I wondered a couple of weeks ago whether Boris Johnson would be prepared to accept that consultations, such as that on the Western Congestion Charge Extension are not the same thing as a referendum, or that they are unable to provide a particularly accurate representation of public opinion, despite his pre-election rhetoric to the contrary.
Well we might have an answer – and it’s…sort of.
At last week’s Mayor’s Question Time, Liberal Democrat Transport spokesperson Caroline Pidgeon asked a written question on this issue:
In your Answer on the consultation process on the future of the Western extension of the Congestion Charging scheme [1227/2008 and others] you speak of “a wider representative survey” of opinion. Exactly what is planned for this survey? Which Londoners will you be listening to, and what weight will you give to residents within the Western extension as against those from outside that area?
Astoundingly, we did get some new information and a glimpse of realpolitik in Boris’ answer:
Since consultations can elicit views only from those with strong opinions, it is important to understand how representative these views are of the wider population. Therefore, TfL has commissioned a survey of 2,000 Londoners and 1,000 businesses alongside the public consultation. This is designed to complement and inform the outcome of the public consultation by providing a representative view of specific groups, residents and businesses inside and beyond the original charging zone and Western Extension. It will be possible to disaggregate these results, and I will take account of the range of views before deciding how to proceed.
So – we have an acceptance that the results of a consultation may not fully represent the overall views of either those living in the zone or Londoners in general. Reality strikes – and about time too. A survey, and one with a reasonable sized sample is good news.
But this begs the question of what will the Mayor do if, say, the consultation comes out as wanting to scrap the scheme (as I expect it will), with the TfL-commissioned survey in favour of either retention or the implementation of the amended scheme (again, I expect that it will, the London wide survey at least). Johnson is going to have no choice but to ‘ignore’ (his word, not mine) the views of at least one of the groups – which is precisely what he accused Livingstone of having done. Not quite so easy as it looks, this governing lark, is it?
Whilst this new information on a TfL survey is welcome, we are still just as much in the dark about what happens when the results are in. In the second half of her question, Ms Pidgeon addressed this issue, asking which Londoners Johnson would be listening to and how the views of zone residents and non-residents would be waited. To this, substantive answer came there none:
The consultation will enable anyone with a view about the future of the Western Extension to make their views known using the questionnaire contained within the information leaflet or online.
I have said that I am keen to hear from residents living within the charging zone and from businesses, but I also wish to hear from anyone who has a view about the scheme in London.
Well, we sort of already knew that, Boris. If this is the level of reply you can expect from the Mayor as an Assembly Member, maybe we can forgive the Tory group for not bothering too much with questions. The Mayor is on record as describing the consultation as
an exercise in democracy.
You’ll forgive me, I’m sure, for getting all political scientist-y about this, but ‘democracy’ is a word that covers a multitude of sins. I wonder if the Mayor would care to let Londoners know exactly which form of democracy he is seeking to emulate through this process: majoritarian or pluralistic? Representative or direct? Call me an old stick in the mud if you like, but isn’t one of the basic tenets of democracy a requirement that the citizen should know how her or his vote will be counted and whether some votes are worth more than others?
There is a reason why Johnson is being so opaque about all this, and I think most commentators (except probably Andrew Gilligan) have cottoned on to this. In the run-up to the election, Boris presented the western extension as a purely binary issue – keep it or scrap it – with a distinct preference towards scrapping it. The public, regardless of their opinion, have largely bought in to that particular worldview. Now in office, the Mayor has found that scrapping it is actually not such a bright idea, for reasons of finance, congestion and air quality – so we get the third option of amendments to the scheme, now clearly Boris’ favoured option.
But the public, still with their binary view of the extension options, won’t go for that. In particular, the Kensington, Chelsea and Hammersmith residents who voted for Boris in order to get rid of the charge, would see the compromise option as a grievous act of treachery. Somehow, the figures and responses have got to be portrayed in a way that allows the Mayor to implement the compromise option by claiming that there is no settled view in London to either keep or scrap. He just hasn’t worked out how to do that yet – and when he has, he might deign to tell us.