London Mayoral Election: Something Old, Something New

Robert Euter

Originally published in 1999/2000, Issue 1– Interstate’s 35th Anniversary Issue

Ken Livingstone and Glenda Jackson go head-to-head at the ‘Listen to London’ campaign.

At 7.30 am, Glenda Jackson breezed past Euston station. In New Labour fashion she was purposeful but unhurried, radiating a ‘trust me with your future’ manner: truly one of the people, just another commuter. The entrance steps of the hall were thronged, as always, with Socialist Workers, lobbyists and an American woman who assured everyone of the sins of bombing Milosevic, Saddam, Gerry Adams and so on. She also advised us vociferously that Ken Livingstone supported ‘international capitalism’ (as opposed to ‘national socialism’?) by virtue of his position on the recent NATO action in, or rather over, Kosovo.

The meeting was arranged by the ‘Listen to London’ campaign under the auspices of the unions ASLEF, RMT and TSSA. Apparently Millbank doesn’t like the ‘people’s choice’ for London mayor and (some of) the people are mobilising. Sound familiar Rhodri and Alun? Obviously, given the sponsors of the meeting, the central theme was the future of transport in London. An exasperating subject that makes the weather seem like a finite subject for discussion elsewhere.

Ms. Jackson was received with some booing; Mr. Livingstone rapturously. Frank Dobson had been invited but had ‘another meeting’ but one felt that he wouldn’t have enjoyed himself too much here in any case. Jackson made her pitch first: she advocated the Public Private Partnership (PPP) as the way forward and defended John Prescott passionately against charges of wanting to privatise the tube or of jeopardising safety. Livingstone countered that ‘To go down the PPP route would be an appalling mistake for this government.’ The sale of bonds is the way to go, as has happened in New York. The New York Subway was held up as the template for a Wirtschaftswunder on the London Underground. (Surely the Subway was never as bad as the Northern line?) Rather more surprisingly, Ken cited Margaret Thatcher’s housekeeping analogy on the national economy to illustrate the cost to the public of the PPP. A Bonds scheme was only being prevented by the Treasury’s lack of vision. Ken quipped (always the sign of a professional, quipping) that he was “convinced that the KGB ran the Treasury all the way through the Cold War and still does today, given the damage it does Britain.” Of course, the potential involvement of Railtrack did not go unnoticed by Ken: “The most reviled and despised company there is.” However, despite its limitations, Railtack seemed able to bring harmony where there is discord: no”I’m t running against Glenda or Frank. I’m not even running against Jeffrey Archer. I’m running against Railtrack!”

The questions were virtually all hostile to Jackson and the Labour Party establishment. Nevertheless, she made the point that New York had had to be bailed out three times by the Federal government over its bond scheme. Ken looked unimpressed, no doubt recalling Gladstone’s opinions on statistics. A discussion of buses was wound up by Glenda stating that she wanted the bus to be the “Monarch of the Road”; not a slogan that Alistair Campbell had rubber-stamped, one suspected. Some of the people were angry; Finn from Finsbury said that PPP showed only that Blair wanted to show “his mates in the City that he doesn’t care about words like socialism any more.” Glenda looked suitably wounded, Ken happy. Surely Ken would have to recognise the difficulty of getting a majority as was the case in the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, wasn’t it time for a new approach to politics? Ken responded that he had never enforced party discipline to extremes and he wasn’t going to start now (this was reinforced by an anecdote about Neil Kinnock swearing at him in an NEC meeting). Nor was he in the habit of withdrawing whips apparently. A nurse eloquently attacked the ‘creeping privatisation’ of society under new Labour “Why do they think that Ken is getting more popular and Frank Dobson is getting less popular?” Stand up to Blair she advocated. Who does he think he is? First Lord of the Treasury? Glenda looked glum and, while still defending his policies, began referring to the Deputy Prime Minister simply as ‘Prescott’ in rather the same way an undergraduate might refer to a disliked professor within earshot or someone who might snitch on them.

Glenda had to leave. ‘Sky News’ perhaps? If Labour don’t select you, Ken, I’m off someone from Camden CLP suggested. After sixteen years in the Party too: nearly as long as I’ve been into The Smiths! This was the chance for Ken to demonstrate his loyalty to the Party (after all it was only Gordon Brown that he’d been rude about specifically). “I would rather have a Labour mayor than a Conservative mayor!” he declared. Shame the plea for unity had been missed by Ms. Jackson. The final contribution from the floor came from the veteran Kenny from Archway. His T-shirt was emblazoned with the slogan ‘Not dead yet’ and was covered with badges; badges testifying to a dozen or more lost and half-forgotten causes. Kenny faced the audience “I want the best seat on the tube! He’s the best man for the job!” Maybe so, but Ken informed us that he’d just been told that he had a second interview on Thursday. While that may be good news when applying for a graduate job this is not what you want to hear when embarking on a political crusade, “Thank you for your exhortation of the workers and peasants Mr. Lenin. Could you make the Finland Station in Petrograd again on Thursday at 10?” Perhaps Livingstone’s time has passed in the eyes of New Labour but the four years from 2000 will be all the more interesting in London if he wins.

You will of course know that Dobson won the ballot to become Labour’s candidate for mayor of London by a narrow three per cent margin. And that many people questioned the legitimacy of the vote, as Livingstone would undoubtedly have won on a one member one vote system, which will be used in future ballots for mayoral candidates..

As we go to press, London is waiting to see whether Livingstone will take a chances and stand as an independent candidate, thus risking letting the conservative Steve Norris in on a split Labour vote.