Not mentioned in Dispatches

There\’s nothing like the sound of the great British public in sanctimonious hue and cry. I have worked for Ken Livingstone, and I like the man, so my sympathies will be obvious. But there was a lot of dross in the Dispatches show on Monday night.

That Livingstone has spent money boosting London among our trading partners – quite right. That he likes a drink – not a great surprise (though I\’ve seen no evidence that he habitually drinks in the morning). That he, a nostalgic socialist, has forged links with Venezuela – eccentric, but to be expected. That some of his associates come from the wacky (or even \’Stalinoid\’) fringes of socialism – again, unsurprising.

But there was more menace in the details. Firstly, Dispatches alleged that Livingstone\’s office used public money to attack Trevor Phillips in his candidacy for the chief executive of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. Secondly, they claimed that people in Livingstone\’s office worked on his campaign, while being politically restricted GLA bureaucrats.

Both of these allegations are serious, but they are expressed in shades of grey. In relation to Trevor Phillips, it is easy to present the row in terms of personalities. There\’s been bad blood since Livingstone suggested in 2000 that Phillips might be his deputy, and Phillips replied that this was typically patronising behaviour. But there\’s more to it than that.

There are two distinct views of what anti-racists should seek to achieve, and how, in play here. I\’m not an expert, but a simplistic view is as follows. Phillips believes in a broadly integrationist approach, which values a common \’British\’ identity, expresses concerns about multiculturalism and seeks to work through negotiation. Livingstone\’s view, or at least Lee Jasper\’s, is more Manichean. To create a truly multicultural society – where difference is viewed as a matter for celebration rather than a problem – the organs of the state need to be attacked until their intrinsic racism is overturned.

I don\’t take sides on this, or even claim that my presentation of the argument is correct, but this is about more than \’Ken hates Trevor\’. In fact, you can hardly think of a more important issue for public debate. Whether the campaign was correctly pursued through attacking Phillips is another matter, but this is not about nothing.

The water is murkier still in relation to GLA officials misusing their office to pursue political ends. The staff alleged to have done so are \’politically restricted\’ – an injunction that applies to all senior local and central government staff. As such, of course they should be impartial.

But – and it\’s a huge \’but\’ – the staff accused of this offence were not appointed to support the Mayor as generic local government officers, but as some of his closest aides, trusted to work with a nascent bureaucracy to make sure that his policies could be implemented.

The GLA\’s organisational structure gave the Mayor the right to appoint 12 staff, but didn\’t give those staff the right to direct other offices. So Livingstone agreed with the London Assembly that they would appoint staff to help him, while he would make sure that they had the budget they needed to carry out their own role.

So, the aides\’ position is far more like that of special advisors than that of normal bureaucrats. For example, they all have contracts that expire at the same time as the Mayor\’s period in office. It may – or may not – be that some of them paid attention to the campaign to re-elect the Mayor while they were strictly speaking at work, but we appear to be talking at the margins.

Which of us can honestly say that we have not sent an email or written a letter on personal matters while in the office, whatever formal procedures may say? And would we be surprised to read that central government special advisors had an interest in the re-election of their party, as well as on the pursuance of its policy?

That said, the row exposes the persistent flaws in the GLA\’s constitution. With characteristic fudge, New Labour created a structure that aped the presidential model of US mayoralties – where senior officers are unambiguously appointed by the Mayor, are accountable through him and lose office when he or she does – without following through in terms of staff appointments. Politicisation is only a problem when it is surreptitious.

The new GLA Act half tackles this problem, by making staff appointments a matter for the GLA\’s chief executive rather than for the \’scrutinising\’ London Assembly. But the legislators still fail to understand the basic issue: if mayors are to rule, and to be accountable for what they do, their employees must be allowed to dance to a more political beat.

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