Candidates for mayor: Londoners should be free to vote for Red Ken

Share
Related Topics
TONY BLAIR wants a mayor for London. This is one decentralisation about which he is genuinely, spontaneously enthusiastic. It is his brainchild and not like the Scottish or Welsh parliaments part of the baggage inherited from John Smith.

The precedents are good: New York, Paris, Barcelona, Berlin and Moscow all have elected mayors identifiable with the city's joys and woes. I once saw an irate grandmother brandish her umbrella at Yuri Luzhkov in protest at the state of the drains in the Russian capital. A mayor is the person we can trounce with our umbrellas when all the intermediate institutions have passed the buck. Because they need our votes next time, they are obliged to take notice.

In three weeks time, Londoners will vote in a referendum on whether they want a mayoral system and it would be extraordinary if they did not approve it. At this point, the familiar, metallic voice of Ken Livingstone will announce, repeatedly and loudly, that he covets a place in the approved list of Labour candidates.

Mr Blair very much does not want his first mayor to be Ken Livingstone. Been there: done that. Ken is about as Eighties as the Human League and Loadsamoney; and New Labour is in denial about the Eighties. It prefers not to associate its present comely form with the days when, as head of the Greater London Council, Ken could ban a champagne bar in County Hall as elitist and run minorities policies that kept the Tory tabloids in jokes about Irish, black, one-legged lesbians running self-defence classes for toddlers.

Ken is a living reminder of all that. Worse still, he is a reminder that a lot of Labour activists thoroughly enjoyed it - especially the feel- good gesture politics - the rocking against this, marching for that and rallies supporting the other, which Mr Blair finds silly and which alienate more prosaic souls.

The GLC was not the unquestioned success that Ken would have us believe. Both bureaucratic and wasteful, it pandered to the tastes and prejudices of middle-class activists. The flagship "fares fair" policy of cheap public transport caused havoc by encouraging too many people to use a system that was - and still is, heaven help us - in need of a structural overhaul. But in the end, as a victim of la belle dame sans merci at her most imperious, Ken won lasting sympathy. Lady Thatcher's decision to abolish the GLC made him a martyr to the cause of London.

The Millbank Tendency's response to this is straightforward: Ken must be stopped. The party's commissars are chewing their ballpoints right now, hatching plots to stop him appearing on the approved short-list. They will argue that his criticisms of New Labour policies have been so grave as to constitute outright disloyalty. Truly, Livingstone is not a natural-born Blairite. The last time I debated with him, he predicted an economic crisis that would deny Mr Blair a second term. He did not appear regretful at the prospect. Ken is at home in a recession.

But he is a member of the party's National Executive Committee, an honour to which he beat Peter Mandelson in a party-wide vote last year. It is in the name of the NEC that the vetters will decide the short-list for the mayor's job. So, it would be churlish and undemocratic to deny 50,000 London-area members a chance to vote for him.

The tactical alternative is, apparently, to put up Tony Banks, the last leader of the GLC, now a neutered enough Leftie to be Minister for Sport. To which I say: accept no substitutes. There is something about New Labour's make-over of Mr Banks that is deeply fake. He has become a house-trained pole-cat, both ineffectual and gaffe-prone. Frank Dobson, a good Old Labour vintage, doesn't want the job.

Surely, they're not serious about Glenda Jackson. Ms Jackson is oddly lacking in the very quality of showbiz appeal the job requires. She has buried her actress personality in an attempt to be taken seriously. But a London mayor should be like the city - stylish without being glamorous, a touch vulgar without being brash. Clare Short would be perfect - but her loyalties will remain with Birmingham. You can see the problem. New Labour has promoted a cast of frightfully polite people, unthreatening but bloodless. Right now, they are combing the ranks for anyone vulgar enough to take on Lord Archer but not wayward enough to embarrass Mr Blair.

Why do I care so much about Mr Livingstone's fate? Come the mayoral race, my vote would probably go to someone safe, like Chris Smith or Trevor Phillips. But banning Ken from the contest would be a mistake, both because of what it says about New Labour and what it says about Mr Blair's approach to local democracy. It would reveal that, after a landslide election- win and a blinding first year in power, he still does not trust his party to choose a modernising candidate over a socialist one. New Labour will never know its true strength until it allows real contests between right and left.

Mayors are there to do battle for their city. That means fighting central government for power and money. Devolution and the revival of local democracy are not processes that can be controlled centrally, although Mr Blair sometimes gives the impression that they can. The Scottish parliament will demand tax-raising powers. Rightly so - they are what differentiates a real parliament from a placebo one.

Elected mayors, in London and then elsewhere, will strain at the fiscal leash the Treasury has fastened to them. Responsibility for transport, police and the emergency services are just the start. Any mayors worth their salt will want to put their own projects to the voters, and seek their own solutions to infrastructural problems. In so doing, they should be answerable to the people who elect them, not enslaved to Whitehall.

The campaign to stop Ken is an example in miniature of New Labour's tendency to promise decentralisation and then inhibit choice from the centre. But local democracy means allowing people to make their own decisions and their own mistakes. As mayor for London, I would view Ken as a mistake. That doesn't mean that the Labour Party should deny voters the right to make it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'