The voters who ‘hovered’ over the name of Boris Johnson have delivered him the gift of a London Assembly even tamer in the face of the Mayor than the one under Mayor Ken.
Are the voters mad? Well no, and not bad either, says former Assembly Member Damian Hockney who lost his seat a few days ago.
The voter has an impossible task when electing a body to hold the Mayor to account. He also believes it will take the voter a long time to understand the idea that 11 Tory Members constitute the ‘majority’ against the 14 others when it comes to the crucial Budget vote…
If anything sums up the degree to which the the role of the London Assembly is confused in both official minds and those of the voters, it is the outcome of the Assembly elections held on May 1st and their likely impact on the next four years at City Hall.
I’ve read commentators saying parties ‘hold the balance of power’ as if the Assembly was a law making body. I’ve not seen a single comment, even from journalists whose columns I enjoy, which indicate that anyone has the faintest idea what the Assembly is for.
They talk about laws being passed, imaginative plans and votes to introduce or scrap things – none of which lie within the remit of the Assembly. Best of all are the Government ministers who talk about the “Greater London Assembly”, a body which does not exist.
There’s the Greater London Authority (which is basically 99% the Mayor and 1% the Assembly) and there’s the London Assembly itself, but unless there’s a shadow “Greater” body somewhere…maybe the Government has a sense of humour and intends a clever and subtle irony – in reference to a shadowy ‘Greater’ body are acknowledging the existence of the real thing – the Lesser London Assembly.
The London Assembly is the body to “hold the Mayor to account”, and one of its few powers is a limited – but occasionally useful – check on the annual Budget.
Assembly Members cannot ‘throw out’ the budget as lazy journalism would have it. They cannot even amend specific items in the Budget, so for example they cannot say that they want to remove the £55 million spent on ‘free’ bus travel for under 18s and then spend it on more cycle lanes, for example.
But they can amend the bottom line with a two thirds majority. Which means they can vary the actual totals spent in each member of the GLA ‘family’ (the Met, Transport for London, the London Development Agency, the Fire authority LFEPA and the City Hall component itself which comes under the heading the GLA). But the governing party needs just 9 members of the Assembly to ensure that it is never amended. 9 out of 25. And the Tories have 11. So we have a mayoralty with no challenge.
Were the voters really saying “we do not want the Mayor to be held in check”? Of course not. With the elections being held on the same day, though, it is quite impossible for the voter – confused already by the voting system – to actually second guess the result of the Mayor election and then vote for someone else to hold him in check. “I’ve read all the polls, and I’d put the house on Boris winning so here’s a vote for an opposing party on the Assembly to hold him to account”. Er, no.
Imagine that voter with his or her pencil hovering over Boris’s name on the ballot paper. The very voter who would most want to say “I’ll give him my vote, fngers crossed, but I want a strong opposition at City Hall to keep him in check”. But how can they?
Unless endowed with extraordinary powers of prophecy, no-one can really tell what will happen on the day when polling shows a likely 53-47 result. It could go any which way during the last couple of days. So how can that hovering voter get the result they want?
“Something”, as Peter Simple used to say “must be done”. There’s an argument that the Assembly elections should possibly be staged every two years mid-term. Or possibly at some stage once the voters know what they are getting from a Mayor, maybe earlier than the full term. Otherwise, the tribal nature of politics and the slavish adherence to party lines mean that Tories will just vote for something even though they have misgivings. Careers hang on it. A simple act of rebellion can lead you into a decade of wilderness in one of the big parties, even if you are proved right. When I was on the Assembly, my group alone opposed the Olympic bid “unless and until we have an honest budget and a referendum in London on whether we want it”. Tories came up to me afterwards saying they totally agreed but that they couldn’t do anything by way of support because of national policy…
Whatever else happens, this election has damaged the role of the Assembly as a scrutiny body to a very large degree (if anything needed to) – at least in the last mayoralty, Labour had only 7 members and needed the support of another group (always the Greens) to get the Budget through with no real debate or amendments to the bottom line. Now the Mayor needs nothing or nobody, even if the majority vote against his budget (as they will). 8 Labour, 3 LibDems, 2 Greens and 1 BNP (14 Assembly Members) will all oppose the Budget, but for the purposes of the Assembly, the 11 Tories hold ‘the majority’…against the 14!
Apart from the solution of re-thinking election timings, there is a glaring additional need – proper voter information about the new systems they are working with. What the alternative Mayor vote really means they can do. Politically. Not the pussyfooting around with limp and lame official explanations, or those sanctioned by state radio and tv. A real clear guide to what you can do in an election like that, to make the best use of your votes. Also the voter needs information on the concept of an elected scrutiny body. If you look at the polling about what voters believe the Assembly does, it is simply so way off the mark to be laughable. The voters do care, but if they are taken for idiots by the political class, they simply become frustrated, resentful and believe that it is all pointless. Over 5% voted BNP this time. Another 55% did not vote at all. Simply rejoicing at the 8% increase in turnout on a truly dire turnout last time in 2004 is not enough.