Cheers, Ken! And thanks for nothing

Yes we think he's a bit of a card. And, yes, we raise a glass to the idea of a maverick mayor. But what exactly is the point of Ken Livingstone?

Jo Dillon
Saturday 15 March 2014 03:05

Gleaming in the sunshine on the south side of Lambeth Bridge is a reminder of the last time Ken Livingstone was in charge of London. The self-appointed irritant-in-chief to Margaret Thatcher, whose Greater London Council headquarters was just across the water from the House of Commons, wanted to prove that south of the river government was better than north. And so, at public expense, he had the golden pineapple on his end of the bridge buffed up. The reward for this – and similar – petulance was the abolition of the GLC in 1986.

Fifteen years later, he's back as London's first elected Mayor. But Mr Livingstone is still at loggerheads with the Government. Having forsaken the party he had served for most of his adult life to run for the mayoralty, Mr Livingstone is locked in a bitter row with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Stephen Byers over control of the London Underground.

Though he and New Yorker Bob Kiley, the capital's transport commissioner, tried to block plans for public-private partnership for the Tube, the High Court last week found in favour of the Government. The decision may have placed a question mark over the future of the service, but the it also questions the Mayor's role.

Has Ken Livingstone returned to London government older and wiser? Or is he still doomed to be a powerless figure-head, reliant on the theatre of gesture politics? With his transport strategy in tatters, what is the point of Ken Livingstone?

As Mayor, he has a range of powers – "not as many as we'd like", his office admits, but "plenty for now", as one London Labour MP put it. "It's like watching an adolescent grow up. As a parent there's a degree of nervousness about whether they're going to behave and if they'll be OK."

This particular "adolescent" is charged with promoting economic and social development in Britain's number one city, ensuring social progress and environmental improvement. He is responsible for the capital's transport, planning, sport and culture, its recreation and regeneration. He is in charge of funding for the police and the fire service. And he has a £3.7bn annual budget to play with.

Since taking office in May 2000, Livingstone has drawn up documents on a number of environmental issues. He has made plans to tackle homelessness, has issued papers on domestic violence and brought in the agony aunt Claire Rayner to head a commission on children. In his document Towards a London Plan, Livingstone insisted that 35 per cent of new homes should be affordable housing for key workers. He proposed congestion charging to reduce traffic in the city. On paper, it is an impressive body of work for an infant organisation. But that's just it. It is only on paper.

A government source described Livingstone as a "politician without a political constituency". He cannot rely on the traditional support of a party political machine. He has to find allies elsewhere.

For now, that strategy is paying dividends. Friends of the Earth, the environmental pressure group, has been encouraged by the Mayor's approach. "Londoners don't want a cosy relationship between the Mayor and a government of the same party," a spokesman said.

London business, too, increasingly likes the left-wing Mayor. Only 39 per cent of businessmen said they backed Livingstone's policies in April 2000. By September that year, that had increased to 63 per cent.But can this be any more than self-aggrandisement if Whitehall controls the purse strings? On most issues, the mayoralty can add weight to the views of pressure groups, but does not have the cash or clout to effect real change.

Crucially, though, the public seems unwilling to end its love affair with Red Ken, the rebel Mayor. A television poll for London Today, conducted on the day of the High Court decision, came out in favour of Ken by a margin of 94 per cent to 6 per cent. Livingstone is determined that will remain the case. His highly personalised advertising campaign on the Tube and other London issues cost £1.5m. A mailshot to 2.75 million households in London, featuring a soft mayoral interview by Helen Mirren, cost £260,000. (The actress ran up a £100 taxi bill by keeping her cab waiting as she interviewed the mayor).

And, when he's not spending money on "open government", Mr Livingstone is accused of living the high life at the taxpayers' expense. A £280-a-head party to launch a poverty initiative raised hackles. And some now insist that not only is the mayor invited to every party in town, he goes to them too.

The decision to appoint a number of old faces from the GLC days to some of the 30 "City Hall" positions which directly support the Mayor has ruffled more feathers. "To me it raises the question of whether he is taking a walk down memory lane or looking to the future," Labour GLA member Meg Hilliers said.

The Mayor's umbilical tie with the old GLC is seen by some as a symptom of a much wider problem – Livingstone's relationship with the Labour government. According to Trevor Phillips, the GLA chairman, "You have two bunches of guys who are fighting a battle which finished 15 years ago."

Officially, the Government and the Mayor's office claim relations – apart from the Tube – are good. But a government source claimed Livingstone was a "master of opposition politics rather than consensus politics." He is good at opposing things "but he doesn't have a track record of changing things for the better."

Others accuse him of lacking a vision for London. One GLA member said Livingstone had adopted his "old strategy" of blaming others for preventing him from doing things. "He has the beginnings of an idea but he is so worried about his popularity he won't nail his colours to the mast. It's what stands between him being a clever politician and being a great leader."

Londoners wanted a great leader. And this time they are hoping for rather more from Ken Livingstone's stewardship than a polished pineapple.

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