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Tuesday, 1 February, 2000, 16:28 GMT
Ambassador Banks

BBC News Online's Nyta Mann interviews Tony Banks, MP for West Ham, former sports minister and now the prime minister's ambassador for England's bid to stage the 2006 World Cup.

Back in 1989 a Labour backbencher introduced a ten-minute rule bill in the Commons for London to have its own elected mayor. Just over a decade later Tony Banks's idea has sprung to life. A bit too lively for his liking, in fact.

"I was delighted when the prime minister announced that we in government were going to go for this directly-elected mayor," he says. "I must say that I've not been overjoyed by the way it's been handled subsequently - and I've said this quite directly to the prime minister as well."

It has been a mess. It has been undignified. It's been divisive.
Tony Banks on Labour's mayoral contest
The West Ham MP and former sports minister is worried that other cities, having witnessed the contortions that have dominated Labour's mayoral nomination contest, are less likely to take up the idea.

"Having seen what's happened in London, you can well imagine the Labour Party in Birmingham or Manchester wondering whether or not they actually want this, this -"

Circus? It's not often that Banks is at a loss for the right word but he accepts the offer of this one. "Yes it is, in a way. It was predictable and I wouldn't have done it this way."

No ballot, no college

He told Tony Blair at an early stage, more than once, how Labour ought to go about it.

Constituency parties should, he says, have been invited to nominate candidates. The London party should then have drawn up a shortlist based on interviews. The final decision would be left to Labour's ruling National Executive Committee.

London Mayor
No one-member-one-vote ballot, not even an electoral college of the kind now being used - and criticised as a fix to shoe-horn in Blair's preferred choice, Frank Dobson.

Banks's method would, he believes, have avoided the "unseemly" chaos that instead erupted.

With no great policy differences between Labour's hopefuls, the fight to win the nomination inevitably became personal - "and that in the end comes down to personalities and character strengths and defects," he says. "And I don't really feel that that sort of discussion, which is very subjective, is actually conducive to harmony within a party."

"No one can say this has been a cleansing process, [or] this has been a strengthening process of the party in London," he continues. "It hasn't been. It has been a mess. It has been undignified. It's been divisive."

"It should not have been done this way and that's why I made recommendations for the way it should've been done. No one took any notice - but I suspect they will in future."

No personal attacks

Labour should not have held a ballot for its mayoral selection, according to Tony Banks
In the 1970s Banks served on Lambeth council with Ken Livingstone. He went on to become a key player on the Livingstone-led Greater London Council during the 1980s when it came under heavy tabloid attack for so-called loony leftism. He was also its last chairman before Margaret Thatcher abolished it in 1986 - "for which I will always hate her".

When Dobson U-turned to join Labour's mayoral race last autumn, Banks was still a minister. Like other members of the government, he came out for Dobbo.

But he is noticeably absent from the small battalion of London Labour left-wingers turned loyal Blairites prominent in the city's politics during the 80s but who have since recanted many of their activities of the time to attack their onetime comrade Livingstone.

Banks restates his backing for Dobson, who's "got the interests of London at heart, first and foremost".

"That isn't to say that Ken is someone who wouldn't make a mayor worth having, because he might be the candidate. But I just think that Frank would be a much better mayor. I get concerned from time to time about Ken's, um, you know, Ken's..."

Long pause, followed by a heavy sigh. "See, I'm already going right down into the same area again, because you do then come up with this, starting talking about people's characteristics and things like that, and I..." He trails off, raises his hands, shakes his head and that's it. He will not be led into attacking Livingstone.

"In the end I'm voting for Dobson because I think Dobson's doing it for London, and I think in the end I have to say I think Ken's doing it for Ken," is the closest he comes.

GLC onslaught 'a dumb thing to do'

Frank Dobson: "Interests of Londoners at heart"
A serious tactical error in the Labour hierarchy's efforts to win support for Dobson was, Banks says, attacking the GLC - remembered with "enormous affection" by London Labour members and "perhaps Londoners as a whole".

He cites policies the GLC pioneered - equal opportunities, anti-racism, anti-sexism, setting up police committees - which attracted hysterical headlines then but have since entered the political mainstream.

Livingstone, Banks points out, has become synonymous with the GLC. Regardless of who proposed popular GLC initiatives like Fares Fair and the opening up of the Festival Hall (that was Banks himself), "all those things have now coalesced in the name of Ken Livingstone".

"And the more that people have attacked the GLC the more they've strengthened Ken Livingstone, because it's like attacking the GLC - and that's a dumb thing to do."

"Tony Blair, and not only just Tony Blair but many people in the Labour Party, didn't understand that," he says. "Again, in a meeting with the prime minister I made it quite clear really."

"We've got into this mess that we're in now, I said. But the last thing that we need now is for an onslaught on the GLC. Because people like me are never going to disown that. I'm proud of what we did on the GLC. No way am I going to turn round now and say 'This was all wrong'. Because it wasn't all wrong."

"If you can't see that, you're going to make enormous errors of judgement right the way through."

World Cup bid ambassador

I wouldn't want to be the prime minister, not if you paid me - end even then I wouldn't be interested
Tony Banks
At his own request Banks left the government at the last reshuffle to become the prime minister's ambassador for England's bid to host the 2006 World Cup.

He's not overly keen on going back into government. In fact he must be one of the few MPs not to dream of being prime minister.

"The job of prime minister is an impossible one in my opinion, in terms of the demands we make on an individual intellectually and physically.

"And I wouldn't want to be the prime minister, not if you paid me - and you would but you would have to pay me a damn sight more than they offer the prime minister. And even then I wouldn't be interested."

Tony Blair: Warned but wouldn't listen
It's a view shaped by his own experience of office and the relentless ministerial workload: "It's never-ending, absolutely never-ending. And it's excessively demanding, to be perfectly honest."

So what is the solution? Better funding for politicians? More ministers? "What I would like to see in this country is a higher level of debate on serious issues. I just think that much of our media just trivialises what goes on."

Ah, the media. Journalists are not Banks's favourite people. Throughout the course of our meeting, he liberally peppers his talk with asides on their many failings.

He is under no illusion about the symbiotic relationship between journalism and politics. But he mostly blames the press for what he sees as the near impossibility of staging considered debate: "You see, you cannot have in my opinion a sophisticated debate in this country on any intellectual level on controversial subjects."

That issues ranging from Europe and the euro to decriminalising cannabis are often greeted in sensationalist manner by journalists - "my least favourite life form, if that isn't too grand a claim for the average journalist" - has had, he believes, a deeply corrosive effect on the British polity.

"One of the reasons why we have low quality political decisions in this country over the years is that we're not able to sustain an informed debate because we're frightened of it actually being portrayed not as a debate but as internecine warfare inside a political party," he says.

Why go on?

Tony Banks is ambassador for England's bid to stage the 2006 World Cup
Given his dispiriting analysis, how does he keep going? What's the point?

"That's a very good question, and it's a question I ask myself increasingly," he says. "What is the point? What's in it for me, in that sense? Because most politicians, whatever party they come from, set out with good intentions to do good things, to make changes."

As Banks did at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport - though not as effectively as he wished.

"I felt frustrated," he freely admits. "I could see the problems inside sport in this country and they're essentially structural and funding problems, there's no doubt about it. And I was frustrated because, quite frankly, I didn't have the power to deal with them."

"It was the fractured structure of British sport in this country," he explains. "We have, I think, 112 recognised sports. Not the totality of them but recognised by the UK Sports Council.

"We have for those 112 sports around 415 or so governing bodies. We have five sports councils and four sports ministers.

"This is ostensibly for one country affiliated to the United Nations. For one country. You tell me one other country anywhere in the world that does it like that. There isn't one, because it's an unworkable model."

A young man's game

As you get older people don't ask you for advice. They just move on
Tony Banks
Back on London, I ask Banks if he feels Blair has been listening to the wrong focus groups rather than Londoners - who have, in poll after poll, obstinately insisted on backing Livingstone.

"I haven't the faintest idea. I just feel there's been a misunderstanding of the way London goes and thinks.

"But I've now reached an age where I have enormously long track record in London politics and it's just one of those things, as you get older people don't necessarily turn to you and ask for advice. They just move on."

He has proposed before that Labour set up a "council of elders, men and women who've given service at different levels of the party", which today would act as a resource of past experience for those running New Labour.

But he doesn't have great hopes of it happening.

"In politics, it's a young person's game and it's becoming younger, and you just move on, you forget all the old people - they're 'yesterday's men'.

"Big mistake. Because yesterday's men have also got a lot of the clues to tomorrow's success if you're prepared to consult them."

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See also:
27 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Dobson: Party machine 'did me harm'
26 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Labour mayor saga enters final stretch
19 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Labour leaders raise mayoral stakes
09 Sep 99 |  Football
World Cup bid 'still on course'
01 Aug 99 |  UK Politics
Banks tempted to run London
07 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Bad day for a Dobson relaunch
13 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Labour accused of Dobson bias
03 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Blair and Kinnock warn against Livingstone

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