A tale of two mayors - but only one has any power

'No single politician, or even group of politicians, has responsibility for policing in London'
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Rudolph Giuliani, a 57-year-old man in a dark suit whom, in the flesh, you'd be hard put to pick out in a crowd, hit town yesterday and made pretty well every politician he met look bloodless by comparison. It's hardly surprising that his 8am breakfast meeting with businessmen had sold out within 48 hours of being advertised.

Everyone in London wanted a glimpse of the man they had watched on television conducting that transfixing, untheatrical, schmaltz-free conversation with New Yorkers which kept his city going during those terrible weeks after 11 September.

As then, so yesterday: not a bum note. He came at you from the streets, this Mafia-busting ex-DA, joking about how his knighthood will go down in his beloved Brooklyn: "What's with this Sir stuff – you a big shot or sumfin'?" He talked, as few British politicians do, in language mercifully free of abstract nouns. He revelled like a kid in what – surprisingly – had been his first trip in Concorde the previous day. And the passage in his early morning speech which thanked the UK and its Prime Minister for its support after the twin towers went down was executed with a rare and effortless grace.

At his British American Business Inc breakfast he spoke more about crime than terrorism. And how New York went from being the murder capital of the world to being the safest large city in America; safer, per capita, than Peoria, Illinois, the town Harry Truman always used to epitomise Middle America. To New Yorkers, who have been listening to it for more than eight years, his message is utterly familiar. In London, a city increasingly edgy about carjacking, muggings and gun crime, it still has shock value. First he describes how he and the New York Police Department used Compstat, a formidably detailed statistical breakdown of where crimes were being committed to tell them, borough by borough, where the policing was needed. (It was also transparent. You can sit in London and learn more in a few minutes from the NYPD website about what crimes are committed in the Bronx, and what the trends are, good and bad, than you will ever learn from the Met). More crime was being committed in the early evening than, as thought, in the late evening. So you changed the distribution of shifts. More crime was being committed in North Brooklyn – and by residents of North Brooklyn in other parts of the city. So you poured extra police resources into north Brooklyn. And you made sure you had the management teams to see they performed for you.

Giuliani didn't say so but actually this is also pretty egalitarian. The figures cannot lie, and if they show crime is worst in the poorest districts it's they – or should be – who get the police.

He doesn't, it turns out, even like or use the term "zero tolerance". Instead he prefers what he calls the "broken window" theory. Which is that if someone breaks a window and no one does anything about it, another will be broken. And another. To illustrate his point that it's no good saying you are too busy dealing with murder and rape to worry about prostitution or drug dealing or fare dodging, he tells how the famously brutal assailant of a young woman piano teacher in Central Park was caught jumping over a turnstile in a subway station to avoid paying his fare.

Leave aside for now the question of whether Giuliani has much to teach us about fighting crime. (I think he does.) There is a much broader argument which screams out from the comparisons between New York and London. And that concerns the nature of the job Giuliani has just left.

Today Giuliani will meet Ken Livingstone. They are very different kinds of men, the hard-edged Republican lawyer and the cheeky leftist scourge of successive Labour leaders. But the difference in their jobs is even greater. The police are a case in point. The New York mayor has pretty-well total control. He can sack and appoint the Police Commissioner. He drove the crime strategy in New York to an extent where the distinctions beloved here between operational and non-operational become almost redundant. This is a degree of political control which the left-wing Labour activists who used to call for more "accountability" for the police in the 1980s didn't even dream about. But it represents a grown-up version of democratic politics all too lacking here.

So Giuliani is likely to be baffled today when Livingstone patiently explains to him that the Police Commissioner, who has total operational responsibility, is appointed by the Home Secretary, who can and has called him in from time to time on London issues. That responsibility for non-operational issues lies with the London police authority, only some of whose members are appointed by the mayor. The Greater London Authority, as it showed yesterday when it refused to allow Livingstone all the money he wanted for policing, has a say on resources. And the police are distinctly unenthusiastic about any form of political interference. (If I were Ken, I wouldn't complicate the issue still further at this point by explaining that I didn't get on very well with Toby Harris, the police authority chairman, not to mention several of the Labour GLA members). There is something very British about this system, very Yes Minister. It means that no single politician, or group of politicians, has responsibility for policing in London. If crime falls, each bit of this quadripartite muddle will seek to take the credit. If it rises, each will blame the others. And the police will blame a lack of resources.

Compare and contrast the New York mayor. Giuliani substantially raised the police budget to hire thousands of extra cops. But he was trusted to do so because his political reputation – and first time round, his chances of a second term – rested on results. The famous sign saying "I'm Responsible" on the mayor's desk in City Hall means something. Livingstone would be crazy to copy the sign. He isn't (more than very partially) responsible at all for policing any more than, thanks to government obduracy, he is for the Tube.When Giuliani's biographer said he was the "Emperor of the City" he was right – at least in respect of police, the fire department and – to some extent – education.

But an emperor put there for the people. And whom the people can sack. Livingstone, to be fair, wants that control. He could, I suspect, use the bully pulpit more than he does to talk about crime. He isn't obviously a risk-taker like Giuliani. Sometimes he seems more comfortable locked in struggle with the Government over transport – a casus belli the Government has been lamentably willing to give him. But on what the mayor's powers should be he is right. We may never know whether Tony Blair originally envisaged something more like New York when – to his great credit – he decided in favour of a London mayor. But if so, he should have stuck to it, Livingstone or no Livingstone. Either Ken would have grown with the huge responsibility. Or he would have been booted out after one term. No one in New York wants to change the system. And in the long run it will surely come to London too.