As Ken Livingstone is formally adopted as Labour’s 2012 Mayoral candidate Jenny Jones, who has represented the Green Party on the London Assembly since the inaugural Greater London Authority elections in 2000, shares her views and observations on London’s first, and would-be next, Mayor.
Having worked with and/or against Ken Livingstone for eight solid years at City Hall, I feel I’ve glimpsed the real man, for good and bad. He’s a controversial figure and lots is written about him, but much of it is total guff. All the comments you read here are completely my own and could, of course, be just as completely wrong.
In early 1999 I was running the Green Party office and Ken called to ask some psephological questions. It impressed us Greens that even then, over a year before the first mayoral election, he was personally assessing the opportunities for us and what impact we might have on the voting.
Once elected in May 2000, he went about changing London for the better. In the first three years, he focussed on improving the buses. This brought about an amazing social change in a very short time. Buses went from being seen as very second class transport, mainly for women and the poor, to being acceptable for every kind of person. That happened by making the buses more frequent, more reliable, and much cleaner, plus expanding the number of routes.
The third year brought the introduction of the congestion charge, and yet another important, although smaller, social change. Using public transport became easier and cheaper than using your car.
During much of his first term Ken was an independent, so had few natural allies on the London Assembly. Labour worked hard to embarrass him, just like the rest of us, and when he did return to the Labour Party, in time for the second election, some found it hard to change course. However, Ken had a close knit, utterly loyal team of paid advisors, most of whom had known him for years and who had similar philosophies to his.
The Assembly, of twenty five elected politicians, was made up of many current or ex local councillors and that determined the sort of institution we have now which mimics the average London council with its Punch and Judy confrontations.
Sadly, we missed a chance to make a new kind of body, perhaps with a much more co-operative style of working, to truly hold the Mayor to account, although we do manage consensus on many reports and motions. We have achieved a bit more joint working in the past two years, with Labour, Lib Dems and Greens forming a loose agreement on how to tackle an evasive Mayor. Although, to their credit, the Assembly’s Tory group do attempt to hold him to account.
Ken loved the monthly Mayor’s Question Time, where he could swat away our questions with detailed answers or humour, playing to the public gallery but not avoiding the sense of the question. This is in complete contrast to our current Mayor who often has difficulty giving us proper answers and instead makes jokes – often the same ones.
Luckily, some Labour members did work with Ken through the whole four years, by chairing the Police and Fire Authorities, or by being Deputy Mayor, but many found his perceived treachery hard to bear.
It’s fair to say that Ken can be difficult. He has fixed ideas and won’t be budged by any argument or reasoning. For example, his deluded belief that the Thames Gateway Bridge plan would bring prosperity to East London was unshakeable in spite of all evidence to the contrary in other developments. But sometimes fixed ideas can be a strength too. His innate, long nurtured socialist philosophy meant that his team always knew the sort of thing he would like.
If running London is like a walk through a dense forest, Ken knows he wants to get to the other side, out of the trees. He doesn’t always know how he can do that, so is happy to use other people’s good ideas, but at least the aim is clear. On cycling, as a non-cyclist he knew he knew nothing, so he was prepared to take advice from others. That meant the cycling budget increased massively thanks to the Green budget deal, and London Cycling Campaign and other experts got to make suggestions on how to spend it.
On big decisions, his team would offer their expert opinions, but ultimately, as Ken would say, there was only one vote in the room.
Like all really good politicians, Ken is prepared to trust his instincts and take risks. For example, his first election promise to introduce the congestion charge was a massive risk. He joked that even his closest advisors were against it, and that only Greens and Big Business supported him – and he was pleased to have found a topic those two unlikely groups agreed on. Congestion charging was a risk that succeeded and it stands as a legacy for his mayoralty and political skill.
I was Ken’s Deputy Mayor from May 2003 to June 2004. In that time I probably had only two or three formal meetings with Ken, plus a few informal chats in the lift or corridors. There were flare ups of various kinds between us and his team, while the relatively politically inexperienced Greens learnt good manners in co-operating with another party, and while Ken’s team learnt that we were not prepared to be told what to do. Ken was generally much less worried about our independent attitude. Perhaps he accepted that just as he had his own views, we were entitled to ours.
The tentative trust built up during that year meant that in the second mayoral term, from June 2004, when Ken needed two extra votes to get his annual budgets through, he came to the Greens and made deals with us. We were a known quantity and our agenda mostly understood. I don’t want to overstate our influence – Ken had other people advising him well on the environmental agenda – but we and our necessary votes helped by giving him a huge shove.
To his credit, he is the only non-Green Party mainstream politician to really ‘get’ the size of the problem of climate change. Many others, from all parties, do the greenspeak, but with Ken it really seems that he feels it. However, that pauline conversion fitted perfectly post the 2004 election, when he suddenly needed the two extra votes. That doesn’t make his environmental concern less real – it just shows again what a canny politician he is that he could absorb the political, social and environmental ramifications of climate change, while keeping his ‘growth is good’ beliefs intact.
This common obsession with growing London’s business interests meant that Ken defended their territory and encouraged the sector’s own ambitions for growth, which helped London’s financial sector to overheat and become vulnerable to the 2009 crash.
At times of crisis Ken has been statesmanlike. During the aftermath of the London bombings, Ken rose to the occasion, showed his distress, spoke for us all, and was widely admired. It’s obvious that London and Londoners mean something to him emotionally, which is often lacking in his competitors.
Ken isn’t good at small talk, so tends to talk on without the niceties of a proper conversation. But his stories are interesting, and illuminating, and often very funny. His grasp of political history is superb, so he can draw fascinating analogies between the past and present. It means that his speeches and debating skills are excellent because he can see and describe the bigger picture for any given topic.
He’s a natural libertarian, generally preferring the light touch in rule making, although we felt he failed in his duty to London when he did not speak out against the Labour government’s insane rush to reduce civil liberties with the cumbersome, illiberal, badly written, anti terror laws.
Money doesn’t seem to be a big motivator for him. Media stories of his, and some of his advisors, corruption were apparently just that, stories. There have been no charges brought, and no court cases. Even more tellingly, the London Development Agency is just as impenetrable and unaccountable now as it was then.
During the last election Ken had young children at home and looked as tired as parents of young children often do. He lacked bounce and sparkle, and yet didn’t project enough statesmanlike gravitas instead. In the last two years of working on books, articles, his radio programme and jetting off to advise on lots of issues, he looks tanned and relaxed, and ready for the fray.
And so to the next mayoral election in 2012. With Ken as the Labour candidate, it will be all out war between the archetypes of Old Tory and Old Labour. What is really needed is good, new ideas, an imaginative agenda. Although he will have some plans, Ken may not have moved on much since 2008 and he will need the Greens, and even other parties too, to supply fresh thinking.
I respect and admire Ken. It has been a privilege to have the opportunity to watch him work. If he returns as Mayor, I hope he will confirm his place in the world as a visionary leader as well as a brilliant player of the game of politics.