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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 2000.

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 politics'.

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 bid'.

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

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