Turn again, Ken Livingstone ... A mayor for all Londoners

On Tuesday the Government will announce plans for an elected mayor of London. Who are the contenders and what would be their powers?
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Over China tea in the House of Lords, Lord Archer, the millionaire novelist, John Major's best friend and former Conservative deputy chairman is making a pitch for a job which is blatant even by his standards, especially as the job does not yet exist. The post is the elected mayor of London. Lord Archer declares it "the most exciting job there is". It would be "a privilege and an honour to represent the greatest city on earth". You can almost hear the trumpets sound.

The Green consulation paper on the future of London's government comes out only this week, but Lord Archer has had a campaign of sorts up and running for three months already. He now plans to visit New York, Denver, San Francisco and Washington DC to see how things are done there, before returning to a tour of his would-be constituency, London.

He may not find himself pacing the capital's pavements alone. Two former Tory ministers, Steve Norris and David Mellor, are seen as contenders. Labour speculation centres around one member of the Government, the sports minister Tony Banks, the champion of the left, Ken Livingstone, and the more Blairite Islington person, Margaret Hodge. There is talk of an independent figure - perhaps Richard Branson or the broadcaster Trevor Phillips - entering the fray.

And the gossip is that the new London Assembly which the mayor will lead could be located in familiar territory in County Hall, or in rooms with a view in Admiralty Arch at the east end of the Mall, or in the East End itself, on the grimier London version of a greenfield site.

But why all the fuss over a civic title? The answer is that the the real mayor of London - as opposed to the Lord Mayor in the Mansion House, who is no more than the leading Alderman in the City of London - will be one of the most powerful figures in British politics. "This is a very radical proposal," says Tony Travers, a local government expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, "far more radical than the Welsh Assembly, for example."

Steve Norris, the ex-Tory minister, puts it more bluntly: "The person who gets this job will be elected with more personal votes than anyone before in any election in the UK. The Prime Minister, for example, receives perhaps 35,000 crosses against his name when he stands in Sedgefield [his constituency]. A Norris, a Banks or a Branson could make a couple of million."

Starting with Tuesday's document, the meaning of the word "mayor" will begin to change from someone in a tricorn hat opening fetes, to a US-style urban power-broker. It is a fair bet that this is the beginning of a constitutional reform which will mean that English politics will never be the same again.

THE FACTS speak for themselves. London has an economy the size of Saudi Arabia or Russia. It has a population of 7 million and an electorate of around 5 million and since 1986, when the GLC was abolished, no elected politician has represented the whole of London.

But not all Conservatives were happy with that and, when he challenged Margaret Thatcher in 1990, Michael Heseltine, was committed to a range of ideas to revitalise local government including a mayor for London. Although he became Secretary of State for the Environment and, later, Deputy Prime Minister, he failed to push them through. Indeed, until they performed a sharp, though dextrous U-turn only 10 days ago, the Conservatives were committed opponents of an elected mayor - and they remain opposed to the new Greater London Assembly proposed by Labour. Indeed, Labour has an unpleasant surprise for the Tories this week. The proposals will be subject to approval in a London referendum on local election day, May 7 1998, but the Government wants only one question to be asked, seeking approval for both the mayor and the assembly.

Ministers are conscious that outright opposition is no longer an option for the Tories. Polls show the reform is popular for a start. But the Conservatives also calculate that, by the time London's elections happen in 2000, Labour will be in a mid-term trough. The Tories already sense a golden electoral opportunity.

But how will the candidate be chosen? Sir Norman Fowler, shadow environment spokesman, is already thinking about US-style "primaries" to decide who runs for the Tories. In the United States a party's "registered voters" are allowed to vote in candidate selection. Here, again, it is easy to spot the wider ramifications. If candidates for mayor are selected in "primaries", why not MPs?

Labour is thinking about a similar screening process, spurred by the possibility that Ken Livingstone, the last and most fiery firebrand at the GLC, might make a dramatic come-back. (Ironically, Mr Livingstone opposes the idea of a city mayor; he still prefers an elected assembly like the GLC in which the leader is elected by the party caucus.) Labour Party figures, who still fear Mr Livingstone's potent populism, prefer to encourage talk of more mainstream contenders such as Ms Hodge or more anonymous London local government figures such as Toby Harris. They are already adamant that, if he stands, Mr Livingstone will not get official Labour endorsement. That will probably be conferred after a one-member, one-vote election by London party members.

Technically, the parties need not select one candidate because - in another radical departure - the mayoral elections will not be first-past-the-post like the general election. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who has overall responsibility for the plans, is normally an opponent of voting reform. But even Mr Prescott was convinced by the argument that, if up to a dozen candidates were to run, then the mayor could be elected with, say, 17 per cent of the popular vote - hardly a ringing endorsement. Consequently, the preferred system will be the Alternative Vote, under which voters place a number beside each candidate in order of preference. To win, a candidate needs 50 per cent of the vote and, if none of them gets it, the least popular candidate is eliminated and their second preference vote redistributed. Mr Prescott has, however, insisted on first-past-the- post for the GLA election, producing a compromise combination.

A mayoral election on this model will be a boost for electoral reform, and it would shift the emphasis of political campaigning from a geographical constituency-based exercise, to an American-style community one. Candidates will need to take account of ethnic or other minority groupings given the size of, for example, the Asian vote. Some may experiment with coalitions of running mates, potential deputy mayors, representing various sectors of city opinion. One of the potential independent candidates, Michael Cassidy, a former policy chairman at the Corporation of London, argues: "One candidate is going to have to field a team to embrace the various functions and win support from different sections of the community."

The politics of personality will be emphasised which is why names of people outside politics, such as Trevor Phillips and Richard Branson, get mentioned regularly. Mr Branson has spoken to Tony Blair about the importance of the job, but declines to place his hat in the ring. Apart from the time it takes to run Virgin, he foresees too many potential conflicts of interest. But the alternative-vote system is one of the few under which an outsider has a good chance of winning.

FOUR DAYS after the General Election, at a private seminar, civil servants read to Mr Prescott a list of around 80 questions about the powers of the London mayor, about their relationship with the proposed assembly and with existing local and national government. Not surprisingly, many of the 80 questions remain unanswered. Privately, Nick Raynsford, the London minister, is relaxed about reaching detailed solutions during the consultation process that will follow Tuesday's announcement.

What is crucial is the extent of the mayor's powers. One minister last week drew a comparison with the media interest in the early Euro-elections adding, "Once journalists discovered that being an MEP did not guarantee much power they lost interest."

But most experts are convinced the London mayor will have real power and early impressions support that view. He or she will have power to initiate policies and up to pounds 4bn budgets in important areas, such as transport or the environment, with the assembly being asked to ratify them as part of a system of checks and balances. He or she will make significant appointments such as the head of transport or tourism. There is a possibility of powers to tax motorists being used to generate revenue. These are at the "greener" edges of the paper in both senses - in other words, they will be subject to consultation. There is a case that money-raising powers are not absolutely crucial, providing the mayor has a budget. The mayors of New York and Paris have very constrained economic powers, which did not hinder the political career of Jacques Chirac.

Even the sceptical are betting both ways. Take, for example, Mr Livingstone, the creator of the "fare's fair" transport policy in the 1980s, who thinks the city mayor plan is open to corruption and "gimmicky". The mayor idea, he adds, is "favoured by people who don't like political parties and who like the idea of electing so-called 'great men.' "

Does this mean he is ruling himself out? "No," comes the reply. "If it turns out to have real powers, that will change the position of many Labour MPs. But if what is wanted is some joker who goes junketing around the world, then I'm sure the Tories have some excellent candidates."

LORD ARCHER

Age: 57

CV: Educated at Oxford, athlete, best-selling author, former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.

Qualifications: Political skills proved by remaining a friend of Thatcher and Major. Business skill proved by wealth, but never made high ministerial office.

STEVE NORRIS

Age: 52

CV: Educated at Oxford, MP (Con) for Epping Forest 1988-97, junior transport minister 1992-6.

Qualifications: Self-made (and lost) businessman. Cheeky-chappy appeal boosted by colourful love life. Good with the media. Ministerial experience.

DAVID MELLOR

Age: 48

CV: Educated at Cambridge, barrister, MP (Con) for Putney 1979-97, former Chief Secretary to Treasury, Secretary of State for National Heritage.

Qualifications: Reached Cabinet, quit over scandal in private life. Good with media but can be abrasive.

TONY BANKS

Age: 54

CV: Educated at York University, LSE. MP (Lab) for Newham North West since 1983, junior minister for sport.

Qualifications: Political career as the impudent voice of London. Ministerial experience but history of frankness verging on garrulousness.

MARGARET HODGE

Age: 52

CV: Educated at LSE, teacher, Islington Council Leader. Chair, Association of London Authorities, MP (Lab) for Barking since 1994.

Qualifications: London local government experience. Ally of Blair but possibly unwilling to give up Parliament.

KEN LIVINGSTONE

Age: 52

CV: Trained as a teacher. Chairman of GLC, MP (Lab) for Brent East since 1987 and former member of the National Executive Committee.

Qualifications: Last big figure in London's local government. Populist, but out of favour with New Labour.

RICHARD BRANSON Age: 47

CV: Self-made millionaire. Founder and chairman of Virgin group.

Qualifications: One of the most admired men in Britain, according to opinion polls. Not a politician. Flair for publicity, but job of mayor would conflict with business interests.

TREVOR PHILLIPS

Age: 43

CV: Educated at Imperial College, London, President of NUS, TV producer, reporter and presenter.

Qualifications: Familiar face as presenter of The London Programme. Communication skills. Only black contender canvassed so far.

A brief history of London government

LONDON is the oldest municipal corporation in the world, having established the right to vote a few months before King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. There had been a sheriff since 1189, before Roger Fitz Alan became the first mayor in the 13th century. Dick Whittington (left), plus cat, was mayor (thrice, of course) between 1397 and 1420, although the title was not used until the mid 16th century.

In 1837 a parliamentary committe declared London the only municipality in the country that did not require reform. Prince Albert, appalled by the stench from the Thames, disagreed, and the Metropolitan Board of Works was set up in 1855. It created the sewage system, built the Embankment and acquired Hampstead Heath, but it was unrepresentative and corrupt, and was replaced by the London County Council in 1888.

The LCC ran London from County Hall (opened 1922) until 1965 when the Greater London Council was set up to govern a wider area (650 square miles compared to 117 under the LCC). The leader was elected by his colleagues rather than the voters. Twenty years later the last leader, Ken Livingstone - or Red Ken - caused such violent palpitations in Margaret Thatcher that the GLC was summarily abolished.

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