James McGrath — he pronounces the surname "McGraa" — describes himself as an "Aussie plant" at new Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson's City Hall. His comments about Black people are robust and as distant from being politically correct as his country.
But first transport. I complain to Australian-born McGrath that it cost me £5 for a taxi to go just round the corner from London Bridge Station, before I was forced to abandon the ride because of traffic and travel the final 200 metres on foot for our meeting at City Hall. McGrath quips that Boris and him have been getting texts from people similarly caught in traffic jams, who know them. The friends have asked what they are going to do about the congestion.
"It's to be expected. We are in power now," McGrath said with obvious relish.
I said that my taxi driver had good suggestions about replacing empty bendy buses and double deckers with small 'hoppers' after rush-hour, traffic lights with mini roundabouts and restricting delivery truck drops to the early hours. The Mayor should listen to people like that at the sharp end, something Ken Livingstone and his Socialist Action cronies would not do. He says: "Yes, I agree. They were Stalinist and worked to a five year plan (a reference to Lenin's Soviet Union communists)."
McGrath was drafted in by fellow antipodean Lynton Crosby, a political hard man and spin doctor credited with masterminding Johnson's win over incumbent Ken Livingstone in May, for the 2004 Tory campaign of Steve Norris. Now McGrath is the Mayor's deputy chief of staff.
Is he a Conservative headquarters "plant" - the political minder party leader David Cameron has hired to keep the notoriously flippant and maverick Boris Johnson on the right track because, for the national party, so much hangs on Tory City Hall success? Or, is McGrath a genuine Boris man — confidante and trusted political fixer?
Some commentators say a bit of both. They point out that Johnson became candidate in the first place because he's a mate of "Dave", as Boris refers to his political boss. Despite us having been in touch for more than two weeks arranging the brief meeting, McGrath claimed not to have checked me out. "I don't know anything about you," he demurred, disarmingly. I said: "Good, so we start with a blank piece of paper. I prefer it that way." I guess there were trepidations on both sides.
Him, a guy from a country where Black people are the "Aboriginal" indigenous nation who are stereotyped by the white colonisers as social security scrounging drunks, and me a confident, British-born Black activist and news media operator with a reasonable track record. I told him a little bit about my news media and campaigning background, including as a reporter/presenter at Thames Television and as the sort of 'spin doctor' and political facilitator for the Stephen Lawrence cause célèbre.
I founded the all-party Anti-Racist Alliance which, among other things, with the support of high Tory Sir Ivan Lawrence MP, helped change the law on racially-motivated crimes, and established the ARAfest top music events in London parks which Ken Livingstone turned into the annual Rise festival. It has been said that this year's event, on July 13, will controversially no longer carry an anti-racist message. A spokeswoman for the Mayor said: "Boris has made a commitment to go ahead with the Rise festival this year but wants to emphasise its cultural and community dimensions."
I explained to McGrath, at his invitation, the breadth of my community links, both national and local, which were demonstrated on a micro level when the Liberal Democrat-Conservative leadership of Southwark borough in south east London, where I live, invited me to chair their anti-gun crime public meeting at the Damilola Taylor Centre in Peckham.
Not least as the father of two teenaged boys who have grown up in the inner city - one of whom was stabbed and put in hospital - I have a knowledge and keen interest in combating this sort of youth crime which blights London. But, as a motivational lecturer at university and other levels, I said that I am passionate about using education as means of tackling the issue as I have suggested with the Young Roots Creative Writing Project proposed by a teacher colleague and me to the Guinness Trust for an estate of theirs in Brixton, south London.
I had run similar schemes for residents on the tough Stonebridge estate at Harlesden, north west London, and the unemployed in the south west of the capital.
I brought along to the meeting copies of the Black community Voice and New Nation weekly newspapers covering the fortnight since Boris Johnson was elected Mayor of London, and pointed out that Johnson was getting a bad press in these publications. I put this down to a "problem of perception".
McGrath was far from politically correct, David-Cameron-new-cuddly-Conservative Party, when I pointed out to him a critical comment of Voice columnist Darcus Howe that the election of "Boris Johnson, a right-wing Conservative, might just trigger off a mass exodus of older Caribbean migrants back to our homelands".
He retorted: "Well, let them go if they don't like it here." McGrath dismissed influential race commentator Howe as "shrill".
He scoffed at the New Nation front page "Stabbings or stop and search? The choice is yours. Will new tough policing really stop the tragic murders or simply take community-police relations back 30 years?"
McGrath might well have said that City Hall's new administration is not into this politically correct race relations stuff. He stated firmly: "Boris's main priority is fighting crime."
But was not one of the greatest tragedies in the capital at the moment the killing by Black youth of other Black youth and one could not be colour blind about that? Yes, said McGrath, but we are not like Ken Livingstone who made play of this to win votes during the election campaign. He revealed that "we met with the family of a murder youth at that time and did so privately and did not tell the media about it".
What of the sacking of Livingstone's most senior Black appointee, Manny Lewis, the head of the London Development Agency, within days of Mayor Johnson taking power, and the sort of race equality message that sent out? McGrath was characteristically unrepentant. "He was incompetent," he said tersely.
During Ken Livingstone's campaign to be re-elected, he implied that Boris Johnson was "racist". To support this he dredged up references in Johnson's journalism of 2002 when he allegedly referred to Black people as 'pickaninnies' and talked about Africans and their "water melon smiles".
I noted that Johnson had stressed his commitment to representing all of multi-cultural London, but that bridges still needed to built with minority ethnic communities who neither knew the new Mayor nor understood what his administration would mean for them. The minority ethnic news media, with which I enjoyed a longstanding good relationship at editor level and above, could play a positive role in this regard.
I said that I was not a great fan of the politically correct term "multi-cultural"or Livingstone's patronising and tokenistic hijacking of its agenda. I prefered 'diversity', with its emphasis on individuals being fairly represented at all levels of society based on merit; that people should be given a hand up rather than a handout.
That is not to say that the redressing of the under-representation of African Caribbean, Asian and other minority ethnic people should not be specifically addressed where politicians like the Mayor and others have the power and influence to do so. It is interesting to note the cross party support for this in Britain and America. In the US, both former Republican Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani and Secretary of State Colin Powell embraced "affirmative action". Current Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg is of the same mind.
I told McGrath his boss would need to bridge-build to win over London's minority ethnic citizens. He listened intently. "So, what do you want from Boris?" he asked. I said, 'nothing'. I had not come with a CV for a job, like hundreds of people before me. I just wanted to continue to make a contribution to advancing the interests of Black people and others in London and elsewhere.
McGrath rephrased his question: "So, what can Boris do for you?" I said that, as a Labour Party member for as long as I could remember, I was not about promoting a Conservative agenda. And I was heartened that Johnson had appointed the former Labour government minister Kate Hoey MP to advise him on sport and he appeared sincere in his desire to have an administration of all the talents.
McGrath confirmed that the observation was correct. "We're not going to be party political. We'll do what's best for London," he said.
Curtly, he added: "I get where you are on the radar, sunshine." Again, not a politically correct thing to say to a Black person. But, hey, these Tories have not yet been running the show in London for a 100 days. They will have to learn quicker than the London traffic or fall on their sword.
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