he 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
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
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
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