These are not happy times for our city or our country. The slow return to a healthy economy and the resulting Government cut backs cast a miserable mood over every day life.
People are afraid to spend because they still can’t be sure their job will be there in a year’s time or that their landlord won’t suddenly whack up their rents, hoovering up what little spare cash they still have.
At national level, inexperienced career politicians argue pointlessly about how much of the blame should be apportioned to which party, which economic doctrine – understood by almost no real-world voters – is best, and compete to convince even greater numbers of voters that their opponents are incompetent liars.
Against the background of national squabbling and ever dwindling budgets, local and regional Government works hard to deliver the services their ratepayers rely on, but even here there’s a tendency to play the blame game so enjoyed by their national colleagues.
Exasperatingly, over the past year or two we’ve seen a lot of that here in London.
Boris Johnson won City Hall thanks to a perception that he’s a big tent, socially liberal and modern politician who sits outside the political mainstream.
But no matter how hard he downplays it, Boris is a Tory and so when it comes to making the tough but necessary decisions which go with being in office, he’s repeatedly portrayed as little more than the mildly entertaining frontman for the “uncaring” Westminster regime.
In London, as the impact of austerity has forced cuts to the police service, fire brigade and even, despite the promise he made in 2008, Tube ticket offices, Labour politicians have lined up to denounce Boris’s policies and demand that money be magicked up to spare the axe.
And when cash is found, for example by selling off underused Met buildings so officer numbers can be held up, they’ve complained about that too.
Opposition for opposition’s sake is seen as a respectable game to play, even when the party’s own Mayor’s support for identical policies is only ever a quick Google away.
At national level Ed Miliband and Ed Balls claim that if they were in office they’d still make cuts, just nicer ones.
But at London’s fire authority, where Labour and their Liberal Democrat and Green allies out number the Tories, they exempted themselves from their legal duty to pass a balanced budget and dared Boris to implement the cuts drawn up by the fire commissioner they employ.
Instead of showing a reluctant acceptance of the economic reality we’re living through and demonstrating what ‘nice’ cuts might look like, they’ve broken away to form a self-styled and constitutionally nonsensical “opposition group” on a body that’s meant to be the decision making executive.
Pragmatic, grown up politics has given way to angry press releases, picket line photo-ops and Twitter hashtags, none of which achieve anything beyond letting the participants feel they’ve done their bit.
As Labour’s unwanted Mayoral selection slowly cranks into gear despite the best efforts of the party’s national and regional leadership, this wall of opposition to every proposed cut has risked creating hostages to fortune for the growing band of would-be Mayors.
It’s only a matter of time before David Lammy, Christian Wolmar, Tessa Jowell and Diane Abbott find themselves asked whether they’ll replace the police stations whose closure Labour has opposed, or the ticket offices they insist will lead to a less safe Tube, or the fire stations their colleagues failed to save.
So it wasn’t much of a surprise last night when Jowell, widely seen as front runner for the nomination and, according to the bookies, a shoo-in for the Mayoralty, used a speech at the LSE to signal that she understood, and was ready to take on, the difficulties that come with being in office during economically tough times.
Recalling the beginning of her career in elected politics, she told the audience:
“When I was first elected as a local councillor in 1971 the purpose of politics was to spend money and if you were on the left to spend more money than those on the right, the input invariably more important than what the spending achieved.
“The amount of money spent was sufficient evidence of success. But money was spent and indeed still is on the general presumption that once allocated it will always be needed.”
This neatly sums up the credibility problem some Labour politicians are saddling themselves with by refusing to accept that reductions in the numbers of people visiting police stations to report crime, falling numbers of fires, or changes in how the passengers buy their ticket, mean services have to adapt even if and when that means spending less on them.
Jowell continues to stick by her line that she won’t officially declare her candidacy for the nomination until after the General Election, so the speech lacked clear policy commitments but did give us some valuable insights into what her approach to running London might look like.
Her criticism of “services organised for the convenience of those who deliver them rather than the convenience of those who use them” is unlikely to be welcomed by those members of her party who have fought hard to protect the status quo, even when that meant wasting public cash on ill-fated judicial reviews.
But they may be encouraged by the suggestion that greater devolution of spending would allow the “layers of bureaucracy” which monitor how local bodies deliver services to be stripped away, thereby safeguarding the services people need even as budgets are trimmed.
And she suggested that co-locating agencies such as post offices, libraries and GPs’ surgeries would also help trim costs while protecting the front line. Here she’d have a ready made ally in Transport for London which is seeking to turn Tube stations into community assets.
More widely she set out the need for “a concordat between responsible businesses that recognises that social purpose also drives commercial success,” citing public support for firms which sign up to the London Living Wage as an example of how business can benefit from doing the right thing.
That message is likely to be lapped up by Labour activists clamouring for business to take a bigger hit in these tough times and, crucially, isn’t going to scare off those LibDem, Tories and Greens who tell pollsters they’d like to see her at City Hall.
If selected, sustaining that cross party appeal will be essential to securing Labour’s second Mayoral election victory.
In his write-up of the speech the Guardian’s Dave Hill says Jowell has planted her flag in “centre ground”.
But her ambitions seem far greater than merely mimicking Ken and Boris’s success in putting together grand coalitions of the politically active.
In her speech she made a direct pitch to the growing number of apathetic voters who see little worth in today’s career ‘student to spad to MP’ generation of politicians and who believe politics is a game for others, saying:
“I am concerned that more people are entering Parliament without having worked in the world beyond politics. I had a professional career spanning 20 years and I have drawn so heavily on that experience in most of what I have done.”
And she didn’t stop there, talking of the need for politicians to once again rejoin the masses and make politics matter enough that the “extraordinary” engagement we saw in Scotland becomes the norm.
Her closing remarks contained both a stark warning and promise of a better form of politics:
“The growing gap between those who govern and those who elect them – or in increasing numbers, no longer bother with their election – has created this dangerous democratic deficit in Britain.
“If the people will not come to the politicians, the politicians must come to them; and when that happens, and around the political purpose are gathered the active elements of civil society, good business and the ingenuity of local authorities, politics will be seen for what so many of us have always tried to make it: decency in action.”
It’s far too early to be able to predict whether Jowell will emerge either as Labour’s candidate or London’s next Mayor, front-runners can easily stumble and party members may well decide they want a younger face on their campaign.
And even if she’s selected, the Tories could yet persuade Zac Goldsmith, a man with a proven record of taking votes from LibDems and a clear appeal to many Greens, to run and, credibly, retain City Hall for them.
But whatever Jowell’s fortunes, it was refreshing to hear a grown-up political voice daring to break away from the gloom, doom and petty point scoring which destructively makes up far too much of our political discourse.