Adrian Hamilton: Is Ken Livingstone turning into Tony Blair?

Like the Prime Minister, he now seems determined to go on and on in presidential style
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Five years after the Mayor of London's re-election one has begun to wonder whether we weren't wrong and the Prime Minister right. Blair hasn't changed. It's Ken who has become more Blairite. Like the Prime Minister, he now seems determined to go on, and on, in presidential style, his ambitions unrestrained by an emasculated assembly, his dreams given new life by London's successful bid for the 2012 Olympic games.

Like his political master, Ken has become more and more American in his worship of the US way of doing business (and in his recruitment of senior staff), and more and more wrapped up with the security forces - in this case the Metropolitan Police chief, Sir Ian Blair. With extraordinary enthusiasm and a shameless disregard for past pronouncements, the great anti-establishment icon of yesteryear now nods first in the direction of one Blair, then to the other.

Look at the latest fare increases on bus and tube, in which the price of tickets for which you pay cash is going up by a quarter and more, while the cost of Transport for London's new-fangled oyster card prepayment system will go down. The old Livingstone would have hesitated at loading the increase on the poor and those least able to afford them. But under the influence of his advisers, and in particular the £700,000 a-year TfL commissioner Bob Kiley, he now seeks a more sophisticated system of calibrated charging that would do credit to Singapore.

Fine for the middle classes, who can afford it. But remorseless and burdensome for visitors and the poor, who pay by cash as and when they need it.

Nor is it any better when it comes to congestion charging. The initial congestion charge has been a success, at least in reducing congestion. But it has not brought in sufficientmoney. So the charge has been increased by 60 per cent and the zone is to be extended. The aim is no longer to reduce congestion but to raise money that can be spent directly by the mayor on his own pet projects . And after the extension of the congestion zone will come spies in the sky that will watch every car and charge according to the time, the place and occasion

All good work for the planners and the academics. But what about London itself? Has no one thought that what makes a great metropolis hum is its constantly fluctuating population, its specialist corners and local "villages", its flow into and out of and around the urban conurbation. If you want to see a city left bloodless, go to Bath where excessive business rates and parking restrictions drove out the small shops and the casual visitor leaving a centre which, as far as its shops and atmosphere is concerned, could be anywhere else in Britain - or much of northern Europe. The same will happen to Chelsea and Kensington.

Give it a decade or so, and an untramelled Livingstone, and you will have a London not much different from downtown Dallas - the same shops, the same fragmentation into separate suburbs and the same underclass; progressively marginalised.

The worst of it is that there is very little in the system at the moment that holds Livingstone to account. What were good initiatives if controlled - the expenditure on buses, the initial congestion charge - have been allowed to become unrestrained ventures pursued for the greater glory of the mayor.

The taxpayer is now paying £500m in subsidies for a bus service that has expanded well beyond demand, while the tube, the one glue that holds London together, has failed to get the at-tention or investment that it should. Why? Because with buses, Livingstone could play at will. With the underground he decided to fight a long, expensive and ultimately failed battle with the Treasury. The mayor likes big projects and expansions he can put his name to, not the hard graft of improving a service he has inherited.

The success of the Olympic bid will only serve to inflate the worst of his characteristics. There's nothing wrong with the bid in itself and all credit to those, including Livingstone and Blair, who made a success of it. For sports lovers, it will be a feast. For Londoners, it depends on whether you're in the way of the Olympics bandwagon or on it.

There's nothing, as anyone who has covered politics for any period knows, that politicians like as much as spending other people's money. And the Olympics is an open invitation to draw on lottery funds, Sports Council grants and long-suffering local taxpayers, who still have to foot a sizeable proportion of the cost without any say in how it is to be spent or whether, indeed, they want their money to go to it at all.

For Livingstone it's like being given the keys to the palace. We've had two celebrations in Trafalgar Square already, on top of a series of desultory and ill-advertised events to restore Londoners' morale in September. And we're still seven years from the event. Power without responsibility may be the lot of the press, but money without responsibility is the lot of our mayor. And there's nothing that one can see to stop him. Certainly not a Prime Minister who's probably quite proud at the way his new apprentice is coming on.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

Comments