Tories sour London's brave new world

M A Jones jones118 at
Sat May 13 02:31:19 MDT 2000

BRITAIN'S latest experiment with democracy, the London Assembly, took to its
wings yesterday and immediately fell flat on its face.
Minutes into its first session, any hopes that it would break new ground
with a fresh and inclusive debating style were dashed when Conservative
members complained of a "stitch-up" by all the other parties. Roger Evans
(C, Havering and Redbridge) complained bitterly that the election of Trevor
Phillips, the broadcaster and Labour member, as chairman and of Baroness
Hamwee, a Liberal Democrat member, as his deputy had already been agreed by
the other parties, excluding the Tories from the process.

It was unfortunate, he said to applause from about 300 members of the public
in the gallery, that "Mr and Mrs London are going to get an old-fashioned
Labour stitch-up".

Mr Evans was right. But for a pact between Labour's nine members, the four
Liberal Democrats and the three Greens, the Tories, with nine seats, might
well have expected to wield as much power as Labour. However, the tone of
the Tory complaints were ill-tempered and unworthy of as great an occasion
as the restoration of democratic government to London.

Coralled at one end of the oval debating table, the Conservatives sulked,
despite pleas from Mr Phillips - or Trevor, as this is clearly going to be a
first-name terms chamber - for everyone to be nice to each other.

Lord Tope, the Liberal Democrat leader, berated the Tories. "We have not put
you into Opposition. You have put yourselves into Opposition," he said. "If
you are going to spend every meeting having this sort of ding-dong
knockabout, then we will have failed right from the start. I hope this will
be the end of this sort of behaviour."

The Tories remained unrepentant, until Lord Tope reminded both Labour and
Tory members that the balance of power lay not with either of them, but with
the Liberal Democrats.

"The arithmetic on the Assembly means that whoever happens to be chair or
deputy chair has to have the support of the Liberal Democrats and, frankly,
you have to earn that support," he said. Quite unlike anything seen in a
local council debating chamber or the Houses of Parliament, members of
public in the gallery, which also included Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of
London, applauded and on occasion heckled when the debating became

It was not all discord, though. Mr Phillips took the Assembly through the
most boring administrative business on the agenda with admirable speed.

The Assembly voted unanimously in favour of a motion from Toby Harris, the
Labour group leader, proposing that the Mayor waive his right to keep
confidential any specialist advice he receives from his officials.

A Conservative motion "to oppose on principle" Mr Livingstone's plans to
introduce congestion taxes in London was opposed by Labour, who proposed
instead an amendment stating that congestion charging should only be
introduced in a way that "operates in the interests of London and

The amendment was passed by a majority of 13 to nine, with the three Greens
abstaining. It was a small debate, but the repercussions may well be
significant. The official Labour line, iterated on Wednesday by Tony Blair
in the House of Commons, is that the party will "not introduce congestion
charges in (the Assembly's) first term".

By refusing to oppose Mr Livingstone's plans for such charges, the Labour
members gave their first clear sign that they will not necessarily slavishly
toe the party line.

The Conservative leader, Bob Neill (Bexley and Bromley), drew the attention
of Labour members to an inscription on the ceiling of the Emmanuel Centre,
an impressive church hall in Central London, that is the Assembly's
temporary home.

It says: "He hath put a new song in my mouth." A fitting description of the
U-turn of Labour members, Mr Neill suggested.

***  Mr Livingstone sat silent throughout. As this was the Assembly's first
meeting, which was held to deal primarily with operational matters, he was
not required to take part. Ordinarily, however, he will be required to
report on his activities to the Assembly.

Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd. This service is provided on Times
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reproduce material from The Times, visit the Syndication website.

Mark Jones

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