London elections ’08: Ken Livingstone is a remarkable and far-sighted politician. Londoners would do well to vote him in for a third term
Ken Livingstone has been a most unusual figure in British politics for almost 30 years. He is like no other. Demonised and then condemned to outer darkness by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, he remained much loved by a wide cross-section of Londoners well beyond his own political constituency. Dismissed by Blairites as a hangover from the “loony left”, he survived their every effort to prevent him from becoming mayor, even having him expelled from the party. He has survived because he is a remarkable politician who combines four most unusual characteristics.
First, Livingstone has proved an extremely far-sighted political leader. In the 1980s, as leader of the GLC, he championed public transport when the Thatcherites were treating it at best with malign neglect and the Labour party had little to say on the subject. Yet Livingstone has been proved entirely correct: the key to the transformation of the capital since 2000 has been the huge improvement in public transport, especially the buses. Livingstone also recognised the importance of gender, race, and sexual orientation at a time when the Tories sought to smear them and Labour largely hid from them. In particular, Livingstone was the first politician to recognise and celebrate the emergence of London as an increasingly multi-racial and multicultural city.
Second, notwithstanding the fact that over the last three decades Britain has moved markedly to the right, a process pioneered by the Thatcherites and meekly accepted by New Labour, Livingstone has ploughed an entirely different furrow of his own. His gift has been to articulate a leftwing agenda that has been both thoroughly modern and popular. He is the only figure in British politics to have achieved that. As mayor, he has explicitly put redistribution, a word seemingly regarded as incendiary by New Labour, at the heart of his policies, notably in public transport. The congestion charge, the improvement in public transport, the transformation of the buses, and free transport for the under-18s and over-60s are all expressions of that. Livingstone has demonstrated that redistribution can be highly popular.
Third, Livingstone enjoys the popular touch. He has an appeal that cuts across traditional political allegiances. With his humour, sharpness, accent, and gift of the gab, he is unmistakably a product of his capital. He is equally at home on the street and travelling on the tube as he is in the television studio. He speaks a language that everyone can understand and relate to. In an age when privately educated products such as Blair, Cameron, Osborne and Johnson have returned to the centre stage, Livingstone has an earthy and common touch appeal.
Fourth, Livingstone is a courageous and brave politician. Ever since he was leader of the GLC he has been prepared to champion unpopular causes and, more often than not, make them popular. He has never been afraid of taking on powerful vested interests. The contrast with the timidity and obsequiousness of New Labour could not be greater. He took on Thatcher and, though she had the short-term satisfaction of abolishing the GLC, it was his vision of London rather than hers that eventually triumphed. He confronted one of the most powerful interest groups of all, the car lobby, before which all other politicians had previously bowed, and introduced the congestion charge. No other politician would have done that. And it has made the biggest single contribution bar none to improving life in the capital. He took on Blair in his prime and inflicted a stunning defeat. He has not been afraid to incur the wrath of Associated Press, whose Evening Standard has engaged in an utterly despicable campaign against him. Though Livingstone has otherwise little in common with Thatcher, they share one singular characteristic. They are the two most courageous political leaders of the last 30 years.
After two remarkable terms in office, it would be a tragedy for London if Livingstone was to be defeated by a man who, apart from his enjoyment of humour, is otherwise his political polar opposite. Does anyone really think that Johnson has any serious commitment to public transport or knows what it means? Does anyone believe that he can represent the 40% of Londoners who are non-white when his own racial prejudices have been made so apparent?