Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The left-leaning city council may have lost legislative power, but it is regaining its influence as the sole chink in Britain’s official policy of Olympic boosterism.
Until London’s Olympic year arrived, it’s unlikely many people outside Britain had heard of the London Assembly. A 25-strong elected body established in 2000, it has stood in the shadow of London’s attention-grabbing mayors ever since, with a hazily defined public presence and little real power. Since the Games started looming, however, it’s been punching far above its weight, generating international headlines and representing almost the sole chink in Britain’s official policy of Olympic boosterism.
First the Assembly proposed the banning of unhealthy food producers as Olympic sponsors, then it criticized the choice of Dow Chemical as sponsors for the Olympic wrap, deeming it inappropriate given widespread criticism of the company for its handling of compensation to victims of the Bhopal Disaster. This week, the Assembly questioned the pricing of London’s new cross-river cable car, which according to claims on twitter, is attracting very few passengers. It has even started debating the value for money represented by the Orbit Tower. For a little known body that often functions mainly as a magnet for protest voting in the gaps between parliamentary elections, the publicity all this has generated is something very new.
The reason for the Assembly’s contrarian spirit is obvious. While London’s mayor is a Conservative, the assembly is dominated by the Labour Party, often backed up by its two Green Party members. Underneath, however, a struggle is also being acted out as to how Britain’s city politics is defined. Because while the increasing prominence given to Britain’s mayors has been praised as a potential model for the U.S., the current system itself was created in imitation of America, and only recently.
Until the mid-1980s, London’s government was run along the same lines as Britain’s parliament. There were no mayoral elections, and Londoners instead voted for local representatives in a city council. These representatives in turn voted for their own leader, who became de facto mayor. This city council was abolished in the 80s by the Thatcher government – due to its inefficiency, according to right wingers; because it was almost always Labour-dominated, according to the left – and summarily replaced by an unelected body. It wasn’t until Tony Blair’s government, with its general love of all things American, that the idea of a directly elected mayor along U.S. lines was introduced. Blair’s government fell in love the idea of a charismatic figure promoting the city, though they were horrified when they realized Londoners might not always elect someone they liked.
Since the system was introduced in 2000, London’s mayors have certainly been dynamic headline-grabbers for the city, whether brokering deals with Hugo Chavez or carrying on love lives that would make the Borgias look prim. These larger-than-life figures are media-friendly, but nonetheless something new in British politics, inevitably liable to grate on an assembly that preserves a folk memory of its far more influential predecessor abolished by Thatcher. With the Olympic spotlight focused firmly on London, there’s now a window permitting a small return of the repressed. As part of the Olympic carnival, London’s assembly now at last has an opportunity to flex its limited muscles for greater effect.
Top image: Flickr user Doriandsp.