Tony Travers & Robert Gordon Clark: Will Labour give London hope?

Tony Travers & Robert Gordon Clark: Will Labour give London hope?

Back in late 1996 the election of a “New Labour” government following 17 years of Conservative rule looked increasingly likely, and  preparations for change picked up pace. Making the case for London focussed on two primary issues.

The first was how best to fill the democratic deficit created by the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1986. The second was what to do about transport – most notably rebuilding and modernising the London Underground and revitalising Crossrail, which had been on ice since 1994.

A less significant matter, but still on the agenda, was the future of the City of London Corporation, seen by some in Labour as anachronistic.

The New Labour manifesto was silent about both Crossrail and the City’s future, but flagged the plan for what would become the infamous public private partnership (PPP) for upgrading the Underground. On London more generally it said the following:

 “London is the only Western capital without an elected city government. Following a referendum to confirm popular demand, there will be a new deal for London, with a strategic authority and a mayor, each directly elected. Both will speak up for the needs of the city and plan its future. They will not duplicate the work of the boroughs but take responsibility for London-wide issues – economic regeneration, planning, policing, transport and environmental protection. London-wide responsibility for its own government is urgently required. We will make it happen.”

Election devotees will know what happened next. Labour won by a landslide of such a scale that the outcomes in London, where Labour won 57 of the 74 seats, quickly became insignificant in the context of the national result. In the north of England, 139 of the 152 seats went to Labour (a more traditional “red wall”), as did 34 of the 40 in Wales and 56 of the 72 in Scotland.

This meant the immediate issue for those lobbying for the capital was a real concern that they’d be ignored. Yet what happened next was extraordinary – and perhaps provides some hope for the capital as we look towards the possibility of another Labour government following the general election. The key events were as follows:

  • First, a Green Paper on London devolution, proposing the creation of a new Greater London Authority (GLA) was published within three months of the general election. Yes, just three months.
  • Then, just over a year after the election, on 7 May 1998, London held a referendum. Seventy-two per cent voted in favour of the government’s proposals for a new layer of devolved government on a turnout of 34.6 per cent. That may seem low, but was actually higher than for the first elections for a Mayor and the Assembly which came in 2000. Every borough, including Bromley, often an opponent of citywide government in the past, voted in favour.
  • Seven months after that, on 2 December 1998, the Bill to create the GLA, one of the largest ever tabled. was introduced in the House of Commons.
  • Early 1999 saw frenetic lobbying as the Bill moved rapidly through the various stages before it was laid before the Lords on 7 May.
  • Finally, on 11 November 1999, it received royal assent and, at 425 Sections and 12 Parts, became the longest Act since the Government of India Act,1935.

Why are we giving you this history lesson? Having worked together closely on the GLA Act, we think it important simply to recognise how incredibly quickly the new national government moved to make this significant piece of devolution happen.

There was some pushback from Whitehall, notably in relation to giving the GLA responsibility for policing and in relation to the PPP. Nevertheless, it took only 30 months to create the new tier of London government that is still with us today – it’s lasted longer than the GLC – despite opposition from some Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and also from within Labour ranks. Initial Tory objections lessened when it became clear the party would have to put up a candidate for Mayor and fight to win.

Let’s explore why it moved so fast.  After all, the government had many other commitments, including devolution to Wales and Scotland. And the New Labour manifesto had other very important priorities across “education, education, education”, health, “tough on crime” (and the causes of crime) and more besides.

We would argue that the among most important factors were the people involved; the strong connections between London’s MPs and local authority leaders and central government; a civil service rebooted by a change of government; and strong support from the private sector, led by the late Lord Sheppard of Didgemere and Sir Stephen O’Brien of business group London First (now BusinessLDN).

The legislation was also seen as a long-promised and very necessary reaction to the abolition of the GLC in 1986 by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government and the vacuum that had created.

While it is invidious to name names, Nick Raynsford, who for the first two years of this period was parliamentary under-secretary of state for construction, was hugely influential in pushing the project forward. He was supported by committed civil servants including Robin Young, Eugenie Turton, Liz Meek and Steve Watts. During this period, too, the Government Office for London (GOL) set up by John Major in 1994, really did live up to its name.

There were also longstanding, experienced local politicians involved, such as Lord Toby Harris and Nicky Gavron from Labour, and Lib Dem Baroness Sally Hamwee who lent support from outside Parliament, notably via the Association of London Government, precursor to today’s London Councils*.

All had to be aware of concern among the Labour leadership that Ken Livingstone, very much not a devotee of the New Labour project, would probably become the first Mayor. We used to joke that the draft Bill was so long in part because it had many “Anti-Ken clauses”. Livingstone did indeed get elected, running as an Independent having failed to secure the Labour nomination and easily defeating the Labour candidate, Frank Dobson, and Tory runner-up Steve Norris, a former minister. Yet Prime Minister Tony Blair, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Chancellor Gordon Brown all came to recognise, if grudgingly, that he was a legitimate person to lead the new City Hall.

What conclusions can we draw about today’s political climate from these events of more than a quarter of a century ago? Who are today’s Raynsfords and Gavrons?

We start from the fact that the leader of today’s Labour party, Keir Starmer, is a London MP. That may appear to be a good sign, but could actually be a hindrance. Labour already holds most of London’s constituencies – 75 will be contested this time – and look likely to gain more. But to achieve a decent majority, Starmer will need to win big in the north of England and Scotland, as Blair did. If that happens – as seems distinctly possible – there may be a danger of Labour sidelining London.

However, it could be promising if London MPs fill other senior government positions. They aren’t guaranteed to stay in the same roles if Labour wins, but current top rank shadow ministers include West Streeting (health), David Lammy (foreign affairs) and Emily Thornberry (attorney general).

And perhaps at the next level down, where there have been politicians holding briefs relevant for any future delegation to London, that provides the most hope. For example, these 10 shadow ministers have covered seven departments that are key for London:

  • Trade – Gareth Thomas on trade and Rushnara Ali on investment and small business.
  • Education – Seema Malhotra on skills and Helen Hayes on children and early years.
  • Home Office – Feryal Clark on crime reduction.
  • Department for Levelling Up and Communities – Matthew Pennycook on housing and planning.
  • Justice – Ruth Cadbury on prisons, parole and probation.
  • Work and Pensions – Vicky Foxtrot for disabled people.
  • Treasury –Ex-Sadiq Khan deputy mayor James Murray as financial secretary and Tulip Siddiq as city minister. These could be the most significant of all.

Of course, another vital voice will be that of Sadiq Khan, recently re-elected for a third term. But his alone won’t be enough. And he and the national party are not entirely aligned on, for example, private sector rent controls or, reportedly, transferring control of the remaining commuter rail network to the control of Transport for London.

Furthermore, we have previously seen new governments rowing back on further devolution. Once they gain power, they don’t like giving it up. We also sense that Starmer’s office is not that keen on Mayors.

This means we need London MPs to really step up to the mark. There are three London borough leaders running for parliamentary seats they look sure to win who could play important roles: Nesil Caliskan (Enfield, who is the candidate for Barking and also a member of Labour’s governing National Executive Committee), Georgia Gould (Camden, candidate for Queens Park & Maida Vale and currently chair of London Councils) and Jas Athwal (Redbridge, candidate for Ilford South). They could be useful advocates from the backbenches in the early days of a Labour administration alongside re-elected MPs holding ministerial roles.

And at local level, the role of senior leaders at London Councils will be critical. Current deputy chair Claire Holland, the leader of Lambeth, will be important along with executive member for transport, environment and climate change, Kieron Williams, also leader of Southwark. So will other borough leaders, such as Brent’s experienced Muhammed Butt and the more recently-elected Peter Mason (Ealing) and Adam Hug (Westminster). Hammersmith & Fulham leader Steve Cowan has already been engaged in important housing policy work.

London’s business voice will need to be heard in all of this. In the 1990s, London First as was had important business leaders in its ranks advocating for change who gained the trust of national politicians. BusinessLDN and the London Chamber of Commerce continue to advocate powerfully for the capital today, but it is not yet clear whether they will influence the policies of a new government.

Finally, of course, there is the London “ask”.

In 1997 there was a degree of cross-party acceptance that giving powers back to London was needed. The debate was about which ones. Today, the debate starts with what flexibility can be added quickly to the current powers with discussion about extra ones to come next.

Whilst there are no direct mentions of London in Labour’s manifesto – something we were not surprised to find –there is much emphasis on the need for greater economic growth. To deliver this rapidly means London has to grow. Devolving a single budget for skills and training to London, so that it can design its own training systems would be an important first step. And to help stimulate growth in London’s economy quickly, bringing back VAT free shopping for visitors outside the EU would be welcomed by the business community. More tricky will be persuading a new Labour government to, for example, devolve property taxes to the Mayor and responsibility for regional train operations to TfL.

There will be massive expectations of a new government. London is important as a source of GDP growth and as a gateway to investment in the UK.  It is, as it has been for hundreds of years, very rich and very poor. Labour, if elected, would be expected to tackle the entrenched deprivation in many of the less-fashionable parts of the city. But the new government would also need to ensure the capital’s global, services-oriented economy, can flourish. Politicians at all three levels of the city’s government will need to work together to deliver improvement and prosperity.

*Tony Travers’s book The Government of London (2004) has more on this subject.

Professor Tony Travers is director of LSE London and Robert Gordon Clark is founder, partner and senior adviser of London Communications Agency. Follow Robert on X/Twitter. provides unique coverage of the capital’s politics, development and culture. Support it for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE

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