The Thick of It


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Is the mayoral system accountable enough?

So far we have only had two London mayors, Ken Livingstone and now Boris Johnson. Early signs are that Johnson will take a very different approach to Livingstone. This matters because the political structures are still quite new and established practice, which forms the basis for much of British democracy, hasn't yet settled down.

The mayor is meant to be scrutinised by the assembly. This is supplemented by media scrutiny. The assembly's role is set by law and is quite limited., largely to investigation of issues. Scrutiny of the mayor is tempered because politically the assembly needs a two thirds majority to veto the mayor's budget. With 11 of 25 current members Tory (44%), this is unlikely.

The media's role isn't set by law but is more important in brining City Hall closer to the electorate. The Evening Standard's high profile campaign against Livingstone at the recent election brought the whole event a much higher profile. Johnson campained on the basis that he would be a more transparent, accountable mayor. So far the evidence is that he is being less open and less accountable. This goes against what he campaigned for and makes a little understood institution more distant from Londoners.

Johnson has limited journalists to a single question, while Livingstone, widely known as a master of detail, stayed available until all questions had been answered. Even the Standard are pointing this out. One London's Damian Hockney isn't impressed and neither am I:
"one question per journo, Boris? Come on, you're not Madonna or David Beckham - that's how anyone who doesn't want to answer a question deals with accountability."

During the election Johnson was certainly kept from talking to the press and it looks like this is set to continue.

Johnson pledged to bring in people's question times, a great idea, however only two are planned per year. My feeling is that the overall level of scrutiny will be far less under this mayor. This isn't a good start, though hardly a surprising one.


Damian Hockney said...

Greetings, and well said. One additional thing worth mentioning is that London Assembly Members have none of the rights which MPs have, of access to the really useful information...the key to be able to "hold to account". In my 4 years there, I was routinely denied info, and Members have to go down the path of FoI...absurd but a good way of slowing down and even denying information - and many times I was told "you can't have it" anyway (whereas an MP would have been able to get it). One daft occasion was when we tried to find out about the issue of what Bob Kiley was doing for his £2,000 a day consultancy. We had already managed to get the information when we asked the question, but were told we couldn't use it at the Assembly or we would be ruled out of order...somehow it found its way into the press and then we were able to comment on it because it had "already appeared in the press". By the way, as the only Assembly Member who called for the expansion of Heathrow, I wasn't a Green! I still recall the cyclonic response of the audience...I was elected as UKIP in 2004 (and in 2006 we became the free market anti-regulation One London Group). It's Darren who is the Green and it's in the similar name I guess that we are often mistaken... he was the one that held his seat on May 1st!!

Timmymc said...

Apologies for the name confusion - this has now been amended.

I think that Labour might start to get a little annoyed that they didn't put in enough checks and balances against the Mayor. Even Livingstone himself said there were not enough. Having a free hand is fine when in power, not so good when in opposition, which may well start to happen.

Many AMs are very hard working and really care about London. They also have experience of running councils and are well placed to scrutinise, however though it seems they have little power or profile.

The press can raise the profile of the GLA and mayor and should be given more access. I do feel it is time that our constitution governing such bodies should actually take account of the "modern" age and accept that the media has a crucial role in providing political education and scrutiny.