After eight years in opposition as a London Assembly Member, Richard Barnes is now the Deputy Mayor of London.
In the last of our articles to mark the tenth anniversary of the Greater London Authority he talks to Martin Hoscik and Adam Bienkov about regime change at City Hall and what it’s like to “sit on the right hand of God”
As the only ‘statutory’ Deputy Mayor of London, Richard Barnes has had to endure a series of negative headlines about departing “deputy mayors” after the Mayor extended the title to a number of his advisors.
Does he think that the decision to have “sprayed a few titles around” as Boris once memorably put it, was a mistake?
Barnes admits that it did cause confusion: “In New York they have deputy mayors, but in America it’s understood, here it wasn’t. That’s the way every city in America does it.”
“The danger is, as has been proven, anybody who has got the title ‘deputy mayor’, if something goes wrong then the media will say they sit on the right hand of God. If someone’s an ‘advisor’ on an issue it’s not psychologically the same.”
Put to him that Ray Lewis, Johnson’s ‘deputy mayor for young people’ might still be in his job if he’d not been given such a grand title, Barnes says he “would share that view”.
Some argue that the early departures faced by the Mayor’s team could have been avoided if they had been allowed a “handover period” between his administration and the departing Livingstone regime. Does Barnes see any merit in introducing a handover period to allow future Mayors to find their feet?
“Ken had a long period from the election, about a ten week period, the American president has from November to January and we had four days, two of which were Bank Holidays and you do need time.”
“I was familiar with the building, I was familiar the secretariat which serves the Assembly, but that left six other floors that I had only a vague knowledge of. It was a question of getting to know people – who they were, where they sat, what they did – and for months people would say “I’m the advisor on X’ and you’d think ‘God, where did you come from?’ and it was quite extraordinary.”
One criticism Johnson faced during the Mayoral election was his inability to name those people who would join him at City Hall. Barnes reveals that he and Johnson were under pressure from supporters to give them jobs.
“I remember during the campaign the number of people who came to me and asked ‘if you win can I have this job?’ and the pressures on the Mayor from people offering support and then asking for a job was enormous, well, before you sell the skin you actually have to shoot the bear.”
“I was advising Boris to offer no jobs until he’d won because there is a process to go through. Similarly if you offer someone a job and then you don’t win they’re full of disappointment. You have to wait, and then to have only four days to get a team in and re-arrange the offices – it’s a silly pressure.”
“Given the total number of appointments that have to be made, not just within this building but in the functional bodies, it’s crazy and you can’t say to somebody ‘work for me after I’ve won the election’ and expect them to say ‘Ok, I’ll go and resign now’.”
“Say you’ve been offered the job of Chair of the LDA, do you want your employers to know you’re going to leave in three months time if Boris wins the election? And if he doesn’t you have to crawl back and say ‘I am very loyal, I do want to stay here’.”
How does he balance the two conflicting roles of being Deputy Mayor, which places him at the centre of the decision making process, and as a member of the Assembly which exists to scrutinise that process?
“My role is to support the Mayor’s policies even if I argue against them in private” he says before quoting Labour’s Nicky Gavron, Deputy under Livingstone, as describing the role as “second fiddle in a one man band.”
In the event that Johnson wanted to shake up his top team or was expelled by the voters in 2012 would Barnes be happy to go back to being ‘just’ an Assembly Member?
“Last year I did 1,478 meetings and events and the pressure on the Mayor’s diary is just as great. Having sat so close to the fire I’m more than content to be making a difference in the social policy realms which come under my responsibilities and yes, if I wasn’t Deputy Mayor I’d happily go back to being an AM.”
How will he measure his time in the post? “It’s a real challenge but what we’ve done so far is re-write the broad structure and we’re now into the year of delivering.”
”Mayors and others can look for monuments to their period in office be it be the Shard of Glass or a statue at the Olympic Park or whatever else, quite honestly I think the legacy you can truly leave is a city where you don’t have half the people in work, enjoying their success, and the other half locked out without education opportunities, without job opportunities, without training opportunities on the poor side if you like, and that can be genuine poverty amongst the elderly who are not claiming the benefits they’re entitled to and can be families that are earning less than the minimum wage or even not earning at all, but given some form of childcare, given a training opportunity to get back into the economic cycle. If you can build that cohesion within and across communities then I think that’s a greater legacy than anything else.”
Unlike some Conservatives Barnes is a keen advocate of the cultural festivals championed under Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty: “you can’t have a London that doesn’t enjoy Chinese New Year, Russian Winter Festival, Eid, Passion play in Trafalgar Square, carol concerts at Christmas. Celebrating the diversity that is there, that is the greater legacy.”
What does he say to those who don’t consider the diverse nature of London a cause for celebration? “Whatever one’s views on the mass immigration into London over the past few years it is a fact of life. You can wish the world were different but it’s not so let’s make sure people do integrate, that they do have the skills to speak English, not necessarily to read and write it as if they were born here but at least be able to communicate.”
Barnes says an inability to communicate can lead immigrants to face “massive health inequalities”
“What mother is going to take an eight year old child who speaks English to discuss their gynaecological problems with their doctor? It’s not going to happen, so we end up with [the risk of] deaths and families that are in dire need and that means we need to reach out as widely as we can.”
The case for London Government
Barnes was initially opposed to the creation of a new tier of Government for the capital and voted against it in the 1999 referendum so why did he ultimately decide to stand for election to the Assembly?
“Once it was going to be established I thought we had to do the best we could to make sure it’s Tory” he says.
In the aftermath of the 2000 elections “I came in with a great deal of scepticism, we had a Mayor who was independent, we were the largest party although that meant effectively bugger all unless you could work in coalition with everybody else. The way in which the organisation had been set up was clearly to ensure that it would always be hung so that people had to work together.”
In the following decade Barnes says he’s “learnt that there is a clear need for a regional authority, there are issues which can only be resolved properly across boroughs” citing planning applications as an area where there’s a need for external intervention.
“There are planning issues where local authorities are vulnerable to pressure, particularly where big strategic decisions have got to be made. Sometimes, relatively rarely but it happens, you need a really arms length authority to make those decisions on behalf of London in general, so I’ve come round to that strategic view.”
“Sometimes you actually need some phosphorus in the water that actually makes those things happen.”
Citing a project from his time as leader of Hillingdon council as evidence of how things can go wrong with cross-borough schemes, Barnes recalls: “We put in a cycle path and where we reached the border of Ealing and Hillingdon they were a couple of hundred yards apart.”
”It’s only the politicians and the police service that recognise these [borough borders], certainly the criminals don’t, the traffic doesn’t, shoppers don’t.”
Crime is another area where Barnes firmly believes Londoners get a better deal post devolution:
“Clearly there was a need for London to have a Police authority, for some reason when John Major set up the authorities in the 90’s London was exempted, clearly this couldn’t continue… the Met is the police force for London”
When asked about the insistence of Home Secretaries to retain control over aspects of the Met, as evidenced by the row between Johnson and the Home Office over Ian Blair’s successor, Barnes suggests ministerial self-interest plays a part, posing the question “what role the Home Office if it doesn’t have a police service that the Home Secretary has control and influence over?”
“Home Secretaries have tended in the past to be puerile, they ask each other ‘how big is yours’ by which they mean ‘how many feet walked the streets when you became Home Secretary and how many were walking the streets when you left?’ It’s an infantile measure of success quite honestly, it’s footfall rather then driving down crime.”
Even after the creation of the MPA Barnes says that there was a reluctance in Westminster to give full control over policing to the Mayor.
“There was a massive fear that Ken Livingstone and the left would hijack it and get access to information that the Government of the day didn’t want them to have so they plucked out this one thing, Home Secretary’s nominee, responsible for Special Operations (S.O.).”
“This meant that S.O. was surrounded by a glass wall to be honest, it was a case of ‘you can look at it but you can’t ask any questions, you can’t get inside it’s management structure or the massive overtime bills, it was effectively unaccountable.”
“I recognise the sensitivities but I think if people are going to be put on a body you’ve got to treat them with respect and expect them to be responsible.”
On the role of the Assembly Barnes says the Conservative’s original response to Government plans to set up the GLA was for the Assembly to consist of a single member from each London borough “with no London-wide members and I think actually that would probably work better because you could then take a borough-wide view.”
“At the moment fourteen of us have constituencies, I did five events on Saturday in mine, starting at 8.45 in the morning and finishing at half past four in the afternoon, a London-wide member hasn’t got those pressures on them.”
He’s also critical of the composition of London Assembly constituencies which in some cases encompass areas with no historical or social connections.
Barnes says “I know that proportional representation is a gesture towards including the minor parties but all they do is come and spout particular philosophies as against representing a quarter to a half a million people”.
He accepts that if each borough was represented by a single AM there’d be variations between the number of voters and geographical size of constituencies but says “I think you could live with that because then you get proper relationships with borough commanders, fire and ambulance services, PCT’s and you can contribute on a better level.”
One thing Barnes is very clear on, any reformed or revised London Assembly “must be elected” specifically for the purpose of holding the Mayor to account.
Like Livingstone he’s interested in our idea that the Assembly be elected in a different year to the Mayor, saying it would “certainly add a spice to the process which is perhaps absent now”, though in response to suggestions that candidates for the Assembly tend to be overshadowed by the Mayoral runners he’s keen to point out that he “got a bigger majority than the Mayor” in his constituency.
On the issue of greater powers for the Assembly Barnes says “the ability to change line by line the [Mayor’s] budget would make a big difference” adding that under the current system where opponents to the budget must achieve a two-thirds majority against it meant “in December last year I could have told you the results…we knew at the May 2008 election that every one of the current Mayor’s budgets would get through, full stop, simply because of the number [of Tory AMs] that were there and the inability of anybody to create or manufacture a coalition to overturn it.”
The Media and Assembly
Asked about the Assembly’s relationship with the media he says much “depends on the skills of the individual involved. Certainly during the last two years of the previous administration I couldn’t complain about my access to the media.”
Barnes was a leading player in the row over the London Development Agency which overshadowed much of Livingstone’s last months in office and, more vitally, his bid for re-election in 2008.
“You’ve got to have story to tell, and quite honestly what I was doing over the LDA during those two years was something the Assembly should have been doing but failed to pick up.”
Barnes says it was “only when I used the word ‘corruption’ that the world exploded and people got an interest and that includes the media itself.”
He says over ten years “the Assembly has never seized its opportunity” and suggests that “the vast majority of people on the Assembly have failed to recognise the access and influence they actually have.”
He laments the fact that although the Assembly exists to scrutnise the Mayor, “it only ever does it post the issue, they may well comment during the consultation process but there’s no real bite to it. It has as much weight as the ABC group from Outer Southwark.”
Our citing of the 7/7 enquiry, which he led and which was widely praised for its scope and impact, as a rare example of the Assembly fulfilling its true potential earns his enthusiastic agreement.
“Over 200,000 copies [of the report] have been downloaded, its gone worldwide and has had a major influence on the way people think about preparation for catastrophic events, not just terrorism but to deal with communications in the broadest sense, not just to each other in the emergency services, but out to the general public. I don’t say it because I chaired it, it had a major influence, no-one wanted it to happen, in fact the word came to me that the Government didn’t want me to do it.”
“I think there’s more the Assembly could do, good in-depth stuff rather than political point scoring. The objective of that report was to improve the issues for Londoners and I think we need to rise above the ‘was the Piccadilly line late again?’ type issues which could be dealt with in a phone call and get into the real issues.”
We ask him if the party group structure of leaders and whips, which Livingstone was so critical of when we interviewed him was a hinderance to co-operation between the Assembly parties. “It is” he says, adding that politicians in general need to “grow up” and work with other parties in the interests of their constituents.
Since our time with Barnes in early March, the General Election result has arguably produced the ultimate expression of his call for co-operative ‘grown up’ politics in the shape of a coalition UK Government. His suggestions on MPA reform have also taken on a wider significance in light of the recent package of changes proposed by Boris Johnson to the way City Hall operates.