Life after Livingstone?

Boris Johnson? Greg Dyke? John Major? With less than a year to go till the next London mayoral election, a growing sense of desperation is settling over opposition parties. Is there anyone out there who the Conservatives haven\’t approached? Anyone who has a chance of beating Ken Livingstone?

Standing against the Mayor, who has twice seen off all comers (including his own party in 2000), must be one of the least enviable jobs in politics. Steven Norris has twice proved an effective and jocular opponent, largely through distancing himself as far from Conservative Party policy as Livingstone has from Labour Party policy, but will surely not have the appetite to be ‘three times a loser’.

The Conservatives’ much-trumpeted plans for a talent-show approach have gone rather quiet, though several candidates – primarily from local government backgrounds – have expressed interest, and a London-wide primary will take place in September. But rumours of bids from heavy-hitters like John Major, Olympic chief Sebastian Coe and former Met Police commissioner John Stevens seem to have evaporated.

The Liberal Democrats have mounted serious candidates – Susan Kramer (now MP for Richmond Park) in 2000, and Bermondsey MP Simon Hughes in 2004 – but the prospect of their party holding the balance of power at Westminster after the next general election must look more attractive in career development terms than another round in the ring with the former member for Brent East.

In 2000, it was said that Tony Blair hoped that an independent businessperson rather than a professional politician would win the mayoralty. This time around, plenty of colourful characters are emerging: DJs Mike Read and James Whale, Big Issue founder John Bird, actor Tom Conti and Right Said Fred singer Richard Fairbrass. Leaving aside the fact that many of these candidates seem propelled primarily by their resentment of London’s congestion charge, they are not quite of Michael Bloomberg’s – or even Richard Branson’s – calibre.

The irony is that, in setting up a system to attract political outsiders, New Labour created a job that was tailor-made for one of their own renegades. In seven years, Ken Livingstone has entrenched himself, re-engineering the City Hall machine to operate as he wants it to; he has become part of its wiring.

Like him or loathe him (and there are plenty in both camps), Ken Livingstone is a consummate politician, on top of his brief, sharp and able to speak off-the-cuff (and sometimes off-the-wall) on pretty well any subject. As a former GLA employee, I can testify to the frustration of listening to a pitch-perfect mayoral performance, with the only duff notes being those taken from his carefully-crafted official briefing.

Though the media relish the intemperate outbursts – against Evening Standard journalists, against the Saudi royal family, against George Bush – Ken Livingstone is now more likely to be heard extolling his carefully nuanced vision for London: the city succeeds because ‘The City’ succeeds, supported by London’s diversity and openness (in contrast to New York, marooned in Fortress America). London’s turbo-capitalist growth and growing diversity are to be embraced and celebrated, but also to be used as an engine for greater social justice and for tackling climate change.

Over seven years, almost unnoticed, he has transformed himself from the khaki-clad newt-fancier of yore, into the very model of a modern city boss, known across the world, and clad in imperial purple (or at least the odd Ozwald Boateng bespoke suit). La cité, c’est lui.

There are two sides to Ken Livingstone. One is the glamourpuss, clearly relishing the limelight and the occasional slanging match. The other is the slightly nerdy technocrat, who enjoys the day-to-day business of running London. He has stretched the Greater London Authority’s curious rag-bag of powers taut in trying to create change in a chaotic city. The Mayor enjoys getting stuck in: from negotiating with developers, to introducing and extending a congestion charge, to battling with local boroughs, pigeons and PPP consortiums, to bringing more buses onto the street, to making deals for cheap oil with Hugo Chavez, to attracting the 2012 Olympics (and billions of pounds of public money) to East London.

Ken Livingstone has said that a good candidate could easily unseat him next year, but this sounds more like a playground taunt – ‘come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough\’ – than a sincere sentiment. He would like to stay in post till 2016. Running London is not a springboard for him, but the only job that he seems to want. GLA polls show a gentle decline in his personal approval ratings, but the field of opponents does not give confidence that he will be easily toppled.

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