The dust has settled, former Mayor Livingstone has departed, his immediate staff have had to clear their desks and Boris Johnson, the new Mayor has been, if not exactly sworn in, as that is a rather old-fashioned idea, certainly signed in. In some quarters the bells are still ringing and hosannas are being sung but, elsewhere, it might be time to take a look as to what might be reasonably expected from the new Mayor.
In the first place, it is worth examining what the position entails, where it is derived from and what controls there are on it. Until 2000 there was no Mayor of London. The reference one comes across in history and literature, particularly Shakespeare’s Chronicles, to the powerful individual, who owes that power to the fractious and difficult citizens of London, is to the Lord Mayor of the City of London, who still exists, still owes his (there has not been a woman so far) power to those who elect him and who managed to see off the upstart Mayor, Ken Livingstone, in short order.
We used to have a Greater London Council (GLC) that had taken over from the London County Council (LCC) but these were government-created political bodies, the aim being to ensure that Labour controlled London. This did not always work out and the whole scheme collapsed in the eighties, when Ken Livingstone, at the height of his “red” career, first engineered a coup against the leader of the victorious Labour group after the local election of 1981, then proceeded to defy Thatcher’s government in various ways, not least in support for the IRA and other like-minded states and organizations. The upshot of his swagger was almost inevitable – the GLC was abolished to a few people’s grief and to many others’ relief in 1986. Astonishingly enough, London prospered without that overweening organization. Livingstone spent some time pretending to be a journalist as he was given various columns by left-wing publications like the Independent on the basis of his celebrity. One of these was a restaurant column.
In 1987 he was elected to Parliament for the constituency of Brent East but found, as so many before him, that he was no longer a celebrity but a back-bench MP. Being highly unpopular with his party (nobody who knows Ken likes him, according to Neil Kinnock) he got nowhere and was undoubtedly wondering what he was going to do next when Tony Blair, newly elected in 1997, came to his rescue.
For various reasons, some to do with promises he had made to constituencies within the Labour Party before the election, some to do with his supposedly Europeanized thinking (he regretted that within a year) and some with what must have been a genuine belief in the beauty of modernization, Blair started introducing various forms of devolution, otherwise known as new layers of government. Once again we began to hear about London needing a government of its own, as it is a world city and world cities must have a bureaucracy to run them. The person who emerged immediately as the probably new Mayor was Our Ken, the Labour leadership’s least favourite of politicians, thus they were anxious to control what power he might acquire.
To cut a long story very short, the Greater London Authority Act, the longest piece of legislation since the mid-thirties, was passed in 1999 after a poorly attended referendum on the subject in London returned a “yes” result. The Mayor was given quite extensive powers, though not as extensive as Livingstone would have liked, the Assembly was given no powers at all, and the various quangos around those two bodies grabbed as much as they could. In the first election Livingstone stood as an independent, having fallen out with the leadership and having promised that he would not go against the Labour candidate. To be fair, the man had been a liar all his life. He won on a turn-out of just over 30 per cent, despite predictions of a much higher vote by numerous pundits, not one of whom apologized.
At first he tried to keep his seat in Parliament as well, together with the two salaries and the handsome expenses but in 2001 was forced to resign. Within a couple of years he made his peace with the Labour Party and in 2004 he stood as their candidate, having told the Select Committee that had looked into the legislation in 1997-8 that he would not consider more than one term as anything else led to corruption. What was that I said above? A slightly higher turn-out brought Our Ken back as Mayor, largely because the London Conservatives stupidly chose the same candidate who had lost in 2000, Steve Norris, a man seen as sleazy and unsavoury.
The reason for this slightly extended background, which is probably not well known to non-British readers is the need to understand that the Mayor of London derives his power exclusively from national legislation. On the other hand, within the power he is given he has no control over his behaviour as the Assembly is nothing but a talking-shop with no role to play. (An expensive talking-shop, of course, but that is all.) The 2007 Greater London Authority Act, which amended the previous one gave the Mayor slightly more powers but not to the Assembly. Presumably, it was reckoned that the Conservatives would once again mess up on the Mayoral contest, Ken will get back, the Labour government will stay in power but the Assembly may well fall further into Conservative control. A child of five would have seen the faults in that chain of argument but they could not find a child of five to ask.
The situation has now changed and we can expect some money squeeze for the next two years. This could be a good opportunity for the new Mayor to raise the subject of the London deficit.
At the last count the gap between what London was paying into the Exchequer and what it was getting out of it was between £15 billion and £20 billion, a large variation but a tidy sum, whichever way you look at it. In other words, London is subsidizing heavily other parts of the country and paying large sums into the EU budget. This would not matter so much if we did not then have to beg both the EU and the government for hand-outs for various purposes. There is no particular reason why the transport – as it is not privately owned and run – and policing in London, where it is used by many millions of non-Londoners, should not be financed by the rest of the country, especially as much of that money comes from London as well. But there are other problems. Apparently, some of the poor boroughs are the poorest in the whole country and require endless subsidies from central funds. Livingstone was praised for securing that funding through the rather drastic method of getting the 2012 Olympics. In actual fact, the Olympics will not secure anything and the money will not go anywhere even remotely useful.
Apart from raising the subject of the London deficit forcibly, Mayor Johnson might like to set up a proper study (perhaps a heavily truncated London Development Agency could be used for that) into those poorest boroughs. Why are they the poorest? Is it because immigrants come in, stay poor, make money, move out, next lot comes in and the cycle repeats itself? In that case the only problem is numbers. Or is it, as seems to be the case at least in Tower Hamlets, that one or two groups of immigrants get stuck and stay on welfare, in social housing, in relative poverty for generations? That requires something more than money thrown at it.
I fear that little can be expected on that score from the new Mayor. My heart sank when I read that one of the contributions to the campaign made by his wife, Marina Wheeler, was to alert him or to bring to his attention forcibly the disparities in wealth and income in London. As a successful and, one assumes, wealthy lawyer, daughter of a successful and, one assumes, well-off journalist she would know all about it. The last thing London needs is a paternalistic socialist-Tory solution to its undoubted problems but I fear that may be what we shall see.
When it comes to introducing new regulations, the Mayor of London’s powers are severely curtailed. He has a good deal of say over transport, some say over public housing and a very little say over policing. He has to produce plans and policies on various matters as it is required by law. He cannot dissolve the organizations that have either been set up by the legislation or have been confirmed by it, even when they are useless money sucking ones like the London Development Agency. Though Livingstone found that one quite useful as a kind of a piggy-bank, as its money came directly from the Treasury and not from the GLA precept levied on the people of the capital. Furthermore, much that the previous Mayor wanted to control is actually done by the boroughs, who guard their rights and privileges jealously. There were many set-tos between the Conservative run boroughs and the Mayor when, allegedly, their intentions contravened his plans. Usually the rows went on for a long time, with nothing being achieved and Livingstone spending a great deal of money on legal challenges.
Then there is the biggest control of all: the European Union. A great deal of what falls into the remit of both the local boroughs and the GLA are EU competence. This applies to environmental rules, which includes waste management; to health and safety rules; to work practice rules; to public procurement and other, smaller, matters. All the Mayor can do is implement EU directives and regulations possibly in the form that they appear after going through parliamentary secondary legislation.
In other words, the scope for Boris Johnson, the new Mayor, to introduce that new dawn that people are hymning, is very small. He can certainly control the staffing at the GLA and word is that Livingstone’s aides are being fired. On Saturday, there were boxes stacked up in the basement of City Hall a.k.a. the Great Glass Egg, waiting to be collected, with the names of those closest aides on them. They must have seen the writing on the wall some time on Friday and got busy.
We all hope that Mayor Johnson will put an end to the Livingstonian fantasy of London’s foreign relations, which involved opening highly expensive offices in Caracas, Beijing, Shanghai and one or two other places. All questions as to what these offices might do that other organizations cannot were swatted aside. The office in Brussels will have to stay but, perhaps, Mayor Johnson who once reported from the heart of the EU Empire for the Daily Telegraph will reorganize that useless bunch that gulps down around three quarters of a million pounds every year without ever producing any information about forthcoming legislation or lobbying on London’s behalf. When challenged once, they replied that their role was to put the Mayor’s policy into place.
Mayor Johnson can certainly stop the endless fights with local boroughs over their housing policies and the endless legal cases; he can acknowledge that boroughs often know better what is required by way of housing than the Mayor, whatever his plans are. Come to think of it, he can stop producing quite such grandiose and unachievable plans because these cost money in organizations, committees and forced implementations, however unsuccessful.
He can certainly stop handing out money to any and every “community group” that feels it has something to say or to perform but is not prepared to pay for it; and he can stop those endless “culture” festivals that turn Trafalgar Square into impenetrable mazes of tents, shrieking loudspeakers, huge screens, barriers and portaloos every week-end. We can start having idiotic political meetings there, which are preferable by far to the meaningless festivals. Perhaps, Mayor Johnson will put a stop to the hideous and inappropriate pieces of rubbish that masquerade as public art on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and initiate a competition as to which heroic figure should be represented there, instead.
He is, however, stuck with many of the white elephants, the chief of which is the 2012 London Olympics, the cost of which is rocketing and the benefits of which are still undemonstrated. He can, possibly, call a halt and announce that no more will be spent and the various Olympic authorities must manage with what has already been allocated. They could start by forming one organization and cutting the bureaucracy.
He and we are stuck with most of the congestion charge. The western extension into largely residential and small business boroughs can be abolished relatively easily – it was only a piece of ill-thought out, badly argued spite against people who refuse to vote for Ken Livingstone. But the congestion charge in the central areas of London is locked into a contract that will take a long time to disentangle. Besides, Boris has indicated that he would like to keep the congestion charge, though it has been a useless and badly managed way of trying to control traffic. He could, conceivably, if he was imaginative enough, come up with a suggestion or two as to that control of traffic in central London, which was not built for the number of cars there are now and the number of people who want to get through.
Public transport in London is an appalling mess and, so far, we have heard no suggestions from the new Mayor as to how he will ensure its efficiency and speed, neither of which has been seen for many years. At least, he is unlikely to be nice to the unions, whose leaders were Ken’s best friends. He might even back the management when they are trying to stare the unions down. But he still needs a plan for the improvement of public transport. At present, all we have heard is his plan to ban alcohol from London Tube. Presumably, that means drinking rather than carrying. Attractive though that sounds, given the social and environmental problems we face when travelling on the underground, its implementation might present certain problems.
In other words, whatever changes might happen, they will not be large or important for a long time. Those would happen only if by some miracle we managed to get rid of that incubus, “the government of London” and started concentrating on what mattered: transport, policing and easing of tax and regulation.
Something needs to be said about the new Mayor, the Tories’ winning candidate. In general, the Tories have not done as well in London as they had expected, losing one first-past-the-post seat in the Assembly and not managing to win another, marginal one. Thanks to the complicated voting system that few people can understand, they did acquire three top-up seats and now have 11 members with Labour having 8 (two top-up members), Lib-Dems 3, down from 5, the Greens 2 and the BNP, a sort of a neo-fascist and highly corporatist socialist party, 1.
But it is only the Mayor who really matters. Contrary to what the media keeps saying, Boris Johnson is neither a fool nor a buffoon, though his clowning has stood him in good stead. Consider his career, a far more admirable one than Ken Livingstone’s. Much is made of his membership of a drinking club and, possibly, taking drugs when he was at Oxford (shock, horror) but, in fact, he got a respectable degree in Classics, not the all-purpose PPE and was involved in the Oxford Union. Since then he has been a journalist and columnist of many years standing, successful editor of the Spectator, MP since 2001 and front bench spokesman on higher education. He has written several books, including a novel, and published three or four collections of journalism. Apart from the famous appearances on “Have I got news for you”, which just about everyone, including Livingstone, did, Johnson also put together a serious programme about the Roman Empire and the EU. In other words, when needs be, he can put aside his fooleries and focus on what he is doing. He is intelligent and fiercely ambitious. He did not really want this job, as it is something of a dead end so we can surmise that some kind of a bribe was offered. I am sure that he will claim his “payment” in due course and Cameron will have to give it.
His supposed gaffes are not considered to be that by most people. When he said something about sacking Jamie Oliver, the all-purpose TV chef and campaigner about school food, and letting people eat what they want, we all cheered. The loudest cheer came from parents who had found that their children were now demanding packed lunches because the schools were experimenting with Oliver’s suggestions. Johnson’s subsequent comment that what he really meant to say was that Jamie Oliver was a national saint does not imply an ‘umble and a contrite heart.
Ken Livingstone did not make the mistake of considering Boris Johnson to be an insignificant buffoon. As soon as it became obvious that the man might be a contender, he launched a vicious personal campaign against him, which in the end backfired.
Too many journalists have pointed out that it was the Australian Lynton Crosbie who made Boris Johnson into a serious campaigner for the Mayor and wondered what would happen now that Mr Crosbie is going back to Oz. Nothing, I would guess. Johnson is quite capable of being serious if he wants to be but many of us are hoping that he will not be. A serious Mayor of London will have visions, plans, initiatives, committees, commissions, quangos and will be very little different from Livingstone. Whereas, what would be good is a Mayor who understand London’s history and leaves well alone. One can dream.
On the whole, I am looking forward to the Johnson mayoralty. Unlike Livingstone, he is unpredictable. I fear wet Toryism, as that is what seems to have been his political views but, then again, Johnson has shown a robust dislike of the accepted consensus in politics.
One thing a Mayor does have and this may give the Boy-King of the Conservative Party a few uneasy moments: a power base that is completely outside the leader’s control. Livingstone, whose political career was well and truly over, used it to promote and enrich his friends and tighten his control on various organizations for no other purpose but to be re-elected. (If there was anything else there, we might find out reasonably soon. The Metropolitan Police has undoubtedly noted the change in leadership.) Boris Johnson is an ambitious politician with places to go. He might use his political base for very different purposes.