Monday, August 25, 2008

Playing Scrabble Without the Vowels

We were all pretty cheerful on May 2nd. Not only had Boris defeated Ken, against all the odds, we also had a larger Conservative group - now numbering eleven, over two fifths of the 25 strong London Assembly. But at the count one Labour member sounded a note of caution - 'You are about to discover that Assembly Members are lower than dirt on the mayor's shoes.' he predicted.

Well, thanks to a less dictatorial approach from Boris, that particular prediction has not come to pass, but members who spent the last eight years in opposition have had to adjust to a new role - opposing the opposition, as it were. The powers of the Assembly are severely limited in any case, and I used to describe the role as 'Playing Scrabble without the vowels', yet this is even more the case for a group supporting the mayor, with opportunities for scrutiny severely curtailed. In eight years Labour never really got the hang of it, hence the dirt on shoes analogy.

So as the GLA prepares to return to work in September, it is timely to ask the question 'What is the purpose of the Conservative group?'

Safeguarding the Budget

The only opportunity the Assembly has to restrict the mayor's activities comes with the budget vote, for he needs our approval for his plans. However he only requires the support of a third of the members and some quick arithmetic shows that 11 Conservatives can block the proposals of the other 14 members, assuming the other four parties can get their act together and agree on what they want.

But I believe the role should be greater than just protecting the mayor's budget. We need to actively promote his proposals, across our constituencies, from Havering to Hillingdon, from Barnet to Bromley. There is a great opportunity for AMs to sell London Conservative policy, but it will require detailed liaison between the group and the mayor's team, well in advance of the budget debate in the New Year.

Question Time

Every month AMs enjoy the privilege of questioning the mayor at a Wednesday morning session screened on the Parliament Channel. Labour always struggled with this under Ken, with some members pushing too far and arousing his anger, whilst others asked toady questions placed by the mayor's team or even tried to provide answers instead of the mayor. The performance of sycophantic Labour backbenchers at PMQs provides a textbook example of behaviour to avoid.

So how do we help the mayor and Londoners, without toadying? I believe that the answer lies in constituency based questions. I know that my caseload has exploded since the election. There was a huge turnout in May and those voters now reasonably expect Boris and his AMs to solve their problems. The functional bodies that make up the GLA can be infuriatingly slow at resolving constituency matters, so what better way to create urgency - and publicity - than to raise them at question time? Concerns about bus routes and police response times may appear tediously parochial, but our constituents expect us to be able to address them.

Functional Bodies

The law requires the mayor to appoint some members in executive or semi executive roles. A statutory deputy mayor must be appointed from the assembly - a role admirably filled by my colleague Richard Barnes. AMs have to be appointed to the Police Authority and the Fire Authority, ensuring that most members end up with some executive role. Boris has also appointed an AM - James Cleverly - to the London Development Agency board.

Beyond this, Boris has appointed outsiders to major roles, often because the complex legislation leaves him with little alternative, but also to bring in the specialist skills and experience that he requires. Unfortunately there have been several high profile casualties, but a glance at Labour's Government of All The Talents (GOAT), demonstrates that appointing non politicians can be risky.

With a mayor's office that is worked off its feet, there is certainly an opportunity to exploit AMs' experience to a greater extent in the coming four years.


The bread and butter work of the Assembly is scrutiny of the mayor, and we have learned enough in eight years to do it well, within the constraints imposed by the GLA act. The initial response of the other parties to their defeat was to gang up and exclude the Conservative members from every influential scrutiny chair. This leaves them attempting to run the Assembly with just 13 AMs (having also excluded the BNP member), a considerable challenge for four years.

We can expect the committees to keep up a constant barrage of complaints, some justified but many insignificant, indeed we have already seen this during the appointment of mayoral advisors - a process which would have benefited from constructive scrutiny rather than the constant carping which actually took place.

I see Conservative AMs having a role in applying some realism to the scrutiny process, highlighting genuine findings amongst the morass of unfounded grumbling which could easily be the result of one sided scrutiny.

We are aware of the need to meet voters' expectations and to make a difference to our capital over the next four years - and the time will fly. Boris will be judged most stringently on his performance in the job, but the Assembly elections take place at the same time and a reaction against the mayor is certain to drag down many of the Conservative AMs in its wake. We are all in this together - as David Cameron would say.

1 comment:

judith said...

Roger - thank you for this helpful and lucid post on the workings of the Assembly and the Mayoralty.

More please when appropriate!