Opening up

Following Jaspergate – or Jasper-ama to adopt Andrew Gilligan\’s more florid moniker – you can expect to hear a lot more about openness and accountability in the mayoral election campaign.

Boris Johnson and the Lib Dems had a first stab on successive days last week, variously pledging that they would make the City Hall register of interests public, would set up a code of conduct for mayoral advisers, would require them to attend question and answer sessions with the London Assembly, and would publish details of their responsibilities and contact details on the web.

Only some of this is new: elected officials already publish their register of interests (Livingstone\’s is here), and all staff (including mayoral advisers) are bound by a code of conduct and required to attend London Assembly hearings if summoned. Nevertheless, these proposals could make a difference to the openness of City Hall.

If they were implemented, that is. Readers with long memories may remember Ken Livingstone\’s Advisory Cabinet. This big-tent public committee was one of Livingstone\’s election pledges in 2000, and included Labour MPs Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Glenda Jackson (though not Frank Dobson), London Assembly members from all parties and assorted great and good from the worlds of race relations, disability and gay rights

The Advisory Cabinet met several times during Livingstone\’s first year in office (disconcertingly, this BBC Report of its first meeting includes a picture of an alarmingly chinless and younger me in the background). But after a while, initial enthusiasm faded, and with it the Advisory Cabinet: now a Google search brings up this ghost page.

The meetings had become, to use Bagehot\’s formulation, \’dignified\’ rather than \’efficient\’, with real decision-making and debate taking place behind closed doors. If Johnson or Paddick win, it will be interesting to see with how much gusto they follow through their current enthusiasm for flinging those doors open.

After the flood?

So, how much has Ken Livingstone been damaged by the relentless revelations that culminated this week in Lee Jasper\’s resignation?

The last poll published, by YouGov last month, showed Boris Johnson leading Ken Livingstone, by 44 points to 39 (a reversal of their positions a month previously), though the strongest gains were made by Brian Paddick, whose share of first preference votes increased from eight to 12 per cent.

In the wacky world of the mayoral election system, however, these first preferences are only part of the story. On this basis, the second preferences of those people voting for Paddick (and minority candidates) as their first choice, would be re-distributed among the front-runners. So the critical question is whether Paddick\’s votes are \’anyone but Ken\’ or \’anyone but Boris\’. That will make all the difference.

The fieldwork for the YouGov poll was conducted between 19 and 21 February, so the situation may well have worsened since then, as cringe-making personal emails became Lee Jasper\’s undoing. But, if the polls are only this bad, following weeks of destabilising and embarassing revelations, the Mayor might be forgiven for feeling a glimmer of optimism. Lee Jasper has resigned, the sheet has been wiped clean, a new beginning beckons…

And yet. It\’s always struck me as curious the fact that Andrew Gilligan\’s Lee-gate campaign began in December last year, fully six months before the mayoral election. Didn\’t such an early start run the risk that allegations would become old news in voters\’ minds by May? Shouldn\’t he have been keeping his powder dryer?

In today\’s Standard, in an article that gently chides Johnson for sloppy attention to detail on transport policy, Gilligan writes a sentence that might strike fear into hearts at City Hall: \”Luckily for Boris, all these questions have so far been largely drowned out by the ongoing Jasperama. I can promise more such entertainments in the future.\”

Gilligan is an odd and obsessive character, and this may be grandstanding. But, in the week when William Hill made Boris Johnson the favourite, I wouldn\’t want to bet on it.

The Corrections

The Guardian\’s Corrections and Clarifications column is always a good read, but it\’s unusual to have corrections correcting corrections. This correction, from today\’s paper, shows the fractures that beset the UK left:

\”A clarification of an opinion piece headlined The political choice facing London could not be clearer (page 35, January 24) said that although Nick Cohen believes Ken Livingstone is unfit to be the Labour candidate for London mayor he is not a supporter of Boris Johnson, contrary to an assertion we made. In fact the piece said he had \”more openly lined up behind Boris Johnson\”. While Nick Cohen has not endorsed Boris Johnson as a candidate he wrote in a Time Out piece in December last year, \”Go Lib Dem, Green or Tory [Johnson] if you must. But don\’t vote for [Livingstone]\” (Corrections and clarifications, page 36, January 26).\”

So is that clear? Nick Cohen attacked Ken Livingstone in the Observer. Seumas Milne attacked Cohen for that attack in the Guardian, alleging that he (Cohen) was supporting Conservative candidate Boris Johnson. Cohen demanded a correction, arguing that he had never argued for Johnson, but only against Livingstone. Milne went back to his sources, and has now demanded a correction to the previous correction.

This could run and run…

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.

The world turned upside down

[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.

Paper tigers

It must be depressing being Victoria Borwick, Warwick Lightfoot, Andrew Boff or Lurline Champagne. Magnificent names aside, these putative Conservative candidates for the London mayoral election in 2008 are already eclipsed by Planet Boris. Former DJ Mike Read has thrown his questionable weight behind the bumptious blonde on the Guardian\’s Comment is Free website, prompting ribald comment and cruel queries about when fellow DJ Nicey will make his intentions clear.

What promises to be a lively contest will be made livelier still by the fact that London now has two evening papers, which are already making their picks.

The current Mayor\’s loathing for the Evening Standard (and London Lite, its free sister paper), published by Associated Newspapers, is fully reciprocated, so it was no surprise that the paper gave Boris Johnson the platform to launch his candidacy yesterday, and followed it up today with tenuous tales of a \’Boris bounce\’, based on Facebook entries and a pretty ambiguous poll.

The London Paper, the freebie anti-Standard spoiler launched by News International last year, has been less explicit about its preferences (and lacks the formal editorial column to make these clear). But today it gave Ken Livingstone a column to attack his opponent, and further space to a less than glowing portrait by Johnson\’s biographer, Andrew Gimson.

The brutal war being waged between Associated Newspapers and News International (and their proxies in London politics) has opened up a new front. This is about more than politics; this is about circulation.

Life after Livingstone?

Boris Johnson? Greg Dyke? John Major? With less than a year to go till the next London mayoral election, a growing sense of desperation is settling over opposition parties. Is there anyone out there who the Conservatives haven\’t approached? Anyone who has a chance of beating Ken Livingstone?

Standing against the Mayor, who has twice seen off all comers (including his own party in 2000), must be one of the least enviable jobs in politics. Steven Norris has twice proved an effective and jocular opponent, largely through distancing himself as far from Conservative Party policy as Livingstone has from Labour Party policy, but will surely not have the appetite to be ‘three times a loser’.

The Conservatives’ much-trumpeted plans for a talent-show approach have gone rather quiet, though several candidates – primarily from local government backgrounds – have expressed interest, and a London-wide primary will take place in September. But rumours of bids from heavy-hitters like John Major, Olympic chief Sebastian Coe and former Met Police commissioner John Stevens seem to have evaporated.

The Liberal Democrats have mounted serious candidates – Susan Kramer (now MP for Richmond Park) in 2000, and Bermondsey MP Simon Hughes in 2004 – but the prospect of their party holding the balance of power at Westminster after the next general election must look more attractive in career development terms than another round in the ring with the former member for Brent East.

In 2000, it was said that Tony Blair hoped that an independent businessperson rather than a professional politician would win the mayoralty. This time around, plenty of colourful characters are emerging: DJs Mike Read and James Whale, Big Issue founder John Bird, actor Tom Conti and Right Said Fred singer Richard Fairbrass. Leaving aside the fact that many of these candidates seem propelled primarily by their resentment of London’s congestion charge, they are not quite of Michael Bloomberg’s – or even Richard Branson’s – calibre.

The irony is that, in setting up a system to attract political outsiders, New Labour created a job that was tailor-made for one of their own renegades. In seven years, Ken Livingstone has entrenched himself, re-engineering the City Hall machine to operate as he wants it to; he has become part of its wiring.

Like him or loathe him (and there are plenty in both camps), Ken Livingstone is a consummate politician, on top of his brief, sharp and able to speak off-the-cuff (and sometimes off-the-wall) on pretty well any subject. As a former GLA employee, I can testify to the frustration of listening to a pitch-perfect mayoral performance, with the only duff notes being those taken from his carefully-crafted official briefing.

Though the media relish the intemperate outbursts – against Evening Standard journalists, against the Saudi royal family, against George Bush – Ken Livingstone is now more likely to be heard extolling his carefully nuanced vision for London: the city succeeds because ‘The City’ succeeds, supported by London’s diversity and openness (in contrast to New York, marooned in Fortress America). London’s turbo-capitalist growth and growing diversity are to be embraced and celebrated, but also to be used as an engine for greater social justice and for tackling climate change.

Over seven years, almost unnoticed, he has transformed himself from the khaki-clad newt-fancier of yore, into the very model of a modern city boss, known across the world, and clad in imperial purple (or at least the odd Ozwald Boateng bespoke suit). La cité, c’est lui.

There are two sides to Ken Livingstone. One is the glamourpuss, clearly relishing the limelight and the occasional slanging match. The other is the slightly nerdy technocrat, who enjoys the day-to-day business of running London. He has stretched the Greater London Authority’s curious rag-bag of powers taut in trying to create change in a chaotic city. The Mayor enjoys getting stuck in: from negotiating with developers, to introducing and extending a congestion charge, to battling with local boroughs, pigeons and PPP consortiums, to bringing more buses onto the street, to making deals for cheap oil with Hugo Chavez, to attracting the 2012 Olympics (and billions of pounds of public money) to East London.

Ken Livingstone has said that a good candidate could easily unseat him next year, but this sounds more like a playground taunt – ‘come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough\’ – than a sincere sentiment. He would like to stay in post till 2016. Running London is not a springboard for him, but the only job that he seems to want. GLA polls show a gentle decline in his personal approval ratings, but the field of opponents does not give confidence that he will be easily toppled.