London Calling: Munira Mirza interview

Written by Jess Bowie on 17 July 2014 in Interview
With Boris Johnson seemingly larger than life – let alone City Hall – the work of his busy team often goes unnoticed. But, as Jess Bowie discovers, Munira Mirza is a straight-talking deputy mayor who is equally comfortable in and out of the spotlight

A slate-grey sky broods over Tower Bridge, ready to explode into a muggy June shower. Today, the bulbous mass of City Hall – once described as “a glass testicle” by its former inhabitant Ken Livingstone – looks more like a giant pebble, washed ashore by the murky water of the Thames.   

On the building’s eighth floor, near the top of the helical walkway that spirals up from the entrance, Boris Johnson’s office looks out over the bridge. His tenure as London mayor got off to a rather bumpy start after he snatched power from ‘Red Ken’ in 2008; within his first 14 months, five high-profile officials had left City Hall with their tails between their legs – three of them deputy mayors. 

“Boris has this line that the life expectancy of a deputy mayor is about the same as a North Sea oil diver,” Munira Mirza laughs, when reminded of that torrid time. 

Mirza, who began working for Johnson as a cultural adviser in 2008, has been his deputy mayor for education and culture since 2012. Her office, down the corridor from her boss’s aerie, may not be blessed with panoramic views of the capital, but it is tidy and compact, and suits the unflashy, down-to-earth manner of its occupant.     

Does she think the reputation of the deputy mayors has improved in recent years?

“The first few months of an administration is a pretty testing time,” Mirza says. “Yes, there were some…” She pauses. “Casualties. But it’s been fairly stable actually pretty much since that period. I mean, it’s intense when you first arrive. The Blackberry is on 24/7 and it keeps pinging, and you have to have all these meetings. It was an amazing year of my life, the first year, but it’s very intense. The mayoral system is so different from pretty much any other system in the country, because you have this immediate loss of the top tier, and the new team come in and have to get to grips with everything. We were doing that at the time of a huge budget problem, so you were having make quite tough decisions and bring it all together.” 

In her get-up of brogues, black trousers and a blouse buttoned up to the collar, Mirza is certainly at the trendier end of the public servant spectrum – and looks a decade younger than her 36 years. She works alongside six other deputies, each of whom has a specialist policy area, such as transport or housing. They represent the mayor at events, but the job is “more than just turning up and cutting ribbons”, she says. “We have a strategic overview of our particular areas, we run the programmes and we support teams here at City Hall.” 

Deputy mayors are classed as political appointments, but they aren’t necessarily party political, she adds. 

So you don’t have to be a Tory to work for Boris? 

“No, in fact quite a few of us aren’t,” says Mirza, who in her own words is “not of a party”. Boris, she says, made a decision early on to employ people from a broad spectrum – and it’s clear Mirza’s own background would satisfy a politician of any stripe. Born to Pakistani immigrants in Oldham, her father worked in a factory and her mother was a housewife. They prized education education above all else, and Mirza thrived at her comprehensive, going on to gain an English degree from Oxford and a PhD in sociology from the University of Kent. 

Although Mirza has worked as development director at the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange and is married to David Cameron’s No. 10 colleague and former speechwriter Dougie Smith, she has also been linked to a group called the Revolutionary Communist Party. In fact, according to one Ken Livingstone, she used to be a ‘loony lefty’... 

“As opposed to the sensible lefty he was!” Mirza says, with something between a gasp and a laugh. She goes on to explain that while the RCP disbanded some time ago, she knew a lot of people – like the writer and Moral Maze regular Claire Fox – who were involved in it. 

“I’m still friendly with them and I mean, yeah, they were left-wing. Claire would still describe herself as left-wing, I guess. But what I really liked about them and still do is that they have quite strong liberal-libertarian instincts about things and quite strong views about education and culture. So in that sense I was definitely sympathetic.”

Is she still a Revolutionary Communist at heart?

“I don’t know what that means,” she says. “There are lots of things that I’d also disagree with. If there was a party line no-one told me what it was. But for Ken to call me a loony lefty is outrageous. What I would say is that I have called myself left-wing, but I often found that my most heated arguments were with left-wing friends, and actually the things that I’ve said about multiculturalism have probably made me very unpopular with a lot of people on the left.” 

Mirza’s stance on multiculturalism – she believes it can hinder integration and emphasise racial divisions – has indeed attracted attention. But the word should be used carefully, she says, because people interpret it differently. What she dislikes is multiculturalism as a policy, rather than a lived experience. 

“We live in a multicultural city on one level – there are lots of people here from all over. That’s a good thing and we should celebrate it. But what I think politicians and policymakers shouldn’t do is assume that they know a community, or that a community has a fixed view of things – communities themselves are quite diverse internally. You know, what is it to be a black British person in London today? Actually it represents a whole range of countries, age groups.”

And it is in art and culture, Mirza says, that multiculturalist policies can be the most damaging, “because you make assumptions about what an audience might be interested in and you limit their exposure to things”. 

Has she brought her views on the subject to bear on her work at City Hall?

“I think there has been a tendency, certainly in arts policy, to think, ‘let’s produce dedicated programmes for certain types of communities, and bursaries and so on’. And I think we’ve tried to move away from that idea here. Obviously we want to work with the widest and most diverse range of artists that are coming out of London – it’s a very international city – but we want to see them as artists first and foremost, and get them involved in that way. So I think that has changed.”

While Mirza wants arts organisations in the city to work with a wider range of people, what she doesn’t want is for “people in those organisations to think ‘oh well that’s a black kid or a Bangladeshi kid, therefore we have to give them art that will be relevant to them”. This approach is very limiting, she argues, and for many people “also really boring”. “If you want to show them great art, broaden their horizons and show them the full range of it and make them feel that it belongs to them too. 

“That was my experience when I was growing up. The books I loved reading weren’t by Asian women from Oldham, they were by great writers. That mattered.”

There’s a Gove-ian ring to much of what Mirza says about children’s cultural experiences – perhaps unsurprising given that she and the education secretary are said to be close. Mirza says she and Boris are “very supportive” of what Michael Gove is doing, adding that she “completely agrees” that young people have the right to an academic education and one which “shouldn’t be dumbed down for them”. It’s an aim which is “in the service of equality rather than against it,” she says – though she admits it’s not always easy to pitch that argument.

In March this year, Gove – according to The Daily Mail, at least – launched an ‘exocet’ on Boris, apparently saying he lacked gravitas and was unfit to lead the nation. What did Mirza make of that?

“I couldn’t possibly comment!” she says. Then, after a pause: “What can I say about that... I think that everything that needed to be said has been said by Boris probably...Actually I don’t think Boris even commented. What I do know is that obviously they have a friendship. They’ve worked together for many years, they’re both journalists, they have very similar views on education and I think intellectually they are sympatico.”

While the mayor’s office has no formal power over London schools, City Hall runs a wide variety of programmes for school-age children in the capital, including mentoring schemes aimed at diverting young people away from gangs, volunteering initiatives, and projects with music groups and orchestras (“we’ve done a lot on music education,” Mirza says).  

And although London schools have improved over the last few years, there remains “a real challenge in some areas like literacy and numeracy and certain types of subject like science – some humanities, some of the traditional academic subjects – where frankly state schools are not keeping pace in general.” 

To recognise this, the mayor’s office has created a £24m fund to support teachers and improve training and standards in those subject areas. “And that’s reaching thousands of teachers and thousands and thousands of young people,” Mirza says proudly.

Presumably, the limitations of City Hall’s power also mean much of Mirza’s time is spent persuading more local institutions to implement ideas that she and her team have come up with.

“Yeah it’s absolutely true,” she says, adding ruefully that the mayor’s office no longer operates in an age of plenty. “Literally, under the previous administration, they could just hand over a large pot of money and do things on their own, but we have to work in partnership with a lot of organisations.” 

Not that this is always a bad thing: because of the overview position it occupies in London, City Hall can work with all boroughs and schools, and promote culture, sport and business in a way other organisations can’t. Mirza gives the example of Generating Genius, a charity which works with young people. “It needed a sponsor – it does a lot of work in science and tech training – and I was able to put them in touch with Google, who are now their sponsor. 

“That is the kind of relationship we broker. It will never be on the front page of a paper, but a large part of what we do is – rightly – to bring people together, and do the on-the-ground, nitty-gritty stuff.”

As for the qualities needed to be mayor of London, Mirza says having a “big personality” is a must. “Not necessarily a celebrity personality, but what I’ve seen in the way Boris does it, you have to have a real belief in the vision of what you want to get done. London is just so complicated: there are so many different interests and agencies, and there are so many reasons to say no to things. So you have to have a plan and you have to be a certain type of politician. And Ken would have been the same: quite single-minded about trying to get certain things done. Otherwise you’d drown in the bureaucracy and all the different factional interests.”

Boris’s second term as mayor ends in 2016. One potential successor, whose name has circulated since he steered the 2012 Olympics to success, is Sebastian Coe. Mirza thinks the athletic peer “would be fantastic”, but what if Labour wins the next mayoral elections? Could she continue in her job and help paint the town red?

“It’s hard to imagine doing this job for any other politician, frankly. Boris is unique,” is all she will say. 

Mirza’s late father didn’t live to see her in her current role. Is her mother proud of her? 

“I hope so! I’ve just had a son – about a year ago – and I realised the thing that makes your parents most proud is when you have children,” she says, smiling.

“But, yeah, she is proud of me. I’m very proud of her as well. She was a housewife, and she did some part-time Urdu teaching as well, but she does a lot of voluntary work, and she’s very active in the community.”

While life at the GLA under Boris has settled down over the years – the days of disgraced deputy mayors helter-skeltering their way down City Hall’s walkway clutching P45s a distant memory – some things have stayed the same. Munira Mirza’s Blackberry is still pinging with wanton persistence. Now, though, she’s learnt not to feel too bad about leaving it, if only for a couple of hours. “I can’t complain,” she says. “I’m loving my job.”


This article appeared in the July issue of Total Politics 

Tags: Boris Johnson, City Hall, Deputy London Mayor, GLA, Munira Mirza

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