Page 6, 26th November 1999

26th November 1999
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Page 6, 26th November 1999 — London's moral challenge
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London's moral challenge

John Gummer

THE LONDON mayoral race is in a pickle. Jeffrey Archer wanted it but can't have it. His erstwhile opponent, Frank Dobson, never really wanted it. Nobody very much wants Glenda to have it and Ken Livingstone wants it so much that Tony Blair determined to stop him having it at all.

The harsh truth is that some such saga was always inevitable. We could not of course have guessed at the particular twists and turns but we ought to have realised that the whole proposition was fraught from the beginning. It sounded so simple. London needed a voice. Paris had a mayor, New York had one. even Moscow and St Petersburg. Why not London?

Whenever, as Minister for London, I counselled caution I was told that there was no need to fret. Now we are beginning to see that it is not all straightforward. It is the very nature of London that makes it so difficult. This is no ordinary city; its economy is so preponderant within the UK. The City alone has an annual product greater than many member countries of the United Nations. There is a continual tension between London the motor of the British economy and London the world city seeking to appropriate a greater proportion of its earnings for itself.

The problem is that it has few independent sources of revenue. What it spends comes from general taxation. For the most part that has to be. London's resources are too important for the rest of the country for any government to allow them to slip from the Chancellor's grip.

So no Prime Minister will want a mayor who lays claim to democratic legitimacy and, through that, to a more significant share of its own taxes. That is Ken Livingstone's real fault. It is not that he may remind the voters of Old Labour. It is that he may suggest they ought to benefit more from the revenues their enterprise produces.

And it would be the same story were it a Tory mayor. Elected by the largest direct franchise in the Western world, an opposition mayor would be bound to give the Government a hard time. How could it manage the refusal of major demands for increased spending particularly on infra-structure when the popular choice for mayor pointed to the huge imbalance between the taxes raised in London and the money spent on Londoners?

So we have this fundamental contradiction. If there is a reason to have a mayor, he has to be an effective voice for London. He will not be reelected if he is not seen to uphold the priorities which are London's. The government, any government's national priorities will be different. The clash is inevitable, the victor by no means sure. So Mr Blair's concern to get his eandidate right is not just foe New Labour's sake, it is crucal for the future of his government.

Already Scotland and Vales are beginning to flex their muscles. Handling agriculture, environment, and regional development on a UK basis, is going to be increasingly difficult. Both countries rely on significant transfers from England which actually means London. There is no such restraint when it comes to London itself.

Any government's hope is to have a mayor who can work within the system without confrontation. However, it is that system which has chaiged. For the first time London will have an ability to influence what it gives to others and what it keeps for itself. Catholics will recognise the moral dilemma. What is our duty to our neighbour? What is London's to the rest o: the United Kingdom? It is a question we have never askei till now. In the past, our natio] has shared the UK's wealth with practically no reference to tose who produced it. Devoltion has changed all that. Can London or its Miyor live up to the challenge?




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