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Government / Local politics

Mayors have the power to radically shift the debate. London's leaders should try it

Since November, the Changing London initiative has organised a series of open meetings with Londoners, to discuss what the priorities for the next mayor should be.

Earlier this year, the initiative’s founders David Robinson Will Horwitz turned those ideas into a book, “Changing London – A Rough Guide for the Next London Mayor”, published in May. This is an extract from the introduction.

Over the past seven years, Boris Johnson has become one of the UK’s most recognisable politicians, deploying the bully pulpit of the London mayoralty to develop a profile far in excess of that warranted by his formal powers. Consider how worthwhile that might have been, if only he had more to say that opened hearts and minds, that was constructive, healing, generous, collaborative, bold or inspiring.

The mayoralty, we think, comes with a set of “super powers” – a voice that is heard afar, a visibility that extends far beyond the official remit, and a unique capacity to convene people from across the city, the government and the world in the interests of London and Londoners. Imagine switching on the news one evening and hearing the mayor, our mayor, saying:

I want to start a conversation. Our financial services sector is a vital employer, generating wealth and opportunity. We are proud to be world leaders but that means we must embrace the responsibilities of leadership. This is why I want to discuss the Robin Hood Tax – a tiny tax on global financial transactions. Hong Kong, South Africa and South Korea have found a way to do it. Couldn’t we?

Or perhaps, picking up the Evening Standard and reading of a mayor, making this case to fellow Londoners:

I refuse to call London a “great city” while one third of our children grow up in families that are struggling. Poverty stems from the structure of our society and the rules of our economy: it is about the rich just as much as the poor. We need a more thoughtful approach to policy at the bottom. We also need a more thoughtful approach at the top.

The capital needs a leader who can inform public opinion and articulate an ethical argument, doggedly shifting the moral centre of the conversation. A mayor who will listen to and speak up for those whose voices are seldom heard and little understood.

The cautious consensus that infuses almost every “debate” in Westminster is carefully calibrated for the swing voter who, apparently, abhors the different, the bold or the radical. It is not an approach that works for would-be mayors. The electorate has demonstrated a lively appetite for alternatives in its city favourites. Across the UK, and indeed throughout the world, mavericks have run well in mayoral contests. Neither Johnson nor Livingstone campaigned as figures of the establishment – although both, with distinguished exceptions during Livingstone’s first term, largely governed in prose.


What might this more radical approach look like in 2016?  At the Changing London Open Meetings, which we held over the last few months, candidates and possible candidates talked a lot about children and a lot about inequality – two of our most significant themes. But they centred almost all their remarks around poor people and poor children.

This is easy, but it is not nearly enough. A bold candidate would ask instead: how do we build a fair city, where power and wealth and opportunity are shared more equally?

This is not primarily about working with the poorest, because the ugly inequality that is flourishing in London at present is manifestly not their fault. Children’s centres and good schools and work experience are important – but so are a maximum ratio between the lowest and the highest paid, employees being appointed to company boards, a financial transactions tax to rein in the City, the end of speculative investment in London’s housing, and much more.

Similarly, a mayor with high ambitions for London’s children wouldn’t only have a policy prescription for its most “troubled families” but a shared vision that applies to all of what it means to grow up a London child.

A healthy city, a fair city, the best city in the world to grow up – these are wide, inclusive ideals. Delivering them will call for big bold inclusive ideas and the strength of character to see them through.

Bill de Blasio had both. He came from behind to win the mayoral race in New York by exposing the widening gap in income and opportunity between the richest and poorest. He attacked the “lazy logic of false choice politics… that those of us who serve can’t expect to achieve anything at all if we dare to advance policies that are bold and morally right”.

Brave? A certain gumption, perhaps, but other mayors have also shown the way. The mayor of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, has spoken about the time when a quarter of the city’s population were sent to concentration camps during the Nazi occupation. When a fascist Golden Dawn candidate was elected to the city council, the mayor wore a prominent Star of David on his chest at the swearing- in ceremony. Mayors make news, news influences opinion, and opinion shapes behaviour, both amongst the movers and the shakers in the city and, ultimately, amongst the voters next time around.

In this context, deeds matter almost as much as words. Consider the overweight mayor of Oklahoma, who led by example in a city-wide campaign to “lose a million pounds”. Now, not only are its citizens thinner and fitter, but lower healthcare costs and diminishing workplace absentee rates have attracted unprecedented investment, unemployment is down and Oklahoma City boasts the strongest economy of any major metropolitan area in the US.

Canadian Naheed Nenshi became the first Muslim mayor of Calgary – indeed the first Muslim mayor of any major North American city – in 2010. The relatively unknown former management consultant snuck into office with 40 per cent of the vote in a field split by competing stalwarts of the establishment.

He then surprised them all with his flagship project – 3 Things for Calgary – encouraging his citizens to imagine three things that they could do for their community, and then to persuade three friends to do the same. Calgarians embraced the innovative approach with great enthusiasm and returned him to office for a second term, with an impressive 74 per cent of the vote.

A younger generation that is disillusioned with mainstream politics identifies with issues, not tribes. A same-old versus same-old contest in London in 2016 will not ignite the passions of an electorate that is young, substantially unaligned and increasingly bored – if not terminally disaffected – by business as usual. For mayors and would be mayors, breaking new ground is very smart politics.

David Robinson is the co-founder of social action charity Community Links, Shift, and the Children’s Discovery Centre. Will Horwitz is an MA student and researcher and campaigner for charities including Oxfam and Community Links.

This is an extract from “Changing London – A Rough Guide for the next London Mayor”, published by London Publishing Partnership. You can buy your copy here.
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