Reading the runes of the London referendum

Trevor Phillips what a mayor should know

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LET'S NOT be too hard on the voters. Instead of excoriating them for being apathetic and ill-educated, perhaps we should try to hear the message they are sending us.

Elections and referendums are not just a choice offered from on high, they are a chance for the people to answer back. The low turnouts around the country in Thursday's local elections are being treated as though they reveal some great new mystery. They don't. It is only a year since nearly seven out of ten turned out to vote for a new government. Many people clearly believed that they had already done the job and saw no need to do it again. But there is a deeper, rather dangerous argument being made: did the voters really know what they are doing?

On election night much attention was drawn to the high level of spoilt votes in the referendum for a Greater London Authority. I have already heard the discussions on the need for political education on the radio. Forget it; most of those voted and many of those who stayed away knew very well what they were doing, and they clearly pinpointed two rather telling weaknesses in Britain's local government. First it is not local. Second, it is seldom given the chance to govern.

The Thatcher reforms of local government left council spending rigidly controlled by central government. The standards for service delivery are being set as toughly by this new government as did the last administration. Benighted local councillors are increasingly meeting to confirm decisions already set out by ministers, with resources dictated by the Treasury. That hardly sounds like local control.

Councils can barely claim the flexibility to govern the biscuit allocation at committee meetings. When the local government of the capital city cannot even raise the cash to fix its roads and railways without the permission of the men in the Treasury, you wonder what the point of it is.

This was, of course, one of the reasons to back a new form of government for London; and Londoners knew what was right. I don't propose to rehearse the arguments yet again, merely to point out some facts to those who claim that the better than three-to-one vote in favour was not much of a mandate.

Such a majority is the kind of plurality that most dictators dream of having. More than a million people voted "Yes"; and the London turnout was 8 or 9 per cent higher than elsewhere in the country. To put it another way, the effect of the Mayoral referendum was to bring out four voters in London for every three elsewhere. If that happened in a General Election we would be marvelling at a turnout in the capital of some 90 per cent.

And isn't it curious that though the London result produced a similar level of backing to that for the Welsh Assembly, London is, as ever, expected to do something more spectacular?

The truth is that once all the political parties had been persuaded to see sense (as they say in the Cosa Nostra), Londoners were so certain that there would be a majority for a mayor that they saw no need to vote themselves.

As for apathy, it may be a small piece of evidence, but I found that in a short walk in central London yesterday lunchtime, I was stopped no less than twelve times by passers-by, asking me how I thought the vote had gone. I may have been on TV, but I don't flatter myself that I am anywhere as recognisable as, say Jeffrey Archer or Ken Livingstone. The only explanation I can offer is that the shoppers, plumbers and taxi-drivers had a firm enough grip on the campaign to recognise one of its more obscure figures.

There is another lesson to be learnt, which I think will become clearer as the votes are analysed more thoroughly. In the London referendum the level of the "Yes" vote varied from a low of 57 per cent in Bromley (the borough which started the whole controversy over London government back in the early eighties by torpedoing the GLC's fares policy in the courts) up to 83.8 per cent in Haringey.

It would be easy to explain this away as a contrast between Tory and Labour strongholds, but that would not explain the low "Yes" vote in leftish Harrow, and the relatively high level of support - 74 per cent - in the Tory flagship Wandsworth. Nor is the division simply inner and outer London, as the figures vary widely in both cases.

A far more reliable indicator of enthusiasm is evident if you list the top six "Yes" votes - Lambeth, Haringey, Camden, Hackney, Islington and Newham. These are all boroughs with large concentrations of poor ethnic minority voters. The conclusion I draw is that people who for decades have seen local government fail to reflect the diversity of their communities are ready to invest hope in this new idea.

As the parties now start to go about the serious business of selecting their candidates for the assembly and the Mayoralty, they would be foolish to ignore the fact that one-in-three voters will come from minority communities. Labour especially may find that if it wins nearly half its votes are cast by non-white hands.

If the new authority is not to fail it must be genuinely new. It will probably be two years before we know the personalities who will form the new leadership of London. Luckily for me, as an interviewer, I will have the chance to hold the politicians' feet to the fire for the next year or so, in order to ensure that the proposals are not neutered as they go through parliament. This will be great sport, but there are serious questions still to be tackled about the legislation.

It has to deliver decisive, powerful city government, untrammeled by old allegiances and machine politics. The new mayor and assembly should be the sort of outfit that lets everyone in the capital feel they have a place at the governing table. This referendum was not a job creation scheme for a bunch of middle-aged blokes whose principal qualification is that they've done something like this before. If they truly believe in London, they will step aside and allow the emergence of a new breed who feel and look like London. If not they will have to be pushed aside. And that, my friends, could be the most vicious, and therefore, entertaining, battle of all.

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