’ under somebody else’s window.
So many artists from impoverished backgrounds and neighbourhoods that Labour claim to speak for, simply would not have got their big breaks if it wasn’t for the street music scene and the recognition it gave them: I’m thinking Tracy Chapman, The Levellers, Travis… and … er… amazingly… a young Justin Beiber.
Many famous musicians also continue to busk, sometimes incognito.
One high-profile Camden Borough resident, so far silent on this issue, is our prospective Prime Minster, Ed Miliband.
Mr Miliband is clearly focused on national issues and may understandably be blind to the fact that there is fast approaching a convergence of interests between Camden Council and local musicians.
The run up to next year’s General Election provides, perversely, a great opportunity for the Labour-run Camden Borough to make some serious additional dosh. Albeit at their national leader’s expense.
For it is not infeasible to imagine a mass of musicians – armed with guitar cases and amplifiers – stampeding towards the Town Hall cashiers’ desks those few weeks before Polling Day, desperate to pay a £47 fee for the hated ‘Special’ public music licence. Like a musical version of an Apple Iphone release.
Well, possession of the lawful right to sing John Lennon’s ‘You’re a Loser’ outside Red Ed’s house in North London, after a May 7th 2015 General Election defeat, could be, for some buskers, a valedictory Return on Investment-stunt too tempting to pass up.
Not a nice thing to happen. But neither is receiving a criminal record, a £1,000 fine, and seeing the tools of your trade seized, for merely strumming a tune or singing a song, on a cold British street, in an attempt to make a very un-lucrative living.
Richard Bingley: Twitter:@bingleyr