Londoners go to the polls to elect a Mayor on Thursday. The Labour candidate incumbent, Ken Livingstone, is seeking election for the third time. Against expectations, he is in difficulty against a revived Conservative Party. If he loses, it will mark a coda in one of the more high-profile if low-achieving political careers of modern British politics. A Labour supporter myself, I shall be glad if Livingstone departs public life.
For a generation, Livingstone has been the most successful figure on the far-left of British politics. He came to prominence as a municipal politician in London in the early 1980s. Labour was then a party of extreme policies such as unilateral nuclear disarmament and a siege economy. Unsurprisingly, it proved unelectable at national level. In municipal government, its representatives were typically fiscally profligate and politically doctrinaire. Nowhere were these characteristics more in evidence than in the city-wide authority for London, the Greater London Council (GLC), of which Livingstone was leader.
What few now recall is that Livingstone became leader of the GLC without any reference to the people of London. But in London, Labour’s municipal campaign of 1981 was headed by an articulate moderate, Andrew McIntosh. Immediately after that election, McIntosh was deposed as leader of the Labour group in a palace coup by members of his own party caucus. Livingstone became leader in McIntosh’s place, and thereby leader of the GLC as well. It was a move that evinced contempt for London’s voters.
The GLC was later abolished by Margaret Thatcher’s government in an imprudent fit of irritation at Livingstone’s antics. This ill-considered move allowed Livingstone to develop a populist persona as the defender of local democracy against central government. His political reputation as a maverick and a bit of a card derives from that confrontation.
Tony Blair’s government reintroduced a city-wide authority for London, the Greater London Assembly, and also established the post of a directly elected Mayor. It was a good idea on constitutional grounds, but it did Labour no good at all. Livingstone, by this time a Labour Member of Parliament, sought the party’s candidature for the first Mayoral election in 2000. Blair, recalling, the electoral damage that Livingstone and his associates had inflicted on the party in the 1980s, rightly demurred but went the wrong way about it. Instead of expelling Livingstone from the party, Blair organized a procedural maneuver to select an alternative Labour candidate, a dull and ineffective machine politician, Frank Dobson. Livingstone ran as an independent, and won handsomely.
In 2004, in one of the more cynical acts of Tony Blair’s otherwise principled premierships, Labour made up with Livingstone in a desperate wish to secure a victory in London amid electoral setbacks in other parts of the country. Livingstone ran as the party’s candidate and won again. This time, he is electoral trouble. It is of his own devising.
Livingstone has accomplished one important reform as Mayor, a charging scheme for traffic in central London (the “congestion charge”). Beyond that, he has been a substantial liability for London’s governance, reputation and — owing to his curious predilection for property development — skyline.
It is his judgment on foreign affairs — absolutely nothing to with his municipal remit — that is the greatest wound on London’s civic life under Livingstone, however. The Mayor has welcomed to London Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim cleric who praises suicide attacks in Israel. Livingstone defended these comments with the preposterous and inflammatory claim that Palestinians have only their bodies with which to “fight back”.
This sort of intervention matters because a London mayor represents a huge, cosmopolitan capital city. Many of the contentious international and communal issues on which Livingstone comments are replicated in tensions within London. A civic leader, especially in London of all places, ought to exemplify the principle that there is a single category of citizenship that transcends national and religious divisions. Livingstone does not do that. His is a face of left-wing politics that stands for communalism, populism and administrative incompetence. By rights, his time should be past.
Oliver Kamm is an author and Times columnist. His blog is available here.