The London mayor affair

Blair and Livingstone deserve each other.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

So Red Ken has been welcomed back into the New Labour fold. Three years after his suspension from the party, for standing as an independent candidate in the London mayoral elections against the official Labour candidate Frank Dobson, Ken Livingstone has passed the ‘loyalty test’ set by New Labour’s National Executive Committee and sealed the truce between himself and Tony Blair’s government.

What does any of it mean? So far as the London mayorship goes, nothing of any consequence. It wasn’t Londoners who wanted a mayor in the first place (turnout in the 2000 election was a miserable 34 per cent) (1), but the government that decided we should have one – without, of course, any real powers to speak of.

The result has been a new building (the GLA ‘gonad’) and a mayor whose most visible fingerprints have been on the decision to ban people from feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square, to charge people for the privilege of driving through central London and to clog the roads with bus lanes, and to fail to organise any decent New Year’s celebrations for two years running. The curiously styled signature of the ‘Mayor of LondON’ appears everywhere on public transport publicity, to assure us that the Tube takes us home at night and that buses are getting better. We have mainly his word for that.

As the contest shapes up for the next mayoral election, in 2004, one wonders what policies the competing candidates will present in their manifestoes in an attempt to excite an already lukewarm electorate. Speed restrictions on walking down Oxford Street? Alcohol-free pubs? Whatever the policies, the personalities already lined up for 2004 are
unlikely to thrill: Ken Livingstone for Labour, Steve Norris for the Tories, Simon Hughes for the Lib Dems (‘encouraging cycling and walking, later buses and tubes’) and Darren Johnson for the Green Party, who ‘ opposes airport expansion and incinerators’. (2) It almost makes you long for the bitter-but-boring infighting of the 2000 contest between Ken ‘Cheeky Chappie’ Livingstone and the vicarish former health secretary Frank Dobson.

Given the limited scope of the mayor’s powers, the limited vision any of the candidates seem to have for the job, and the limited public interest of Londoners in all things mayoral, it makes little difference to London what Ken Livingstone’s party affiliations actually are, let alone whether he has an official membership card or not. But the bizarre
relationship of estrangement and rapprochement between mayor Ken and prime minister Tony Blair tells us something about these politicians, and what passes for politics and principles in the UK today.

Much has been made of the U-turn in attitude, undertaken by both sides in this feud. ‘I believe passionately that he would be a disaster – a financial disaster, a disaster in terms of crime and police and business’, said Blair of Livingstone in March 2000. ‘Those predictions have not turned out to be correct’, he says now. ‘I think if the facts change, you should be big enough to change your mind.’ (3)

‘I have made no approaches to rejoin the party. I have had no discussions with the party.… As far as I am concerned, I will be an independent at the next mayoral election’, said Livingstone in August 2003. ‘I am pleased to once again be a member of the party I joined over 30 years ago’, he says now. ‘It can only be good for London because it will mean London gets a better hearing.’ (4)

As the Guardian’s Zoe Williams has pointed out, such U-turns from Ken are hardly shocking. ‘Livingstone has a proven record of being able to say completely different things between seeking power and gaining it,’ she states, before concluding that ‘Ken isn’t a firebrand at all; he isn’t Maria, he is a cheeky monkey with his eye on the main chance’. (5) The old left of the International Committee of the Fourth International puts things more bluntly: Livingstone is an ‘inverterate opportunist’ whose victory, as it apparently predicted, has done nothing to ‘further the cause of the working class’. (6)

Whether you want to see him as a monkey, maverick, class traitor or something else, Livingstone’s record is one of a shameless flaunting of his lack of principles. The ‘Red Ken’ label, which he gained during his days running the Greater London Council under Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, was a conceit even then – now, the closest Ken gets to shades of pink is denouncing the government’s part-privatisation scheme of the London Underground as ‘criminally irresponsible’, but running the Tube nonetheless. From Livingstone’s determination in 2000 to win the mayorship despite the consequences for his party, to the way he has rolled over at the prospect of readmission, it is clear that there is only one priority in Ken’s world. Himself.

But at least he’s not running the country. If anything can make Livingstone seem political and principled, it’s his enemies-turned-running-mates in the government. The main outcome of the debacle surrounding Livingstone’s candidacy four years ago was the way it highlighted the government’s defensiveness, and its isolation from the very people the mayoral elections were supposed to reach out to – the electorate. Faced with a choice of a government yes-man and a thorn in Blair’s side who seemed to share most of his politics, at a time when a New Labour government is inevitable but not exactly popular, voting Livingstone became an opportunity to stick two fingers up at the Blair administration without risking any serious consequences (like voting Tory or Lib Dem). The surrounding hissy fit thrown by New Labour was rather gratifying – and more damaging to the regime than anything Red Ken might have said or done.

Since that time, Livingstone has all but disappeared from public view, courting City financers and property developers, getting on with doing what Blair now grudgingly describes as doing a good job running London (as though it was not an elected position after all, but some kind of public service task). The government, meanwhile, has continued to expose and weaken itself in his absence. How many key principles and reforms has Tony Blair sworn his political life upon, before watering them down in the face of internal party squabbling until they become empty words and phrases?

Foxhunting, foundation hospitals, tuition fees – all of these things have made for much talk in parliament and a great deal of chatter among political commentators, while amounting to little more than zeitgeisty symbols of politics’ emptiness and narrow scope. Blair’s own ministers and MPs bitch freely about him and his ideas, while proposing nothing in their place; Blair talks the talk of beliefs and principles while ensuring that the content of his politics are innocent of both.

How many ‘worst days’ has Blair suffered since his time in office? From the foot-and-mouth outbreak to the fuel crisis, from the Iraq war to the David Kelly affair, the time since Blair’s 1997 election has been riddled with darkest days, internal party rebellions and full-frontal expressions of public mistrust. Because none of these reactions amount to real criticism, or attempts by anybody else to turn these gripes and whinges into political capital, Blair carries on, amid an aura of increasing evasion and insecurity.

And shameless opportunism. What is the olive branch extended to Livingstone, after all, other than a way of ensuring New Labour’s victory at the next mayoral election – however galling it may be? Desperate to retain at least its symbolic grasp of its own pet projects, and terrified about giving the electorate any more opportunities to stick two fingers up, the New Labour government resorts to climbdowns and stitch-ups, to naked bureaucracy where politics has failed. This is pork-barrel politics, and it smells pretty bad.

(1) Written answers, Hansard, 22 May 2000, Column WA43

(2) Mayor of London 2004: The candidates so far, Guardian

(3) From bête noire to white knight, Hugh Muir and Katy Heslop, Guardian, 7 January 2004

(4) From bête noire to white knight, Hugh Muir and Katy Heslop, Guardian, 7 January 2004

(5) Ken, you’re a cheeky monkey, Zoe Williams, Guardian, 6 January 2004

(6) World Socialist Website

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Topics Politics


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