Think small, Boris – and you’ll change people’s lives

Author: Andrew Gilligan, Evening Standrad   |  

For the first time in eight years, London politics is a blank canvas – or at the very least, one of those groovy, interactive white-boards that the schools all have these days, where you can move text around, write new things and delete whole chunks of the previous teacher’s lesson.

Over the next few months, there will be no shortage of ideas for the post-Ken world, some of them from the Standard. The first proper salvo comes this lunchtime, with the launch of a pamphlet by the think- tanks Policy Exchange and Localis on what Boris Johnson should do with his million-vote mandate.

I confess that when I was asked to write the chapter on the new Mayor’s style, it felt like a hiding to nothing. Unassisted by even the most enterprising outreach teams of centre-Right think-tankdom, Boris has already developed one of the most distinctive styles in Western Europe.

But the issue is not how Boris looks, or even what he says. It’s not the false debate over whether he should, or shouldn’t, tell jokes. The London mayoralty is a very odd office, whose prestige, or, more unkindly, pretension, far exceeds its actual powers. In most areas, the Mayor is more an influencer than a decider. City Hall is also, of course, Britain’s most explicitly personal elective dictatorship. That is why the Mayor’s style of government, as opposed to his style of hair, matters.

Boris needs to understand both what his predecessor got wrong – and what he got right. Certainly, Ken made striking, ultimately fatal, stylistic mistakes. He was astonishingly, and casually, unpleasant to people he disagreed with. He looked for enemies against whom he could define himself. He sought to create dividing lines where none existed.

It worked for a while, electorally, creating narrow but deep pools of Livingstone supporters who could be relied on to vote. But in the end, Ken’s enemies ganged up to destroy him. Being nice works better. As the London government expert Tony Travers points out, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, achieves results in areas where he has no power by bringing interested parties together, by negotiation and by “epic kindness and gentility”.

Boris must be a uniter, not a divider. He should dismantle Livingstone’s hideous apparatus of identity politics, where London was treated as a series of separate racial, faith and interest-group mini-states, and where the aim of City Hall funding was to lock communities into a relationship of dependency and political obligation.

The new aim should be to unlock communities; to empower the downtrodden, not control them. The principle behind all GLA grant-making should be that which has increasingly come to apply in overseas development assistance: give people a fishing-rod, not a fish; enable them to live independent, self-fulfilled lives without the need for constant injections of public funds.

Ken’s other stylistic mistake was his grandeur: the oil deals, the foreign trips, the neglect of street-level concerns. London under him sometimes felt like the world’s largest Potemkin village, with a shiny frontage of modernity, tolerance and success concealing distinctly modest real policy accomplishments, old-school cronyist politics and huge divisions between rich and poor.

For Boris, small should be beautiful. The green lobby scoffs at his environment policies – to plant more trees, and allow fewer tall buildings. But both will have a greater impact – on the quality of the environment, on Londoners’ happiness, and probably even on levels of C02 – than would Ken’s grand but empty gesture of a gas-guzzler tax. (Trees absorb C02; construction sites create it.) Youth crime should be tackled at the lowest possible nuts-and bolts level: Boris might try setting up a network of youth clubs, and a parenting advice service.

Yet for all Ken’s manifold errors, he did get several things right. He may have been too grand but some of his pretensions were necessary. One of Ken’s most important real achievements was to make the Mayoralty a bully pulpit. He persuaded other decision-makers to take him more seriously than his powers strictly warranted.

He may have been too confrontational, but he was not afraid of confrontation. He did not mind being disliked. Boris’s many supporters worry that he lacks this essential leadership quality. Precisely because he does not like upsetting people, it is possible to imagine him settling for some of the GLA’s old ways; failing, like Tony Blair, to make the hard changes needed in a bloated machine until it is too late. The worst thing to do would be to treat any part of Ken’s creation as settled reality. The GLA is young and provides relatively few services direct to the public; there is unusual scope for change.

The most important thing Ken had was a clear vision, in political jargon a “narrative”, of what London was and where he wanted to take it. It was the wrong vision, a vision rejected by Londoners. Entire continents of Ken’s world were fantasy and spin. But Boris has not yet articulated a coherent counter-narrative, and he needs to do so.

So here is one suggestion: a less divided, less prescriptive city; a more enabling Mayoralty, working not top-down but through free associations of empowered individuals; a closer focus on the dull details of delivery which matter to Londoners’ lives.

It is a far more modest vision than Livingstone’s, but has the important advantage of being truthful, realistic and achievable, aligned with the relatively limited power of the office. Successful politicians set expectations low, then exceed them.

But doesn’t it sound just a little hum-drum? That, perhaps, is where the jokes come in. Boris’s “emotional literacy”, his ability to connect with people, was noticed by both supporters and opponents during the campaign. Someone like him can make it all seem a little more glamorous than it really is. Boris Johnson, Britain’s most postmodern politician, may turn out to be very well suited for the London Mayoralty, Britain’s most postmodern political office.

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