Guest blog by David Robinson.
London is a wonderful city, diverse, rich and full of talents but is it the best that it could be?
Almost 9 million people live here, alongside some of the world’s most successful organisations. It is, in many ways, a rich and gifted city but not always a happy, healthy or productive one. More than a third of its citizens fear crime on the streets, 28% are in poverty, and the richest can expect to live 20 years longer than the poorest.
The London mayor holds the UK’s biggest directly elected mandate. We should expect from them an ambition that matches the scale of the opportunity – it should be fair, deliverable, bold and, above all, it should be ours, not marketed to voters with badges and balloons in the four short weeks of an election campaign but imagined and owned by us all.
San Antonio’s mayor ran huge live events for thousands of citizens to decide the city’s budget. Bogota’s former mayor, Antanas Mockus, asked its citizens to voluntarily pay 10% extra tax and 63,000 did. Oklahoma’s mayor transformed his city’s waistline by personally fronting a campaign to “lose a million pounds”. Helsinki’s mayor introduced a youth guarantee of a job, study or training place for every young person. And bike-sharing schemes are common now but they were pioneered – in the face of widespread ridicule – by former Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë. The list goes on. Mayors across the world have rocked their cities in recent years with extraordinary achievements. If they could do it, couldn’t we?
The next mayoral election in May 2016 and, in particular, the primary contests to choose the candidates underway now, give Londoners the opportunity to set a different agenda and to break new ground.
We set up a website in November 2012 and invited contributions. Changing London was to be a platform for generating and debating ideas, drawing on the experiences of other cities but also and primarily on the creativity and innovation of Londoners. Thinking anew, not only about the direct responsibilities of the mayoralty but also about exploiting the powers of influence – the voice, the visibility and the unique capacity to convene that comes with the office. These are the superpowers of the mayoralty overlooked by policy brewed in Westminster and ignored in a feeble public discourse that fixes too often on political celebrity.
We didn’t have to wait for very long. The ideas and the discussion flowed freely. This book brings it all together under five big visions for London: What would the city look like if we determined to make it the best place on earth to raise a child? Or if it was a friendly city, where neighbourhoods thrived and everybody mattered? How could we build a fair city where lavish wealth is as unwelcome as abject poverty and both have been eradicated? Or maybe a healthy city, that did no harm and tackled sickness at source? And, to lead it all, how should we revitalise and retool a sham-democracy which saw only 38% vote in the last mayoral election?
Ideas range from play streets to plotting sheds, London Sunday’s to a Have-a-Go festival, a London Fair Pay commission, a Children’s Trust Fund and a cultural guarantee for every child, citizens budgets, a Mayor’s Share in the biggest businesses and the April Vote – an annual London referenda and much more. We marshalled that material into themed papers and organised events to discuss them. Then, at the start of the Primary season in May 2015, we published “Changing London – the rough guide.”
Most of the ideas are new to London, or if not new then certainly underdeveloped here, but relatively few are completely original. Novelty is not the point in Changing London. Collaboration, participation and above all ownership is the object of this exercise.
At the last mayoral election Boris Johnson was returned with the support of fewer than one Londoner in every five. Democracy only works when the voters believe that it can, An enfeebled mandate means a weak mayor and a weak mayor undermines the faith still further. If we want a radical, progressive agenda in London, a politics of ideas, collaboration and compassion in a city where aspirations are high and rising and where the achievable ambitions for one are achievable for us all then we need a mayor with a mandate.
Higher participation strengthens the hands of our politicians, stronger politicians achieve more, improved performance encourages support – a virtuous cycle which will never begin if the next election offers no more than a personality contest and the usual parade of top down, patronisingly short, infinitesimally differentiated, bog standard political retail campaigns. Internet sensibility infects every aspect of our lives. We expect customised service, the opportunity to produce our own content and above all the sense of ownership that flows from participation. Politics is no different. We will vote for a mayoral promise that we have helped to make together. Maybe even work for it. We won’t for one that we haven’t.
Martin Luther King famously believed that change wouldn’t come overnight but that we should always work as though it were a possibility in the morning. A website and a little book won’t deliver that change but ideas light the fuse. Share yours. Connect with us on www.change-london.org.uk. Change London, citizen by citizen.
David Robinson, Founder of Community Links and chair of the Early Action Task Force, is leading Changing-London, a campaign to focus the mayoral elections around a compelling vision for London, based on ideas for a more equal city sourced by Londoners themselves.