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What a shambles

Boris Johnson is under pressure following yet another high-profile resignation. How much longer can

Following yet more disastrous headlines, Boris Johnson’s administration now resembles a ship with no clear course and with a crew losing members at an alarming rate, each one forced to walk the plank while the captain himself tries to persuade everyone else that nothing is wrong. So far, three deputy mayors of London, including the most senior of Boris Johnson’s aides, have been forced to resign in one year.

The deputy mayor Ian Clement is the latest to go, forced out over misuse of a Greater London Authority credit card. The scandal has been building for several weeks and may well end up in the realm of fraud. In July last year, the deputy mayor Ray Lewis was forced to resign over allegations of financial misconduct and because he had lied about being a magistrate. The first deputy mayor, Tim Parker, resigned in August, only a short time after taking up his post, having lost an internal power struggle.

To this we must add other layers of senior mayoral appointees who have gone in enforced circumstances. The deputy chief of staff James McGrath resigned after suggesting that black people who did not like Boris Johnson as mayor could leave. The Olympics adviser David Ross went having failed to declare that he had used £162m of company shares for personal loans. The head of Barclays Capital, Bob Diamond, rapidly departed for the United States after the mayoral election, having been touted during the campaign as an example of the expertise Boris would bring to his team.

In all my time in the capital’s citywide politics, I cannot think of any comparable period of sheer disarray and instability. The charge of incompetence is being demonstrated repeatedly. This is a mayor who finds the time to do his weekly newspaper column and hold heavily controlled media events, yet has no time to meet the leadership of the largest Tube unions, even when strike action looms, and whose administration is the first to withdraw the entire bus network because of bad weather.

The succession of enforced resignations contrasts very sharply with the previous eight years, in which there was only one resignation at a comparable level. The turmoil at the top is merely a symptom of the problem. London is a great international city, and to sustain that position it requires huge investment on all levels as well as clear policy, to ensure that it is able to function successfully. Boris Johnson’s administration has no policy to meet this challenge. It is backward-looking and committed to small, shrunken government. Thus it cannot and will not address London’s biggest issues. As a result, it is in a perpetually disorganised state.

This is a problem for the Conservative Party nationally. Johnson’s re-election campaign would be two years into a possible Tory government and the most high-profile electoral test of that government. Unlike the rest of the country, the progressive vote in London held up strongly during the 2008 mayoral election. In that campaign, we secured a result 13 per cent ahead of Labour nationally and 10 per cent of Labour in London.

Conservative policy for London is fundamentally a vacuum. Most of the things likely to be delivered – if they are not bungled – were initiated before Johnson came to power: the 2012 Olympics, for example, or transport upgrades such as air-conditioning on some new Tube trains. But now the larder is looking pretty empty.

What we are seeing is policy stagnation, and actual backward steps. Eye-watering fare increases have been imposed without even the benefit of bringing new investment with them; most future transport projects have
been shelved. Public transport users pay more but drivers of the most polluting cars are helped. A new higher congestion charge on the so-called Chelsea tractors has been cancelled. Thousands more cars will be permitted into central London when the congestion charge zone is halved in size. These two measures alone amount to more than £100m in lost annual revenue, quite apart from their impact on the environment.

There is no coherent policy to build new, cheap homes. Policies to guarantee a decent supply of cheap, social-rented homes are being dumped. For the first time in eight years, London’s police budget is being frozen.

We are going through our biggest economic challenge since the 1930s. In such times, the capital requires sustained investment and deeper links to the most dynamic parts of the world economy. Pursuing the opposite course, the city’s administration has instead sliced spending on the promotion of London abroad. Essential economic investment was cut just as the economy nosedived – a very right-wing policy.

If London is to succeed as the most international city in the world it must utilise its great cultural assets while continuing to look forward. Conservative London has other ideas. Rubbishing youth culture, new media and film, while favouring opera and ballet, is the order of the day. The mayor declares himself an “unashamed cultural elitist”.

False economies have been imposed. Cultural festivals supported over many years both helped to improve community relations and added to London’s open image to the rest of the world. Only this month, it was confirmed that the annual Trafalgar Square-based Jewish cultural festival, Simcha on the Square, has been cancelled. Simcha was the largest one-day Jewish cultural festival in Europe. It is pure vandalism to permit it to be cancelled. It is the latest in a line of such events to have suffered funding cuts or been cancelled outright.

An administration that fails to invest, fails to connect up properly with the global economy and looks backward is both right-wing and dull. It is bound to be riven with incompetence, as the latest resignation shows, because it is disconnected from real challenges and the real needs of Londoners.

Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London from May 2000 to May 2008

Ken Livingstone is the former Mayor of London.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide