Confessions of a Political Animal

September 4, 2009

What a difference 12 months doesn’t make

Summer's over, Mr Mayor

Summer's over, Mr Mayor

Last autumn I wrote a couple of posts examining the effectiveness of the London Assembly’s questioning of the Mayor – and in particular the interesting (that’s to say hands off) approach adopted by the Conservative Group.

So, with a year passed and the summer recess over, I thought it might be apposite to see if anything much had changed. After all, the Mayoralty has certainly moved on in those twelve months (in many cases in ways the Mayor would probably rather forget), so shouldn’t the Assembly have moved with the times too?

With the usual caveat of  quantity not being everything, let’s take a quick look at just how many questions the political groups are now tabling, using the forthcoming Mayor’s Question Time on 9th September (questions publ;ished here) and comparing it with that held on 10th September 2008.

Party Group No of AMs Questions tabled Questions per AM Change from Sep 2008
Conservative 11 63 5.7  +1
Labour 8 170 21.3  +5.7
Liberal Democrat 3 125 41.7  +7.7
Green 2 113 56.5  +7.5
BNP 1 4 4  -2

So, firstly we observe that the total number of questions being asked of Mr Johnson has increased significantly in the past 12 months, by more than 24% in fact. This is quite right and proper – as the mayoralty develops there are more policies, more decisions, more errors and possibly even a few successes on which the Mayor can be grilled. But whilst everyone is asking more questions (bar Mr Barnbrook, and the less we hear from him the better), the extra scrutiny hasn’t exactly been evenly spread. Despite a very small increase in the number of questions being asked by the Conservative group, the gap between themselves and the three opposition groups has increased markedly. Per assembly member, the Labour group is asking nearly four times more questions than the Tories, the Lib Dems almost eight times more and the Greens nearly ten times more.

Now, to be fair to the Tories, there does seem to be a bias towards Assembly Members elected via the London-wide list asking more questions – fellow Southwark councillors Jenny Jones from the Greens and Caroline Pidgeon of the Lib Demsare clear cases in point. This is hardly surprising, given they have the ability to raise cases from anywhere in the capital and feasibly have more time to delve into strategic issues, unburdened as they are by a constituency. Withthe entire Lib Dem and Green groups being composed of London-wide members, compared to 3 of the Tories’ 11 seats, a certain degree of question imbalance is to be expected. But with the Labour group having a similar proportion of constituency members to the Tories (2 list members out of 8), the imbalance between the two largest groups in terms of questioning is a bit more concerning.

Something that was brought into the spotlight this week by the report of the Senior Salaries Review Body is just how many of the Conservative Assembly Members are also councillors. The Review Body recommends that this practice be outlawed, too my mind an overly-draconian solution to a not too great a problem. What is clearly be inappropriate is for an Assembly Member to also hold an Executive position within a council – step forward Messrs Gareth Bacon (Bexley), Steve O’Connell (Croydon) and until recently Brian Coleman (Barnet). Not only does the question of commitment in terms of time given to either of the well-remunerated positions of Assembly Member and Executive Member occur, but so also do questions of conflicts of interest between the need to serve the best interests of a particular borough and the overall interests of London as a whole.

But these individuals aside, it is quite surprising to find that no fewer than eight of the 11 Tory Assembly Members are also serving councillors – compare this with the Labour group which has just one serving councillor amongst its eight members. An active link with local government is certainly helpful for any political group, but the concern must be that too strong a link leads to a certain amount of group-think. To me, there seems to be some evidence that the local government way of thinking slips across into how many of the Tory AMs go about questioning the Mayor – it tends towards being infrequent and parochial.

So if quantity of questions still isn’t looking good for the Tories, what of the quality. I’m going to be charitable here, and suggest there is something of an upturn on this front in the past 12 months. There are a few more questions on strategic issues, and a bit less fighting of the last election. There are some worthwhile Tory questions, particularly with James Cleverly quite rightly pressing for action in the light of the recent impressively bad Bexley power failure. Nevertheless, as soon as Boris hits a bit of trouble with an election pledge, there’s always someone ready to wave the ‘Blame Livingstone’ flag. The afore-mentioned Mr O’Connell, for example, asks:

How frequently was the issue of Rape Crisis Centres raised at the MPA during the period 2000 to 2008?

And there’s still a fair share of silly questions. Andrew Boff asks:

What services are provided to payers of the Congestion Charge?

Er…roads? What more do you want? The ever ludicrous figure of the Mayor of Barnet is still winning the prizes on this front however, fighting valiantly against the greatest threat to the continuation of life in London: cyclists.

If all road users are equal in London will you now be instructing Transport for London to organise car convoys into Central London to help nervous car drivers?

This, of course, is in response to a remarkably sensible Boris policy, the Cycle Friday initiative. Although, to be fair to Coleman, he does succeed in pointing out admirably the ridiculous nature of the Kulveer Ranger-promoted abolition of road user hierachies. Then there is Coleman’s interesting take on Olympic sports:

Does the Mayor not think that the inclusion of women’s boxing at the Olympics is somewhat distasteful?

Now if I was Mayor, my response would be something like “I’ll tell you what I do find distasteful Brian, me old chum, it’s things like refusing to publish your expenses, not declaring gifts and spending more on taxis than everyone else in this room combined.” Why am I not Mayor?

I think my favourite Tory question, however, has got to be Richard Tracey’s comparison of apples and bananas:

What lessons do you think London can learn from the speed and efficiency with which Paris is upgrading its Metro?

Well, Richard, it’s 110 years too late to realise that deep level bored tubes are harder to upgrade than cut-and-cover undergrounds, about forty years too late to learn that investment needs to be continuous, not stop-start, ten years too late to learn that PPP is a ridiculously stupid idea, and dare I say it, over a year too late to realise that socialist mayors handle this sort of thing so much better. So, one or two lessons there for us all.

There’s a lot of good questions this time round from the opposition parties, but time forbids me from enumerating them here. I am, however, particularly grateful for Len Duvall’s question revealing (it was probably already revealed, but I missed it) that the LDA board refused funding for Boris’ Mayoral Academies scheme. Following the refusal, the Mayor has, apparently, forced the funding past the board by issuing a Mayoral Direction.

All perfectly legal, of course, but it would be very sad if the LDA became seen as the Mayor’s ‘personal cheque book’. That’s a rather ugly phrase and I can’t think where I picked it up. Was it perhaps the Evening Standard, circa late 2007? It must have been in those happy, halcyon days before ex-Mayoral Advisers were charged with fraud. And when “hands on the tiller” didn’t also seem to mean hands in the till.



1 Comment »


    Boris was absolutely brilliant in Mayor’s Question Time yesterday and he really went after Labour. I do think that is what people want to see and hear now, and the Tories should not be soft pedalling their attack.

    Comment by angelnstar — February 25, 2010 @ 10:14 am | Reply

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