Last week’s National Archives release of Prime Minister’s Office files from 1997 cover New Labour’s early decisions in government, including establishing the Greater London Authority and its directly-elected Mayor. No new information has emerged, but it is fascinating to see the Prime Minister’s notes in the margins – the particular turns of phrase used by frustrated advisers, the colour behind the decision-making process.
The development of the mayoralty, including the process leading up to the referendum of 7 May 1998 asking Londoners whether they wanted one, was driven primarily by Nick Raynsford, parliamentary under-secretary in Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. What do the files reveal about Tony Blair’s thinking when the fruits of Raynsford’s hard work crosses his desk?
Some of the “could have beens” are quite fun. The Blair government was insistent that the new Londonwide body should not have tax-raising powers. Raynsford’s proposals to fund the GLA by taking private car parking fees from the boroughs would have led to a very different relationship between the two layers of government. Equally, his enthusiasm for housing the GLA in the City of London Corporation’s ancient Guildhall would have given the mayoralty a very different feel.
The City had indicated that it would be open to the idea. Perhaps we can guess why: Labour had, until recently, been committed to abolishing the Corporation entirely. New Labour’s position was much gentler – “we basically want to leave it alone though we would like to see it reforming the way it elects its members” – although the papers reveal that in June 1997 Prescott was still asking why the government couldn’t simply just abolish it.
A GLA based in the Guildhall certainly wouldn’t have helped with drawing a clear line between the upcoming ‘Mayor of London’ position and the much older Lord Mayor of the City of London, with origins in the 12th century. This potential source of confusion was a concern even for those outside of the City. I enjoyed Raynsford’s letter to Peter Mandelson, who had been lobbied by Lord Levene, to assure him that the public would be able to distinguish between the two.
It was decided early on that any potential request from the City to change the name of the new post to ‘Mayor of Greater London’ would be swiftly rejected – it just sounded rubbish in comparison. Blair’s political adviser Pat McFadden suggested Somerset House as an alternative home for the GLA in order to send a message to Londoners that it was a London-wide body, distinct from the City. This would also have given the GLA quite a different feel.
The Prime Minister’s early response to the GLA’s proposed role was explained in May. The government sought to avoid recreating the Greater London Council, abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986, and envisaged instead a primarily strategic body, with service provision remaining primarily with the boroughs. Blair’s note said simply: “Don’t understand this”. Another, in McFadden’s handwriting asked: ‘If it does not provide services, how does it influence the decisions that boroughs make?”. Arguably, this question has not been definitively answered to this day.
Blair was not the only one who struggled to understand the proposals. There was a real issue in explaining the idea to Londoners in a way that didn’t put them off. Both the consultation leaflet and the wording of the referendum question seem to have gone down like a lead balloon with Prescott’s focus groups. Prescott wrote to Gordon Brown about the leaflet to say it had been found ‘confusing and alienating… as a result they were almost as antagonistic towards the policy – in so far as they understood it – as they were the leaflet.’ Some words were particularly ‘irritating’ and ‘they found some basic concepts, such as what a mayor is… difficult to grasp’.
As a result, the leaflet was dramatically shortened and plans for it to contain a questionnaire or even a detailed to collect Londoners’ views were abandoned. The initial referendum question was also shortened and simplified. Prescott was keen that the new government for London had as substantial a mandate from those it governed as possible.
But the highlight of new archive material is the prelude to the approaching battle between Blair’s New Labour and the eventual first Mayor, Ken Livingstone. Then MP for Brent East, Livingstone wrote to Blair on 15 October, claiming: ‘There is no support in the London (Labour) Party for an American-style big city boss”. A vote in a meeting of the Greater London Labour Party had seen “90%” endorse a mayor drawn from, and elected by the London Assembly, as in Barcelona and Paris’, Livingstone said, rather than one directly-elected by voters. Livingstone endorsed a stronger Assembly, to hold the mayor to account, and said the GLA should have tax-raising powers, perhaps through a business levy or corporation tax. He thought the referendum ballot paper should have more than one question in order to address these issues.
Two weeks later, McFadden wrote to the PM, noting that Livingstone was claiming to be Labour’s mayoral candidate-in-waiting. Blair’s handwritten note – “he says he doesn’t want it” – looks a little naïve in retrospect. McFadden described Livingstone’s position of opposing the creation of the mayoralty yet saying saying that he would run for Mayor anyway as “a daft move on his part”, but pointed out that Livingstone was organising while the government was not. London Labour MPs should be mobilised to become ‘evangelists’ for the proposed GLA, McFadden advised: ‘We have huge support amongst the public and the only people who can screw this up are the Labour Party.’
This was not quite true. In November, Liberal Democrats Simon Hughes and Lord Graham Tope joined the debate, threatening to organise in the House of Lords to push for more than one question for the referendum. McFadden encouraged Blair to have a word with the then Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown – “this is the sort of thing that winds our people up no end”. In the event, the referendum was to have only one question – but history shows that the Livingstone saga was far from over.
Jack Brown is lecturer in London Studies at King’s College and author of The London Problem. Follow him on Twitter. To see the newly-released archive material follow these links: PREM49/18, PREM49/157 and PREM49/158.
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