Every so often I have the privilege of hearing a speech that is inspiring and thought provoking. As readers of my blog will know, my political inspiration doesn’t always from ‘my side of the aisle’ and so it was last week, when a Labour politician grabbed my attention and my applause by the power and content of her oratory.
Last Thursday the leader of Haringey council, Claire Kober OBE, chair of London Councils, addressed the Lord Mayor’s London Government Dinner at Mansion House alongside Mayor Sadiq Khan. These were her powerful words:
“I wanted to take a moment this evening, to reflect on the events of the last year here in London. Terrorist attacks at Westminster, London Bridge, Finsbury Park and Parsons Green may have been intended to rip our city apart but they served only to bring us closer together.
And the tragedy at Grenfell Tower – which will scar our city for years to come.
Many more people may have been lost were it not for the extraordinary bravery of the emergency services.
Firefighters; police officers; paramedics; doctors and nurses.
They all put themselves at risk to save the lives of others.
And we should also take a moment to recognise those public servants in local government – some of whom are here this evening – who worked tirelessly over the summer to help people and support other local authorities who needed capacity more than their own.
Last year saw our people and our resources stretched to breaking point but that did not stop council officers from stepping up to the plate.
It was an extraordinary year in politics as well.
These are worrying times for all of us concerned with politics and government not just at home but internationally
We live in an age defined by the growth of populism, protectionism and nationalism.
Marine Le Pen taking a third of votes in the French presidential run off.
The PVV securing second place in the Dutch elections.
The AfD taking seats in the Bundestag in Berlin.
It feels like many of the certainties – the givens – that have governed our lives for decades, can no longer be relied on.
The causes of this political crisis are numerous and deep rooted; globalisation, the loss of anchors, the impact of social media on our public sphere.
But the biggest failure of all is in political leadership.
We see nationally and internationally the consequences of flawed leadership.
Strong leaders manage by facing the future.
They frame its challenges and manage outwards, commanding the confidence of broad coalitions by defining, determining and delivering an inclusive vision.
Weak leaders do the opposite.
They see everything through the prism of internal political management.
In the absence of the anchor of a vision, they manage in order to placate the most vociferous element of their organisation, party or movement.
We see it here in Brexit where the terms of trade with the European Union are set not by the Cabinet, let alone dictated by the voters.
They are, instead, set in terms of what Brexiteer MPs – a parliamentary minority – will accept.
The tail wags the dog.
We see the same in the US, where President Trump made a major foreign policy decision – moving the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – to please the evangelical right.
In both cases the attempt to stabilise an internal political coalition comes at the expense of international stability
Brexit pre-occupies the European Union when it should be focused on the anti-democratic governments in Poland and Hungary.
President Trump’s actions stoke tension in a region which was already a powder-keg
There is danger in this.
Not just the obvious danger of economic instability or in terms of conflict.
But a less obvious, more insidious consequence that is closer to home.
That feeling of powerlessness. That there is nothing we can do.
But it’s not just our heads we lower, it is our horizons too.
Yet we are not powerless. We are leaders. Capable – together with our colleagues and our communities – of great things.
And I’m not talking about our potential, I am talking about our achievements.
Just take a look at what London is today.
The greatest city on earth.
Diverse, exciting, entrepreneurial, innovative.
Home for millions, a desired destination for millions more – who want to come for a day, a week, a year or a lifetime.
This didn’t happen by chance, but by choice.
Just reflect on the journey that London has taken over the past few decades.
The recessions of the 1970s and 80s eliminated hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs.
London could have died. No city has the right to exist, it has to fight. And fight we did.
Public and private – not always the easiest of relationships. But perhaps the conflict was the grit that formed the pearl.
Canary Wharf. The Jubilee Line Extension. CrossRail. The Overground.
The new infrastructure that has enabled us to attract our world leading industries.
But jobs need people with the skills to fill them.
That’s another of our successes.
Remember the 1990s?
London had the worst education system in the country.
Now our schools are the best.
To the extent that I now meet people who say – ‘but London’s different, it’s easier for you.
Well we are different. But it has never been easy.
Take another example.
To borrow Atlanta’s great slogan, we may now be the ‘city too busy to hate’. But it wasn’t always that way.
We had the National Front – marching across the capital – from Southall to Lewisham. The tragedy of the New Cross fire. Answered by principled opposition and by support for those seeking justice.
London changed, as I said, not by chance but by choice. By leadership and commitment to collective action for justice.
London is diverse and tolerant because we all chose it to be.
But, as we are seeing, justice is a journey not a destination.
Today we fight for the rights of EU nationals living here.
And we’ve continued to lead efforts to bring unaccompanied asylum seeking children, in desperate need of a new life, to this country.
London boroughs provide homes to one in three of these children nationally.
When the Calais camps closed – our doors opened.
We provided refuge.
We provided leadership.
We can be proud of our collective achievement. And I want to pay tribute to some of the major figures in London Government who have stepped down in the last year or shortly will be stepping down.
Steve Bullock has spent his life in London serving local government, serving Londoners. The Museum of London, connecting Lewisham to the capital’s opportunities, making the case for more housing. His record is enviable. He will be missed by many of us in this room.
Also Nick True, Chris Robbins, Stephen Carr, Sarah Hayward and Philippa Roe.
All great London leaders in their own right. People who have served their communities and our city well
They – and we – all of us in this room – have made a difference. Borough Leaders will continue to make that difference.
Is this a volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world?
Can we do anything about that?
Of course we can. That’s why we‘re here.
A man I greatly admire once said, we are at our best when at our boldest.
And we will continue to make the difference.
All of us.
Long may that continue.
The London Government Dinner is hosted every January by the Lord Mayor of the City of London at Mansion House. It brings together the Mayor and assembly Members from the Greater London Authority, and the Mayors, Leaders, and Chief Executives of the 32 London Boroughs, as well as others who have interest or involvement in the governance of the capital.