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Your turn again, Livingstone

London now has an elected government that reflects its broad cosmopolitan character. Pete Smith looks at the nature of London life, the politics that produced Livingstone, and whether his success will be a step to reclaiming the Labour Party for the people.

The election of the London Mayor has dominated media political coverage for much of the last year. Non-Londoners may be bored or vicariously entertained by it all but there is no question that it is important.

In terms of voters the London Mayor is one of the most important directly elected posts in the European Union. Only the French and Portuguese presidents face larger electorates. For almost fifteen years London has been the only capital city in Western Europe without an elected government. London, with a total population of 7.25 million (maybe more) is now the same size as New York and is growing rapidly in terms of population, homes and jobs. Its long term decline as people and business moved out to other parts of the South and South East appears to be in reverse. London experienced all the problems of decline in the 1980s, with the shrinking of manufacturing industry in the area. Now many of its problems are the problems of success: housing shortages, congestion, pollution and pressure on green spaces.

Changes in the economy, which have presented such problems for the North and Midlands, have had a very different impact on London. Some 15% of all employees in Great Britain work in Greater London and one in three jobs in the area is in finance and business services. The shift from manufacturing to services, which has had such a devastating effect elsewhere has generated jobs in London.

House prices and job vacancies may give a false picture of the capital to those outside London. More than three quarters of a million tenants in London receive housing benefit and fourteen of the twenty most deprived council wards in England and Wales are in London. London is a mass of contradictions, poverty and wealth, affluence and squalor, often placed cheek by jowl. Gated communities of the well off are often only minutes walk from the most run-down estates in both inner and outer London. Half of Britain's racial and ethnic minorities live in London and the city is very diverse in ways that make it more like New York or Paris than other parts of the UK.

As Tony Travers has put it: "London is different. Neither better nor worse, but different from the rest of the United Kingdom in the way that, say one country is different from another. It is more urban, less white, richer, poorer and, increasingly, more international than the rest of the country. The city's hectic cosmopolitan buzz stands in stark contrast to the traditional image of grey, repressed Britain." The impact of London is, in fact, understated by its, largely arbitrary, political boundaries. Epsom, Ewell, Weybridge and Staines are London suburbs whatever the lines on a map may tell us.

The abolition of London-wide government in 1986 (a piece of partisan vindictiveness by the Thatcher regime) coincided with other big changes in the capital. As industrial and manufacturing jobs faded away so jobs in services and, in particular, the new economies of retail, information technology and e-commerce expanded. Of course, many of these jobs are not highly paid or high status. Many of the workers in Docklands or at Heathrow experience the same problems of low pay and job uncertainty as employees anywhere else in the country.

The growth of London, in recent times, has been chaotic. The stops and starts have been a product of the unpredictability of the new economic sectors. Boom and bust have become the norm, both in the London housing market and in the financial markets which are so important for the capital.

There was, and is, a strong argument for coherent government for London. This was denied by the Tories because they could not admit that GLC abolition defied logic in the interests of party. 'New' Labour hit on the idea of a new system of London government, which represented a break with the past (the pre-1986 GLC era) and innovation, which, at least on paper, owed much to American examples that the 'Blair project' seems so enamoured with.

The scheme for a directly elected chief executive also depended upon the infatuation of the Labour leadership with managerialist assumptions. There was even the fantasy that the Mayor might be 'above' politics and come from business or the media rather than the parties. That notion evaporated as the realities of party politics kicked in and as Blair and company sought to crown a reliable stooge as candidate and chief executive.

The powers of the Mayor are narrowly drawn and she or he will certainly lack the fiscal or political clout of a typical American big city boss. Even so Livingstone was not going to be trusted to fill the post. The Blairites saw him as 'Old Labour', convinced by their own spin that any return to the themes of the 1980s would spell disaster for the party. Hence the refusal to recognise Livingstone's popularity in London or the very positive folk memories of the 1981-1986 GLC period.

The fix followed almost automatically. An electoral college, to choose the official Labour candidate for Mayor, was created in which Frank Dobson won with 25,000 votes to Ken Livingstone with 75,000 votes. Labour returned to its worst instincts and traditions of block voting, smoke-filled rooms and deals struck behind closed doors. But as the 'New' Labour leadership tried to go back to the future it found itself out of joint with the temper of the times.

The assumption seems to have been that if the Labour nomination could be delivered to the candidate favoured by the party leadership then the party faithful would dutifully troop down to the polling stations to vote for who or whatever was wearing the red and yellow rosette. If Tony Blair and Margaret McDonagh had their own version of the Tardis, and it was possible for them to travel back in time, it just might have worked. Party loyalty and identification were probably strong enough, thirty or forty years ago, to enable the strategy to deliver. Not now. Party loyalties are weaker and less closely related to class than was once the case. Ordinary people are less deferential to those in power than they used to be and this is a phenomenon that party leaders are not immune to. This is particularly the case in London, which does not have the same tradition of Labour solidarity as other parts of Britain. As Anthony Barnett has recently pointed out, "Livingstone comes from the London working class. This was never organised in great proletarian factories like the miners, or the northern industrial working class, who created Labour. The metropolis was peopled by polyglot, imperial, skilled and semi-skilled, cosmopolitan, artisan and trading working classes, more self-confident and less deferential, more royalist but less obedient, than their highly-organised industrial brethren. In his accent, style and love of newts Livingstone is an apt representative of London's great unwashed. In this sense his character represents this other, historically non or certainly less-Labour working class tradition."

London has often proved a difficult city for those in government. Its mob was notorious in 18th Century Europe and it may be that Livingstone would like to place himself in the tradition of people like John Wilkes, the tribune of the tumultuous classes. Leader of the awkward squad has often played better with Londoners than being in the pocket of the establishment, as Frank Dobson has learnt to his cost.

London was never going to be a pushover for 'New' Labour. Anthony Barnett describes the capital as a "Labour town" but this is not really the case. The Greater London Council changed hands from Labour to Tory at nearly every election from its creation to its abolition and we need to remind ourselves that Islington is controlled by the Liberal Democrats and Wandsworth by the Tories. London is no safe Labour fiefdom, as Livingstone understands. In fact the Livingstone campaign has realised that an appeal narrowly focused on the 'Old Labour' working class and trade unions would not be enough to win victory. A solid base amongst the transport unions, built around the issue of the future of the Tube, has been extended into the non-traditional working class, the middle classes worried about the quality of life in the capital, environmentalists and lesbian and gay voters. In an odd way the grassroots support which Livingstone has enjoyed is newer than 'New' Labour with its top-down assumptions about union barons and closed meetings. Like it or loathe it the Ken campaign is the future not the past. It involves mobilising supporters who are not party loyalists to be taken for granted.

Even if Livingstone had been the official Labour candidate, and Labour's campaign had not been paralysed by the fallout from the selection procedure, it is virtually certain that the party would not have won an outright majority in the Greater London Assembly. The proportional system of election just does not allow for it. Any mayor will need to reach out beyond their party base to build a coalition of support in the Assembly. This is not in the tribalist tradition of 'Old Labour' or of not so 'New' Labour either. It may be that Livingstone, coming at it as an independent but with a broad base of support amongst Labour members and voters is best placed to do it. Many people who are not normally Labour voters appear prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Livingstone has run, and won, a campaign which understands the new world of dealigned or non-aligned voters and media which have far more impact on election outcomes than was once the case. The question for the future is whether the Ken victory can take the left in London in a positive direction. As Mark Perryman has put it the "ambition must therefore be to shape a popular bloc around Ken." Livingstone has it all to prove as to whether he is a one off, unpredictable, maverick (as the Labour spin doctors like to argue) or if his victory, based amongst real people rather than public opinion poll samples and focus groups, can be an early step towards reclaiming the Labour Party for the people it should be the voice of. A defeat for the party leadership and a victory for an insurgent candidate appealing over their heads to ordinary people may indicate that the Labour Party can be salvaged as an instrument of the popular will rather than the voiceless tool of the power elite.

May/June 2000