So the Conservatives are planning changes to the way the London Assembly is elected, which would fundamentally affect its make-up. “So what?” you might shrug. “The Assembly is a toothless organisation. What does it matter?” [You think I can’t tell you’re subtweeting me? Ed.]
This would be shortsighted. It’s true that the Assembly’s powers are sorely lacking in its primary mission of scrutinising the mayor – something that even Parliament noticed a few years ago. But the body has evolved around that shortcoming. Assembly Members (AMs) have grown into using soft power to influence policy.
Let’s not scoff at soft power. The mayor himself doesn’t have a lot of hard power: just compare the responsibilities and financial heft of the mayor of London to that of New York. But he uses the position as a bully pulpit to lobby for a better deal. The AMs have evidently taken that on board.
The regular mayor’s Question Time isn’t just an opportunity for AMs to scrutinise the mayor: they use it to put forward their own proposals. MQT is usually dull as ditchwater (as former politics editor for Londonist, I’ve sat through so many I’ve lost count; or possibly my mind has simply blocked them out). But that drip drip drip of policy suggestion has an effect.
I’ll acknowledge that it’s impossible to always track the real impact of soft power. Some examples are obvious: Sadiq Khan’s adoption of the Liberal Democrats’ hopper bus ticket idea is one example of a smaller party’s thinking being adopted by those in power. Others are harder to trace – but if you look, you can spot the signs.
Cycling is one. The Lib Dems and Greens have lobbied hard for cycling ever since the Assembly’s inception in 2000. Lynne Featherstone presented a cycle hire concept to Ken Livingstone back in 2001, and Greens worked to stop Transport for London cutting its £5m cycling budget back in 2002. That’s right: it was just £5m. These days the annual cycling budget is around £150m.
Would that have happened without constant pressure from within the Assembly? Would we be getting investment in mini Holland schemes, the segregated cycle superhighways? It’s impossible to know, but also impossible to think it didn’t help.
These AMs aren’t just turning up once a month to air a few policy concepts, either: they have a staff, able to produce good research. The Greens at City Hall are an industrious bunch, turning out solid reports and crunching data. Being on the assembly releases funding for those reports, which provide a base for the ideas floated by the parties. Take away the AMs, you take away the funding and research.
And you also take away some of the creativity of London policy. Many years of observing City Hall has shown me that the most inventive, progressive ideas come from the smaller parties. Perhaps because those AMs are less likely to be spirited away to a higher calling in Westminster, they really know their beat. You want to know something about transport in London? My recommendation for your first port of call would be Lib Dem Caroline Pidgeon.
Turning the Assembly into a First Past The Post, constituency-based body will turn it into a two-party, adversarial system. It’ll kill the wider spirit of inquiry as Labour and the Conservatives hunker down in opposition. And yes, I’m willing to put up with the occasional far-right waste of space (*cough* Richard Barnbrook *cough*) if it means having hardworking, knowledgeable people like Sian Berry, Caroline Russell and Caroline Pidgeon in there.
There’s also another role that these AMs play, one that would affect the other devolved Assemblies if Westminster is stupid enough to try and tangle with Scotland and Wales. AMs elected under the proportional party-vote system represent the whole of London, not a particular constituency. This gives Londoners more choice in gaining access to a representative and more chance to get their voices heard.
For example, let’s take the planned Silvertown tunnel. It’s been backed by a Labour and Conservative mayor and their parties. But there’s a group of residents deeply concerned about the impact of congestion and air pollution on the area. Who do you contact if your local AM is also in favour? Well, in this case you can contact any of the Lib Dem or Green Londonwide AMs, as they all oppose it. And then they’ll raise it in public, to the mayor, and maybe help you with supporting research.
Just because the London Assembly is a bit of a mouse, it doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. And any attempt to tamper with its wider representational structure would mean losing fresh ideas at a time when London needs to be on its game in the battle to retain its position post-Brexit. We all now accept that diversity of thought is a good thing in the boardroom. So why go backwards when it comes to local government?