Most Londoners will only know of UKIP’s stance on Europe. Can you share with us your priorities for London and Londoners?
There are two aspects of this: the priorities which revolve around specific issues, and the priorities which relate to democracy and accountability. The latter are crucial as there is no point in having endless policies which you are simply not allowed to enforce even if you were in power, or in a majority. It is useful to remember that even if we won every seat on the assembly, we would still have no power to do anything except influence the mayor’s budget and scrutinise his decisions. And if our candidate were also elected Mayor, he would only be able to do what the European Union and Westminster specifically allow him to do.
Above all, we believe in proper consultation and accountability on all issues, a situation which is simply not possible in an evolving system of government in which tame regional assemblies like the Mayor and London Assembly are simply conduits of rules and regulations from other bodies, increasingly the EU.
At its simplest and most straightforward, you may remember the tremendous row over tube funding which blighted the opening year or two of the Mayor’s first administration. This row was actually one enormous shadow boxing contest, as the requirement for PPP (and indeed PFI in other sectors of the
economy) came directly from the requirements in EU Directives and agreements at Maastricht all signed up by the Major government. As we tirelessly pointed out again and again, there is no use everyone working themselves up in a sweat over whether it’s Tony’s fault, Gordon’s fault or Ken’s when the decision has been made for them by the previous Tory government’s signing up to Stages 1 and 2 of Economic and Monetary Union, and when some lawyers also argue that the EU Rail Directive 91/440 allows the EU to interfere anyway due to its (possibly intentional) ambiguous wording as to what constitutes a national or city network Railtrack was definitely an EU obligation, but no-one ever mentions that either…
On the immediate level – actual policies – UKIP believes in consultation. Hence we have immediately acted to oppose the West London Tram project unless and until the consultation process is a genuine and satisfactory one which considers all the aspects. The process there appears to have been designed – as is increasingly common – to act as a fig leaf for decisions already made.
In general terms, our policies are libertarian. So, for example, although I as UKIP’s group leader on the Assembly am a lifelong non-smoker, we will oppose very strongly the move to outlaw smoking in public places which has been mooted. It must be up to the owners of bars and restaurants whether they want to allow smoking, not government. We would scrap the so-called Congestion Charge – it is nothing of the sort: it is road pricing which benefits the rich and subsidised. Those who need to use their cars in, for example, the night time economy, have been severely disadvantaged by the new tax. It’s a barrier to jobs, a barrier to activity and has no place in a modern city. It has damaged business in central London. Moaning about ‘congestion’? It’s like expressing pleasure that no-one has called you in your business all day, and you have done no business and so you have had a ‘congestion free’ day.
We’ll also oppose gesture politics and partisanship. If you look at our first Mayor’s Question Time, you will see that we are very strongly not partisan and we want to engage in rational and genuine debate. No time for stock prepackaged solutions which come from some central office or an HQ.
The London Assembly is the forgotten partner in the GLA, coming to it with fresh eyes what do you think can be done to raise Londoner’s awareness of it?
The Assembly has no powers, so it surely is not a partner but a sideshow. And I do not mean to be dismissive when I say that. The Government created a system which fraudulently purports to be the Government of London. Every day I pass the City Hall foundation stone which wrongly claims that the building is the home of the ‘London government’. I call it the Blarney Stone, but I am not tempted to kiss it.
We’ll be issuing challenges to the Government to give London meaningful powers, not this empty fraud. But sadly we’ll be issuing the challenge secure in the knowledge that they will never do so. Why? Because the “Europe of the Regions” pillar of the EU demands that these assemblies simply function as conduits for their rules and directives, ultimately competing for “funding” from the all powerful central government of the EU. If EU directives can be so micro managing as to tell you that you can go to prison for selling a pound of apples, and to specify the curvature of bananas, how many of you genuinely believe that they are going to start giving us real powers to do our own thing in transport, housing, social services? All the rules on these must be the same and any variation is granted or withdrawn by the central authority of the EU (or in increasingly limited areas, Westminster). Great news when the EU does something you might want a government to do…but what about when an incoming authority wants to do something new and the EU simply says ‘No’?
When the Welsh Assembly was started up, all these AMs in Wales were running around saying all sorts. And one decided to declare Wales A “GM Free zone”. We had already told her you can’t do this because GM is 100 per cent an EU decision. Well, sure enough a few days after she said it the EU made a simple statement that Wales was not a GM free zone and the AM concerned simply had to accept it…complete collapse of stout party.
And on that basis, the idea of maintaining a powerless assembly, and at the same time getting rid of boroughs which have some genuine powers and accountability? No way. We would only be in favour of radically revising the structure of London administration if the Assembly had real and meaningful powers – ie the type of rights held by citizens in Switzerland where a percentage of the population can petition and then alter the actual law by referendum. This, might I add, is the opposite of government style referenda in which states spend vast amounts of money in advance propagandising for something, offer a dodgy question to the electorate and all but rub out the opposition case by weight of finance (ie the planned referendum for the European Constitution…)
Based on any observations of the previous (2000 – 2004) assembly, how can the new assembly better hold the Mayor to account?
The Assembly does have a real role – if few actual powers – in scrutiny of the mayor’s actions. But we are coming round to the view that the Assembly would be better served by also planning to fight London’s corner in the national and international arena. So for example we’d rather highlight something like, say, tube funding, or damaging rules being made for London by Brussels or Westminster, and turn our ire and scrutiny as much on them as on the Mayor. Similarly, the Assembly must campaign to get more of the money back which London contributes to the national economy for its infrastructure. After all, the Mayor is actually simply carrying out rules and regulations made for him by either Westminster or Brussels. In that arena, we cannot win any great points other than ensuring that we work with the public servants, who I have to say I have the greatest of confidence in at the Greater London Authority, to ensure that rules are followed within the limits prescribed.
Brussels introduced the idea of allowing congestion charging or road pricing, and the UK government enacted the relevant legislation to permit someone else (London Mayor or Edinburgh City Council or wherever) to administer it. The Mayor could never simply decide to introduce something like this that had not been first introduced by the EU and then rubber stamped by Westminster. Where the media is sometimes ingenuous or simplistic is when it says that “the Mayor has decided to…” Actually what has happened in these instances is that the Mayor has been authorised to vary an element of legislation made elsewhere and so he may choose to do it or not to do it. But he does not have the power to actually legislate. It’s funny how people often don’t get this and genuinely think that individuals are sitting there making new laws, all powerful in their little den high above Tower Bridge.
Scrutiny over the admin is important but it does mean that the Assembly effectively is a kind of politicised elected civil service.
The irony about UKIP’s opposition to this EU Europe of the Regions is that a UKIP administration would scrap the commitment but would probably hand greater powers to local government – and definitely to a Londonwide administration like the GLA – than any other party as part of its commitment to genuine and vibrant local government. This irony only came home to us after we had been elected…
Following Labour’s losses on June 10th they no longer have an automatic bar to the assembly blocking the Mayor’s budgets. This means you (along with the Greens) have the ability to decide whether the budget is passed or not, how will you approach this issue?
You have hit a point which I almost went into in the question above. Yes, we realised this when it became clear that the Mayor did not have the one-third of the Assembly to guarantee acceptance of his Budget. 7 Labour members out of the 25 on the Assembly do not quite do it for him, so it promises to be quite a challenge. But of course the Assembly cannot just block the budget. Rather it must come up with one of its own. Hours of fun for all the family there I should imagine.
90 per cent of the budget is actually taken up with police and fire and emergency planning, so it is almost inevitable that the remaining 10 per cent is the contested part. Firstly, we believe that the Government must come up with more money to give back to London from the net outflow to other parts of Britain, and we hope that they are not simply going to drop their Mayor into it by failing to see what Londoners delivered in the way of composition of the new assembly. London put Ken back in, but denied him guaranteed backing, and so handed those of us elected onto the Assembly with an opportunity. And also of course they handed us the weapon to shoot ourselves neatly between the eyes by either being overly partisan and treating everything as a chance to have a go and starting guerilla warfare which will achieve nothing for any of us, or by simply failing to demonstrate and use the influence which Assembly members can now have.
Given that so much of London’s wealth comes from trade with Europe, how do you explain the recent and very real rise in support for a ‘Eurosceptic’ party?
I am by background a London-based a businessman and publisher of consumer titles and indeed one of the few publishers who actually sell large numbers of copies and market leading titles in EU countries. I am eurosceptic – like many other businessmen – precisely because the EU is a barrier to jobs and trade and its workings are driving businesses into the ground. The EU is not a trade institution but a political one, and it is a bit like the old Soviet Union but wearing a slightly less miserable face (for now, anyway). Ask city people, and the large numbers of leading businessmen who are members of the No campaign, or Business for Sterling. Ask the Federation of Small Businesses which votes all the time to pull out of the EU. They will all tell you better than I can of the drag of EU legislation which we have no control over, the damage being done to sectors in the name of “level playing fields”. The reasons for the incredible surge of support for UKIP has partly been because of the increased media coverage brought on by high profile figures like Robert Kilroy-Silk. But also, and crucially, even if everyone from Cilla Black to OJ Simpson and Alma Cogan leapt onto the bandwagon, it would make no difference if you were offering something people did NOT want. But the people took a look and LIKED what they saw.
It is precisely because London is so much a centre of intrnational trade and business that it will benefit from being outside of the political institutions of the EU.
On the subject of Europe, there is a tendency to portray the argument in very simple terms; ‘Europe means a loss of sovereignty’ or ‘withdrawal means a massive loss of trade’. Isn’t the reality much more complex than the media and most politicians make out?
How true and how very depressing. On all fronts. I loathe the arguments based upon the simplistic and try to avoid them at all costs. With respect the simplifications are even worse than you cite. I have seen respectable papers and magazines on one hand talk, as cheerleaders for the EU, about “isolation” outside of the EU if we left, and on the other hand I read entirely irrelevant things about losing our “ancient way of life or rights to drive pigs across Tower Bridge” if we have anything to do with Johnny Foreigner.
But you see, one of the problems is that things which sometimes seem far-fetched quickly become reality. When the Tories passed the law (or rubber stamped the EU law) enforcing compulsory metrication in the mid 1990s, I wrote an article saying that by the end of the 90s, people would be prosecuted for selling a pound of bananas and that there would be high profile court cases. “Don’t be silly,” they all cried (from all parties)… “scaremonger…xenophobe…foreigner hater…liar”. Well before my time limit, traders were dragged into court, and one recently died of a heart attack at a very young age folowing the harassment from police and trading standards, for selling people, er, a pound of bananas.
The same applies with the threats to freedom of speech. These threats and plans are all written down for anyone to see, like the enforced metrication by the Tories was in 1996, but it seems that you first get the shouted chorus of refusal to believe, followed by your prediction coming true, followed by those who shouted moving on to the next thing, all the while shouting “xenophobe…foreigner hater…Little Englander”. It is surreal.
Amid all the bilge it is sometimes difficult to engage the real points. The dangerous points are the ones made to claim that those who oppose the EU are automatically xenophobic or racist. Very dangerous that one, because it is an EU sanctioned way of permitting what may turn into a ban upon parties which oppose their nations’ membership of the EU “in the interests of democracy”. If you check out some of the decisions of the European Court of Justice (they’re not judges, by the way – mostly politicans and friends of politicians), and the wordings of intended rules on this area, you will see that it has been mooted more than once recently to allow the EU Commission to ban or severely restrict parties who oppose their nations’ membership of the EU…all in the interests of democracy of course! And not one of our own parties here except UKIP picked up on this and really opposed it. Remember what Niemoller said in 1930s Germany about turning a blind eye to the oppression of others until there was no-one left to help you yourself when in the end the persecutor comes for you?