John Walsh meets... The man who would be mayor

Tony Banks wants to lead London into the 21st century. Photograph by Julian Anderson
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The Independent Culture
"Don't ever believe for one moment," says Tony Banks, narrowing his eyes in his best Lee Van Cleef manner, "that revenge isn't a factor in politics." He and I are standing on the roof of the House of Commons, so close to Big Ben that its lunch-time bongs reverberate right through you, and we are looking over the River Thames at the noble frontage of County Hall, where the Greater London Council once ran the affairs of London's nine million citizens. "When I think how Thatcher said nobody ever missed the GLC, it makes me so fucking angry. I mean, poor half-mad old cow, I shouldn't say anything. But I want to be around to see us get our revenge. I bear a grudge against all those bastards who put the boot in, and if I can get them I will. Bastards."

This personal note is a constant purple leitmotif in the rainbow-hued recitatif of Banks's conversation. But its venom is quite at odds with the face he usually turns to the world - that of a straight-talking, socialist Jack the Lad, a card, a Parliamentary jester and freelance satirist of humbug and hypocrisy, an MP you'd genuinely like to hang out with. Mention the GLC, however, and you're in a war zone. Since the Council's demise in 1986, County Hall has been through some changes. It was sold in 1992 for pounds 60m to the shadowy Japanese Shirayama Corporation, who have long promised to build a ritzy hotel on the prime Thames-side site. Mr Banks cannot conceal his glee at their failure to do anything of the sort. "They've looked for partners everywhere, and can't find any. Did you know they're trying to put an aquarium in there now?"

Banks, who has been Labour MP for Newham north-east since 1983, has a special interest in acquiring, or re-acquiring, a City Hall. For he is being talked of, more and more, as the likeliest candidate to become, under a Labour government, London's first mayor. Not, you understand, an old-style Lord Mayor, a sweet but powerless nonentity, voted in by aldermen and pointlessly garlanded in the chains of office - not that, no sirree, but a democratically-elected, American-style, ass-kicking, City-Hall-dwelling Mayor like Mr Giuliani of New York.

It's not a new plan. "When I put this forward as a proposal in a bill in 1990," says Banks, "people said, `It's a silly idea, we've never done this before'. Then Tony Blair comes up with the same proposal this year, and the same people in the Labour party said what a good idea it was. I'm afraid in the bottom-kissing world of politics in which we live, it's not what you say, it's who says it."

So what would the new mayor do? "It all comes down to saying: `This is my city, I want to make it better,'" says Banks, "I can't go anywhere in London without having a rant about the state of the roads, the pollution, the traffic, the lack of co-ordination between authorities." This is perfectly true. Even when he arrived at the Commons lobby this morning, 45 minutes late, his apologies about the traffic turned rapidly into a Ten Minute Hate about cars that are driven around London with no passengers. So selfish. Was he seriously keen to bring in some system of enforced lift-giving?

"Yeah, we'd stop private cars coming into central London. If you're carrying passengers into London, you get access, if you're not, you don't. And we'd have far more taxation of company cars, with the revenue coming direct to London. And - " his face lit up at the prospect - "trams. I've just been looking at a new tram system they've built in Strasbourg, it's absolutely brilliant." But weren't they abandoned for being dirty, rattling, child- mowing-down, electricity-crackling monstrosities that messed up the streets? "No no no, you're thinking of the Fifties," said Banks. "They're like bullet trains, they're elegant, they're all perspex and glass,they just glide along." He frowned. " 'Course they 'ad to dig up the whole of Strasbourg to do it, but now they've got this wonderful system."

So trams and cheaper trains were the answer to London's eight-miles-an- hour traffic? "If you can't move around the city quickly, cheaply and efficiently, you get problems that knock on to the economy and to recreational areas. When people are sitting in traffic jams, when they can't get to appointments, when deliveries can't be made, millions of pounds are being lost. So if you're putting money into public transport that gets rid of these problems, you're making enormous savings."

You mean, bring back the "Fares Fair" scheme for cut-price Tube travel that was such a hit (though a short-lived one) with Londoners in the Eighties? "Fares Fair worked," said Banks with vehemence, "People still talk about the Fares Fair policy - and this is what gets me about Thatcher, who hardly ever went on a train. She said, `Nobody misses it' [that is, the policy]. Well what the hell would that old crab know, riding around in a bullet- proof limo with police outriders, what does she know about the streets of London?"

Brushing the flecks of spittle from my lapel, we went for a stroll and fetched up on the Commons' embankment bar, watching the river go by. The future mayor would love to make greater use of it, public-transport-wise. Furthermore, he wants to illuminate all the bridges. For all his Tooting ways, his sod-off-matey blokeishness, Banks constantly reveals a quivering aestheticism. "When you go to Paris, you see those bateaux mouches and those dinner-boat cruises on the Seine, those lovely - " He broke off as a horrible object obligingly bobbed into view, a kind of Meccano fishing- boat in Beefeater red, with the words "This is an Official London Sightseeing Boat" emblazoned on the side. "Look at that," seethed Banks. "Look at that fucking... It looks like the last refugee ship out of 'Anoi or somewhere." He is suddenly incandescent. "Tourists look at that... And then they take the Circle Line tour in New York [round Manhattan Island] and see how professional that is. There's so much more you could do to make this a 24-hour entertainment-and-information commercial waterway."

And so much more you could say, as Banks talks torrentially about buildings and the London skyline (he hates Sir Denys Lasdun, the South Bank architect and likes the MI6 building on Vauxhall Bridge), the Millennium Tower ("a kind of architectural penis envy"), independent watchdogs, corruption- free police, the Strategic Authority, white-collar crime and "correct political decisions".

He was born in Belfast in 1943, but came to London aged two. His life is plugged into the place. He grew up in south London, went to school in Brixton and the Oval, went on to the LSE, shortly after Mick Jagger had vacated the premises. "I owe this city a lot, I especially owe the London County Council a lot. I went to an LCC primary school, LCC grammar school, I went to concerts they took me to from my school so I learned musical appreciation. We lived in LCC council houses in Brixton and Tooting, went to LCC dentists. I owe the council a great deal. I'm determined to repay them." The black cloud returned, and hovered above his head. "And that's why, when Thatcher, that provincial bigot, turns up and says: `They never did any good' over here [that is, the GLC again], I just want to fill her face in."

Rants about Mrs Thatcher apart, Banks is a charming man with a gift for friendship. Among his chums are some unsuitable Tories, like Nicholas Soames, whom Banks likes because: "He speaks his mind, which I find attractive, even though we disagree about everything. I can say all kinds of things about the Royal family to him, knowing that he's a good friend of Prince Charles." He co-hosted a late-night TV show with Jeffrey Archer. He's even fond, after a fashion, of Mr Major, with whom he briefly overlapped on Lambeth Borough Council in 1971. "I walked in as he was walking out. I knew him as John Major the Chair of Housing and, as Tories go, he was a good chairman of housing. He built things. He did things. In fact, I still think of him as Councillor Major. Quite honestly, it's a pity he didn't quit while he was ahead."

Banks tends to play down the witty barbs in Parliamentary debate that have landed him with a reputation as "the Left's most effective comedian" - like calling Kenneth Clarke "a pot-bellied old soak" or saying, during the cash-for-questions scandal, "since I was elected, I notice that I have tabled 6,919 questions. If I had received pounds 1,000 for each of those, I'd have netted a cool pounds 7 million, which would have meant I could have faxed this speech from Mustique." He shakes his head. "I'm not a stand-up comic. It's just that humour is so lacking in so many people, if you do inject a little, you get, `Why aren't you doing a turn down the Comedy Store?' But it's nonsense."

I recalled a recent intervention, during a debate on the Ten Minute Rule Bill, when Banks remarked that the chances of the bill getting through were on a par with his chances of getting into Heaven. "Or into the Shadow Cabinet," someone shouted. "Yes indeed," said Banks, "though I understand they're now considered to be one and the same place - and we now know what God looks like". How about a job in Cabinet? "John Smith said I'd be a minister in the next Labour government, but he died and the rest is history. I would like to be in a position to do these things, but I believe in saying what you feel. And the penalty for that is your political prospects are fairly marginal." Did he like the way the party had changed? "I'm as committed as anyone that we should win the next election. I represent one of the poorest constituencies in the country, so I don't need lectures from men in sharp suits working in Tony Blair's office, about the need to win the next election. I've actually won elections and they haven't, and I know that winning isn't where it ends. It has to start with winning. That's the point."

He lives in his constituency - Forest Gate, East London, "a shitty area" - and worries about his neighbours' patience. "Now they're all cheerful enough, it's all `Good old Tone, we're gonna win the next one.' But I've been around long enough to know that, a year into a Labour government, when nothing much has happened, it's going to be, `When are you bastards gonna do something?' It bothers me that it's getting like football, when your team stops winning and they sack the manager.But if that happens, Tony Blair will still be riding around in a car and I'll still be taking the bleedin' Tube."

A music fan of eclectic tastes, Banks is fond of both hairy rock 'n' roll ("Oh yeah, Z Z Top, AC/DC") and new-age country: that evening, he was off to Wembley Arena to see Lyle Lovett and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Otherwise, his relaxations tend towards the athletic and the spherical: "I'm a rather passionate Chelsea supporter," he says with understatement. The truth is, he's become an obsessive stalker of his childhood heroes, the team of 1954/55. He's tracked them all down. "I invited half of them back here to the House for dinner, which I paid for. That night I bumped into John Major, who's a Chelsea supporter though he doesn't go like I do, and said, `Come and have a drink with them.' He said `I can't, I've got some people to see, bring them down here to the Prime Minister's room.' So I went up and said, `Hey lads, the PM wants to give you a drink.' And he did. We took some pictures and put them in the Chelsea programme." How sweet. "You don't understand. For me, being in the company of Roy Bentley, my childhood hero, was infinitely more impressive than being in the company of John Major. I'm not being snide - I'd say the same about Tony Blair or Harold Wilson. We're talking real heroes here, gods. Perhaps I'm being a pathetic old git, but they said `Thank you for remembering', and I said, Whatchoo mean, you're legends."

There's more to this than sentimentality. Recently, Banks wrote: "Any sport which inadequately reveres its history, and in particular its past greats, is graceless and insensitive." I wondered if he applied this to the Labour Party. "Of course. People who don't know their history, or worse deny it, are doomed to fail because you have to accomplish what your predecessors set out to accomplish. The Labour Party had an objective they still haven't achieved, and it's up to us to carry on doing the work they started."

So he didn't believe in abolishing Clause Four? "I'd never agree with it. It isn't a matter of adaptation and change. I just think that if you're going to dump your fundamentals, dump your ideology and disown your history, you're going off into the desert without a map." His brow twitched. "Like Mark bloody Thatcher"