Monday, 1 November 2010

The London Mayoralty: A recipe for disloyalty

This past month we have enjoyed the spectre of both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson causing trouble for their parties. First Ken got himself into trouble by appearing to endorse the Independent mayoral candidate for Tower Hamlets Lutfur Rahman the bizarre spectre of which Tom has already covered here and here. Theoretically Ken’s actions should lead to him being automatically expelled from the Labour Party but he remains in the party and the mayoral candidate. At the same time current mayor Boris Johnson has described the Coalition government’s housing benefits changes as likely to result in ‘Kosovo-style social cleansing’. Boris had already told the Greater London Assembly that he wanted London to be spared from the cuts back in July.

London Mayors and Mayoral candidates have developed a maverick streak it seems, but why, and why can’t parties do anything to prevent these types of outbursts? Firstly, it is only inevitable that parties at local level will take different positions to national level parties. Different areas have different needs, different demographics and different cultures to the nation as a whole. We can see this in the Welsh and Scottish Assembly and Parliament most clearly. Welsh and Scottish Labour have taken positions notably and proudly to the left of the national party. These are not just a function of the coalitions it has wound up in, but also as a part of its political strategy and the make-up of local parties. Former Welsh First Minister proudly proclaimed his left wing credentials. Yet no member of a devolved parliament would ever behave in a way as ‘maverick’ as Boris or Ken.

The reality is that its part and parcel of the London mayoral system itself. Unlike the vast majority of political leaders in the UK the London mayor is elected on an individual mandate. It’s essentially a Presidential system – the Mayor is elected directly and has a vast swathe of powers all of his own. The Greater London Authority is supposed to keep the Mayor to account but its powers are fairly weak, the balance of power is clearly slanted towards the Mayor. This means several things. Firstly, when someone votes for a Mayoral candidate they vote for a person – not for a party. This encourages parties to select maverick, well-known, likeable individuals to be Mayoral candidates. Both Mayors of London have so far matched this description. What’s more, in order to win the Mayoralty a candidate does not necessarily need a party or pre-existing structure behind them, as winning seats on the GLA has no impact on whether you win. This has been demonstrated by Ken winning the mayoralty as an independent in 2000. At the same time parties have far fewer mechanisms for keeping them in line than MPs - mayors are not whipped and being booted out of the party is far less a threat as they will continue to be mayor anyway, and enjoy all the power associated.

I have no idea why Ken Livingstone apparently endorsed Rahman in Tower Hamlets. He may have wanted to re-enforce his ‘maverick’ image, he may have genuinely thought him the best candidate, he may have hoped to re-enforce his ties with an area of London that has always voted strongly for him, or it may have been none of these things, or all of these things, but I do know one thing – whatever happened Ken Livingstone would have been on the ballot paper in May 2012. If Labour had ejected him he’d have simply run as an Independent, and in boroughs like Tower Hamlets ‘Livingstone’ carries a lot more respect and loyalty than ‘Labour’ – the effect would have likely been to have him run as an Independent, and push Labour into an embarrassing third place. At least with him in the party the party has some modicum of influence over him, however small.

Boris, on the other hand, appears to just be dealing with political reality. London is naturally a centre-left city. Labour won London in the 2010 election – winning 36.6% of the vote and 38 seats compared to 34.5% and 28 for the Conservatives and 22.1% and 7 for the Liberal Democrats. What’s more the Mayoral election is in 2012. By this point the cuts are likely to be truly biting, and the coalition government may well be particularly unpopular. What’s more opposition voters tend to see elections like this as a chance to stick two fingers up at the government – in other words Labour voters may be more enthusiastic about voting than Conservative ones. While Boris is polling encouragingly it is not enough to make him certain of victory. Picking fights with the government allows him to distance itself from it, and by echoing the attack points of Labour MPs he appeals to centre-left voters. If the Coalition takes a hit for Boris Johnson then that is acceptable – it is about winning. Some wish to perceive this as part of an attempt by Boris to become Conservative Party leader – I wholeheartedly disagree. The Mayoralty is a poor place to jump to leader from, Boris is distant from the MPs he would need the support of and would need to be a MP himself. What’s more attacking a Conservative government from the left is hardly a way to make yourself popular with Conservatives. This is purely about the Mayoralty.

In creating a quasi-Presidential London politics Tony Blair created a system that encouraged personality over party. Mavericks and oddballs are the recipe du jour. It has to say something that the current favourite for the Lib Dem nod is Lembit Opik, with the spectre of Boris vs. Ken vs. Lembit likely to secure a Mayoral race that is at least interesting. The system weakens political parties with regard to London local governance. Mayors and mayoral candidates will always be out of party control, and parties should not be surprised when they embarrass them. In fact they should come to expect it.


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