You will probably all know (while now we wait for crucial Greek, French
etc elections) that we had some local elections in UK this week. The
conservative and 'liberal-democrat' parties which make up the current
national coalition government did very badly, Labour (even though also
largely following a neo-liberal / austerity line) did well. Greens had a
very good support (by UK standards) and the far right BNP almost
disappeared. Turnouts low. Still feels post-political.
In London our dreadful mayor Boris Johnson managed to get re-elected by a
small margin which is bad. The best news is that Jenny Jones, the Green,
came third after Ken Livingstone and ahead of the once-significant
liberal-democrats. The Assembly has a bit more labour in it, the same 2
greens and fewer conservatives.
Just delivered by Twitter is what I consider a very nice comment on the
positive strands in Ken Livingstone's career. A lot of us have been very
critical of Ken in the last decade so it's salutary to be reminded of what
a huge positive impact he had...
Enoch Powell (who thanks to a recent revelation and in part to Ken may now
be described as a onetime member of the LGBT community) said all
political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture,
end in failure. Kens career may have ended in defeat yesterday, but it
was no failure. Before anything else is said, Ken deserves a tribute.
Indeed he deserves more tributes than he will get from his fellow members
of the Labour Party, but of that we shall say more anon.
He will remain a giant of London politics long after most people stop
remembering that there used to be a Mayor Johnson. He has been a major
national political figure since 1981. How many national political figures
from 1981 could have even contemplated holding a major political office
until 2016? None.
Kens greatest contribution to British politics was to take unpopular
causes, notably issues of race, sexism, and homophobia, take actions and
implement policies which made a difference to significant minorities, and
over time see those causes taken into the mainstream of British politics,
by the Tories as well as New Labour. Back in the 1980s, however, Ken was
vilified for raising them by Thatchers government, by almost the entire
media, and by most people in his own party, including many on the more
traditional Left and in the trade unions. If Thatcher had not decided to
abolish the GLC, perhaps Kens carer would have ended sooner and Britain
might have been a very different place today.
Following the Brixton riots in the summer of 1981, Ken had no choice but
to take action on race but his approach was very different from that
advocated by others. Lord Scarmans report into the riots, though
recognising racial disadvantage and racial discrimination as
underlying causes, argued that institutional racism did not exist.
Eighteen years after Scarman, the Macpherson Report, an investigation into
the murder of Stephen Lawrence, concluded that the police force was
institutionally racist, vindicating Kens approach.
Under Kens leadership (he chaired the GLC Ethnic Minorities committee
personally), the GLC consulted with black and other minority ethnic
communities, drew up equal opportunities policies, employed race relations
advisers, and sought to empower diverse communities by awarding millions
of pounds in grants. Kens approach broke with the prevailing assumption
of assimilation as the core objective, redefining anti-racism as the
promotion of the right to be different, the encouragement of diversity.
Under New Labour, this multiculturalism became the new British orthodoxy
and, thanks largely to Ken, is at the heart of Londons identity.
The experience with gender equality was similar. Kens policies achieved
real change in practice amongst the GLCs large workforce. In 1981, no
women or black people in the GLC Supplies department, for example, where
they made up the bulk of the staff, had ever reached even middle
management. The Fire Brigade had only six black staff out of 6,500. That
changed radically. In the provision of services too, there was
institutional racism. Only 2% of GLC housing lettings went to non-whites
For these policies, Ken was hounded by the Sun, the Mail and the Standard
but that vilification reached a new depth with the involvement of the GLC
in challenging homophobia, notably through its grant-funding. The
Blairites who now seem to dominate LGBT Labour could do more to recognise
the role played by a heterosexual man who carried on making the speeches
hed been making for years about lesbian and gay rights after he became
Leader of the GLC several years before Chris Smith became the first MP to
In London politics, there is much for which Ken will be remembered of
what he did and more still of the vision he had but which he was not
allowed to implement. The crowning glory of his achievement, however, is
Londons transport system. Ken became Leader of the GLC on the back of his
work on Londons regional party executive to put an alternative transport
policy at the heart of Labours appeal. Cheaper fares (free travel for all
was dropped in a concession to the unions) and all day free travel for
pensioners on buses and tubes increased passenger numbers by 70%, raised
revenue by 11% in spite of the 32% cut in fares, and cut the number of
cars entering central London in the morning peak. New rail services like
Crossrail and Thameslink were planned.
Even after the GLC was abolished, Thatcher dared not extend to London the
bus deregulation and rail privatisation which devastated services in the
rest of Britain. And when Ken returned as Mayor, the process hed begun
continued, reinforced by congestion charging, his boldest and bravest
But it was not only in mainstream public transport and congestion charging
that Kens contribution was outstanding: door-to-door services for people
with disabilities and a more accessible mainstream network, cycling
provision, the regulation of noisy and polluting lorries, the focus on
safety and on pedestrian facilities are all part of his legacy.
Ken says he wont stand in another election (although actually he is a
candidate in Labours national executive election later this month), and
so we can take it he will not hold major executive public office again. He
has, of course, made mistakes in his career, though again not as many as
you will read about on a number of Labour websites. Some of his mistakes
will have affected his showing in this election, but they all pale into
insignificance in comparison with his positive legacy which remains
Ken has a young family and deserves to enjoy spending more time with them.
And we look forward to his continuing political contributions in whatever
form they take.