[Now also on Comment is Free]
Ken Livingstone was on virtuoso form on Today this morning, defending Met Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair as robustly as he could (and that’s pretty robustly), and freestyling over a range of topics – from the iniquities of Health and Safety culture, to the superiority of continental inquisitorial courts to our adversarial model – like a saner version of Heather Mills.
Even more dazzling than the Mayor’s gladiatorial skill is the curious sense that we have passed through the looking glass. A Labour Mayor, elected from the left of the party, stands behind a police chief whose officers shot dead an innocent immigrant worker, and whose force has been found guilty of ‘catastrophic’ failings as a result. On the other side are ranged Conservative Party figures, from the curiously Edwardian figure of Dominic Grieve to the just plain curious mayoral candidate Boris Johnson, calling for resignations and considerations of positions. It will make for an interesting mayoral election next year.
But underneath all this opportunism and inversion of political normality some longer games are being played out. Compared to his predecessor, ‘copper’s copper’ Sir John Stevens, Sir Ian Blair has been a force for reform within the Met, pushing managerialist battles against waste, as well as ideological warfare on the ‘institutional racism’ that was diagnosed by the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry.
As such, Sir Ian is an important ally for Ken Livingstone, whose anti-racism is only matched by his strong (and sometimes 1950s-nostalgic) law-and-order focus. But there is something deeper too. When Ken Livingstone was elected in 2000, the Mayor’s powers over the Met Police were pretty limited: he could appoint 12 of the 23 members of the Metropolitan Police Authority, which oversees the Met Police, and even these were essentially nominated by the party groups on the London Assembly. He could also agree the Met’s annual budget (subject to the ability of the Government to stipulate a minimum).
This was not the relationship between a US City Mayor and Police Commissioner, but something far weaker, stymied by Government’s traditional reluctance to cede power over policing in the capital to any form of local government. Ken Livingstone set about changing this confused structure of accountability by ignoring it. He proclaimed himself an ally of first Stevens then Blair, boosting their budgets in exchange for promises of specific action on crime, on waste, on racism, beating up the hapless London Assembly when they sought to challenge these hikes in Council Tax, and presenting to the world an image of the Mayor as the man in charge.
This tactic has worked: from next year the Mayor will be able to appoint the Chair of the MPA, or even to take the role himself, as well as taking power over many other policy areas where he has staked his claim. By seeming, or even pretending, to be in charge, Ken Livingstone has clawed power from a possessive and nervous state. That’s why the man who has no right to hire or fire the Met Police Commissioner was defending him on the radio this morning.