INTERVIEW: A heartbeat away from the Mayor of London

Tony Grew July 7, 2008
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Deputy mayors have been in the news a lot recently.

On Friday Ray Lewis resigned as Deputy Mayor of London amid a welter of allegations about his previous incarnation as a Church of England priest.

While his departure was a blow to Boris Johnson, he has quite a few other deputies.

However, only one of them is the statutory Deputy Mayor, the one mentioned in the legislation that created the post of Mayor of London.

That man is Richard Barnes, who has been out and proud, and fighting, for so long that sometimes it seems he was the original gay Tory.

A Hillingdon borough councillor since 1982 and former council leader, he has served on the London Assembly since its creation in 2000.

After eight years of Ken, he is finally in power and, before last week’s Pride parade, he sat down with to talk about Boris, HIV prevention, and why the terrorist attacks exactly three years ago today showed our city at its most resilient. Congratulations on your appointment. I understand that you are the statutory Mayor, can you explain what that entails?

A statutory Mayor is a legal requirement and should be there if anything untoward happened to the Mayor.

Does that mean you are a heart beat away from being Mayor?

I’m just a little bit further but yeah.

How does that work in terms of influencing the Mayor, do you meet regularly, do you have conversations?

We will meet regularly but obviously during the course of the campaign Boris and I did establish a close rapport and we worked very closely together.

When we were talking about Boris Johnson in November and even in January and February there was this idea that his candidacy was a Tory bit of fun …

I don’t believe that.

Well what I was going to say is his majority is sizeable, a considerable vote, did that surprise you having been on the campaign trail with him, or were you expecting it on election night?

Before he was selected I just had that gut feeling that he was that symbol of change that everybody in London wanted and given the way his magnetic celebrity status on the campaign trail people just flocked to him.

I’ve been out with (former Mayor) Ken and you see people on opposite sides of the street say “oh there’s Ken Livingstone.”

With Boris they had to get near him, they had to get their photograph taken with him.

They want to be close to him which is that difference between premier division and a full star if you like.

You have been and assembly member since the beginning. What sort of changes did you want to see over those eight years, what changes do you want to see now and what do you think Boris will bring forward?

I would rather look forward than look backward.

But you must have seen an organisation that you thought could be better run?

I thought the organisation has improved since we came into office, that it was dysfunctional, the decision making was channelled through a very small coterie of people.

The professional offices were not allowed to make decisions of their own, they were all referred upwards.

What I believe is that you should trust the offices and professionals that you’ve put there, that you should allow them to get on and make decisions, clearly ask for checks and balances.

They just got a budget which has been examined and approved. I don’t expect them to come back on a monthly basis and say “can I spend part of my budget?”

Boris had a bit of a rough ride from the gay community….


Three men and a dog was the one that a lot of people raise – he wrote in 2000 that if civil partnerships were OK then it would be OK if three men and a dog get married.

That’s dogism.

You must be aware that it is a problem, the Labour party were straight out of the traps, accusing him of homophobia and saying that his statements as a journalist prove that he has a problem with gay people.

Absolutely, but looking at the way tokenism reigned within this organisation then, you know … the great evil of the last few years is the division of London into its separate parts, the division to allow people to believe that their issues are separate and different from their neighbours.

To allow them to believe that a group of individuals in City Hall are going around with a little cheque book, and saying “here’s your cheque for this year, go away and do something” without measuring what strength they are putting into the community.

I’d like to see London being brought together. We had a disability adviser employed here for quite some considerable time.

I asked him when I spoke to him what he had achieved and it is a new toilet downstairs, and the entrance hall and that isn’t finished yet, he had never been into the Deputy Mayor’s office all the time he’s been here.

That’s tokenism and I think that the last eight years have been bedevilled by tokenism.

I wanted to know what you think about the HIV campaigns that are ongoing from people like THT – you are probably aware that they come under a lot of criticism for the way that they speak to the gay community.

They do.

I know that you have long experience of this and I wanted to get your view on it.

And I used to know Terrence Higgins.

Where did you meet him?

We met on the social scene. THT does come under criticism, there was a time when a thousand blossoms bloomed across London and there was a lot of localised small support structures, indeed not just localised but a number of across London support organisations, which slowly had their funding stopped, withdrawn, cut, gobbled up by THT.

It suddenly became this great part of the establishment and it wasn’t so very good at delivering local services to local people across London.

And it paid its people obscenely high amounts of money when other people were struggling, some of the salaries that they paid were higher than the local funding for some whole organisations.

They got the money as though they were the constant source for all knowledge and they are not.

What I would say about this government is that it has allowed a charity to go totally off-focus.

It has a allowed a generation, perhaps two, to believe “I can get a tablet, I can have an injection, I will be alright.”

It is hard to [remember] it is not a question of ‘I am going to die’ it’s ‘I’m going to live.’

I do believe that the absence of a national policy, a national process, and I’m not talking about icebergs and all the things we had at the very beginning but just general real education, particularly in and around sex, it has been appalling, and it is to be condemned for that.

Is that something you would advocate into Tory policy for education?

Absolutely, we’ve got to have some form of influence within health across London and we have a responsibility to do that.

Part of that has got to be to reduce the amount of sexually transmitted illnesses which are very prevalent, the high rate of teenage pregnancy and if it means you’ve got to teach people what a condom truly is, because you don’t like it or don’t like the smell, that is not a reason for getting pregnant.

We’ve got to educate people that abortion is not a means of contraception, it is a last stop, and somehow we’ve got to get to people to look after themselves, you cannot have a generation where 25% have clamidia, it’s just not acceptable, because health consequences down the line can be quite enormous.

My partner died of HIV and AIDS the illness. He died in 94.

I wasn’t allowed to register the death.

I nursed him for 11 months and 6 days which was from diagnosis to dying and he died in my arms.

The day after I went to register his death and I’ll never forget the dear registrar sitting there and saying “why are you here” and I was there with his 70 odd year old mother and 70 odd year old aunt.

And I said “I’m here to register the death of my partner” and she turned and said “you are not a fit and proper person to do so,” because there is a list of who could register a death and we were right down the bottom of the list, if on it at all.

When I was working in the HIV charities the number of people that came to me in utter and total distress because they weren’t allowed to register partner’s deaths was quite horrific.

It was an incredibly distressing time.

It upset his mum and certainly his aunt.

They talk about it even today of how upset they were, because at the end of it how many copies of the death certificate were drawn up, six or whatever it was, I paid for them and my money was alright but my signature wasn’t.

It was just appalling. I [took them to the] registrar general and got the signatures changed. It was just, it was part of that totally unthinking discrimination that people have lived with in that generation.

Every socialist I know would ask why you are a member of the Tory party because they would contend that it was the Tory party, not society, that created that prejudice. What’s your answer to that?

My answer to that is actually bollocks, because I do believe in celebrating people’s differences.

Each according to our needs.

My partner was profoundly deaf and I remember when the dear lady came round to give him the green card.

(Registration cards for people who are deaf, blind, partially sighted and physically disabled).

She said to him: “how long have you had a hearing impairment” and he was a bit rude and his answer was: “I haven’t got a fucking impairment I’m deaf.”

An impairment is to imply “oh we can fix that dear” and he was deaf – you treat people as they are, as they need to be respected and treated and this socialist evil of dividing people up into separate parts does not bode well for society.

Let us turn to some of the other big issues facing London – what is your view about expanding Heathrow airport?

I live in Heathrow and Heathrow is part of my constituency.I don’t believe you can knock down 700 houses, condemn 3,700 more to be unlivable and have health implications and ecology implications for the whole of London.

It is not just a third runway it’s also a third approach route and a third exit route, it is madness.

I think we need an independent honest review of what the capacity is given where we are now with prices going through the roof, how long is it sustainable that air fuel is tax free.

I question on a global basis rather than a London basis. Why are we still flying to Paris when you can get there on a train quicker, perhaps not cheaper, but you can certainly get there very quickly?

I find it incomprehensible that we have flights to Brussels and Paris.

Given the Mayor’s power the most that can be is encouragement.

The greatest power the mayoralty has is that of influence.

I’m not in this game for power, that is the elusive thing that somebody else has got.

We have influence and access, the people of London listen to us.

I’d rather work with people than coerce them into doing something.

The BNP are now on the London Assembly. How are you going to work with them?

Democracy says that they are here. I’ve made it very clear that I regret it.

I’ve made it very clear that as we go through redeployment if any secretarial or other individual expresses the view that they do not want to work with the BNP then they won’t.

What working together with them means – I don’t know.

I will certainly not be asking them of their views to cobble together a vote, you can vote which way you like, we have neither spoken to them before about it or afterwards.

Prevention of terrorism is an area that you have worked in very closely.

I wrote the 7/7 report. 170,000 copies of which have been downloaded off the website.

As Londoners how much do we have to fear, should we be living in fear and is the existence of an open gay community a threat?

No, it can never be a threat that we live as we are and who we are.

There are clearly threats to every major city.

I don’t walk around this city looking over my shoulder, I am proud to live in this city and be part of London life and they will not coerce me into acting differently.

I’m no more afraid of the Muslim constituents than I am of any other constituent.

But what we have got to do is get out there and try to understand why people are prepared to slaughter the innocent, and it can’t be simply dismissed as “well, they are against the Iraq war.”

It has to be far deeper motivation than that.

What was it that surprised you the most from the conclusions of your report.

What I had reaffirmed was how the ordinary Londoner reacts to tragedy, which was incredibly impressive.

From the Salvation Army with their bacon butties to the guy who managed Marks and Spencer’s, clearing it and using it as a triage, to the managers of hotels who kicked people out and made rooms available and set up a casualty receiving base.

The sheer humanity within the survivors on the trains helping each other, that was incredibly humbling and incredibly uplifting at the same time.

What I found disappointing at that time was that every organisation in London had an emergency plan but they hadn’t actually spoken to each other and those plans didn’t knit together.

So you could end up with somebody from the City of London police deciding to switch off everybody’s mobiles so he could talk to his people in the hospital ignoring, or not knowing, he was isolating every ambulance within the area.

That surprised me, that people believed they could make decisions outside the chain of command and think they could get away with it. There has to be real process.

We’ve come a long, long way, but we must start applying the lessons that we’ve learnt to how we deal with small businesses, how we deal with London on a daily basis how we get advice and information to them and how we prepare for the Olympics.

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