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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