Thursday, June 12, 2014

Boris faces the cannon-fire

How do we best hold politicians to account?  That's one of the basic questions my chosen field of research (or strange obsession) leads me back towards time and again.

Yesterday, I took a closer look at a series of different types of political scrutiny.  I will come back to the others, but for now will focus on one in particular. For the first time in many years (since I worked there over ten years ago) I attended Mayor's Question Time at City Hall. As the name would suggest, this monthly 'MQT' meeting allows the 25 elected members of the London Assembly to question Boris Johnson on his work and policies.  Aside from a slightly different cast - headed by another charismatic leading man in place of Ken Livingstone - it was much as I remember it.

Screengrab: BBC
The session lasts two and a half hours, and resembles a hybrid of Prime Minister's Questions and a Select Committee evidence session.  There is some of the same grandstanding, knockabout politics and rehearsed soundbites we have come to expect in the House of Commons, but the smaller number of questioners and longer timeslot means it lacks the wilder excesses of Parliament's Wednesday lunchtime bearpit.  The set-up, with the Mayor seated in front of a horseshoe of Assembly Members' desks, is certainly more akin to a Select Committee, but the increased scale makes it inevitably more theatrical.

Like PMQs (which it overlaps), the big issues of the day will inevitably be raised, and certain responses of the man in the spotlight will make headlines and news bulletins.  Yesterday, it was the Mayor's proposed acquisition of (and willingness to be blasted by) water cannon that was the big story.   Other questions yielded less newsworthy exchanges- discussion of air pollution alerts got bogged down in a rather tedious discussion of the GLA website, and a question on landlord accreditation took an odd turn into discussing the historic emancipation of child chimneysweeps (don't ask).

How effective was the scrutiny? Some Assembly Members inevitably complain that Boris is adept at deflecting their questions by launching into generalised paeans of praise for his administration's record, peppered with amusing one-liners and political rebuffs to the questioner.  But the same used to be said of Ken Livingstone.  It's not just an effective tactic - it's a natural response by an executive politician facing a volley of hostile questions, keen to defend their policy whilst avoiding giving hostages to fortune.  And to be fair, many of the questions are loaded political attacks designed to help the Assembly Member get a press release out of the meeting, so one can hardly blame a Mayor (whether Livingstone or Johnson) for being suitably robust in reply.
Screengrab: BBC
Overall, we might conclude that the quality of scrutiny at City Hall's big meeting is superior to that at its closest equivalent in Parliament. It is less hysterical, and if we look past the moments of staged political banter, there is genuinely interesting and/or useful information to be gleaned from Mayoral answers. Questions not reached on the agenda receive written responses, and the need for officials to provide briefings to the Mayor before his appearance acts (as it does in government) as a form of internal accountability that is often underrated.

Just as PMQs isn't a fair representation of the extent of scrutiny of the government, so we should also be careful about assessing accountability at City Hall on the basis of this one monthly meeting.  But both question sessions play an important role - which is partly symbolic.  The ability of elected representatives to hold those in charge to account for what they are doing - and to do so directly, firmly and publicly - is an important principle.  The headlines from yesterday dwelt on Boris volunteering to be blasted by water-cannon, but it is the effect of the metaphorical cannon-fire he faces every month that should be the more important to Londoners.

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