Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 720-731)


8 JULY 2008

  Q720  Jessica Morden: Can I ask you what you think of the new Local Government Network idea that the Mayor be scrutinised by the 32 leaders of the London boroughs rather than by the Assembly?

  Ken Livingstone: I was actually in favour of that, because I think the cost of the Assembly, which I think is the best part of six or eight million pounds a year, the borough leaders would have done it for virtually nothing, and because the borough leaders represent a degree of executive power in their own right, there are the deals that politicians are always going to do at that level. At one point, when the Government was reviewing the powers of the GLA, I was quite keen and said perhaps one saving we could make would be to get rid of the Assembly and just have a committee of the 32 borough leaders. It might have given the Mayor more problems but it would have represented a real balance of the power in London.

  Q721  Julie Morgan: What do you think would be the advantages and disadvantages for having City mayors throughout England, throughout the country?

  Ken Livingstone: Whether you have mayors or whatever, for me it is about devolution. All my life politically I have been in favour of a proper federal structure like you have in Germany or in the United States of America, and Spain is moving in that direction, where the bulk of the spending of the state is done at a regional and local level. I have watched every government of my lifetime fail to get control of the Home Office. Prisoners are always escaping, whoever is in power. The Ministry of Defence budget is always grossly overrun. There is so much being managed from Whitehall, and not very well, and I think it is better to break it down into manageable chunks where the lines of accountability are much clearer. Whether you call them mayors, I broadly would just say, whether it was the German constitution or the American, impose it, because I think Whitehall is getting worse at delivering, not better.

  Q722  Julie Morgan: Do you think if you had city mayors throughout England that this would in some way address the problems of devolution?

  Ken Livingstone: If Government gives some real powers and financial independence. When I met the Mayor of Moscow the first time round, when he told me that he would not dare introduce the congestion charge in Moscow and doubted whether I would survive if we did it here, we were discussing his requisite powers and the range of taxes he can use, which is more extensive than the Mayor of New York. When I pointed out to him that in Britain 97% of all tax is raised and collected by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he simply said, "That is worse than Russia under Stalin", and this is true. Where else in the Western world is all the money funnelled into one pot with the result that council leaders and everyone else is constantly on a pilgrimage to Whitehall to ask for a bit of this and a bit of that. When I was Housing Chairman in Lambeth in the early 1970s, I would come up to the DoE to discuss with Peter Walker, or whoever his housing minister was at the time, the cost of modernising six terrace properties in Vauxhall. This is bizarre. I sometimes think Civil Servants like this because it keeps ministers busy, too busy to actually take real charge of their departments.

  Q723  Julie Morgan: We have now got devolution to Scotland and Wales. Do you think greater powers and city mayors would make that a more satisfactory system all round?

  Ken Livingstone: It is. If you go to somewhere like Newcastle or Birmingham, there are huge cultural differences with London. If you go to the south-west or the north-west of Britain, because of the concentration of power in Whitehall and media power here, there has been a suffocation of the regional diversity and the strong distinctive differences within England, and I think that is regrettable and I would like to see it flourish. You hear ministers and shadow ministers on the radio talking about a postcode lottery. If you want devolution and decentralisation, things will happen differently. It may be nobody else in Britain ever does a congestion charge, but why is that a problem? People should be able to get what they want locally. If we were to break up the NHS and make it accountable to regional government in the first instance, we would take different decisions about how to spend the money and what the priorities are. There is a real disease in British politics: the idea that everything must be absolutely uniform. If we were to impose that economically, it would be very deadening. We accept that different parts of the economy grow differently, regions rise and fall, and yet to decide to have an absolutely universal code that is absolutely identical wherever you are in the country, I think, damages all the dynamism that comes from strong regional and city identities.

  Q724  Mr Turner: Can I just slip in 8A before I go on to nine. City mayors are fine, but what about the areas without cities, like the Isle of Wight, like Somerset, like Devon? Are you ruling them in the same way, or do you have ideas as to how else they might be ruled?

  Ken Livingstone: I have always been in favour of regional government because, clearly, in the way that organised crime now is, there is a regional dimension. If there had been a regional government of Yorkshire over the last 40 years as its traditional industries declined, the primary role of the people leading it—I suppose it would be David Blunkett—would have been to modernise and rebuild their economy locally, but too much of that got stymied in Whitehall. In actual fact, if you go back to the Maud Report on local government, there was a minority report by Derek Senior, which I still have, where he talks about having unitary local authorities, the city with its rural surroundings and also regions, and I think that is the best structure. People come from around the region to get the services of what is their major local city. I think there was a reluctance to go down that route from the Labour Party side because they saw those cities perhaps being controlled by the Tory surrounding hinterland. I think if you are going to go down this route, it requires proportional representation so that everyone feels they have a stake in what emerges.

  Q725  Mr Turner: What are your views on the English question and how it should be resolved?

  Ken Livingstone: If the Labour Government had gone for full regional devolution, it would not be a problem. As we have not, I think—. I know I felt real anger when I watched a Labour Government using the votes of Scottish MP's to drive through policies in areas where they had opted out, such as student grants and foundation hospitals. I thought it was outrageous and, I should imagine, had I still been an MP, I would have had really unpleasant rows watching Scottish MP's, who have been spared these horrors in their own areas, being dragooned to override their English colleagues. I think it is completely unacceptable, and the failure to resolve that leaves the Labour Party vulnerable to a real Tory onslaught in this area.

  Q726  Mr Turner: But your problem is actually that regional schemes are not terribly popular, it would appear anyway.

  Ken Livingstone: Yes, but then there are the people who campaign for an English Parliament. It should be as large and bureaucratic and unmanageable as our present structure of government. If you look at the Spanish post Franco, there were the strong Catalan and Basque identities and they had really good, strong devolved government, and there was the rest of Spain, pretty much like our south-east, it was never quite clear where it was or which region they were in, but when they saw what the Catalans and Basques had got, they started—. Different parts of Spain have moved at different speeds towards devolution, but all of them, having started off on the journey, want more, and that might be the way here. There are several ways you could redraw south-east England, but there are very strong and distinct identities for everything north of Birmingham. That is not so difficult.

  Q727  Mr Sharma: What lessons can be learnt from the process of devolving power to London which could be applied to a scheme of devolution within England?

  Ken Livingstone: It was easy to do this in London because Mrs Thatcher had abolished the GLC. If there had been something there, all the vested interests of the politicians and the Civil Servants would have been hostile to it. Everyone recognised, after 14 years, there was a real gap. We were underperforming, we were not getting investment, there was no-one speaking for London, and even in Bromley at the referendum there was a majority, I think, of 54% in favour. Everybody recognised, after they had nothing, that this was not working and, therefore, there was a real problem. If I was a councillor, if I was the leader of a Labour group on a city somewhere outside London, unless I could be fairly certain I was going to be the new mayor, I would personally be very hostile to the idea. There is no way of doing this without offending a lot of colleagues in your own party. Mind you, this is the best possible chance for Labour to do it. They have almost got nobody left to offend in our party's on this. This must be the ideal time for a Labour Government to impose directly elected mayors.

  Q728  Dr Palmer: It is probably true to say that there are only two politicians, in principle, who are instantly recognisable by their first name, and they are the current and former Mayor of London. Is that not a general feature of direct election and does it not worry you that, despite the advantages that you have described, as a paid up member of the amalgamated union of grey politicians, I do have concerns that the effect of direct election is to focus attention on the personalities of the candidates rather than on what they are going to do? It depoliticises politics in a way that we have seen much more developed in the United States. Should we not pause for thought before we start generalising it to cities all over Britain?

  Ken Livingstone: But we have drifted into exactly that problem in our national politics as well. It is all personality driven. I think this is the absence of the Cold War. During the Cold War, if it went wrong we were going to be dead: the question of who got elected was a life and death matter. We had been through a long period of time when it did not seem to matter and when you did change governments not very much changed. It might be, with climate change, we will be moving into a situation where politics is much more important about what people really stand for. I agree with you: I abhor the fact that people voted for Boris Johnson because they think he was nice rather than what the policies were. I do not think that is the fault of the devolved structure, I think that is the fault of our media's obsession on trivia.

  Q729  Mr Tyrie: Coming back to the England/Scotland relationship again for a moment, you have stood up for the London taxpayer on many occasions, pointing out that London taxpayers provide a disproportionate share to the Exchequer, and, of course, Scotland collects a disproportionate share. Do you have a view about how to reform that?

  Ken Livingstone: I think transparency would be a good start, because I have no idea what the real figure is. At the beginning of my mayoral period, the general presumption was that the subsidy London gave to the rest of the country was somewhere between 10 billion and 20. As we hit the downturn in the economy, those figures moved down to somewhere between two and 10. I suspect they are back up somewhere between 10 and 20, but when you are having an argument where the range of figures is somewhere between 10 and 20 billion, we are not seriously in a position where—. There are so many ways of cutting this cake up. Clearly, the dynamism of London's economy and the fact we are still one nation means there has to be some element of redistribution from the richest part of Britain to the poorer parts. The weakness of the mayoral system in London was I had no power to redistribute wealth from the richest parts of London to the poorer parts, I had to come back to Government and argue for that. That is the weakness. I always said I thought London put a bit too much in, and I think in terms of what we have done in getting the Government to pick up the tab for the Olympics and making a big contribution to Crossrail we have done a lot to redress that, but I am much more concerned that Government should be putting investment in rather than revenue support, getting that long-term investment going in. I have always honestly said to London it is right that we make some contribution to the rest of the country, we will always argue about how much, but our real problem is we are all talking about figures that are so imprecise.

  Q730  Mr Tyrie: The Barnett Formula and Scotland?

  Ken Livingstone: I seem to recall being told the Barnett Formula was set up to slowly reduce that subsidy. Unfortunately, it then hit Mrs Thatcher, who was cutting back everything so dramatically I do not think the effect worked. I am saying I think there is a real danger of demagoguery in English politics, that you have a really nasty anti-Scottish campaign, but I honestly do not know what the real figures are and I am not certain anybody does. Tony Travers may have a more objective view on this when he follows me here, but I honestly cannot tell you whether it is 10 billion or 20, but I know it is something big.

  Q731  Chairman: Did you feel, by the way, that you had any real capacity to divert resources within the budget available to you or had a greater ability to do that than, let us say, a local council leader would have had?

  Ken Livingstone: No. One of the reasons that the Greater London Council was abolished was because the business rate meant that 60% of the GLC's expenditure came from Westminster, Kensington and the businesses in the City of London, overwhelmingly. They must have put up about half the business rate between them, if not more. Therefore, for a socialist like me, the Greater London Council was a marvellous mechanism of redistribution of wealth because you had the business rate, this really expensive core at the centre. Therefore, when you cut the fares, you could actually see a real benefit for individual Londoners: even though their domestic rates went up, their fares came down dramatically more. With the removal of the commercial business rate, there is really nothing. I abolished fares for under-eighteens on the buses, and given that 40% of London's children live below the poverty line, that was some small help (about £300 per child) for parents, but it was a very crude redistribution of wealth. I would be much happier to be in the position of, say, the Mayor of New York or Moscow. The Mayor of Moscow has a supplement on the national state pension for Muscovite pensioners because in Moscow is the most expensive place in Russia. If I had that power, I would have done the same in London. We have a London living wage. We calculate that you need to earn £7.20 an hour in London not to be in poverty. That is two pounds difference from the national minimum wage. Given the differences between London and the rest of the national economy, I am sure the national minimum wage may provide a decent standard of living in Newcastle, but it does not in London, and the Mayor needs to be able to reflect this.

  Chairman: Mr Livingstone, thank you very much indeed. I think Mr Travers will want to take up your invitation to follow you, or, indeed, our invitation.

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