Mayor means less
...and Mick Spencer is not happy about it
So the mayor is coming to town. More than 70 per cent of those Londoners
who voted in the referendum on 7 May this year were in favour of the government's
proposals for a Greater London Authority (GLA), a decision greeted by Tony
Blair as 'a great boost for the capital'. The government will now create
the post of mayor and a 25-member assembly, to start operating in the year
New Labour has hailed the London mayor as a figure who will 'make things
happen', providing 'a strong voice, speaking up for the whole of London'.
Others, harking back to the 'good old days' of the Greater London Council
(GLC) under 'Red' Ken Livingstone, have suggested that the GLA and the
mayor's office could provide a much-needed democratic base of political
opposition to the Blair regime. Dream on.
Despite the trappings of power, the mayor will have little real clout.
The mayor's office has been designed as a cross between a technical budget
administrator and a PR agent, with whoever is elected acting as little
more than a frontman for city financiers.
Apart from bringing business into London, the mayor's job is to keep
political debate out of the capital's affairs. The new assembly, like its
relatives in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, has been given an explicit
brief by central government to institutionalise 'consensus politics' and
cross-party cooperation, at the expense of policy arguments and 'adversarial
The mayor's primary task will be to act as an advocate for London as
a business location. This is seen by some influential opinion formers as
the 'appropriate' form of governance for today's world cities. Stephen
Hadley and Michelle Harrison at the Henley Centre argue that the relation
of world cities to each other will become 'more important than their economic
and social relationships with the country in which they are located', while
the Observer's Arnold Kemp argues that in the competition between global
cities 'a mayor's personality and skills can make the difference between
stagnation and growth'. Speaking at the London Guildhall Tony Blair said
that the mayor would be 'an important national and international figure
who can pull in foreign investment and organise projects like an Olympic
All this emphasis on personality and PR tells us, as Andy McSmith noted
in the Observer, that the mayor will be a kind of 'super sales-rep'. The
emphasis is on persuading footloose companies to operate in London, rather
than on investment in the generation of new wealth.
Behind the PR image, however, the mayor will have little or no control
over how local resources are spent. From the outset the GLA will control
an impressive-sounding budget of £3.3 billion. But most of this is already
tightly allocated. It will have to be used to meet the already determined
annual costs of existing organisations which will soon become the responsibility
of the GLA.
In practice Whitehall will not relinquish responsibility over crucial
decisions affecting London. Allocation of spending programmes will still
be made centrally, as will decisions about policy priorities, imperatives
about how the cash will be spent and judgements about the results that
are expected. No wonder the initial staff with which the assembly has to
'run' London will be smaller than that employed by London Weekend Television.
The elevation of the city over the nation, and the lack of real decision-making
power that goes with it, provides a rationale for adopting an extremely
parochial approach to policymaking. For some time the Corporation of London
and the inward investment agency London First have pointed out that London
generates more income than is ploughed back into expenditure on its development.
They believe that profits and taxes generated in London should be held locally
and used to deal with London's problems. This is laughable-it is just
as well for the City of London that wealth does not stay where it is generated,
as most of its profits are skimmed from production that takes place overseas.
But as the mayoral agenda is already so limited in vision, this kind of
'Village of London' approach is seen as a credible proposition.
A MORI opinion poll in May 1998 identified the now familiar local priorities
for the London mayor: 'tackling crime, reducing traffic levels, improving
the health service and ending street homelessness.' In the absence of new
resources and real powers the search for solutions is also directed to
what can be achieved locally. So it is suggested that, under the mayor
and assembly, taxing car drivers could fund public transport; licensing
laws could be relaxed provided citizens behave responsibly; communities
should organise to combat their social exclusion. The absence of scope
for wider change tends to lead to a preoccupation with questions of individual
morality and responsibility. These have become defining issues in politics
today, replacing the grander visions for classes and nations.
As for the notion that the mayor will provide some kind of political
voice for the people of London-fuelled by talk about Livingstone standing
as a rebel candidate-forget it. The government's White Paper spells it
out: 'We shall require the mayor and the assembly to create a consensual
rather than an adversarial relationship.' As Andy McSmith points out, this
will mark 'another step in Tony Blair's triumphal crusade for confrontation-free
politics'. A key word in London affairs today is 'partnership'-between
the government, business and the people, with the mayor there to act as
a mediator whose job is to stifle debate and facilitate consensus whether
we like it or not.
Understandably, few Londoners appear inspired or excited about the new
arrangements; only 33 per cent bothered to vote in the referendum. As BBC
Newsnight's Peter Kellner pointed out, 'if this were a ballot for union
representation in a private company, then Labour's new law would almost
certainly deem the workforce too unenthusiastic to warrant any disturbance
to the status quo'.
By contrast, those directly involved are feverishly jostling for position
within the new administrative arrangements. The debate run by Newsnight
before the referendum filled the Guildhall, as the audience rubbed shoulders
with the slate of prospective candidates for mayor. The self-selected players
within these circles are buzzing with an excitement which belies the underlying
absence of a dynamic relationship with significant parts of the electorate.
And why should the rest of us be inspired by the new arrangements for
running London? The limited scope of the new mayor's office means that every
putative candidate from Jeffrey Archer to Ken Livingstone is offering to
do not very much about more or less the same narrow agenda of local issues-transport,
health, crime, etc. Ask just about anybody in London what they would do
and they will say the same. As an avowedly non-political figure, with the
important qualification of being aloof from any previous involvement in
the messy business of democratic politics, Richard Branson looks best suited
(sorry, sweatered) for the job of London's new PR man.
For all the difference it seems likely to make, you might just as well
add Dick Whittington's cat to the list of candidates.
Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998