Jon Lansman, Tower Hamlets Borough Labour Party, pays tribute to Ken Livingstone and looks at the reasons for the mayoral result.
Enoch Powell said “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure.” Ken’s career may have ended in defeat, but it was no failure. Before anything else is said, Ken deserves more tributes than he will get from many of his fellow members of the Labour Party.
Ken 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. His greatest contribution to British politics was to take what were then unpopular causes – notably issues of race, sexism, and homophobia – and to take action and implement policies which made a difference to significant minorities. Over time, he saw 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 Thatcher’s 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.
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 Scarman’s report into the riots, though it recognised “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 Ken’s approach.
Under Ken’s leadership (he chaired the GLC Ethnic Minorities committee personally), the Greater London Council (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. Ken’s 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 London’s identity.
The experience with gender equality was similar. Ken’s policies achieved real change in practice among the GLC’s large workforce. In 1981, for example, no women or black people in the GLC Supplies department (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 and few women. That changed radically, as Ken led an effort to recruit minorities and change the culture of the fire service to accommodate the new staff. In the provision of services too, there was institutional racism. Only 2% of GLC housing lettings went to non-whites in 1981.
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 he’d 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 come out.
On Ireland too, Ken’s willingness to speak to Sinn Fein, though it generated the worst press coverage of all, paved the way for other talks which ultimately paved the way for the peace process.
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 London’s transport system. Ken became Leader of the GLC on the back of his work on London’s regional party executive to put an alternative transport policy at the heart of Labour’s 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. When Ken returned as Mayor, the process he’d begun continued, reinforced by congestion charging, his boldest and bravest move.
It was not only in mainstream public transport and congestion charging that Ken’s 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.
The reasons Ken lost in a year when Labour otherwise did very well are complex. He faced a deeply hostile and concerted press attack, arguably the worst he’d ever faced. On previous occasions though, his campaign had had the flavour of insurgency, and his anti-establishment image won him support from many who were essentially voters against politicians, and he polled well ahead of the party as a result. This time, perhaps because he had simply been around so long, perhaps because he was so much closer to the party leadership than in the past, he did not (though nor did he poll significantly less than the party as many on the right of the party falsely allege). It was Johnson who won the anti-politics vote and the votes of large numbers of BNP and UKIP voters, leaving him well ahead of his party, and the victor.
Some, like Luke Akehurst, allege that Labour would have done better with another candidate. I doubt it, though such a hypothesis can be neither proved nor disproved. Oona King would not have won, in my view. I heard her, at a hustings, propose the means testing of the Freedom Pass, a policy which could have lost her hundreds of thousands of votes. Ken won the selection because he had the experience running London and as a candidate.
However, though he won the selection, the accusations made by Oona King’s Blairite backers against Ken during the selection process (and beyond) undermined Ken, and provided ammunition for the media onslaught against him. This subversion by prominent Labour politicians and full time regional staff eventually resulted in the Party’s Regional Director being removed from her responsibility for the campaign.
Acts of sabotage by party members continued throughout the campaign. In Tower Hamlets, party officers deliberately targeted resources at two council by-elections, while much of the borough was barely canvassed and many tens of thousands of leaflets went undelivered. Similar things happened in Barking and elsewhere.
There were the direct attacks by a small number of prominent Labour members and calls to vote against the Labour candidate, by Alan Sugar, for example. “There is a long history of Lord Sugar and Ken Livingstone not being the best of friends,” a source told the Independent. “Lord Sugar was not recommending people vote for any of Ken’s opponents,” – which apparently means that there’s no question of any disciplinary action against him. You can be expelled for voting against public service cuts in Barking but not, it seems, for helping a right-wing Tory run London for another four years.