At last, Londoners rule themselves OK

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The Independent Online
At long last London is on the verge of a miraculous renaissance. Labour's directly elected mayor and assembly promise a democratic revolution greater than anything since women got the vote. After London, all our other great cities will get mayors, heralding an earthquake in the distribution of political power. The short 10 days since the election have shown us how political symbolism matters as much as substance. So the cities will rise again, as in the great days of Joseph Chamberlain. Wait and see.

London is one of the most benighted zones in the country. Newsweek, Vanity Fair and Women's Wear Daily may say it's cool. Fine, but that is a delightful accident. Foreign Ab Fab editors tripping in for London Fashion Week and a quick zip around Harvey Nichols, the Oxo Tower and Groucho's see only a sliver of London. They do not travel on the Tube or use the hospitals; the only estates they see are in Country Life. They are like the jetsetters of Beirut who drank daiquiris on catamarans along the Corniche while bombs fell in the suburbs.

Rudderless London has no government, no voice and no one to complain to, just a hotchpotch of boroughs. Try to find out where power lies and it leads down Whitehall labyrinths, caverns measureless to any mere citizen. Who runs London now? The Environment Secretary, who has devolved power to his junior minister. A Cabinet Sub-Committee on London, A Whitehall Government Office for London, a London Planning Advisory Committee, a London Boroughs Grants Committee, a Transport Committee, a Waste Disposal Committee, a Parking Committee - all crushed under Whitehall's dead hand.

Yet how London is hated and resented among the rest of the country, as if we had it all. These days the word "metropolitan" is spat out as a term of abuse. The nation feels that the blood has been sucked out of local government and all power poured into the vampire Westminster - and they blame London, unjustly. For we who live under the shadow of Big Ben suffer greater powerlessness than most of them. Scotland and Wales complain vigorously - but London has had far more of its life crushed out in the last 20 years. When polled, 80 per cent have said consistently over the years that they want London government - but the capital (12 per cent of the British population) has been sunk deep in the apathy of hopelessness, unlike the noisy Scots (8 per cent) who thrive.

A few great national institutions that happen to be placed in a small part of the West End draw vast lottery funds - and London gets the blame. In fact, per capita, London has had less than Scotland or Northern Ireland. And if you discount the national institutions, then Londoners have done badly for local projects.

Reporting of London events is worse than anywhere in Britain - for lack of any city-wide figurehead to make news. National news editors, afraid of the London loathing factor, shy away from London council stories. Inside the BBC newsroom, the law was "Get out of town". London has precious little local press of value. The Evening Standard sees itself mainly as a national with London society chic - good campaigns on the Tube and hospitals, but little reporting on what goes on in the town halls. London radio stations are even less interested; the BBC TV's South East News is a bad joke; and ITV's London Tonight is a misnomer if ever there were one. Is it surprising that fewer people vote in local elections in London than anywhere else? In some areas it sinks below 30 per cent. Virtually no one knows their borough council leader's name, let alone their ward councillors. Democracy is all but dead.

A referendum for London will be a walk-over. The only people opposed to an elected mayor are the doyens of the no-smoking rooms of London local authorities, jealous of the power they wield with so little scrutiny. The last thing they want is a charismatic mayor, stealing their teeny murmur of thunder; London MPs fear a mayor for the same self-interested reason.

Now we need to know how all this is going to work. The mayoral elections should start with primaries within each political party, so that the people, not the parties, choose the candidates, reviving local party membership. The French presidential model, with a single, transferable vote and several rounds, would ensure that an extremist who may capture their party, as Livingstone did, does not get elected by the popular vote. The race will be genuinely open to independents, rewarding candidates of flair: no more back-bench buggins and party hacks. The mayor may sweep in on a party ticket, but would be free to oppose it at will; the direct approval of Londoners will be far more important than any central party directive. One thing is certain: the London mayoral campaign will be an electoral defibrillator, jump-starting the apathetic London voters into life. Local politics will be fun - imagine that.

What of the assembly? This will be a real test of New Labour's credentials, pitted against entrenched old Labour interests. Tony Blair, persuaded by Margaret Hodge, was seized by the idea of directly elected mayors. But the massed ranks of MPs who come from local government will want to give all power to the assembly and none to the mayor. If this happens, the whole enterprise will be dead in the Thames before it begins.

If the mayor is going to shine, she needs power to act, and responsibility to take the blame. So the assembly should have power only to scrutinise, criticise, be consulted, demand answers and make a noise - not to run the show. Ultimate power must rest with the mayor. But she would not directly run some vast bureaucracy. She would take public responsibility because she, with her cabinet, would set the budget and make all the appointments to the boards of the separate agencies - transport, planning, police, rubbish, etc. The assembly should have the right to be consulted over the budget and appointments, but no more than that.

There will be a strong lobby to give the elected assembly most power. But the assembly will suffer from a real democratic deficit. If no one knows their borough councillor, voters will have even less knowledge of their London assembly councillor, at one further remove. It will be democratically unsafe to vest power in a body that was effectively unaccountable. The mayor has to take the flak, because everyone will know the mayor.

Then there is the question of tax. The mayor needs to be able to raise money of her own. If the Scots can, why not Londoners, if they vote for it? As the old GLC found, it's a tricky problem in London; outer boroughs such as Bromley objected vehemently to paying money for inner city projects, though the boroughs already contribute a precept. Useful devices would be road pricing, parking and tourist taxes, falling upon users themselves.

Here is a recipe for real radical change. Once London has tried it, every city will want their own elected mayor. Every city council will try to thwart it - but the people will win. There is no knowing quite where this new power will lead: it will develop an exciting impetus of its own. But local politics will never be boring again.

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