Why Sir Ian should answer to the Mayor

London’s policing needs to be more responsive to voters to avoid the problems now plaguing the Met

Published in the Evening Standard 15 June 2006

Blair’s had yet another “worst week,” and there will be more to come. No not Tony – though he’s had enough “worst weeks” to fill a year – but Sir Ian, whose tenure as Britain’s most senior policeman has seemed jinxed from the start.

He’s on the rack over last week’s raid at Forest Gate and on the incident’s pre-echo, the Stockwell shooting in July 2005. In both cases armed police shot an innocent man, wrongly convinced that he was a murderous terrorist. Both episodes have fed the double charge against the Met that it is either racist in its trigger-happy pursuit of anyone who looks, in the words of satirist John O’Farrell “vaguely dusky,” or grossly incompetent – or both.

The result for Blair is fierce criticism from left and right. The former cannot forgive the commissioner the excessive display of force he deployed last week, sending 250 armed men to Forest Gate, and they are ready to pounce on whatever slamming the Independent Police Complaints Commission delivers to Blair when its much-leaked report into the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes is finally published.

Yet Sir Ian has few friends on the right. Traditional allies of the police have long seen Blair as the plod who’s too PC, a limp-wristed liberal more anxious to make the police a politically correct service than a crime busting force. They don’t like his reforms – hiring more women and ethnic minorities – and would be glad to see the back of him.

The result is a commissioner who is lonely and exposed. The ordure is falling on him daily, from a great height and from all sides, and he is having to take most of it on his own. He looks around and sees no-one behind him.

Or rather he sees everyone. Technically, he is a servant of the crown, appointed by the government in the form of the Home Secretary, yet also under the wing of the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA), with a nod to the mayor of London. “Nominally he is answerable to lots of people; in practice that means he’s not really accountable to anybody,” says one official who stands in the middle of this institutional muddle. It translates into a black hole, with few Londoners sure of the Commissioner’s exact authority. And that has a practical meaning. When a police officer tells you or me to stand back, in whose name is he acting? What authority, precisely, does he have?

The solution, the only one in a democracy, has to be politics. The legitimacy of the police has to flow from the legitimacy of an elected mandate. Now that could mean, as the Conservatives under Michael Howard proposed in the last election, the direct election of police chiefs, common practice already in several American cities. But for those who recoil at the thought of policemen touting for votes – doubtless promising ever tougher crackdowns at election time – there is another way. The Commissioner could simply be appointed directly by a politician with a mandate of his own.

No, that’s not a call for the Met to come under the operational control of John Reid. Such a move would smack of the national police force Britain has historically avoided; it would also reek of state control of policing, a set-up rightly deemed alien to our democratic culture.

The candidate for the job is much more obvious and closer to home. The Metropolitan police should come under the democratically elected leader of the metropolis: the mayor.

That’s long been Ken Livingstone’s preference: hardly a surprise that, given the choice, Ken would like to have more power. But he’s not been pushing that demand too loudly of late. He’s far cannier than that. Indeed, he has played recent events brilliantly. Somehow he has retained his status as the admired ally of London’s Muslim community – many of whom are feeling deep anger at the police – while simultaneously emerging as the staunchest backer of the Met. He is best pals with both Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Sir Ian Blair: quite a feat.

All of which is smart politics for Ken. But his backing for the Commissioner gives us a taste of what could also be smart practice for this city. The mayor should be the Commissioner’s boss – and also his chief advocate. That’s how it works in New York, where the mayor appoints the top cop, takes the political heat for him at moments of stress – and sacks him if he screws up.

Such a move is long overdue. And it would have three rapid benefits. First, the police’s corner would be defended by someone who knows how to do it. Witness the woeful televised apology by assistant commissioner Andy Hayman to the Forest Gate brothers: Ken would have known how to do it properly. Second, the police would operate day to day with the clout of a democratic mandate behind them, rather than with the nervous uncertainty that characterises too much of their activity today. Third, they would have to sharpen up their act because the mayor’s electoral prospects would depend on it. Remember, elections are to democracy what competition is to capitalism: they improve performance.

Could it happen? The government will be reluctant: handing over the Met to Ken means ceding control over a slew of national responsibilities, from protection of the Queen to state visits. And there is no practical way to peel those duties away from the core London work of the Met. But that needn’t be an obstacle. Let City Hall run the lot, even those national tasks: after all, it can boast a better record of efficiency than the Home Office.

More likely is a reform to the MPA, allowing Ken to appoint the chair, much as he does now with Transport for London. That would be a step in the right direction, but ministers, currently reviewing the mayor’s powers, should be bolder. They should realise that the ultimate say over the policing of London belongs with the man Londoners choose.