Posted on March 15, 2012

London Mayor: Your Ideas for Culture and Community Policy

Dave Hill, Guardian (London), March 7, 2012

Both Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone have publicly embraced London’s kaleidoscopic social character. Livingstone’s commitment goes back nearly 20 years before the mayoralty was created, when as leader of the Greater London Authority it took the form of backing anti-racistand gay rights campaigns. As mayor, he introduced a civil partnerships register to the capital. Johnson, despite previously expressingassimilationist views on culture, was at pains in 2008 to enthuse about London’s cosmopolitanism, which served as a rebuttal of (unfair) allegations of racism.

The two men are sometimes depicted as polar opposites — Livingstone as a multiculturalist, Johnson as a traditionalist — but this is an oversimplification. Both are social liberals whose mayoral teams have been as mixed as the city itself in terms of sex, sexuality and ethnicity. Johnson has continued Livingstone’s innovation of making Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth available for modern art projects. Both have supported events that showcase particular strands in the weave of London life. St Patrick’s Day, St George’s Day, Pride, Black History,Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Latin American festivals to name but some.

Of course, there have been differences, too. Johnson has spent less public money, encouraged organisers to seek more private sponsorship and favoured events that he believes attract tourist money into London’s economy — his USA Day was a good example of the latter. Livingstone, by contrast, was strongly associated with large London events and was attacked for his union-backed, anti-racist Rise music festival, which Johnson did away with. Johnson has also made his mark in a big way with a sculpture in the Olympic Park and a smaller one with schemes to encourage children to play musical instruments. His adventurous Story of London festival started big but shrank.

Such cultural programmes are in part an expression of the mayor’s approach to London’s community relations. The politics of these can be complex, contradictory and incendiary. Johnson’s past attitude to gay marriage and recently to the London Irish have been criticised, while some older and disabled people are missing bendy buses.

Livingstone has earned the enduring enmity of some for his ill-tempered encounter with a Jewish reporter from the Evening Standard while leaving a function celebrating gay equality in 2005. His public embrace of the Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi the previous year has had a similar effect. The gay activist and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was among the critics of that episode, yet he has recently praised Livingstone’s record on gay rights as “exceptionally good“. Johnson has been rebuked for visiting a church in Barnet where gay “exorcisms” had been conducted.

Both Johnson and Livingstone have been accused of exploiting racial or cultural anxieties to gain support from different sections of London’s electorate. Our model mayor would not have enormous powers or resources to bring to bear on London’s cultural life and community relations, but he or she would clearly have considerable influence and responsibilities.

Should London’s mayors restrict themselves to rather bland expressions of approval for “vibrant diversity” or be more pro-active? If the latter, what should the principles and objectives be? There is a danger of concentrating only on the ethnic and cultural dimensions of London’s multicultured reality while neglecting others such as its wealth inequalities and the often differing concerns of inner and outer Londoners.

I like the idea of a mayor fostering overlap and deeper understanding between different groups of Londoners, whose views on some issues may be at odds. Yet that type of blending already happens in everyday London life, in places of work, on school governing boards and in all sorts of community campaigns.

What, then, could or should a mayor attempt to add? Is it possible or even desirable to promote a common London identity? Could, say, an equalities policy that combines asserting particular values with recognising disadvantage in all its forms give focus to a constructive debate? If so, what should those values be? Might a mayor commission a popular London history project that tries to map the ever-changing social, economic and cultural influences on the city over time, giving due weight to all and going right back to the Roman trading roots of Londinium?