Another comeback for `Red Ken'

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

London Mayor Ken Livingstone. - ADAM BUTLER/AP

London Mayor Ken Livingstone. - ADAM BUTLER/AP

With an eye on London's mayoral election, New Labour readmits into its fold Ken Livingstone, an old-fashioned socialist with popular appeal.

THE mercurial and never less than interesting career of London's Mayor Ken Livingstone, took another dramatic turn on January 6 when Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC) readmitted him to the party. "Red Ken" was expelled in 2000 for standing (and eventually) winning as an Independent in London's first elected mayoral.

The scene is now set for Livingstone to stand in this summer's mayoral race as the official Labour candidate, a position he wanted in 2000 and felt at the time that he had been cheated out of.

For Livingstone it can only be read as a vindication of his stand for before the NEC meeting he announced, "if they take me back they are taking me as I am".

Taking Ken "as he is" includes his recent statement that "capitalism has killed more people than Hitler" and calling President Bush "the most dangerous man on the planet" on the eve of the President's state visit to Britain.

For Tony Blair, who announced at the last Labour Party conference that he had "no reverse gear", it is a turnaround that can only be ascribed to resigned and cynical realism. The reality facing Blair is that all polls and soundings indicate that Livingstone would romp home again in London as an Independent, and Labour could be reduced to finishing third or even fourth. So, better let "Red Ken" win as Labour than beat Labour as an Independent.

THE enigma of Ken Livingstone, which makes him so dangerous in the eyes of the "modernisers" who surround Blair in his "New Labour" project, is that he remains hugely popular despite his outspoken and unreconstructed "Old Labour" views.

Blair's own rise to power was predicated on the alleged need to recruit "swing voters" to Labour's ranks by eschewing ideology and presenting a managerial, apolitical image.

The Labour Left once again has a popular and credible rallying point within its ranks, for Livingstone has resisted all temptations to use his own success to break with Labour, saying despite his expulsion that he wanted to come back.

LIVINGSTONE entered the Labour Party in the 1960s when many of his contemporaries on the Left despised Labour's traditionally cautious, reformist policy. In his own bizarre and inimitable way, Livingstone described his membership as being " a rare example of a rat joining a sinking ship".

He rose to prominence as the radical Leader of the old Greater London Council (GLC) in the early 1980 when the GLC became a by-word for an imaginative revival of "municipal socialism"; using the resources of the GLC to back interventions in the local economy. Livingstone was one of the earliest and bests publicised (often self-publicised) backers of efforts to draw into the political realm many previous minority issues and minority groups. Livingstone is in essence an old fashioned socialist of libertarian views.

Livingstone was so successful that the then Premier Margaret Thatcher actually abolished the GLC.

Livingstone then moved onto the House of Commons, but the staid debates and steady incremental acquisition of allies, which are needed for parliamentary success, never appealed to Livingstone, who used his restless energies to develop a large following outside parliament and a burgeoning career as a television personality, columnist and general wit.

The Parliamentary Labour Party, even before the arrival of "New Labour", had isolated Livingstone, but ironically it was Blair, "Red Ken's" very antithesis, who gave Livingstone his first chance of a comeback.

The Blairites have a visceral dislike of the Tammany Hall atmosphere of local government which is as strong as their desire for "modernisation". When Blair came to power in 1997 he announced a change in local government which he hoped would kill two birds with one stone. Vitality would be introduced into the creaky structures by directly elected Mayors, in the American style. Those who warned against the release of rampant populism were vindicated as a controversial former policeman became the independent Mayor in Middlesbrough, a disgruntled journalist won as an Independent in Stoke - both Labour strongholds. Most outrageously of all, a man in a monkey suit who was the mascot of the local football team won as an independent in Labour stronghold Hartlepool, ironically the parliamentary seat of the guru of New Labour, Blair's personal friend, Peter Mandelson.

A directly elected mayor for London was the dream job for Ken Livingstone, not enamoured with Parliament but possessing rare gifts of popular appeal, and someone who has never disguised his nasal London twanging accent.

Blair invested a lot of personal credibility in blocking Livingstone, famously describing him in a phrase, which has been gleefully repeated in recent days, as presenting "disaster for London". But bad-mouthing Red Ken did not work and he was only prevented from winning the official Labour nomination by some outrageous gerrymandering of the voting.

Only then did Livingstone stand as an Independent winning the eventual race in summer 2000 by a handsome margin.

Livingstone's reign has been more pragmatic than critics expected. His innovations have been most felt in transport. An inveterate user of public transport, Livingstone has introduced "congestion charges" on private vehicles using central London. A great effort has been put into encouraging women back onto public transport by making systems more safe and secure. But Livingstone's attempts to keep public transport cheap and accessible brought him into conflict with the central government's plan to privatise the London underground. Livingstone even took the government to court to challenge their privatisation plans and has frequently clashed with Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As Blair's self-elected successor, Brown has let it be known that he is far from happy to have Livingstone back.

But despite strong opposition, particular in the parliamentary Party, Ken is back inside the Labour fold, as lively, controversial and interesting as ever.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

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