Mayor of London: Just a figurehead with little real power?

On 6 May Londoners go to the polls to elect a mayor.

Since it came into existence in 2000, the post has proved to be one of national significance and ambitious MPs abandoned their seats at Westminster to hold sway over the nine million citizens of Greater London.

But the mayor is only really responsible for policing and transport in the capital and dependent on the central government for most of their funds. Does this mean the mayor of London is just a figurehead with little real power? I’ve been talking to those involved to find out.

There have only been three mayors so far – Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson, Sadiq Khan – each of whom has been a big enough figure to be known by first name only.

He – they have all been men so far – usually serves a four year term, although last year’s election was postponed until this May because of COVID-19.

The first mayor, leftwinger Ken Livingstone, had something to prove. The Thatcher government had abolished the Greater London Council which he led. He told me he would have preferred to reinstate the council but Tony Blair decided to set up a city mayor.

Mr Livingstone quit as a Labour MP to run as an independent against an official party candidate among others. As he explained to me, his task was straightforward: “I do think this is the best city in the world, the most diverse and tolerant. We just need to invest enough to modernise infrastructure.”

Mr Livingstone was re-elected for a second term. But another big personality defeated his bid for a third term. It was a triumph for the Conservative MP Boris Johnson.

“We saw fantastic opportunities,” his environment adviser Kulveer Ranger remembered nostalgically. “It was 2008, sun was shining, the world looked like a great place and we had lots of ideas.”

In fact Mr Johnson enjoyed a golden inheritance from his predecessor. Mr Livingstone set up the scheme which became known as Boris Bikes. With Mr Blair and the late Tessa Jowell, Mr Livingstone had also brought about the London 2012 Olympics, which Mayor Johnson presided over in a golden summer for Team GB and the rest of Great Britain.

Mr Johnson won a second term and continued to advocate spending cash on eye-catching schemes. He installed a cable car over the Thames but two other big projects – the Garden Bridge and so-called Boris Island Airport – came to nothing. Mayor Johnson opposed the Heathrow expansion which Prime Minister Johnson now backs.

Mr Johnson moved back to parliament. His replacement as Conservative candidate, the mega-rich MP Zac Goldsmith was defeated in the mayoral race by Labour’s Sadiq Khan.

But with COVID-19, Brexit, Grenfell Tower, knife crime and actively hostile Tory prime ministers, Mayor Khan has had a difficult first term.

Mr Johnson has accused him of bankrupting Transport for London. Mr Khan said Mayor Johnson was responsible for creating the debt but is mean and unreasonable about sorting out the mess.

“They’ve attached draconian strings to TFL,” he told me.

“The problem with them doing that is TFL is integral to London business doing well and London business is integral to the country doing well.”

Mr Livingstone pointed out that success as mayor depends heavily on support from central government.

“I was the luckiest,” he admitted.

“I had a Labour government, got billions out of them, infrastructure investment, buses. Poor old Sadiq can’t get money out of Boris.”

Mr Khan said he has no ambition to emulate Mr Johnson and become prime minister himself.

“I have the best job in politics and obviously, seeing the mess Boris Johnson is making of it, I think I am better off in City Hall,” he said.

Whoever is elected London mayor will have the biggest personal mandate – that means the greatest number of voters ticking their name – of anyone in UK politics.

Nearly 20 people, many of them outspoken and with big egos, have said they plan to stand for election. They include the actor Laurence Fox, the plumbing boss Charlie Mullins, and Piers Corbyn, brother of former Labour leader Jeremy.

As campaigning starts, Labour’s Sadiq Khan is widely regarded as the favourite to follow his predecessors and win a second term. The Conservative Party’s Shaun Bailey, Liberal Democrat Luisa Porritt, and Sian Berry of the Greens are his closest challengers.

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