Jennette Arnold is a Labour Party Assembly Member who has been chair for several terms. We discussed how London Assembly meetings are radically different from U.S. city council meetings–plus some juicy stories about former Mayor Boris Johnson.
Q: Madam Chair, I see you are an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
A: I am.
Q: So, “Most Excellent Order”…are you a knight?
A: [Laughs] Only an American would ask that question! Knights are men and the equivalent of a knight would be a baroness and I’m not that. I’m just straightforward Jennette Arnold, OBE.
Q: Gotcha. In the U.S., most city council meetings cover things like zoning, passing laws, and honoring groups in the community. What is the primary function of your assembly meetings?
A: Our governmental structures are very different. The main power that we have is whatever the mayor does, we have the power to call him in front of us so that he can give an account to Londoners through our questioning….Scrutiny is relevant, it’s informed, and you can bring it alive by using case study and evidence from Londoners.
Q: What do assembly members get out of the questioning and what does the mayor get out of it?
A: I think there is something about the political exchange that is adversarial. I’m sitting in the chair aways thinking, “is this member going too far?” That’s in terms of inappropriate language, going outside the mayoral remit, getting personal. My job is to always be monitoring and when I see a member has just about reached the line, to come in and remind that member he has now stepped over the line.
Q: You had some tough questioning of previous Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson. But if a Conservative assembly member grilled your Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the crowd was cheering that member on, would you shut down that applause?
A: No, I wouldn’t. My job isn’t to stifle the feeling of the meeting. If you’re chairing a charged meeting, you have to be very careful in terms of the interventions. I don’t see it as my job to stop what I call that “energy,” which is a reflection of people’s feelings.
Q: Has a constituent ever come up to you after a meeting and said, “I saw what you did there and I like that you gave the mayor the business?”
A: I can refer you back to the applause in the chamber with the questioning I carried out of Boris Johnson. I remember a school closure. What this school was looking for was for their mayor to hear their case. A cross-section of the school came and I was speaking on their behalf. And I didn’t know that they brought a cake. [Johnson] was not listening. He was not making the proper responses for the young people.
A: I said, “oh, come along. They brought a cake for you! Don’t be so mean!” Everybody laughed and he laughed and it took the heat out of the room. At the end of the meeting, I met the young people downstairs and he just happened to be passing. It was lovely to see the young people surrounded him and there was no getting away from them!
Follow Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold on Twitter: @JennetteArnold