Why London gives parties nightmayors

The difficulties that both the Lib Dems and Tories are experiencing in finding suitable candidates for London Mayor is clearly unfortunate, but not entirely unpredictable. Labour of course had its own problem back in 2000, eventually opting for the laughable Frank Dobson (ruining his career in the process) who was trounced by the then-independent Ken Livingstone.

The problem lies in the system of devolution that Labour has imposed on London (to be fair, we had a vote, but the public and other parties were never given a say on what system we might want first – it was a fait accompli). The GLA is tiny – 25 members – toothless and subsequently anonymous.

While the London Mayor has only rather limited powers, what powers the office does have are entirely unaccountable. The GLA can only block him on a 2/3rds majority vote, meaning that Labour can force through virtually any proposal despite not having an overall majority. For some, this is its strength – after all Livingstone’s transport policies (which I would go a long way in supporting) would have had a much rougher time if there were greater checks on his powers. Yet the result is that there is very little interest in what the GLA does. It is democratically elected, but its legitimacy is fatally undermined by its lack of relevancy. As a result, while I am a political hack who could bluff my way through any conversation on Scottish and Welsh politics, I couldn’t begin to tell you what the GLA actually does from one week to the next.

The weakness of the GLA is directly relevant to the difficulty that parties have in finding mayoral candidates. The ideal candidate is a big personality who already has a track record of success and a public profile. Back in the day, it was suggested that Tony Blair had Richard Branson in mind for the job. We’ve had talk radio hosts suggested (Nick Ferrari), think tank directors (Nick Boles), cheesy DJs (Mike Read), senior politicians and ex-ministers (Simon Hughes and Steve Norris), but the only candidate who has ever enjoyed public support is someone whose only claim to fame is that he used to run the GLC.

In many respects, this is a good thing, and a valuable corrective to the perception that career politics is all bad and disliked by the public. But the GLA is not the GLC. Love it or hate it, people took great interest in what the GLC did. Livingstone wasn’t the only personality that emerged from it (Tony Banks, John McDonnell). If we had the GLC now, we would already have half a dozen people being lined up as possible successors to Ken’s crown. Instead, if Livingstone went under a bendy bus tomorrow, Labour would have more difficulty than any other party in finding a credible candidate. Nicky Gavron? Ha ha ha. Actually, I’d be tempted to support Dave Wetzel, but it ain’t gonna happen.

I’m more sympathetic to the idea of directly elected mayors than a lot of Lib Dems, but Labour’s policy of rendering them unaccountable is not merely undemocratic, it is unsustainable. At a stroke, it creates a vacuum at the heart of the polity. The GLA needs to be reformed, urgently.

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