In February 2010, in the build up to the Greater London Authority’s 10th anniversary, Ken Livingstone, London’s first Mayor of London, spoke to Martin Hoscik and Adam Bienkov about ten years of London Government.
In this first of a two part interview Livingstone recalls Labour’s selection of a Mayoral candidate for the 2000 elections, setting up a new system of Government, reforming the capital’s transport system and his memories of taking on Tony Blair.
2000, FRANK DOBSON AND ESTABLISHING A CITY GOVERNMENT
Speaking to Ken in advance of his campaign to regain the Mayoralty, we are keen to hear more about the infamous first Mayoral election in 2000. He tells us that the race, chronicled to great effect in Mark D’Arcy and Rory MacLean’s book Nightmare! The Race to Become London’s Mayor was pretty much as described, with the Labour party throwing everything they could at it to stop him. “Looking back at my entire political career, what you see up front is pretty much what’s going on behind the scenes…that is why Labour got smashed”
“It was all so stupid because at the beginning [of the selection process] I was ahead of Glenda Jackson but not massively and Tony Banks and Frank Dobson were miles behind. In all the early polling Glenda was first, if they’d built her up, if they’d given her good things to announce and not the bad things, they might actually have been able to win fairly”.
He attributes the belief by Labour’s leadership that they’d get away with rigging the party’s candidate selection to Blair’s uncritical, “flat media” coverage. He says “I remember thinking, one of the reasons I decided to go as an independent, ‘if they get away with this what will they do next?’” before observing that around the world party leaderships who successfully fix internal elections often go on to fix “real” ones.
Livingstone says that he “tried to stop people leaving” Labour in the wake of his decision to run as an independent, insisting that he “didn’t want to create a new party.” He suggests that it was important to his chances of “getting back” into Labour that followers stayed in the party. Rejoining Labour was “always” his plan “because I am a Socialist.”
Although a bitter fight, Livingstone firmly rejects the possibility that Dobson, Labour’s eventual candidate, had any part in the “nasty, dirty tricks” he says the party played against him.
He says that “everything about Frank is decent” and puts his failure to win down to being seen as a “stooge of Blair” and to his unwillingness to “accommodate to modern media”.
He suggests that Dobson’s pride in Yorkshire was also “part of the problem” he faced in being elected, commenting that “most people who come to London as a student spend the rest of their lives becoming Londoners, they lose the accent, Frank just proudly kept all of that and that’s not something you can fault him for but it made him a very easy target”.
However, he dismisses suggestions that a Dobson win would have delivered Blair a loyalist Mayor and praises his record of delivering for Londoners at borough level: “Look at Frank’s role as leader of Camden from ‘73 to ‘75, the highest spending local authority in Britain, whatever you look at, whether it’s libraries, social services or housing, it had the best provision of any borough.”
Despite his praise for Dobson’s character and probity, Livingstone is clear that had he not run the “angry” London electorate would have “ended up electing Steve Norris”, who had replaced Lord Archer as the Conservative candidate.
He cites an encounter between a Labour canvasser and a London cabbie as chronicled in Nightmare! in which the cabbie, describing Blair in very crude terms, failed to be scared by horror stories of the congestion charge. Livingstone says that a significant number of the public “were going to do anything to prevent Blair’s candidate from winning, they’d have voted for anyone if it meant Blair didn’t win.”
How much did the legacy of his days at the Greater London Council and the ‘king over the water’ myth surrounding GLC abolition help him? “oh God it was unbelievable, I’ve never had an experience like it in my life, it was weeks and weeks of adulation, fortunately I didn’t go mad.”
How did he deal with that? “Well because I’ve been up and down in popularity so often I was quite bemused, I thought ‘this is very funny, but it will change’, but it’s great while it’s going on, it was wonderful.”
One issue which certainly dented Livingstone’s popularity with some voters was the Congestion Charge. Despite being a vocal advocate of the charge there were people who voted for him who later wrote to newspapers claiming no prior knowledge of his support for the policy. Livingstone blames the personality angle of the election coverage for this, remarking “there was no discussion of policies, it was all about Frank, the rigging, the May Day riot, there was never anything about the actual serious policy issues, it was all trivia.”
“Because my powers were so limited I think the 25 percent of Tories who voted for me thought ‘it’s alright, he’s got no power’”.
Livingstone says that there was almost no pre-results briefing for the candidates on the structures and systems they might soon inherit, recalling that the Government decided “only the winner” was to be allowed to see the briefing documents prepared by civil servants.
Was this a hindrance to getting the new administration off the ground? “Well I had my own ideas about what we were going to do.”
IMPROVING LONDON’S TRANSPORT
One of those ideas was to bring in outside help to turn around the capital’s transport system. The old London Transport was seen as remote from the passengers they supposedly served and Livingstone wanted the newly re-christened Transport for London to be more responsive to the concerns of Londoners.
“There’d been a real lack of investment [in London] from ’79 and so much of those first 5 years was gearing up to getting projects off the ground”
To help deliver the changes, Livingstone brought in Bob Kiley, the former Chairman of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Hugely admired by many in the transport world, Kiley later became the subject of various negative press articles and attacks by Livingstone’s political opponents.
Describing him as “brilliantly effective”, Livingstone credits Kiley with the Safer Transport Teams and readily accepts the description of him as “a great unsung hero” of his administration.
“No-one now remembers the horrible bureaucratic mentality of London Transport which was: ‘it doesn’t matter how bad our service, how expensive, there isn’t an alternative and they have to use it.’ It was the real monopoly contempt of a public bureaucrat. Bob smashed that. If you look at how successful TfL has been, he delivered.”
Not a politician famed for having a low opinion of himself, Livingstone claims that he was surprised by the success of policies designed to increase bus ridership, the uptake of Oyster and the smooth introduction of the Congestion Charge. “I would not have believed in 2000 that we could do what we did with turning the buses around, I was amazed at how much we achieved, everything was more successful than I expected.”
“All those years that London Underground was managed under the Government after GLC abolition there was no pressure, the service was crap. You needed the Mayor because the Mayor knows ‘I’m going to lose my job if these buggers don’t do theirs’ and that’s the way it works.”
“In 2000 I ran on the basis that I’m going to sack the people who were running the Underground and on the night that TfL became incorporated in law most of the senior executives arranged their retirement. The two or three that didn’t Bob got rid of.”
Praising Kiley’s record of turning around New York’s subway system Livingstone describes it as “an absolute tragedy” that Gordon Brown went ahead with the Tube PPP system, insisting that had Kiley had the necessary Government investment the upgrade work “would be two-thirds done by now”.
The other American transport guru Livingstone brought in was former London Underground MD Tim O’Toole who he describes as “outstanding”, remarking that O’Toole “had that American quality of being able to move backwards and forwards between private and public sectors.”
When Livingstone heard that O’Toole was planning to leave London Underground he says that he “tried to persuade him to stay” but without success.
On crime Livingstone says that every year he “sat down with the commissioner and said: ‘you want this in the budget, I want this’ and we’d do a deal. I would increase [my share of] the Council Tax but X proportion had to go into neighbourhood teams.”
Setting out his belief in these teams he does concede that “very few of these neighbourhood teams will catch a criminal in the act of committing a crime.” However, he claims that they play a huge part in gathering intelligence which then plays a part in the wider fight against crime.
LABOUR AND GREENS ON THE LONDON ASSEMBLY
During the 2000 campaign Livingstone was publicly very close to the Green party who eventually won three seats on the Assembly. He dismisses suggestions that his motivation for building them up to electors was to help ensure the safe passage of his Mayoral budgets, insisting “it was because I wanted a Green in the administration”.
“You look at Paris and Berlin, they both had green-red coalitions and I don’t think there is a future for the world which doesn’t bring these two strands together.”
“We diverted around £50,000 of my campaign fund to the Greens so they could run an advert in the Guardian where I urged Labour members to use their second preference to vote Green for the Assembly and we got three Assembly Members where we thought we might get one.”
His relationships with Labour’s own AMs has often appeared complex, Livingstone says that before the advent of the Greater London Authority “I had never worked with any of them, they were all the generation just after GLC abolition…so far as I’d met them it was to abuse them, and I realised in the campaign that Nicky Gavron was the one that agreed with me the most, Toby Harris was the one who could sort out the police budget and I rapidly picked up that Len Duvall was very good.”
He says that Duvall and Val Shawcross were initially “very distrustful” of him until they “realised I was interested in making this work and came on board” but that other members of the Labour group were much less accepting, presenting him with the challenge of putting together budgets “which would allow five of the nine Labour members to carry the group because [the Assembly parties] had all gone mad and decided to have group discipline and whips”.
Straight from start of the GLA Livingstone condemned the parties for importing the group and whip systems of local councils and Westminster, a decade on does he still think they were wrong? “You’ve got twenty five people, a large Islington dinner party, and you have four leaders, four whips, group discipline…and I mean, they don’t even have any bloody power.”
CITY HALL, NICK RAYNSFORD & LONDON ASSEMBLY POWERS
After eight years of being scrutinised by Assembly Members does he think the Government should have given them more power? Livingstone is clear “there is a role for the Assembly” even if he’s not keen on taking powers away from the Mayor. Pointing to the US from where the Government imported the idea of executive Mayors he says “usually the city council does major planning, by-laws and things like that” and suggests that should be the template for future Assembly reform.
We’re speaking on the day that the London Assembly passed successor Boris Johnson’s second budget, reminding us that his own first two budgets required changes to ensure support from Assembly Members, Livingstone dismisses suggestions that it should be easier for AMs to amend the Mayor’s budget.
“You shouldn’t take powers away from the Mayor” he says, suggesting instead that the Assembly could become “the planning authority for London” with responsibility for bigger projects and the creation of new by-laws, hoovering up powers from the boroughs and leaving the Mayor as the final point of appeal.
He’s more receptive to the suggestion that the Assembly could be elected in a different year to the Mayor, allowing parties to campaign in response to the Mayor’s policies. It’s an idea he says he’s never previously considered but is so taken by that he jokingly promises to “steal as my own”.
On City Hall itself, Livingstone credits former Minister for London Nick Raynsford for its open nature and public cafe which also serves as the staff canteen, allowing members of the public to share the space with the capital’s major decision makers. He praises Raynsford’s decision to take charge of the project, citing the delays to the Scottish Parliament building as an example of what can happen when new administrations have to build their home as well as govern.
“The only difference I made was I abolished the Mayor’s luxury apartment…where now the Mayor’s office is there was going to be a Mayor’s apartment. If you’d been 25 and single it would have been the shag pad of all time…and I’d have had [economics advisor] John Ross and [chief of staff] Simon [Fletcher] coming in the bedroom at seven in the morning, NO WAY!”
Raynsford would have been “a much more effective cabinet Minister than many of those who were [appointed]” according to Livingstone who suggests “there’s clearly something wrong about Tony Blair that he didn’t recognise that.”
TONY BLAIR & NEW LABOUR
A decade after Blair claimed a Livingstone Mayoralty would be a disaster, the former-Mayor’s disregard for Labour’s most electorally successful Prime Minister shows no sign of waning. Indeed it’s clear that the passage of time has simply given him new material with which to mock the man he takes such obvious pride in having defeated.
Speaking of Blair’s appearance in front of the Chilcot inquiry he says that: “Watching Blair at the Iraq inquiry you think he’s gone completely mad and he’s really saying ‘I will answer to God’ as though God’s going to be like another Chilcot where you’re going to get six hours to present your case.”
“I think there’s a complete disconnect between reality and the world in which Blair now lives and that can be the only way you get through the knowledge that, you know, he had this mantra that Iraq is much better without Saddam Hussein, when it quite clearly isn’t, particularly for the thousands of people who are dead or the women that used to be able to live a fairly open lifestyle.”
On New Labour’s support for private sector investment in public services he says: “this idea that you can transfer risk to the private sector, they’ve got more crooked and better lawyers than [the public sector] has.”
Decrying UK Governments which “under perform”, Livingstone says that unlike Ministers he was able to sack London’s civil servants if they failed to deliver, observing that it takes a year for even powerful Ministers to get rid of their top civil servants by which time they may have been moved on themselves. By contrast he says that “all my people were in the same jobs at the end of my term”, a situation he believes allows for long term thinking and decision making.