‘This is the Conservative party’s candidate for mayor of London?’ That was the first thought that ran through my head when I met Boris Johnson at the party’s annual conference last year in Blackpool, which I attended at the invitation of David Cameron. Boris certainly didn’t look or sound like a politician — but then again, neither did I when I first campaigned to become mayor of New York in 2001.
Back then, the pundits had a field-day lampooning my campaign. They said I was inexperienced, which was true. They said I was a walking verbal gaffe, which was no less true. And they said I had no chance of winning, which certainly seemed true.
But New Yorkers in 2001, as with Londoners in 2008, were more sophisticated than they were given credit for by the chattering class. In each case, voters looked beyond superficial tabloid stories and marked their ballots for the candidate they believed most capable of fresh leadership on a host of critical issues, including a struggling economy and the spectre of rising crime.
The similar circumstances surrounding the improbable victories of Bloomberg and Johnson — and the similar issues that defined our campaigns — underscore how much New York and London have in common. While we traditionally think of the ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK as an alliance between two national governments binding the White House and Number 10, more and more there is an increasingly important economic, cultural, and intellectual partnership binding these two cities — almost like the great city states of the Italian Renaissance.
That seems only natural. We are — and here, please forgive the modesty of a New Yorker — the two greatest cities in the world. Some may argue that there are more romantic cities (Nous aimons Paris) and more historic cities (Viva Roma!), but of one thing there is no doubt: no two cities combine such staggeringly rich and diverse economic and cultural opportunities as New York and London. Yet it wasn’t long ago that the experts were saying that New York’s best days were behind it.
When I first took the oath of office on the steps of City Hall, I could see smoke still rising out of the World Trade Center site, just a few blocks away. It was three months after the attacks of 9/11, and in that time, New York City had lost 100,000 jobs, the city’s economy had sunk into recession, and our unemployment rate was up to 8.2 per cent.
There was great uncertainty about the future, and great concern that, as bad as things were, the worst was yet to come. Instead, we turned the city’s $5 billion budget deficit into a $5 billion surplus; our unemployment rate is now lower than the national average, while our life expectancy has grown higher than the national average; we have cut crime by more than 20 per cent — to its lowest level in more than 40 years — and we’ve raised high school graduation rates by 20 per cent.
Notwithstanding this success, we continue to face the usual list of urban problems, just as London does. Traditionally, in both the US and the UK, cities looked to the national government to solve these problems. No more. We have learned that devolution of power coupled with local innovation can be an enormously effective force for progress. More and more, cities around the world have become incubators of innovation, and it is the mayor’s role to ensure that the city — like any successful company — is always looking outward at the world, always keeping an eye on the best new ideas.
In New York, for instance, when we were working to develop our long-term agenda for environmental sustainability, we stole the best ideas from Bogota to Berlin to Tokyo — and we worked to adapt and improve upon them. While much attention has been paid to how we also sought to adopt a London-style congestion pricing plan, we have studied many other areas of London’s experience, especially the rise of Canary Wharf, which has provided a model for our efforts to revitalise Manhattan’s Far West Side, currently home to train yards and warehouses.
When I was in London two weeks ago, I met Boris to discuss our shared challenges, and I offered him a few bits of advice that have served me well in New York:
Hire the best — and give them room to innovate. Mayors, like CEOs, are only as good as their teams. In politics, hiring tends to centre on party and financial relationships, which is a recipe for mediocrity. Of course, if you want to attract the best and brightest, you also must give them the opportunity to be creative. Mayors and CEOs who micro-manage operations stifle innovation. In both the public and private sector, the best leaders are those who are not afraid to try new ideas, no matter which party proposes them.
Do the hard things first. Incoming mayors, like incoming presidents and prime ministers, enjoy a honeymoon. In many cases, politicians worry about how to extend the honeymoon for as long as possible. That’s exactly the wrong approach. The honeymoon is the best time to push through the most controversial priorities, because if you delay, you fail to give people sufficient time to see the benefits of your work. For instance, I banned smoking in all workplaces in my first year in office. It was terribly controversial, but over time it proved spectacularly successful — and popular. Had I waited a few years, city council members might not have been willing to risk their re-election by passing the law. As it turned out, there were few critics left by the time we all ran for re-election.
Remember La Guardia. New York’s greatest Mayor, Fiorella La Guardia, famously said that there is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets. Leave the ideological battles and party politics to the national legislators. Mayors are elected to be doers, not debaters. Voters want clean streets, good schools, affordable housing and — above all — safe neighbourhoods. Boris has wisely made public safety a top priority, and his decision to ban alcohol on public transport was a brilliant stroke. Our crime-fighting success in New York has centred on the same kind of ‘zero tolerance’ for petty crimes, as well as on targeted, data-driven law enforcement that utilises the most advanced technological tools. Today, New York City is the safest big city in America, and we have done it with fewer officers and in the face of rising crime across the nation. I am confident that Boris can achieve similar success in London if he champions the same approach — and he’s already got me beat in helping the police net a knife-wielding youth.
Make accountability a trademark. Accountability is part of the private sector’s genetic code, but in government it is still largely a foreign concept. Mayors can create a culture of accountability by insisting that data drives decisions and by making it public, because people will use it to demand change; and by thinking like a customer. When I came into office, if you wanted to call the city to report a pothole or a broken streetlight, you had to look through hundreds of listings in the telephone book and then call around until you got the right person. With the creation of a 24-hour hotline, staffed by operators who speak 170 different languages, New Yorkers can now report those problems — or find out information on any government programme or policy — simply by dialing 311.
When I met with Boris what I found most encouraging about him — and I see this in many new mayors I meet in the US — was that he has not yet learned what he can’t do. In both business and government, that is the greatest of all asse
ts. In December 2005, after two New York City police officers were gunned down on our streets, I was told that mayors cannot do anything about the interstate trafficking of illegal guns; it’s a national problem requiring a national response. So be it: over the past two years, Boston Mayor Tom Menino and I have organised a national bipartisan coalition of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and our numbers have grown from 15 to more than 320. We haven’t yet solved the problem, but we have already begun to change policy in Washington and develop regional partnerships that will allow us to do together what the federal government should be doing on its own.
The limits on a mayor’s ability to act are constrained only by the imagination, and mayors can find support for creative new solutions by tapping the private sector. I am encouraged to see that Boris has decided to create a public-private partnership to fund innovative programmes, just as we have done in New York. Business leaders have a stake in the quality of services that municipal governments provide because a city’s quality of life is a critical factor in companies’ ability to attract the best and brightest — and that is growing truer by the day.
As the flow of capital and labour becomes ever more fluid, cities are competing like never before to offer the safest streets, the fastest mass transit, the greenest parks, and the most exciting nightclubs, theatres, museums and galleries. New York and London still retain substantial advantages in these areas in comparison to other financial capitals, but as those other cities work to catch up, they will become increasingly attractive places for multinational companies to invest. That is why it is critical for New York and London not only to continue improving the social conditions that attract talent, but also the economic conditions that companies consider when making investment decisions.
It has become a popular parlour game to debate which city, New York or London, deserves the title of the financial capital of the world. And while that can be great fun (We have deeper liquidity! No, we do!), it misses a far more important point: the global financial dominance of New York and London is under attack by emerging financial capitals in the Middle and Far East. The long-term question for New York and London is whether we can maintain the transatlantic corridor as the principal home for financial services companies, or whether cities like Dubai, Mumbai and Shanghai will be able to build the critical mass that will undermine our pre-eminence.
Here again, New York and London have a shared interest not only in learning from one another, but in working closely together to create mutually advantageous market conditions. That is why I recently extended an offer both to Boris and to Stuart Fraser, the new policy and resources chairman at the City of London Corporation: in a few months, after they have both had time to settle into their jobs, I will return to London for a jointly organised conference that examines areas where we can collaborate to strengthen the long-term vitality of the New York–London corridor. These areas might include improving the ease and experience of business travel between our two cities; moving towards more common operational and regulatory standards in financial services; and harmonising and reducing business licensing costs. I’m pleased to announce that Stuart Fraser, along with Boris, has agreed to host the conference.
The new Mayor of London I saw two weeks ago was the same man I met in Blackpool last autumn, but on this occasion we had more time to speak, and I recognised a seriousness of purpose and a commitment to carrying out real change. Nevertheless, he had only been in office for a week, and so he was not yet accustomed to some of the diplomatic niceties of the job: when I presented him with a crystal apple from Tiffany’s, he was caught off-guard and had to improvise, pulling out a shirt with a map of the Tube on it. It was hilariously awful, and for that reason I will always treasure it — even if I never wear it. (And I can assure you, I won’t.) We ended the meeting on a balcony overlooking Tower Bridge, with the sun shining brightly on the city — and on a new mayor who may have been underestimated for the last time. Good luck, Boris. And stay in touch.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 24, 2008