Yes, we have no greater authority

Dan Hawthorn writes about the constraints facing the new administration for London

London’s social and economic problems are severe. There are more unemployed people in the Borough of Islington than in Newcastle, and more in the whole of London than in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales put together. Nearly half the children in Inner London come from families on Income Support, more than twice the average for the UK as a whole. London contains 13 of the 20 most deprived areas in the country, and 94 per cent of the poorest council estates. Over the last year, street crime in the city has risen by 30 per cent. By October 1999, the Metropolitan Police had cleared up just 15 per cent of the offences reported in 1998. In February this year, the Home Office released new targets for cutting car crime and burglaries. The Met has been ordered to reduce robbery by 15 per cent: at the moment they are only solving II per cent of robbery cases. London’s roads are congested: the city is regularly exceeding Government standards on sulphur dioxide and particulate air pollution. The Tube runs at, or even over, its capacity and is in need of capital investment.

What use will the new mayor and Greater London Authority be in finding answers to these problems? Or at least in helping us come to terms with the fact that they can’t be solved? Proposing the reform of London’s local government in the Commons, John Prescott expressed Labour’s desire to make the city’s administration ‘more open, more accountable and more inclusive ... It is about modernising the government of the capital, and giving power to the people of London.’ The city does need to regain its political identity: it couldn’t, for example, make a bid for the Olympic Games, so decentralised are its facilities and powerbases. Labour’s 1997 election manifesto pointed out that London is the ‘only Western capital without an elected city government’. Since the demise of the Greater London Council in 1986 the city has lacked a body that combines a cohesive administrative identity with electoral accountability. As the separate bodies that took over from the GLC have become increasingly powerful, the only policies effective over the whole of London have been collaborative projects usually co-ordinated by central government.

I often make the mistake of telling people I work in local government. If I’m unlucky, the person I’m talking to lives in my borough. They usually start going on about parking restrictions. I explain that they are part of an effort to reduce traffic and encourage the use of public transport. Shouldn’t this, they say, be combined with some improvement in public transport? At this point, I hold up my hands and say that public transport is nothing to do with the council.

Soon, I’ll be able to tell them that the mayor is in charge of transport strategy. Similarly, life should improve in neighbourhoods at present divided by arbitrary boundaries between two or more boroughs, health authorities or parishes. These areas have tended to suffer from unco-ordinated and inconsistent services but agencies are beginning to combine their plans for regenerating them, and London-wide strategies for development and the environment should help.

The winner of the mayoral election on 4 May will be answerable to more voters than any other politician in Western Europe except the President of France. These voters, moreover, are some of the most disenchanted and (until now) disenfranchised people in Britain. Of course, there has been a Government Office for London for some time and a number of policy decisions affecting economic development, employment and even transport in the city were being made on a local basis long before Labour’s victory in 1997. The main shift associated with the new legislation is therefore not to regional policy-making, but rather to the accountability of policy-makers and the drawing together of work previously done by numerous agencies in the public, private and voluntary sectors.

In many ways the new body looks very similar to the GLC – a central elected assembly working with the boroughs. Not surprisingly, Government spokespeople are keen to stress the differences, and, to a certain extent, they’re right to do so. First, they remind us of the growing importance of boroughs, the greater involvement of the private sector in public finance and the boom in successful ‘partnerships’ across the city. The GLA will be expected to incorporate and build on these developments. Second, the GLC was a body of representatives which elected a leader from among its own number; the GLA will, in contrast, be presided over by a directly elected mayor whom its members will have no power to depose. Third, the services provided by the GLC were wider: for example, it initially oversaw the Inner London Education Authority, although the ILEA became an independently elected body before control over education was finally passed to the boroughs after the GLC was dismantled. The GLA will also have less power to offer financial and political support to external projects: Ken Livingstone’s controversial support for minority groups in the early 1980s could not be repeated.

Another qualification: the GLA – made up of the mayor and 25 elected members – is not an example of devolved government in the same sense as the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. While it will take some powers away from central government – in particular, policing from the Home Office and transport from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions – as a ‘strategic authority’ its main job will be to centralise and coordinate the capital’s public services. The GLA will be not a legislative but an executive body, responsible for running London within a rigid framework it will have no power to change. Bearing this delicate position in mind, the mayor will draw up plans for the city in five key areas: the environment, traffic and public transport, health, culture and equality of opportunity.

Environmental and traffic plans cannot succeed without the participation of the London boroughs, which will retain responsibility at the ‘operational’ level of running the city and whose ‘Local Implementation Plans’ will be subject to the approval – or disapproval – of the mayor. Health authorities, voluntary organisations and the private sector (including private transport companies) will all be expected to contribute to the development and execution of these plans, and it will not be easy for a mayor to stay friendly with all of them. Londoners keen on radical change can look forward to a great deal of frustration over the coming years, as any actions are likely to take a long time to negotiate and carry out.

By contrast, the mayor will have much more direct control over the new ‘functional bodies’: Transport for London, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, the London Development Agency and the Metropolitan Police Authority. All will report directly to the Mayor and will be partly (often largely) staffed through mayoral patronage.

The structure of the new Metropolitan Police Authority will place the Met itself in a unique position: its ruling committee is likely to be chaired by the deputy mayor – a member of the Assembly appointed by the mayor, and therefore a politician – and more than half its members will be directly appointed by the mayor. Some commentators have already expressed concern about the level of political involvement in policing, and are worried that the popular success of Rudi Giuliani’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy in New York will tempt a London mayor to try something similar here, cracking down on even the most minor crimes, and putting punishment before prevention. A deputy mayor’s chances of becoming a plausible candidate for the mayoralty are likely to be determined by the success or failure of London’s policing.

The London Development Agency will be responsible for attending to the city’s economic wounds, and the mayor will have the same power over it as the DETR has had. London’s GDP in 1998 was £160 billion, larger than Sweden’s or Austria’s. In 1997-98, London’s net contribution to the UK Exchequer – what it paid in tax, less the total Government expenditure in the city – was £19.5 billion. The £3.3 billion that Whitehall will spend on running the GLA will come from funds currently spent on the Government Office for London. With little or no scope for changing tax structures, the mayor and the LDA will have to carry out redistributive policies as part of their economic development strategy.

Of the functional bodies, Transport for London (TfL) is likely to attract the most attention after the election. TfL will replace London Regional Transport, the most recent incarnation of London Transport, and take over its role in maintaining and developing London’s buses, Underground, suburban overland trains and the Greater London Road Network (the ‘important London roads’). It will also be able to regulate taxis and minicabs and promote river transport. Again, the mayor will be responsible for the big decisions.

The future of the Underground has been – aside from the Ken Livingstone phenomenon – the issue which has done most to divide the Labour Party in the election campaign. The Tube is desperate for money, and there is no way in the short or medium term that the necessary investment can be raised from existing sources. Not from fares, which are already among the highest of any subway system in the world (Livingstone is fond of saying that it costs more per mile to ride on the Tube than to fly on Concorde). Not from the Government, which cannot afford to spend that much money on the infrastructure of one city.

The principle of Public-Private Partnership was enshrined in the Government’s GLA Bill, and has remained central to Blair and Prescott’s plans for the Tube. Both Frank Dobson and Glenda Jackson endorsed it in their bids for the Labour candidacy. Despite the claims of some of its opponents, PPP for the Underground is not equivalent to the privatisation of the national rail network: nothing is being sold off. John Prescott has stressed that ‘London Underground will continue to run the trains, signals, stations and safety.’ They will, however, allow the private sector to make a profit from the public transport network, through investment in the building and improvements programme. The Ladbroke Grove train crash may have led the Government to drop Railtrack as a definite partner in the project, but it has done nothing to dampen their longterm enthusiasm for the scheme.

The majority of PPP’s opponents, including Livingstone and the Liberal Democrat candidate Susan Kramer, favour a bonds issue – like the scheme adopted, with some success, in New York – whereby London Underground would sell investment stock to the public in order to raise the capital needed to rebuild the network. These are not shares – bondholders would in no sense ‘own’ the Underground – but they would yield a return of about 4.5 per cent, compared to the figure of 12 per cent quoted by Livingstone as the likely return on any investment through PPP. The returns would probably be paid for through congestion charges and, depending on future policies and practical necessities, fare increases. This system has transformed the New York subway since the dark days of the early 1980s, but doubts persist as to whether the UK bond market could sustain such a project, and whether the Underground could meet the repayments, especially while adhering to Livingstone’s promise of a fouryear fare freeze.

Prescott quotes a Price Waterhouse Coopers report that costed a bonds issue at £3 billion more than PPP. Livingstone replies that the LSE concluded that the PPP plans are ‘flawed in principle and impractical’. Recent research at University College London suggests that bonds may work out £1 billion cheaper than PPP. Prescott holds up the Jubilee Line saga as the defining example of how publicly funded projects don’t work and compares it to the smooth and efficient Docklands Light Railway extension, which was funded by the private sector and opened two months ahead of schedule. Livingstone observes that the Channel Tunnel – a project that nearly foundered altogether – was also privately funded. One thing is sure: abandoning PPP would mean rewriting current legislation, and no mayor, not even Ken Livingstone, will have the power to do that.

The Tube network is already strained to the limit. If a mayor is serious about reducing car use in London and getting more people onto public transport, the buses will have to bear nearly all the extra load. But congestion means that it will take more than reducing fares for buses to work properly. The solution is properly to enforce the current regulations on bus lanes, parking and other road offences and – if necessary – to bring in new regulations which will give buses a clear run through the city. But enforcement costs money. You can bet that the first mayor will leave office without being able to demonstrate that he or she has had any real effect on London’s transport and traffic problems.

When I think of mayors, I think first of America. Rudi Giuliani, Mayor of New York since 1993, used to be a lawyer, and boasted a near-record number of convictions during his time as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He took this hardnosed approach into Gracie Mansion and has more than held his ground as a Republican throughout the Clinton era. His popularity can be attributed to swingeing tax cuts – more than $2.3 billion to date – and improvements in law and order. Crime in the city is down by 50 per cent since he took office; murders are down by 70 per cent. ‘Benito’, as he is known to his enemies, has also won praise for his successful workfare programme – similar to Labour’s Welfare to Work – which has taken more than 440,000 people off benefits.

To what extent could his success be emulated by London’s mayor? Tax cuts, like tax increases, are out. So are changes to the education and benefits systems. Any credit for economic and environmental improvements would have to be shared with the implementing bodies. Policing offers the only serious opportunity for individual glory, but liberals will need some persuading that London’s crime problem merits a solution as drastic as Giuliani’s. There is no doubt that the London mayor will have a high profile, and that he or she will be held directly accountable. To be a success, however, the mayor will need to be expert in talking up minor improvements and in taking credit where little or none is due.

In Paris, a directly elected mayor is a fairly recent innovation. In 1977, power was taken away from a nominated council under the thumb of central government and placed in the hands of an elected mayor. Jacques Chirac looks back fondly on his time as the city’s first Mayor and still uses the mayoral suite as his private residence. Indeed, he remained Mayor of Paris throughout his time as French Prime Minister and resigned the post only when he replaced François Mitterrand as President. The lid is now coming off a series of financial scandals which took place during his time as Mayor, but his achievements should nevertheless be noted by London’s first boss. The winner on 4 May will have no power to imitate Chirac’s success with benefit reform, but environmental issues – particularly street cleaning and improvements in public spaces – provide a case for comparison. Chirac was able to make Parisians feel better about their city, and better disposed towards him. London’s streets do not compare well to Paris’s, or indeed New York’s, and while cleaning them remains a borough-level responsibility, London’s mayor should lean heavily and publicly on the councils that fail to deliver.

Pasqual Maragall, Mayor of Barcelona in the 1980s and 1990s, filled the city’s coffers by playing national and regional treasuries off against each other. A socialist surrounded by nationalists, he made cultural regeneration his priority and spent freely on galleries, museums and squares – Barcelona’s cultural wealth is now internationally recognised. A mayor could score some early points in London by building on the city’s cultural clout and boosting civic pride in the same way. If nothing else, the Dome is a reminder of the political significance of cultural policy.

Mayors have tended to achieve popular success by side-stepping party politics and establishing a broad base of support, not only across the parties, but from people who don’t think of themselves as having a political affiliation at all. Richard Daley Jr, Mayor of Chicago and son of Richard Daley Sr who ran the city for nearly twenty years, is said to be ‘more into government than politics’. Yuri Luzhkov was re-elected Mayor of Moscow in 1996 with an extraordinary 90 per cent of the vote. Voters in mayoral elections in Tokyo last year replaced a comedian with a novelist, continuing a pattern of rejecting career politicians in favour of high-profile candidates who trade on their independence from government. Freedom to say what they want, and to run their city with a minimum of government intervention, has ensured a high national profile for many mayors. Perhaps Livingstone is secretly thankful not to have won the Labour nomination.

Labour has got itself into such a pickle over the mayoral election largely because it has tried to exert too much control. The main problem was the late selection of a Party candidate. Martin Linton, Labour MP for Battersea and a supporter of Frank Dobson since the early collapse of Nick Raynsford’s campaign, has said that Millbank thought they could keep Livingstone off the shortlist, but knew that they would face a revolt at the October Party Conference if they tried to do this during the summer – the selection process therefore had to take place after the Conference. Linton rather unconvincingly suggests that they were as a result only ‘two or three weeks’ off the ideal schedule. But did Blair really expect Livingstone to lie down quietly? And shouldn’t they have thought sooner and harder about who to put in his place?

After promising that the candidate would he chosen on a one-member-one-vote basis, Labour changed its mind and adopted an electoral college system which gave London MPs, MEPs and Assembly candidates a much more valuable vote than the average party member or trade unionist. The move was sold as a concession to public-sector workers, who would in theory get a say through the third of votes set aside for trade unions. It was also, of course, a way of maximising Dobson’s chances by increasing the value of the votes of London Labour MPs, and forcing them to reveal to the leadership which way they voted. It is not insignificant, by the way, that the privilege wasn’t extended to Labour councillors in the London boroughs. They are a disparate and maverick bunch, fond of challenging the party hierarchy and with, potentially, a strong pro-Ken bias. The London branch of the MSF union was also disqualified after it turned out that it hadn’t paid all its fees. Then there was the postponement of the voting deadline to 16 February, again designed to maximise Dobson’s chances.

The Prime Minister has appeared on TV to denounce the character and the record of one of his own MPs. Countless ministers have joined him, among them the formerly far-left Margaret Hodge, once the leader of Islington Council. The Dobson campaign, meanwhile, bent party rules and allegedly broke the law in its acquisition and subsequent use of lists of London Labour Party members. To support his views on Livingstone Blair has brought out Neil Kinnock, now a safe-pair-of-hands European Commissioner and half of one of this country’s few successful and respected political households. Kinnock’s full-frontal style and hands-aloft energy helped to bring about his downfall, and Blair has conspicuously adopted a more measured approach. (Have you noticed that he only points with his knuckles, never a confrontational extended finger?) It has been said that Blair’s tentative, slow-grinding style of persuasion makes him sound as if he is always just about to pause, look you in the eye, and say: ‘Listen, what I’m really trying to say is that I love you.’ Kinnock rarely has a proper outlet any more – it’s hard to get into full swing when you’re being simultaneously translated into eight languages – but, given a chance, he is one of Livingstone’s most impassioned opponents.

Blair and Kinnock were the main attractions at a question and answer session held in Brixton in December. The huge room was packed with every kind of Labour supporter, although the local MPs – Harriet Harman, Tessa Jowell, Kate Hoey – were of the kind we’ve come to expect to reach the top ranks: well dressed, well spoken, university educated. The guests of honour were more than half an hour late – the school choir was forced to sing ‘Sloop John B’ at least three times to fill the gap. But when the double doors swung open, they were greeted with a (grudging) standing ovation. You half expected people to start waving inflatable plastic elephants, it was so similar to a miniature version of a US Presidential rally. Blair and Kinnock had come to talk turkey. You’ve had your fun, now read the script and let Frank get on with doing what we tell him. Unsurprisingly, however, they were confronted by a number of very angry pro-Ken hecklers (whom Kinnock dealt with better than Blair could ever hope to – ‘if you don’t hear me out, love, you’ll leave here just as daft as you were when you came in’). We were told five or six times that Kinnock had started the process which banished the bad old days of the early 1980s, and knew more than most about the Livingstone we don’t see on TV. The Kennites weren’t convinced.

In Paris and Barcelona, and across the United States, Labour saw something it wanted – dynamic and effective local government. But did anyone at any time seriously consider giving London’s mayor the power to slash taxes or to intervene in health and education provision? The political party is a much stronger force in Britain than it is in the US. It is rare to see a senior ‘party figure’ intervening in American metropolitan politics. The mess that has unfolded since last summer, and the role of the parties in it, would be a mystery to most Americans. Devolution doesn’t sit comfortably with the British party system. Millbank has behaved as if the selection of the candidate for mayor is a de facto appointment to a souped-up Ministry for London, in the gift of the leadership and intended for someone who will follow a policy programme taken directly from the national manifesto. This is the origin of Blair’s current headache. You cannot devolve power to a region and deny the members of the Party in that region the right to choose their own candidates and manifesto. The changes that have taken place since 1997 in the way the UK is governed haven’t been accompanied by the necessary change in the structure and culture of the national political parties.