Interview: Darren Johnson on the London Assembly and Mayoral Accountability

Ahead of the 2009 Annual General Meeting of the London Assembly, MayorWatch spoke to Darren Johnson about the Assembly’s relevance to Londoners, it’s role in shaping Mayoral policies, and holding the Mayor to account.

Darren JohnsonDarren Johnson is one of the UK’s most successful and recognisable Green politicians, one of the original 2000 intake on the London Assembly he twice ran as his party’s Mayoral candidate and on May 6th is expected to be elected as the Assembly Chair for the forthcoming year.

His virtually guaranteed accession, the catalyst for this interview, is the result of an agreement between the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green Party Assembly groups in the days following last year’s Greater London Authority elections. The three parties were determined that the capital’s newly elected Conservative Mayor shouldn’t enjoy the luxury of a Conservative controlled Assembly.

Johnson says such deals are the usual currency of politics, “no-one’s being cheated” he insists when asked if it isn’t a little undemocratic and whether this kind of pact shouldn’t be actively flagged up to voters.

Almost a decade after the establishment of the Greater London Authority the London Assembly is starting to achieve a level of prominence and recognition, reports on the events of 7/7 and the more recent snowfalls have attracted widespread media coverage, but as Johnson readily admits “in the early days the Assembly struggled to get it’s voice out, partly because there wasn’t really a template on how things operated”.

Johnson characterises the work during the GLA’s first term to build that template as “lots of trial and error, probably more error than trial” and readily admits that the Assembly’s committee structure “spiralled out of control with sub-committees of sub-committees.”

“There was a cross party realisation by the end of that first term in 2004 of the need to have a rationalised structure and committees which met less frequently but really shone a light on key issues.”

Despite the complex committee structure, Johnson’s very clear that the Assembly did have some early successes, noting it was “one of the first public bodies to explore the issue of smoking in public places” and says “by the second term there was more focus on investigating issues of concern to Londoners which may not fall into the Assembly’s role to scrutinise the work of the Mayor”.

Over the long term the Assembly’s work has a respectable record of being developed by politicians in more traditional ‘delivery’ roles. Boris Johnson may be the one who recently struck a deal with major retailers to open up their toilet facilities to non-shoppers but the Assembly first looked at the issue in 2006. Johnson recalls that at the time the body “was laughed at” for looking into an issue some suggested was more fitting “for Parish councillors”.

Asked if there’s a danger of the public being unaware of the Assembly’s work in areas the Mayor subsequently takes forward, Johnson says the right thing “would be for the Mayor to acknowledge the work of his colleagues and give credit where credit’s due”.

Although many Londoners may not be aware of the Assembly’s investigations and reports, Johnson says much of it’s work is widely read by other government bodies both within the UK and abroad. He cites as an example a report into paving over front gardens and the resulting risk of flooding, observing that “a few years later the Government finally changed the planning laws”.

I put the suggestion that the Assembly is less forward than it’s counterparts at London Councils and the Local Government Association in claiming credit for policies which arise from their research and groundwork. Johnson suggests this is already changing and that as the role of the Assembly becomes clearer in the minds of the public and media the body will get greater recognition for it’s part in policy developments.

One area where both the Mayor and London Assembly led the way was the support for recognised gay partnerships. In the early years of the GLA, Ken Livingstone introduced the London Partnership Register of which Johnson was an early and vocal backer. It is, Johnson argues, one of the most important policies to arise from the capital’s new Government in terms of national consequence.

Widely touted at the time as a sign that ‘Red Ken’ was quickly reverting to type, Johnson says it’s possible to draw a direct line from the London scheme to the Civil Partnerships introduced by Tony Blair’s government.

In a recent interview for Attitiude, the UK’s best selling gay lifestyle magazine, Blair said Livingstone’s scheme “changed my thinking in the sense that it taught me – or retaught me – a lesson that I think is very important in politics, which is that conventional wisdom is not necessarily wise: it can be wrong and it can be just a form of conservatism that hides behind a consensus.”

With only 25 Assembly Members tasked with holding the Mayor to account, I ask Johnson whether theirs should be a full time job. He’s clear it should be “the main job” and that ‘s not possible to “hold down a 35 hour office job or be an MP” at the same time but insists it’s entirely possible, as he and a number of his colleagues do, to combine the role of Assembly Member with that of local councillor.

Expanding on this, Johnson points out that “Assembly meetings take place during the day, my Lewisham council meetings take place in the evening so, although some might question my sanity for wanting to do both jobs, council tax payers aren’t being short changed in terms of the hours I put in.”

Johnson says voters who feel they don’t get their pound of flesh will exact punishment at the ballot box. I suggest to him this works fine for constituency Members but those who, like him, sit as proportionally elected list Members aren’t so easily held to account and ask whether it would be better for the whole Assembly to be elected on a same basis. “I think the current system works well”, he replies, “it ensures voters have a local representative but also means every vote counts”.

Has the Assembly been too quiet on the need for greater powers? Johnson says behind the scenes a lot of work has been done in this area although he accepts a lot of if doesn’t find its way into the public domain but questions how many Londoners would really be interested in joining a big debate on the issue.

Discussing the Government’s 2007 Greater London Authority bill, he agrees with the suggestion that the mood music was largely set by amendments proposed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the Lords which would have limited any Mayor to two terms.

Other issues, such as changing the law to require the Mayor to secure a positive majority to get their budget passed, which could have been made with relatively little Parliamentary time, were drowned out by accusations from Livingstone supporters that opponents were trying to legislate him out of office.

Johnson’s also clear there were failings in the way City Hall’s politicians approached the issue, saying the Labour group “acted as if Ken would be Mayor forever and a day and failed to agree with the other parties on the need for greater powers”.

At all layers of the debate Johnson says too many people were focussed on Mayor Ken Livingstone rather than the office of Mayor of London and predicted with last year’s change of incumbent the next debate would be “more mature”.

Clear of the need to reform the structures of the GLA and improve democratic accountability, Johnson favours “increasing the Assembly to 37 Members, scrapping the system of appointed Mayoral advisers and requiring the Mayor to form a cabinet from within the Assembly” and bring the body into greater conformity with Westminster and the devolved bodies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

“The current system, where the Mayor can delegate key decisions, such as planning powers, to an unelected advisor creates a democratic deficit.”

I wonder how Johnson, who describes himself as “a devolutionist” feels when he sees the Mayor of London being overruled by Government ministers? “I believe in subsidiatry” he tells me, “it’s important decisions are being made at the right level.”

He warns against reshaping the Assembly into a ‘congress of the boroughs’ with one directly elected Member per borough, raising the prospect of ‘pork barrel’ politics with AMs being bought off with spending for their boroughs.

Trading votes for support for pet schemes brings us onto the Green’s reputation for voting in favour of Livingstone’s budgets in return for spending on initiatives such as promoting walking.

It’s an accusation Johnson is well versed in disputing, insisting “no-one was suggesting just putting up signs saying ‘walk’, it was part of a package to promote good health.”

The other Johnson at City Hall could be in for a difficult time this year if the green lobby have their way. Despite the Mayor going to great lengths to portray his informal consultation on the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge as the final word on the issue, there remains a legal consultation to be carried out and some in the pro-extension lobby think Mayor Johnson may have boxed himself into a corner by condemning Livingstone’s decision to proceed with the scheme without overwhelming public support.

Can Londoners expect the green lobby to try and produce a formal result in favour of keeping the extension and then pressure Boris to live up to his election rhetoric and abide by the result? “We’re going to have a good go at it” Johnson tells me, adding “it would be a real shame to lose the extension, not least because of TfL’s finances in which Boris has opened up a blackhole by cancelling the £25 congestion charge”.

Will his election as Assembly Chair make it harder for him to act in such an obviously political manner? “The role of the Chair is apolitical but it’s not like the Commons Speaker, there’s nothing to stop me from engaging in politics when I’m not acting as Chair”, explains Johnson.

Johnson cites Conservative AM Brian Coleman, who served as Chair for some of the 2004/08 term, as a “brilliant” example of someone who “was able to handle the dual role of Chair and party politician wonderfully.”

It’s not unknown at Assembly meetings for there to be to outbursts and shouting between the parties but the Chair lacks the power to remove disruptive Members and can only suspend meetings, an action which inconveniences witnesses and those few members of the public who can be coaxed into attending.

Stressing he’s not criticising any of his predecessors, Johnson suggests most outbursts can be dealt with “by firm chairing of meetings” and says this should be given a chance to work before consideration is given to changing the rules to allow the exclusion of individual Members.

What can Londoners expect of Johnson’s term as Chair? “My priority is to be fair, to ensure that not only the opposition parties but the Conservative party, which is the largest party, gets its voice heard”.
Less seriously Johnson remarks that he’ll “probably wear my badge of office less than some of my predecessors did.”

Is there any chance of the original would-be Mayor Johnson standing for a third time? “When I ran before I approached it with the honesty to admit we couldn’t win and used the platform to push the Assembly team” he readily admits, “the media coverage of the Assembly elections, something which really hit home for me last year when I wasn’t running for Mayor, just isn’t there so smaller parties need to use their Mayoral candidate to get coverage their Assembly slate will never attract.”

“If I was asked maybe I’d agree to another run some time in the future, never say never is the sensible answer”.

So with three terms as an Assembly Member already under his belt and a hyper-realistic assessment of his chances of getting London’s top job what does the future hold for Darren Johnson? “My personal ambitions point to Westminster” he tells me, “if you look at our share of the vote in the Assembly Elections it’s about the same as other major European cities where they have Green parliamentarians, the difference is the electoral system for Westminster”.

“I think we’ll do it, sometime in the next couple of Parliaments I honestly think we’ll have the first Green MPs.”