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Alex Grant © 2000


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The London mayoral election of 4 May 2000 was a triumph for the centre-left and contains more than crumbs of comfort for Labour in the capital. Despite the fiasco of the Labour party's candidate selection process, London -- the same London that  elected a Tory majority on the GLC back in the early 1970s -- voted two-to-one for the left in the mayoral race. And despite the blandishments of Steven Norris and a kaleidoscope of left-wing candidates, it cast more votes for Labour than for the Tories in the Greater London Assembly (GLA) elections.

The problem, it hardly needs to be pointed out, was that in the mayoral race the majority of these anti-Tory  votes went towards Ken Livingstone -- an independent candidate who had already been expelled from the Labour Party by polling day -- rather than for the official Labour candidate, Frank Dobson.

First, some hoary old myths need to be debunked. Above all, Ken is not so distrusted by the Labour hierarchy simply because he is "of the left." As with almost all Labour splits, it is an over-simplification to say that the disagreement over Ken was just a clash between left and right. Almost any left-of-centre Labour activist or ex-GLC employee over the age of forty will list a catalogue of objections to "loose cannon" Ken as long as their arm. There is particular distrust from black and Asian activists -- the late Bernie Grant among them -- who remember how Ken seemed to run the Anti-Racist Alliance, a multi-racial watchdog on racial crime and the police's response to it, more for his own self-aggrandisement than for any real improvement in policing. The only variable is how openly these objections are made. One party member I know well, once a very senior officer in the Inner London Education Authority and by no means a Millbank pawn, told a packed ward meeting called to discuss the candidate selection that he "wouldn't vote for Ken Livingstone if he was the last man on earth."  In pubs across London, the London Socialist Alliance (LSA) GLA candidates who were desperate to be endorsed by Ken were admitting that he is "slippery and opportunistic" straight after public meetings where they had pledged wholehearted support for him.

Some things that people hold against Ken -- his decision to meet publicly with Sinn Fein leaders when the IRA was still bombing London regularly, or more recently his vague endorsement of violent anti-WTO protesters -- appear to place him well to the left of his detractors. The real beef is about style, however, not political substance. To have deep misgivings about Ken is not to deny that the GLC of the 1980s brought London together and did some pioneering work in multicultural education, the arts, and transport policy (in those days there were still spare seats on the Tube which it made sense to fill by cutting fares). What is less admired is the way Ken took personal credit for what the GLC accomplished through teamwork -- and many of Ken's closest GLC colleagues, like Paul Boateng and Tony Banks, are now among his fiercest critics. There is also a strong undercurrent of concern that while Ken's principles were fine, his methods were calculated to grab headlines and win the approval of the far left rather than make any real headway for Londoners. Everyone recognises, for example, that the Metropolitan Police in the early 1980s was as flawed an institution as it has ever been, but was it sensible to ban the police outright from ever entering schools in Inner London? 

As Ken was shaking Gerry Adams's hand so very publicly, Tory ministers were having secret talks with the IRA about a possible ceasefire. Most Labour politicians have strong reservations about economic globalisation and applauded the way that the recent protests have put the issue on the media agenda, but it is not enough just to support the protests: as part of the WTO the British Government is inside the loop whether it like it or not. Ken himself has now realised that people expect politicians to tackle thorny questions  in talks and negotiations rather than engage in histrionics on the sidelines. Tony Blair, who badly misjudged the London mayoral race from the start, called Ken's style "gesture politics" and for once he was right. Now that he is elected the early indications are that Ken has changed his ways, not least because he badly wants to be welcomed back to the Labour fold, but it is still easy to understand Millbank's manic fear of him becoming mayor.   

The second myth is the glib assumption that London is a "Labour city" where it is unthinkable for a Blairite mayoral candidate to have lost. Greater London is huge, including most of the area inside the M25 and most of what used to be called Middlesex -- that Betjemanesque expanse of suburbia stretching from Enfield to Harrow and down to Heathrow Airport -- which still largely returns Tory MPs. In the south-east, it extends into what should properly be termed rural Kent, the outer reaches of the (then Tory) borough of Bromley which notoriously sabotaged Ken Livingstone's "Fares fair" policy in the early 1980s. London contains pockets of extreme deprivation but it is also quite unlike any other British city in its concentration of wealth, privilege and -- in the vast forgotten suburbs without London postcodes -- Conservatism.

(Perversely, this worked in Ken's favour as the outer suburbs and inner Tory enclaves like Chelsea, Kensington and Putney provided a big  bedrock of support for Steven Norris. Norris was beginning to catch up with Ken in the last few days of the campaign, and with Ken easily ahead of Frank Dobson in the opinion polls many waverers decided to plump for Ken for fear that the anti-Tory vote would be so split that Norris might just squeeze through between them.)

The third myth is that there was a great policy gulf between Dobson and Livingstone. Why else did the press campaign against Ken consist of half-hearted question marks over his outside earnings or his private life? One undeniable difference was transport policy, where Ken's much more emphatic anti-car, pro-public transport line captured London's imagination and put Frank Dobson on the defensive, virtually abandoning these key issues to his opponent and resorting instead to generalised truisms about crime and the virtues of free museum entry. But the spat between the two over tube finance was never much more than a technicality and Ken is rapidly back-pedalling now that he is in office, cutting a deal with the Labour group on the GLA that could lead to a public-private partnership coming into force after all, without the legal challenge that he had always threatened. In most other areas -- policing, economic development, housing and the environment -- the difference was again more one of style than substance.

The London Socialist Alliance (a case of unrequited love if ever there was one: it backed Ken strongly but got no endorsement from him in return) talked optimistically of "commuter demos" against the "Tube sell-off" but  polled badly in the GLA election. The issue of the public-private partnership for the Tube therefore had little to do with Ken's victory, which is presumably why he seems so unconcerned now about going back on his commitment to a bond issue to raise capital. (Worryingly, the LSA was easily beaten by the British National Party in the second part of the GLA election, where London-wide "top-up" Assembly members were elected under proportional representation, although neither party won enough votes to take a seat. Here the LSA was joined by four other far left parties: the Communist Party of Britain, Campaign against Tube Privatisation, "Socialist Labour Party - Leader Arthur Scargill" [as listed on the ballot paper] and Peter Tatchell running as an independent.  This meant that the hard left vote was horribly splintered at least five ways in the GLA elections because there was no clear "Ken slate" for those disinclined to vote Labour.)

So why did Ken win quite so handsomely? Yes, the fact that Frank Dobson was viewed as a reluctant conscript to Labour's campaign was a big factor but it is only part of the story. There was inevitably a media campaign against Ken, which just as inevitably backfired (it carries more tabloid journalists' fingerprints than Millbank spin-doctors', however -- the latter realised quite early on that Ken was unassailable and the campaign could have been a lot dirtier than it was). It could be argued that Frank Dobson did so poorly because he was not on-message: he made no secret of his distaste for the selection process and appeared irritable in the media spotlight. Everyone knew he had been on the left-wing of Tony Blair's Cabinet and that he acted honourably throughout the London mayoral campaign, yet this garnered him few votes. Had he been more of a self-confident,  unapologetic Blairite he might have actually done better, not worse. But what is remarkable is that the election turned out to be a public referendum on very technical issues of candidate selection and investment in public transport infrastructure -- arcane questions which are comprehensively ignored by the media in all other elections. But it was also a post-modern, "risk-free" election in which the electorate will not now have to face up to many financial consequences from their choice. There are now few chickens to come home to roost.

Richard Branson has often been posed by opinion pollsters as a hypothetical candidate to test their willingness to consider a maverick candidate for political office. In London his candidacy, as an "independent" with unofficial Labour backing, was seriously considered for some time. Similarly, Ken was standing as a media personality as much as a politician, and voting for him was more a "lifestyle choice," an anti-political gesture, than a serious political statement. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests that much of Ken's strongest support came from the middle classes, most of whom would never have dreamt of voting for Michael Foot in 1983. Apart from the power to levy a "congestion charge" on those driving into central London, it is an open secret that the office of London mayor was made "Ken-proof" with enough executive power for the post to be taken seriously, but too little for any mayor to seriously undermine the will of Number Ten. And even on that single tax-raising power, the difference between Livingstone and Dobson was not great: Ken has ruled out the charge for the next two years while Dobson said he wouldn't introduce it in his first term of office. I expect it will be introduced in about 2004 or 2005, once public transport has noticeably improved.

The restrictions on the mayor's powers are not nearly as Machiavellian as they may sound. The concept of electing a single person with sweeping  executive powers is alien to all our political traditions in Britain and it would be a mistake to have set up a system, like that in American cities, that would have put too much power in one pair of hands. The electorate -- as always, more canny than politicians give them credit for -- cottoned on to this and plumped for Ken in the secure knowledge that their council tax bills will not rise. Both the Tories' and Labour's warnings about "the cost of Livingstone" rang hollow this time but if the mayor had tax-raising powers they would have proved very damaging.

Another factor is that London has not been a single political unit for the last fourteen years. Because there have been no democratic London-wide institutions the capital's politicians have had no reason to consider London as a strategic whole. For most Labour politicians in Greenwich, horizons recede very sharply at the borough boundary. Only Ken -- uniquely, the only ex-GLC leader still politically active -- and a handful of the capital's councillors, like Toby Harris and Nicky Gavron, have showed much interest in building a London-wide profile in the last ten years. The rest have either been borough-based politicians with their eyes on council leadership, or London MPs -- Tony Banks, Nick Raynsford, Chris Smith, Paul Boateng, and, of course, Frank Dobson -- who tread the national stage. It will take a generation for London politicians of the calibre the city deserves to emerge.

Ken's general media-savviness -- his ability to seem quite unlike a politician while being one of the most nimble-footed politicians around -- undoubtedly helped as well. Ken is able to cultivate a convincing "man on the bus" image while still hiring himself out as an after-dinner speaker to humour the capitalist fat cats he claims to distrust. Just two weeks after his election as mayor, Ken spent an evening at the Packaging Magazine awards doing out prizes to innovative polystyrene designers, and is rumoured to have got a five-figure fee for his trouble. When the press reported that Ken has spent years funding his loss-making economic newsletter from such earnings, this only reinforced his "cheeky chappy" image. Ken's outside earnings were shown to be subsidising a labour of love rather than funding a lavish lifestyle, and "Good luck to him" was the instinctive reaction.   

The only other senior politician around with this much artlessness, Mo Mowlam, would have given Ken a strong run for his money had she stood in Dobson's place. But without such a challenger Ken was, rightly or wrongly, seen as uniquely well-qualified for the job. Since his GLC days he has languished on the backbenches and brilliantly anticipated the likelihood of a Labour government bringing back some form of London-wide local authority that would need a leader. (Of course, the Labour government's "control freaks" have been given absolutely no credit for restoring the London-wide political culture that the Tories destroyed in 1986, but never mind.)

Of course, Ken would never have won on the strength of his own merits or any "anti-Government feeling" on its own. The other key ingredient was a Labour candidate selection process that was pretty consistent with all other recent internal elections but totally unsuitable for the selection of a candidate on which so much depended, for a post of such symbolic importance. Quite wrongly, the electoral college reverted to the old system of giving unions "block votes" to cast for just one candidate, rather than split votes cast proportionally according to their members' wishes. Unions were only encouraged to ballot their membership as a guide to how the block vote should be cast, and many did not manage even that.  But it is unfair to assume that this only benefited Dobson. One union cast its entire block vote for Ken even though only 58% of its members had backed him in a ballot.

The overall result gave a slim, distorted majority for Dobson, but Ken had accepted the system in advance and repeatedly vowed that he would never leave the party to run as an independent. It is fascinating to speculate what would have happened had Ken won the electoral college. My hunch is that he would now be embarking on a successful term as a Labour mayor -- but you can only ever have a hunch about someone who has so frequently changed his mind on so many issues? (Remember when he dismissed the very idea of an elected mayor as "barmy"?)  

The other big defect with the electoral college is that a full third of it was made of London's Labour MPs, who thus had about a thousand times more power in the college than individual party members. Some have said that the fact that London Labour MPs did not have a secret vote during the selection process may have, if anything, boosted Ken's support among left-wing MPs, who needed or wanted to be seen to back him but had private reservations. In other words, the desire to remain a Livingstone "fellow traveller" overrode the imperative to toe the Millbank line. This is probably untrue, but the fact remains that parliamentary candidate selection is (Liz Davies aside) still relatively decentralised in the modern Labour Party. There are just as many political points to have been scored by backing Ken at selection stage as there were to be supporting Frank. The real objection to the selection procedure is one of principle, not that it may have led to any specific arm-twisting. With so many Labour MPs in London, there are only be so many sweeteners to be offered, and just as many reasons to refuse them.

So it was an almost astrological conjunction of three factors -- Ken's unique personal history, a flawed selection process, and the relatively impotent post he was running for -- that has propelled him into office. The irony is that had the electoral college a more level playing field [the future begins now -- Ed..] Ken would not have been martyred and could quite easily have lost the selection contest fair and square. I know of many party members who voted for Ken in the selection procedure, and even in the mayoral election itself, just because of the way they felt he had been unfairly treated. These are people who would otherwise have voted and campaigned for Frank Dobson and it was a shame that their support was lost.   

That said, many activists (including, bizarrely, some who eventually voted for Ken Livingstone on 4 May) stayed heroically loyal to the party, more out of habit than enthusiasm, throughout the campaign. Ironically, it was the centralised, "control freak" Labour party that actually went out and met the electorate in the campaign, successfully feeding doorstep issues back to Labour MPs and councillors while unsuccessfully campaigning for Frank Dobson. Ken's supposedly "grassroots" campaign was too thinly spread and disorganised to put canvassers out, and relied far more on media stunts than any of the other candidates'. He kept saying he was "listening to Londoners", but I didn't see any sign of his campaigners  talking to council tenants in my ward. 

In Greenwich, as in other boroughs, the mayoral election campaign dovetailed neatly with the annual internal elections of council leader and council executive (the old committee chairs, to all intents and purposes). These were keenly fought in Greenwich this year as the former  leader, Len Duvall, was a "shoe-in" to the Greater London Assembly (running for the rock-solid Labour seat of Greenwich and Lewisham) and had made clear he would be standing down as council leader after seven years in office.

I spent a Saturday morning ten days before polling with Frank Dobson and two of the local Council leadership candidates (including the eventual victor, Chris Roberts), canvassing outside the branch of Safeways in my ward in Blackheath. It is fair to say that Dobson was one of the less enthusiastic participants. We all knew that he would lose, but as in every other election there were layer upon layer of other reasons to campaign for Labour, both altruistic and personal. There was only the most tacit threat that councillors who stayed at home during the campaign would have their future careers jeopardised. As is the case with MPs, it is logistically very difficult to arrange for the so-called "dead wood" to be deselected anyway).

The real reason we all turned out was neither passion or coercion, but habit. Never underestimate the extent to which local politics is a hobby as much as a conviction. In even the most active ward, it is a cliché for members to bemoan the lack of real political discussion.  It is taken as read that we know what we stand for, and that the common enemy is the Tory party (which, I am delighted to report, can take very little comfort from their result on 4 May: if Labour really were in such shambles, the Tories should have been able to get more than a third of the vote in the GLA poll. Steve Norris, a moderate Tory who sensibly distanced himself from William Hague as much as he could, should have done better than to come a distant second, even if he did humiliate Frank Dobson by putting him in an even more distant third place).

There is, of course, real disaffection with the Labour party leadership over the whole selection process. But there was surprisingly little hostility towards what Dobson stood for in policy terms -- with the exception of one last desperate throw of the dice, when Labour produced a flyer attacking Ken's congestion charge to be handed out to motorists stuck in traffic jams: in Greenwich, as elsewhere, it went undelivered. Nor have there been many people leaving the party in disgust. And there are, in fact, real grounds for optimism both for Labour and for London. That there has been so much disaffection about the selection process shows that Labour's grip on London -- which has been hard fought for and is not ours by right -- should last. The argument is an internal one, based on reforming the party rather than deserting it.

It seems to have been almost forgotten that the extraordinary events of the last few months only took place because a supposedly over-centralised Labour government had decided to devolve power and give London the democratically accountable, strategic authority it needed. The election has given London an authority that exerts democratic control over transport infrastructure and policing without taking powers away from the boroughs unnecessarily. The new Greater London Assembly shows that proportional representation can work and it members are broadly reflective of Londoners in terms of age, race and gender as well as political persuasion.

Turnout was low (alarmingly so among Labour's core voters), perhaps because Ken was so clearly going to win -- but this should be taken as a challenge for the GLA to make itself relevant to people's lives. With a completely new system in place there is a historic opportunity for a body with a permanent red-yellow-green majority to counter the piecemeal thinking, drift and unaccountability that bedevilled London  throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The campaign was fought on the left's turf, and the most right-wing Tory proposal was that they wouldn't rule out Tube privatisation, and that they wouldn't introduce a congestion charge -- yet. Steven Norris's genial  pronouncements on gay rights, the importance of bus lanes, late-night public transport and multiculturalism showed how far the left had set the political  agenda and had Tories like Norman Tebbit stirring uneasily. At hustings meetings in Greenwich there was the bizarre spectacle of Labour, LSA, Green and Lib Dem GLA candidates sitting along the top table and agreeing with each other on all the outcomes they would like to see and only differing on the means: the Tory candidate never showed up and was as much a part of the fabled "silent majority" as his voters.

With the GLA now in place, only the most unimaginative Labour centralist will begrudge the Greens their three seats and even the most fierce critic of Millbank will only accuse Labour of trying to fix an election and failing. When the Tories faced awkward GLC elections in the 1980s, they just abolished them. In contrast, a Labour government walked deliberately into a political minefield and deserves some credit for having been so self-flagellating about it.

 Ken and his supporters seemed to have recognised this. Ken stood as an individual who had no wish to be associated with non-Labour GLA candidates. After his expulsion, the clamour was not for him to set up a party of his own but to be allowed back into the Labour fold. Strictly speaking, this cannot happen for five years, but these rules have often been flexibly applied and I would be surprised if he was still out of the Labour Party when his term ends in 2004.

In the last few weeks of the campaign, Ken appeared non-partisan by giving out signals that he might invite Darren Johnson -- one of the three Greens later elected to the GLA -- to be his deputy mayor, and even suggesting that there would be room for Steven Norris in a Livingstone administration. After the election, he has paid lip service to cross-party co-operation by inviting his Liberal Democrat opponent Susan Kramer onto the new Transport for London body, but he has also invited Labour's Nicky Gavron to be his deputy mayor and asked another Labour GLA member, Toby Harris, to head up the London Development Agency. After a few days' consideration, both offers were accepted, and the Greens have to be content with consolation prizes as Ken rebuilds bridges with Labour as fast as he can. There is a lot of trust to be rebuilt on both sides, but in the meantime both Ken and Labour realise they need to pull together.

It is unusual for a Labour activist of my generation to be on the losing side, and unknown for Labour in Greenwich (where 52 out of 62 councillors are Labour) ever since the SDP by-election win in 1987 -- and, of course, unknown for Frank Dobson personally. In a brutal way it has done us some good. Sadly, it has taken the last few months to convince the party that it has to review its future selection procedures - the union section needs to be made one-member-one-vote and the MPs' power needs to be curbed -- but again, these are really technicalities. In theory there was nothing especially unfair about this particular process. It was, after all, almost the same system that elected Tony Blair as leader -- but then again, Blair did promise to reform it. As long as that reform now happens -- and it must --  the disaster need never recur. 




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