Friday, January 3, 2014

The London Mayoralty – What’s best for Britain

Those of you who are kind enough to read this and don’t live in London, or even in the UK, please don’t switch off. This really isn't a piece intended to inflate parochial politics that directly affects 10% of the population of our sceptred isle. It’s actually the opposite, why we need to have a serious look at the London Mayor, the whole concept, and the personalities we need to make the changes we want to see – not just for the ‘good’ of London, but for the whole of the UK.

Under Boris Johnson, it’s become quite clear what he means by a ‘good’ result. The greater the financial success of the City of London (success defined on his peculiar terms, of course), the more multinationals attracted to London, the more ways to traverse London (and get to it) irrespective of fare price, the higher the property prices, the more un-unionised the workforce and the more hyped the rhetoric about the ‘greatest city on earth’.

It is clear that Boris Johnson’s ‘goods’ have been bad for ordinary Londoners. The cost of living crisis here is plain to see every day, homelessness is on the rise, communities torn apart by economic division, and jobs that increasingly do not pay their way. This is as true for middle-class professionals, dragged into unpaid internships, paying sky-high rent only to move every six months, as it is for working class communities being moved across the country as a result of benefit changes and a lack of affordable housing.

But what does the next Labour candidate need to do in order to meaningfully affect these negative trends? They need to shift the debate – shift it from being the best for London alone, and talk about the best for Britain. We need a mayor as interested in Barnsley and Birmingham as Beijing and Brasilia.

Many of my friends, myself included, went ‘home’ for Christmas; Boris Johnson’s London bubble, and the continued centralisation of commerce here means that opportunities for employment near the places we grew up are limited – and careers are increasingly cut short by demands from employers to move south. Even friends who've bought homes have done it with life savings from parents scraped together in Scunthorpe, not the wages earned in London. If ever there was a human expression of how Johnson's London attempts to suck the successes of other cities (their education systems, public health and their communities), this Christmas spelled it out as clear as day.

Talking to my neighbours back in London about £2.50 pints, and the cost of a loaf, let alone property prices produces bewilderment and envy. I'm pretty angry. Again, the agenda to give London the second most powerful elected official to run it, out of step with the regions, has heightened the centralising trend experienced here and in most Western countries since the nineteenth century.

A London mayor who can create jobs and opportunities outside the M25 would relieve the pressure on the cost of living here and reinvigorate communities there. A pledge from companies moving to London to create jobs in the regions too, as part of making Britain their base, would make a small difference. Viewing the importance of investment in communities away from the capital as a way of relieving housing pressure and improving the quality of everyone’s lives, would be a blessing. The active resettlement of business sectors outside of the capital, if it came with formal links to City Hall, effective transport networks and more pro-active involvement of national institutions than one might normally expect (from universities to government departments) could be a real boon. The advantages given to a company who moves to Wigan, but gets meetings with the London civil service, the Treasury, as well as a decent transport connexion would make a statement, compared to London-locked competitors.

The moving of cultural institutions would help too – not only the financial subsidy, but the loaning of important art collections and theatrical talent has already borne fruit on the small scale. Whether it be the new Tate in Margate, or the clear benefits of commercial touring theatre, London needs to do more institutionally to spread its capital outside the capital.

The conversation about the Arts shows a particularly unpleasant side to the London-centric debate. The Arts Council England demands independent financial success (whether from commerce or philanthropy) from companies who receive public funds. Regional institutions find this increasingly hard to do, as former partners in the capital find access to investment banks, the West End and wealthy donors much easier than those outside the M25. The result will be more public subsidy for the capital on the condition of breeding further financial success. There is a great tragedy watching the Arts Council offer money to touring companies based in London in order to visit the former producing houses that their funding rationale has shut blindly.

A London mayor lobbying for a complete rethink of all local government structure – including in London, which is riddled with duplication and is disposed to centralisation – would make a big statement. Despite much of what should be done is outside of the remit of a mayor, both Ken and Boris have shown the power that their lobbying can have. And a powerful politician prepared to alter their own terms of reference could be a real game-changer.

The Labour Party is setting the debate in Westminster and in the newspapers around the cost of living crisis – a real success for the movement, and so for working people. How we’re going to remedy it is what voters are clamouring for. To build on the impressive start made by pledges to freeze bills, making London truly the capital of the UK, rather than a Grand Duchy is key to a sustainable answer.