In many ways Ken Livingstone was an extremely successful Mayor of London, he was after all elected twice, I have no
need to point out his main achievements as he seems to be doing enough on that front without my help. * In all probability his main achievement will be using the 2012 Olympic Games to rebuild a large area of east London, that is unless his successor as Mayor Boris Johnson gets into bed with the developers and city speculators and turns it into another Canary Wharf.
However as far as the political left and rank and file political activism are concerned, from his first day as mayor there was a major flaw in Ken’s strategy. Unlike when he led the GLC, he made no attempt to put together a broad left coalition of the type which made him such a threat to the Thatcher Tory government, that it eventual moved against the GLC and shut it down. For those who at the time did not live in London or the surrounding area, it is difficult to explain what a political weather vane the GLC was for the left. Groups from right across the left progressive spectrum looked to the GLC and gained support from it, thus a thousand left projects bloomed. Nothing of this type of left activism occurred under Livingstone Mayoralty, nor was it encouraged by the Mayor or his small cadre of close advisers.
Indeed in many ways it was positively discouraged, as throughout his periods in office, Livingstone gradually moved away from the left towards London’s establishment. For all his talk of putting together a progressive coalition in reality the coalition he built was a very narrow beast. It basically consisted of what was left of the London Labour Party, the Greens and in the latter period NL and their backers in the City of London. True the level of left wing political consciousness was not at the high level that it was in the 1980s, and the New Labour government had placed checks and balances on the Mayor powers, but Ken is an able and wily political operator, but he made no attempt to play any role in helping to rejuvenate the left, indeed as I have already said he kept it at arms length throughout his time as Mayor.
I have little doubt that what remains of Livingstone’s ‘progressive coalition’ will move effortlessly into the orbit of the new conservative mayor Boris Johnson and in all probability will draw in the Liberal Democrats, who by shamefully refusing to call on their supporters to give their second preference vote to Ken, all but placed themselves in the Tory camp. Thus Ken’s so called ‘progressive coalition,’ will given time morph into a conservative coalition with a tint of green.
The seeds of Livingstone’s move to the centre where planted during his campaign as an independent mayoral candidate. Those who had volunteered to work on his first campaign gathered in an ad agencies basement only to be told Ken was to busy to come down and meet them. His absence was a conscious decision as he had no intention of building a broad left coalition, he simply wanted a group of individuals to do his leg work. Back then the only place he could find such a group was on the non LP left, thus a disparate group of campaigners worked hard to put Livingstone in office. However once there he ditched them and appointed a strange group of people, all of whom owed their position within the Livingstone administration to Ken personally, not one had a base beyond Ken within London’s community as a whole.
Thus an enormous opportunity was missed and the entire independent Livingstone Mayoralty was linked to the personality of Ken. Its purpose was two fold, to get him readmitted to the Labour Party and to see him reelected to a second term. In truth in his behavior, despite his fine public record when it comes to opposing imperialism etc, the post GLC Ken behaved more like a conservative politician with a small c. By this I mean all was centered on him. He was the arch apparacik and thus it was to ambitious bureaucrats he looked to maintain him in power. It became clear the last thing Ken trusts is the masses. In his second term, when he talked of building a progressive coalition it was with the leaders of NL, the greens and city of London, not with the rank and file members of the political left and Trade unions. Indeed during his second period in office at times Ken appeared to hate the trade union rank and file. The more so when they quite correctly tipped him bollocks, believing their own standard of living was a higher priority than a good headline for Ken.
There is little Ken did after he was readmitted into the New Labour Party that Boris Johnson will not be willing to live with, which just about says it all. The longer in office the more it became obvious Ken would not be reelected for a third term, for the simple reason that his popularity was based on him being outside the mainstream loop. Indeed Johnson’s spin doctors understood this only to well and portrayed their man as a candidate who has an individualistic streak.
What will Livingstone’s legacy be, I fear it will not amount to much, Herbert Morrison as right wing as he was, will still stand tall as London premier mainstream politician who achieved most for London’s working classes, For he built tens of thousands of council houses which made a start at replacing London’s horrendous slums, homes fit for working class people to live in. Perhaps there is a lesson here for future London Labour politicians.
As unfair as it may be, for many leftists Ken Livingstone’s Mayoralty will be remembered for his defense of Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, after Blair lied about the circumstances in which his officers shot dead Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Tube station, south London, shooting him seven times in the head and once in the shoulder.
As to the London Left, during Livingstone’s period in office it has declined and fractured even further, which just about sums up Ken as a political leader. A great bureaucrat yes, but a leader of working class people in struggle, Never!
The Livingstone Mayoralty? What a wasted opportunity.