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The fall of Ken Livingstone

It wasn't Boris but the government that brought Ken down says Duncan Bowie

This article was originally going to be a review of Andrew Hoskens' biography of Ken: The Ups and Downs of Ken Livingstone (Arcadia Books - £15.99), but within two weeks of the book's publication and half way through my reading of the book, Ken was defeated so this review has become more of an epitaph, if that is not too inappropriate a term.

A few words on the book: this is more comprehensive than previous biographies and Ken's own earlier autobiography. It is best on Ken's contacts with various groups on the left over the last thirty years, though I am not the only member of the Chartist EB who will find the reference to the Socialist Action/London Labour Briefing/ Socialist Organiser group as the 'Chartists', throughout the book annoying, though this is derived from Ken's own autobiography Chartist has moved on somewhat from its Leninist period 30 years ago. The book is weakest on Ken's eight years as Mayor, just summarising the controversies well known to the Evening Standard and the tabloids and missing most of key issues of London governance and politics over the period. The attempt to demonstrate that Ken is run by a coterie of Trotskyists is absurd, as anybody who has worked with Ken and his advisors over the period will recognise the conversion of the Socialist Action faction into market modernisers has to be witnessed to be believed and the book underplays the role of other key Mayoral advisers such as Neal Coleman and Richard Rogers.

Whatever criticisms one has of Ken, the succession of Boris Johnson is catastrophic, not just for those who believe in progressive governance, but for those who believe there is a need for a strategic authority for the capital. For Johnson has demonstrated, not only that he is not a progressive, but that he has been put in to destroy regional government and to protect the boroughs, especially the suburban Tory boroughs, from any regional intervention which may have a distributive consequence i.e. the outer boroughs having to contribute to meeting London-wide needs or in their terms - having to deal with Inner London type problems. This is why the Tories have filed City Hall with localist Tory leaders from Westminster and Bexley as well as bringing in a group of Tory think tankers and accountants. Expect massive cuts to the GLA staff and functions, reductions in the employment generation activity of the London Development Agency and possibly the winding up of Design for London (formerly Richard Rogers' Architecture and Urbanism unit).

Johnson's main interests are law and order, transport, cutting Olympics costs and getting the Mayoral levy on council tax down as quickly as possible and protecting London's historic views. He has already announced he does not believe in key elements of the London Plan abandoning the 50% affordable housing policy and leaving boroughs and developers to develop as little affordable housing as they wish despite the fact that the London Plan remains the statutory plan for London and cannot be torn up by any Mayor at will. He has decided not to bother with getting involved in individual planning cases too much detail - leaving that to the former leader of Bexley, Ian Clement. Whether or not he will be bothered to chair the regional board of the new Homes and Communities Agency and try to influence London's billion pounds a year housing investment programme has yet to be seen he does not appear very interested. So the Government, having given the Mayor extended powers far beyond those applying in 2000, and in some ways beyond those of the GLC, we now have a Mayor whose main interest is in stunts. This is partly Ken's fault, as he gave the impression that the Mayor's role was mainly about photo opportunities and populist initiatives, rather than the day to day business of decision making and influencing Government and the private sector, which Ken was actually very good at. It is probable that no Labour candidate could have won this time as it was Ken got 10% more of the vote than Labour did in the local elections outside London. That in itself is an achievement. It was the Labour government that brought Ken down though, as always, he did not help himself.

Ken is partly responsible for the celebrity politics that destroyed him. Some people voted for Johnson to get a progressive Mayor off their backs. Some were tired of Ken's posturing and the mismanagement of City Hall and the embarrassments of some of Ken's clique. Most worrying was that so many people voted for 'Boris' because they thought it would be a joke to have him as Mayor.

Unfortunately Johnson can do far more damage than that football monkey mascot who was elected Mayor of Hartlepool. Livingstone's defeat is a disaster for Labour in London and a disaster for London and Londoners. It is also a disaster for those of us who enjoy our fun but still think politics is a serious business.