Greater London authority?
by Ben Rogers
Though we live in an age of ever increasing globalisation, we also live in one of ever greater localisation.
In 1946, at its foundation, the UN had 55 members, by 1960 it had 99, and today it has 193. We can see the same thing writ small in the UK, which has become a hugely less centralised state over the last generation, just as it has also become a more globally connected one. Twenty-five years ago all of British politics was centred in Westminster, with people calling for home rule for Scotland and Wales only just emerging from the fringes of political argument. Now a significant number of Britain’s premier league politicians – Alex Salmond, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson – aren’t even members of the British Parliament.
Here’s a puzzle though. Why don’t calls for devolution feature more largely in the current contest for London’s mayor? Of course London is very firmly part of England – the parallel with Scotland or Wales, let alone Ireland, is far from exact. But there are at least three good reasons why you would think the mayoral candidates would be appealing for more powers for the mayor. First, the argument that London needs more power to govern itself is a strong one. Despite the creation of the mayor and subsequent moves to devolve further power from central government to the mayor and London boroughs, there is further to go. A quick look at say New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, shows that he has powers in areas like education, taxation, the criminal justice system and welfare services, of which that Mayor of London can only dream.
Second, the example of Wales, and in particular Scotland suggests that there is real electoral mileage in campaigning on a devolutionary ticket. Remember too that Livingstone, at least, has in the past won public support and electoral victory by standing up for London against the government of the day, first against the Thatcher government of the 1980s and then against the New Labour machine in 2000 – though his support for nationalist movements in Ireland, Palestine and elsewhere have not always served him so well.
Third, this might be expected to be the election where devolution would become especially salient. With London voters feeling the squeeze, you might expect the mayoral candidates to campaigning on the need to win more power to fix the city’s problems.
Yet while both two main candidates have called for further devolution in one respect or another, neither seems, at least so far, has made it a central plank of their campaign. One of Ken’s manifesto writers recently explained the Ken’s team’s thinking to me: ‘Everyone knows that Ken is always going to fight for London’s interests’. To which the obvious response is, well that is every reason to campaign on the issue.
A Boris spokesman makes a slightly different point. ‘The public’, he argues, ‘are turned off by constitutional politics. If you look at Alex Salmond, he in fact spends a huge amount of time campaigning on bread and butter issues – things like raising the price of cheap drink. He is not associated just with independence”. Well yes – but he campaigns very successfully on home rule as well. The trick seems to lie in making links between devolution and bread and butter issues.
A better argument might be that Londoners don’t care about or want further devolution. A recent poll points in this direction. Forty per cent of Londoners are content with the powers that the Mayor and London Assembly have, and only 20 per cent think they should have more. But public opinion is in part shaped by politicians – this has certainly been true in Scotland. I suspect arguments that London needs more power to tackle the great – and distinct – problems it faced would fall on fertile ground.