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Ken Livingstone
Former Mayor of London

By Andrew Stevens

28 April 2008: Though not exactly what former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair had in mind when he envisaged New Labour’s mayoral project for London, Mayor Ken Livingstone has undeniably made his mark as a strong civic leader and visionary figurehead for the British capital.

3 May 2008 update: Ken Livingstone lost to Boris Johnson in the May 2008 mayoral election

2011 update: Ken Livingstone will contest the 2012 mayoral elections for Labour

5 May 2012 update: Ken Livingstone lost to Boris Johnson in the May 2012 mayoral elections

Greater London government | Livingstone – the politician | Livingstone - the Mayor | Livingstone’s legacy |

Greater London government
Created by the Greater London Authority Act 1999, the longest piece of legislation passed by the British Parliament since the Government of India Act in 1935, the London mayoralty formed the centrepiece of New Labour’s mayoral experiment designed to revive local government through the application of a robust American-style system of strong local leadership. The policy on the Greater London Authority (GLA) emerged in 1995 when the then opposition Labour Party was formulating its programme for government and required a solution to what was perceived as the democratic deficit created by Margaret Thatcher’s abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1986.

Previously, Labour had been committed to the restoration of the GLC but had since come to the view that such a policy could be interpreted as tit-for-tit dismantling of Thatcherism and that a modern response to London’s needs in the 21st century was required, rather than just falling back on a familiar institution. More tellingly, in its later days, the GLC was a by-word for the kind of New Urban Left politics of the era and the newly-elected Labour leader Tony Blair was seeking to mark a contrast by showing the electorate and the media that this chapter of Labour’s history was well and truly over.

Although the policy on creating elected mayors outside of London was to come several years later, Labour entered government in 1997 with a clear commitment to restore elected city-wide government to Greater London via a new form of civic leadership, with a directly-elected Mayor of London and a constituent Assembly to scrutinise him or her. However, it preferred to wait until this could be ratified by a vote of Londoners before proceeding with the plans, with a referendum held alongside the May 1998 elections to London’s 32 Borough councils. Labour campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum, with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats largely opposed.

The Conservatives dropped their initial opposition to the Mayoral post (as it could detract from the City of London Lord Mayor’s prestige) but still viewed the Assembly proposals as a return to what it saw as the dark days of the GLC, while the Liberal Democrats favoured London’s leader being chosen by the Assembly rather than the popular vote.

In all eventuality, the Mayor and Assembly proposals were ratified with 72 per cent voting in favour in the referendum. Having secured the necessary backing, the government then legislated for the creation of the Mayor of London and the 25-member London Assembly, with the Mayor being elected under the Supplementary Vote system (hitherto unheard of, except for among academics) and the Assembly being elected under the Additional Member System (mainly used in Germany and at that time also put forward for use in the new Scottish and Welsh devolved assemblies). The government argued that the Supplementary Vote system of first and second preferences was the most appropriate as it was the easiest to count, while ensuring that any Mayor receives at least 50 per cent support, but it is not necessarily proportional when compared to the more commonly-used Alternative Vote (which allows exhaustive preferential voting). Similarly, the Additional Member System was chosen for the Assembly as it was roughly proportional and would not let one party dominate the body but also guarded against parochialism by having both constituency and London-wide members. Having being passed in Parliament in 1999, the first elections were scheduled for May 2000, with the onus then on the parties to select candidates for this historic post.

Livingstone – the politician
A whole book has been written (Nightmare! By Mark D’arcy and Rory McLean*) on the debacle surrounding Labour’s selection process for its candidate for Mayor of London in 2000 but much of the history bears repeating, not least for its soap opera-like qualities altogether quite rare these days (see Jeffrey Archer’s candidacy). Having secured the necessary legislation, New Labour’s mayoral project rolled on and prior to the selection stage, certain names were trotted out with great frequency when discussing the contest. The media tended to concur with Tony Blair’s aim of securing a big name from the world of business to take the helm of Millennial London, perhaps Virgin chief Richard Branson, while with the Labour Party, still enjoying its post-1997 election victory honeymoon, former actress Glenda Jackson and erstwhile GLC member Tony Banks emerged as likely contenders from within London’s Labour MPs.

Popular broadcaster Trevor Phillips came forward as the principal candidate from the ethnic minorities, who were beginning to make their presence known as holding 35+ per cent of London’s electors. Ken Livingstone, the erstwhile left-wing Labour Leader of the GLC who had achieved power through a palace coup in 1981 at County Hall, on the other hand, had dismissed the mayoral proposals as “barmy”, as if he still held out some hope for the resumption of business as usual for the GLC now the Conservatives were out of power.

As a historical aside, Livingstone was at this point the Labour Member of Parliament for Brent East, having been elected in 1987 following the abolition of the GLC a year previously. During his time in Parliament, Livingstone had penned a left-wing personal manifesto (Livingstone’s Labour) in 1989, perhaps in response to his media presence, but spent much of this period in relative backbench obscurity, finding little favour under any of Labour’s leaders. Although a member of the left-wing Campaign Group of quasi-Marxist firebrand Labour MPs, Mr Livingstone was probably better known for his restaurant reviews in the Evening Standard at this juncture and even reflected this in his Who’s Who entry as “lunching for socialism”.

At best, Livingstone seemed like a kindly relic of the Bennite era, which had been successfully confined to the dustbin of social democracy by Tony Blair. During the passage of the GLA legislation through Parliament, Livingstone’s Campaign Group colleague and former GLC member John McDonnell called for the compulsory purchase of the old County Hall home of the GLC. However, this call went unheeded as the government were seeking a break with the past and sought a new home for London-wide government that would symbolise this. Therefore a Livingstone mayoralty would also not suffice in that regard.

It was perhaps emblematic of New Labour’s brinkmanship and inability to calculate the political mood at times but Tony Blair and his advisers were absolutely adamant that Ken Livingstone would not be Mayor of London, once he had actually decided that the post wasn’t so “barmy” after all, that is. To Blair, Livingstone’s ‘gesture politics’ endangered New Labour’s ability to reach out to Conservative voters and a Livingstone mayoralty could not be countenanced, at any cost.

Livingstone had also humiliated Blair’s close ally, Peter Mandelson, in a recent election to Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee, so as far as New Labour were concerned, he wasn’t so obscure. A succession of Cabinet ministers were touted as being the likely ‘leadership candidate’, including Northern Ireland Secretary and MP for Redcar Mo Mowlam and Health Secretary Frank Dobson (who at least held a London seat). In the end, New Labour settled on Frank Dobson as the ‘Stop Livingstone’ candidate, if only because he had once beaten Livingstone in an internal election to become Leader of Camden Council in the 1970s.

Occurring alongside the unpopular vanity project to install a £1bn Millennium Dome on the Greenwich peninsula, the battle to keep Ken Livingstone off the ballot paper appeared to strike a bum note with the media, who began something of a public backlash against New Labour. New Labour indeed tried every trick in the Labour rulebook to prevent Livingstone from becoming the Labour candidate, including a gruelling interview process where he was asked of his ability to stay resolutely ‘on message’ regarding Labour policy.

In the end, the party managers concocted a convenient wheeze to halt the momentum for a Livingstone Labour candidacy – a convoluted and complicated electoral college where trade union block votes outweighed those of ordinary Labour members, who largely backed Livingstone.

Using the votes cast by a handful of union barons, former Health Secretary Frank Dobson, who was pressured by Tony Blair to stand down from the Cabinet and run for the post, managed to secure the Labour candidacy by the narrowest of margins of Livingstone, with Glenda Jackson coming third in the poll.

Having sensed injustice, Livingstone then announced his decision to run as an Independent candidate, which led to his automatic expulsion from the Labour Party. In all eventuality, Livingstone was elected as London’s first Mayor, albeit as an independent, on 4 May 2000, with Labour’s candidate trailing in fourth place behind the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

To give an idea of the contest as soap opera, Frank Dobson then returned to the Labour backbenchers, where he remains and sometimes orchestrates occasional rebellions against his former Cabinet colleagues, alongside fellow Labour hopeful Glenda Jackson. Trevor Phillips stood as Frank Dobson’s Deputy Mayor as a London Assembly candidate, only to step down from the Assembly before the 2004 elections on his appointment as Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality. Former Conservative candidate Jeffrey Archer was subsequently imprisoned for perjury.

(* the title is an allusion to an exchange in 1999 at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons between Tony Blair and the then Leader of the Conservatives, William Hague, who remarked of Blair’s predicament: “Why not split the job in two, with Frank Dobson as your day mayor and Ken Livingstone as your nightmare?”)

Livingstone - the Mayor
In the period following the first GLA elections, the body got off to an inauspicious start, being forced to squat in disused civil service offices in Westminster while the distinctive new City Hall building was constructed on its London Bridge site on the south bank of the Thames adjacent to Tower Bridge. On assuming office, the Mayor signalled his intent to retain his independent status by drawing on the talents of all political parties elected to the London Assembly. He drew up an Advisory Cabinet drawn from all points of the political spectrum and also from outside the world of politics.

The mayoralty aside, the elections saw mixed results by dint of the proportional system, with Labour and the Conservatives returning nine members each, the Liberal Democrats with four and the representation of the Greens for the first time with three members. With no overall majority, Labour entered into a pact with the Liberal Democrats in the Assembly that saw committee chairmanships shared between the two parties, with the Chair of the Assembly alternating between the two.

The Mayor also entered into this spirit by offering to alternate the Deputy Mayorship between the four parties during his term of office. However, despite Labour accepting in the first instance, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives refused the offer, which saw Labour’s Nick Gavron occupy the post for three years, with Jenny Jones accepting the offer on behalf of the Greens when put to them in the final year of Mayor Livingstone’s first term.

This was quite convenient for Ms Gavron as she was selected as Labour’s candidate for the second set of mayoral elections in 2004 and would have been faced with the task of attacking the Mayor in the campaign while acting as his Deputy. In the context of this, it is worth skipping forward to note that faced with polling that showed Ms Gavron was destined to repeat Labour’s dismal performance in the mayoral elections, the Labour Party acknowledged that Ken Livingstone was on course for re-election and negotiated terms for his readmission and automatic selection as Labour’s candidate for the 2004 elections. Conditional on his readmission and therefore Ms Gavron’s withdrawal was her assured position as Deputy Mayor in the second administration if both were re-elected. However, the preceding period could be fairly described as tempestuous.

It is sometimes remarked that the legacy of Ken Livingstone’s first term as Mayor was the proliferation of ‘bendy-buses’ (to replace the ageing fleet of old-style tourist icon Routemasters) and bus priority lanes on the capital’s streets. There is a grain of truth to this, Livingstone did not assume control of the Underground tube network from central government until almost the end of his first term and therefore the only real power he had over public transport was to channel extra funding into the capital’s bus network.

But the Mayor’s legacy does extend wider in terms of transport as while his Quixotic battle with the Department for Transport in the High Court over the Public Private Partnership deal is now largely forgotten, his adoption of the Congestion Charge has been viewed with interest from across the world. Livingstone’s ardent opposition to the Public Private Partnership deal to renovate and modernise the tube network’s infrastructure has cost the tax-payer millions and saw substantial clauses inserted into the GLA legislation to delay the handover of the tube from the Department for Transport in case Labour was not able to prevent a Livingstone mayoralty from occurring.

The spectacle of the Mayor of London taking the government to court to halt the scheme is now largely forgotten and for one reason: the Congestion Charge. The success of the Congestion Charge scheme, for which the GLA Act permitted but did not mandate, bought off a number of Labour politicians who opposed the Mayor’s re-entry into the party in spite of abysmal polling results for its then candidate in 2003/04.

Livingstone actually adopted the idea from the business community in the capital, who had unsuccessfully lobbied for 20 years for a scheme to reduce traffic congestion in central London. It is now accepted that Livingstone’s independent status at the time allowed for him to push for the scheme without the burden of party policy or interests to consider. Without this it is doubtful that the scheme would have progressed from the policy formulation stage. The Conservatives were openly hostile, the Liberal Democrats somewhat critical of certain aspects and the Labour Party had its reservations. In his second term, Mayor Livingstone is now proceeding with his desire to see the scheme extended into West London from its current boundaries.

Alongside the Transport for London agency responsible for public transport in the capital, as well as major roads and regulation of the taxi trade, the Mayor oversees the budget and appointments to the boards of several other public bodies in the capital, commonly referred to as the ‘GLA family’.

Through the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Mayor indirectly sets the priorities for policing in the capital and his first term in office saw an increase in the number of police recruited and an expansion of the community support officer scheme to provide additional back-up to operational policing in the community. The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, for whom the Mayor also oversees the budget and some appointments to, is a less politically charged body, especially given that central government continues to take the lead in resilience matters for planning against terrorist attacks on the capital. The London Development Agency is what one might more commonly recognise as an economic development and regeneration quango and here the Mayor also holds power to budget for and appoint to.

However, the agency’s role is significantly more corporate and business-led in comparison to the Greater London Enterprise Board set up as an interventionist instrument by Livingstone in his incarnation as GLC Leader. In particular, the Mayor has taken a keen interest in promoting London’s 2012 Olympic bid, which alongside tube expansion, he sees as the cornerstone of his second term legacy. He has even suggested that his second term should be extended by one year in order to see the bid through in case he not re-elected. The Mayor would also like to add Crossrail to his list of achievements, though this is largely in the gift of central government and reflects as a failing of Labour devolution project that the Mayor cannot use his mandate to secure such a sorely-needed improvement to the capital’s transport infrastructure.

The Mayor also assumed control of the capital’s planning and development framework, the London Strategic Development Strategy, which was previously overseen by a quango after the GLC’s abolition in 1986. Through this, the Mayor can co-ordinate pan-London planning issues, such as the allocation of social housing and green space, issues on which he has clashed against London Boroughs over in the past. Critics of the Mayor often point to his ‘tall buildings fetish’ as the Mayor makes no secret of his desire to see a London skyline dominated by skyscrapers. On a day to day basis, the Deputy Mayor has control over this area however, Ms Gavron being something of a veteran in these matters. In addition to this statutory strategy, the GLA Act also provides for several other strategies upon which the Mayor must formulate policy for, such as the environment (including waste and noise pollution), culture and diversity. The Mayor has taken to these with great aplomb, often exceeding what could be expected of him.

Most recently, under the new powers bestowed upon him by the government in 2006, the Mayor has inaugurated a London Skills and Employment Board, which he chairs. Though the capital’s skills policy remains in the hands of the regional Learning and Skills Council quango on a day to day basis, the new body will see government, business and the unions sit around the same table to determine London’s strategy to tackle unemployment and skills shortages. This new role becomes ever more acute with the constantly changing nature of the capital’s labour market, where more flexible patterns of employment have emerged, not least since the burgeoning of the communities drawn from the newer members of the EU in Central and Eastern Europe.

Livingstone’s legacy
As has been noted, the Mayor has substantially refashioned London’s physical environment – with bendy-buses now a common sight and the Congestion Charge scheme in full sway. He made the capital's successful 2012 Olympic bid his main priority and pushed for extensions to the tube network, especially in the uncatered for South East and East of the capital. Such policies have led to his enviable popularity among Labour members while Conservatives are as likely to draw breath upon hearing his name, not least because of the Congestion (or ‘Kengestion’) Charge and his perception as a Mayor for only Zone One of the capital (central London). Livingstone remains a divisive figure however. London’s local government leaders are far from content with his desire to see the number of London Boroughs reduced from 32 to just five in the name of efficiency.

The Mayor’s colourful private life and occasional outbursts, not least the incident involving his castigating a Jewish reporter for the Evening Standard (with which he now enjoys a frictional relationship), sees even some Labour members wishing he had never been readmitted to the party. Following a lengthy hearing by the Standards Board watchdog, Livingstone was deemed to have breached the Local Government Code of Conduct and was suspended from office for one month, though he was then given leave to appeal and successfully managed to have the sanction quashed in the High Court. Alongside the new powers bestowed on him this year via new government legislation, the Local Government Code and Conduct and Standards regime is being revised (relaxed, even) in view of the proceedings, demonstrating once again Livingstone’s knack for evading his would-be torturers.

Livingstone’s maverick tendencies and proven ability to deliver may make Brand Livingstone seemingly unstoppable at times, but it has also enabled him to pursue more radical policies as Mayor, notably in the field of what his enemies refer to as ‘foreign policy’. The Mayor’s Office is run by the stalwarts of his Parliamentary office, notably his chief of staff Simon Fletcher, economic adviser John Ross and public affairs adviser Redmond O’Neill, mockingly dubbed by one wag as ‘Livingstone’s pet Trots’ on account of their membership of the tiny far-left Socialist Action grouping. Though this may go some way to explain the importance to which the mayoralty under Livingstone attaches to issues as varied as the Palestinian question, the Bush presidency in the US and the internal politics of race relations in the UK. His hosting of events to promote dialogue with the controversial Islamic cleric Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi (who supports the stoning of homosexuals and beating of ‘errant’ wives) has angered many of his traditional supporters, not least because of the lengths Livingstone has been prepared to go to defend Qaradawi’s reputation against the claims of secularists and indeed other faith groups using public money. Livingstone has also waded into disputes over the future of the Commission for Racial Equality, which is being incorporated into the more mainstreamed Commission for Equality and Human Rights, even arguing that the CRE’s outgoing chair, the former London Assembly chair and black broadcaster Trevor Phillips, was “so right wing he’d soon be joining the British National Party”. The Mayor retains a vigilant presence in such debates via his race advisor, Lee Jasper, a veteran of the UK civil rights movement and former chair of the 1990 Trust, which entered into controversy itself when it used its BLINK website to encourage its members to petition the Standards Board in favour of Livingstone during their investigation of his conduct. When another of the mayor’s advisers, the former Tower Hamlets councillor Kumar Murshid, was arrested on charges of embezzling public funds, Livingstone refused to dismiss him, though Murshid was eventually acquitted. It could also be argued that the Mayor has a ‘tick-box mentality’ when it comes to relations with the capital’s minority communities, staging tokenistic concerts in Trafalgar Square, one of the two public spaces in London under his jurisdiction.

All of the above came under a microscope in January 2008 when Martin Bright, political editor of the Labour-supporting New Statesman weekly, undertook a scathing TV documentary on the mayor, challenging his record on equalities and transport and alleging widespread corruption at City Hall. The row did blow over by the time of the election, after all no political party would ditch a brand as recognisable and effective as Livingstone on the say-so of a journalist on a political magazine, but in conjunction with a noisy campaign led by the London Evening Standard the mayor's close aide Lee Jasper was forced out as a result of much of the mud slung. The mayor's private life was also opened up to closer media scrutiny in the run up to the election, with the timely biography Ken by Andrew Hosken (whose previous subject was Livingstone's polar opposite, the Tory leader of Westminster City Council Dame Shirley Porter) revealing that the mayor had fathered several children to different mothers.

Mr Livingstone, the most memorable city leader in London since Herbert Morrison, now faces a formidable opponent in the form of fully paid-up young fogey Conservative Boris Johnson, more than a match for Livingstone in the maverick stakes. It is perhaps a reflection on his own success and Labour and the Conservatives' own failings that they have no alternative candidates within their ranks to put forward, thus ensuring that despite Tony Blair's wishes, its devolution project has hinged on Mr Livingstone all along.



Ken Livingstone, first elected Mayor of London in May 2000 and re-elected in 2004


Also by Andrew Stevens
Ray Mallon
Mayor of Middlesbrough

Alongside the so-called ‘monkey mayor’ in neighbouring Hartlepool, Middlesbrough’s mayor ‘Robocop’ Ray Mallon has acted as something of a poster child for Labour’s policy of elected mayors in England and his colourful pre-political history is as well known as his confrontational yet effective style of governing. Born in Gateshead in 1956 and elected on a landslide in 2002, Mayor Mallon is something of a divisive figure in Northeastern politics but considers his record to speak for itself.

Middlesbrough is the centre of the Teesside conurbation in the south of England’s North East region, a gateway between Co. Durham and North Yorkshire with a historic dependency on heavy industry and port activity. Though only arising from iron mining in the Victorian age, the town can lay claim to a university and Catholic cathedral, though it remains without city status because of the proximity of Durham and Sunderland. Other than this, its national significance is derived from its popularity among real-life cop show programme makers and its infamous elected mayor.

As a proponent while a serving senior police chief of zero-tolerance policing techniques imported from New York’s NYPD, the charismatic no-nonsense Mallon was, and remains, feted by politicians of all parties. Mallon shot to national prominence while heading the crime-ridden town’s detective squad and achieved quick results by implementing the zero tolerance measures on the town’s streets and estates.

In 1997, incoming Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair even chose the town’s police station for his final photocall of the election campaign, famously posing with the detective. However, Mallon’s crown soon slipped as in December of that year accusations were levelled of corruption among Mallon’s team, including claims by former suspects that heroin had been supplied to informants and suspects in exchange for information or confessions. The Cleveland Constabulary then launched Operation Lancet, a lengthy investigation into Mallon’s conduct, and placed him under suspension from duty. After four years and millions of pounds, the operation failed to arrive at any conclusions and criminal charges against Mallon were dropped, though the disciplinary case against him remained.

In 2000 the Labour government legislated to bring about its policy of introducing elected mayors into English local government via referendums in each council area. A year later Mallon, still under suspension, announced his intention to run for Mayor of Middlesbrough, were the post to be created. In effect, this turned the referendum into a question of not whether to have a mayor but if voters wanted Ray Mallon as their mayor. A campaign group was launched to secure the referendum and this was staged alongside several others in English towns and cities that October. More