Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham, Dan Jarvis, the three Labour mayors of London, Manchester and Sheffield are national figures. Why, as staunch members of an imploding Labour Party, supporters fleeing, opponents jeering, are they respected by a public with recognised contempt for politicians? The short answer is that the ‘Metro-Mayors’ – Jarvis the newcomer - to the best of their and their cabinets’ ability, improve the experience of big-city life. But they can only achieve what is possible within the limited budget given them by central government. No mean feat. London has 8.5 million people, Manchester 2.7 million and Sheffield City Region 1.4 million. And over the last decade their funding has been cut to the bone by government.
The more complex answer, as Vernon Bogdanor recently argued in TheArticle, is that they are accountable and can give voice to the people who directly elected them. They also embody and express pride in their cities, promote a positive urban identity, offer hope, and show dignity in a country that has made itself the laughing-stock of Europe. Of the ten city-regions of George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ eight have directly elected mayors (there are 23 in all in England). Mayors do make a difference. Take Hackney in the 1980s: filthy streets, council estates neglected, schools failing, parks and public places a mess. In 2002 Mayor Jules Pipe, was directly elected and slowly turned the borough round. It’s now a great place to live. It’s even fashionable – which is a growing problem as incomers drive up property prices.
Millennials grew up with much talking and legislating by national government about the role of local authorities: notably the Localism Act 2014, Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, though it was reform of the Greater London Authority under Tony Blair in 2000 that brought plans for a Metro-Mayor of London, first considered by John Major, into reality. The London mayoralty gave us ‘Red Ken’ and, along with Have I got News for You, launched Boris Johnson into the political limelight dangling on a wire, buying water-cannons which couldn’t be used and those nostalgia-trip Route Master buses - but which stopped you jumping on and off - while pouring money into an eco-fantasy bridge over the Thames. It later emerged that he was also funding a pole-dancing entrepreneur who happened to be his girlfriend. But, to Johnson’s credit, and that of the cycling lobby, he continued to cycle and persevered with the provision of cycle lanes. From City Hall to Downing Street proved to be a short cycle ride.
If, as Bogdanor suggests, the focus of devolution should be local Councils, opportunities and threats open up under a Johnson government. The immediate threat is that London could be punished for its strong support for REMAIN and for being a Labour stronghold. If the northern swing constituencies now ‘cloth-cap Conservative’ are to get their reward and not revert, somewhere else is going to feel the pinch. Rumoured reduction or abolition of London allowances for teachers, for example, would have dire consequences.
The picture of London as the heartland of smashed- avocado-on-toast breakfasting cosmopolitans queuing at Waitrose is a deceit. There is plenty of not so hidden poverty. Drugs dealing and gang-crime don’t come out of thin air. ‘Posh’ Islington has the 4th highest level of child poverty in the country (47.5% - some 20,000 children). If the allocation of greater funds and attention to the ‘North’ is to be more than a political ploy, it must avoid taking from the poor of London to give to the poor in towns which have begun to vote conservative.
The opportunity for wider social and economic change begins with asking what is London doing right? How and why has an urban culture developed that is mostly colour-blind and at ease with ethnicity? About 90% of residents of Hackney felt “everyone got along together” in a recent survey. Courtesy and consideration for the old and disabled is widespread.
Yes, London has key national and international institutions, excellent comprehensive schools and health service. And yes, London attracts the ambitious, often the best, from around the world, and some get rich. Under all its mayors it has had strong leadership on racial issues even under terrorist attacks. So why not learn from it. Support the people who keep this city moving, who promote a vibrant economy, and try with inadequate resources to remove the face-to-face dark web of drug, knife and gang crime across its streets. In hard budgetary terms give elected mayors much more control over their city’s expenditure and its allocation.
Reform of any kind is difficult. Nobody dares to revalue the decades-old Council tax bands because owners of houses whose value has risen fear having to pay more. Room for mayors to manoeuvre is small. A Prime Minister interested in more than political advantage would encourage its expansion. But to build creatively on the social and economic achievements of Greater London, not denounce its citizens as a cosmopolitan elite, gives Mr. Johnson no electoral advantage at all.
Meanwhile, Mr. Corbyn has reverted to “resistance”. Aux Armes, Citoyens. The Labour Party will henceforth ‘resist’ centralisation and Tory Rule. But, in the real world, it has been leaders such as Khan, Burnham and Jarvis doing the resisting. They have created an urban governance model in opposition to centralisation and populism, doing the most they can within the limits set by their political opponents, retaining the notion that politics is about gaining power to work for the common good. They have resisted the Corbynist vision of power required principally for winning conflicts within the Labour Party.
So how should we describe Labour cities such as London, Manchester and Sheffield? The Labour Party Diaspora? Social democracy devolved? Urban democratic pluralism? We wouldn’t need border patrols along the M25. But if London were to gain just a little of the autonomy of a city-state – it has a larger population and economy than many UN member states – Labour members should stay to cheer not flee and jeer.
See TheArticle.com 07/01/2020