A Tribute to Ken Livingstone

by Jon Lansman from Left Futures

Enoch Powell (who thanks to a recent revelation and in part to Ken may now be described as a onetime member of the LGBT community) said “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure“. Ken’s career may have ended in defeat yesterday, but it was no failure. Before anything else is said, Ken deserves a tribute. Indeed he deserves more tributes than he will get from his fellow members of the Labour Party, but of that we shall say more anon.

He will remain a giant of London politics long after most people stop remembering that there used to be a Mayor Johnson. He has been a major national political figure since 1981. How many national political figures from 1981 could have even contemplated holding a major political office until 2016? None.

Ken’s greatest contribution to British politics was to take unpopular causes, notably issues of race, sexism, and homophobia, take actions and implement policies which made a difference to significant minorities, and over time see those causes taken into the mainstream of British politics, by the Tories as well as New Labour. Back in the 1980s, however, Ken was vilified for raising them by Thatcher’s government, by almost the entire media, and by most people in his own party, including many on the more traditional Left and in the trade unions. If Thatcher had not decided to abolish the GLC, perhaps Ken’s carer would have ended sooner and Britain might have been a very different place today.

Following the Brixton riots in the summer of 1981, Ken had no choice but to take action on race but his approach was very different from that advocated by others. Lord Scarman’s report into the riots, though recognising “racial disadvantage” and “racial discrimination” as underlying causes, argued that “institutional racism” did not exist. Eighteen years after Scarman, the Macpherson Report, an investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, concluded that the police force was “institutionally racist”, vindicating Ken’s approach.

Under Ken’s leadership (he chaired the GLC Ethnic Minorities committee personally), the GLC consulted with black and other minority ethnic communities, drew up equal opportunities policies, employed race relations advisers, and sought to empower diverse communities by awarding millions of pounds in grants. Ken’s approach broke with the prevailing assumption of assimilation as the core objective, redefining anti-racism as the promotion of the right to be different, the encouragement of diversity. Under New Labour, this multiculturalism became the new British orthodoxy and, thanks largely to Ken, is at the heart of London’s identity.

The experience with gender equality was similar. Ken’s policies achieved real change in practice amongst the GLC’s large workforce. In 1981, no women or black people in the GLC Supplies department, for example, where they made up the bulk of the staff, had ever reached even middle management. The Fire Brigade had only six black staff out of 6,500. That changed radically. In the provision of services too, there was institutional racism. Only 2% of GLC housing lettings went to non-whites in 1981.

For these policies, Ken was hounded by the Sun, the Mail and the Standard but that vilification reached a new depth with the involvement of the GLC in challenging homophobia, notably through its grant-funding. The Blairites who now seem to dominate LGBT Labour could do more to recognise the role played by a heterosexual man who carried on making the speeches he’d been making for years about lesbian and gay rights after he became Leader of the GLC several years before Chris Smith became the first MP to come out.

In London politics, there is much for which Ken will be remembered –of what he did and more still of the vision he had but which he was not allowed to implement. The crowning glory of his achievement, however, is London’s transport system. Ken became Leader of the GLC on the back of his work on London’s regional party executive to put an alternative transport policy at the heart of Labour’s appeal. Cheaper fares (free travel for all was dropped in a concession to the unions) and all day free travel for pensioners on buses and tubes increased passenger numbers by 70%, raised revenue by 11% in spite of the 32% cut in fares, and cut the number of cars entering central London in the morning peak. New rail services like Crossrail and Thameslink were planned.

Even after the GLC was abolished, Thatcher dared not extend to London the bus deregulation and rail privatisation which devastated services in the rest of Britain. And when Ken returned as Mayor, the process he’d begun continued, reinforced by congestion charging, his boldest and bravest move.

But it was not only in mainstream public transport and congestion charging that Ken’s contribution was outstanding: door-to-door services for people with disabilities and a more accessible mainstream network, cycling provision, the regulation of noisy and polluting lorries, the focus on safety and on pedestrian facilities are all part of his legacy.

Ken says he won’t stand in another election (although actually he is a candidate in Labour’s national executive election later this month), and so we can take it he will not hold major executive public office again. He has, of course, made mistakes in his career, though again not as many as you will read about on a number of ‘Labour’ websites. Some of his mistakes will have affected his showing in this election, but they all pale into insignificance in comparison with his positive legacy which remains outstanding.

Ken has a young family and deserves to enjoy spending more time with them. And we look forward to his continuing political contributions in whatever form they take.

21 comments on “A Tribute to Ken Livingstone

  1. Matt on said:

    >How many national political figures from 1981 could have even contemplated holding a major political office until 2016? None.

    Ken Clarke springs to mind :-).

    There are probably a few others for nerds.

  2. Robert on said:

    Back in the Eighties Ken stood up for the Irish, BME people and gays despite the vilification from the media. None of the Blairites infesting Labour would have dared champion gay people when homophobia was the orthodoxy. Ken has made this city a better London and he’s made Britain a better country. Cheers Ken and good luck for the future.

  3. Vanya on said:

    And let’s not forget that he also made himself just a little bit of a hate figure for suggesting dialogue with the Irish Republican movement and suggesting that might be the way to bring the war to an end.

    That didn’t take off did it?

    Ironically the Tories and the Blairites argue about who should take the credit.

  4. Karl Stewart on said:

    Excellent article. And as has been said – thanks for everything you’ve done Ken. Made life better for so many people.

  5. KrisS on said:

    Ken’s national profile during my teenage years certainly helped me feel more a part of society and less a freak. Cheers for that.

  6. Vanya: And let’s not forget that he also made himself just a little bit of a hate figure for suggesting dialogue with the Irish Republican movement and suggesting that might be the way to bring the war to an end.That didn’t take off did it?Ironically the Tories and the Blairites argue about who should take the credit.

    All true and not just that. It is hard to think of an area of modern society where Livingstone did not effect positive change in the teeth of vicious oppossition. The fact that many of Ken’s policies are now the norm often blinds people to just how effective he was as a radical political operator. I doubt we will see his like again.

  7. Jimmy Haddow on said:

    Dear Comrades, without appearing to be antagonistic I have just read the Socialist Worker’s article on Ken Livingstone’s defeat. I found it very interesting considering they seem to be criticising his policies post-election. The SW, post-election, have called Livingstone’ s social and economic policies as “pro-business policies, talking up the importance of making London “business-friendly”.”; and that “Ken Livingstone was first elected mayor as an independent in 2000, standing against New Labour. He won support by focusing on issues like opposing tube privatisation. This time he was the official Labour Party candidate – but he did not benefit from the increased Labour votes elsewhere. In fact many senior Labour figures made clear that they were refusing to back him.” Then to cap it the SW pronounces “The more radical politics that could have won support was missing.”

    Now forgive for enunciating this but was I and Robert P Williams castigated by SWP members for not supporting Ken Livingstone? Did I not continually ask for the theoretical and political reason the SWP where supporting the Labour Party Ken Livingstone in the Mayoral election, and it was never given? (Because there was none!) Again forgive me for clarifying my, and the Socialist Party position, but did we not raise before the election our concerns about the political policies of the Labour Party and Ken Livingstone. Also what I find quite flabbergasting is in this article not one word was said that the SWP supported the election of Ken Livingstone as Labour, Labour mind you, Mayor. Now if comrade Ken, I am being sarcastic here, had been elected he would have carried out those “pro-business policies” and everything else with it.

    I am afraid to say that like the faux social-democrats and the proto-stalinists on this site the SWP had an empiric, superficial and shallow analysis on the Ken Livingstone election bid for Mayor before the election. Whereas the Socialist Party’s Marxist analysis of the Labour Party and Ken Livingstone was shi

  8. “Now if comrade Ken, I am being sarcastic here, had been elected he would have carried out those “pro-business policies” and everything else with it.”

    You might usefully contrast Livingstone’s achievements with those of your own little sect. You might also reflect on Mulhearn’s vote rooted in the experience of ‘Mighty Liverpool Council’ and Livingstone’s rooted in the Greater London Council. There are lessons there you could do with learning.

    The SWP had the wit to realise what a Johnson victory would mean for London’s working class that is to their credit. The SP is out on a limb now and I doubt you are going anywhere but oblivion. No doubt you will embrace matyrdom with alacrity but don’t fool yourself that it matters a toss to the working class.

  9. stuart on said:

    Jimmy Haddow:
    I am afraid to say that like the faux social-democrats and the proto-stalinists on this site the SWP had an empiric, superficial and shallow analysis on the Ken Livingstone election bid for Mayor before the election.Whereas the Socialist Party’s Marxist analysis of the Labour Party and Ken Livingstone was …

    Comrade Jimmy,

    Your sectarianism knows no bounds. I thought the SWP (like you) supported TUSC in the locals. I think the SP should have supported Ken against Boris but I agree that your basic criticisms of Ken are sound.

    I also feel that in your long running arguments with various posters yesterday, you were correct in your criticisms of the Labour Party. Labour IS a capitalist party, Labour will NOT fight the cuts and this IS a major problem that socialists should accept. In fact we could add that the left within the Labour Party will NEVER be able to take leadership positions without being endlessly undermined by the right. So Ken was undermined in his fight with Boris by the right just as Liverpol City Council were undermined by the right when they fought the Tories all those years ago.

    And your opponents in the on-going debate on the other thread (‘2012 elections’) are, for me, to keen too show their own pedantry than accept the basic truth about what the Labour Party is and how socialists should be honest about that.

    Having said all that, I think we could all try to see what actually unites us rather than what divides us instead of argument for argument’s sake, people on the left do have different ways of looking at things- perhaps we can accept these differences for the time being and come together around broad principles (whilst still being brutally honest about the short coming of the Labour Party).

  10. Best of luck to Ken Livinstone! I hope he continues to be active within the Labour Party.

    Thank you Jon Lansman for an excellent piece.

    Dianne Abbot too had a good piece in the New Statesman a couple of days ago on Ken Livingstone’s contribution to progressive politics and to London’s urban renewal.

    url below:

  11. Jimmy Haddow on said:

    In post 16 Comrade Stuart says “Your sectarianism knows no bounds.” Mea Culpa for the sectarian tone of the post…But not for the political content, which you seems to agree with as you said “but I agree that your basic criticisms of Ken are sound.” even though you thought the Socialist Party should have come out in support of Ken Livingstone as the SWP did and the majority of the non-Labour Left did as well.

    The political enigma I personally have is if one politically gives support to a candidate before an election and does not give a critique of political opposition of that candidate then it is hypocritical to give a political critique of opposition a few days after the candidate does not win. That is what the SWP have done; they have done a 180 degree somersault on the question of Livingstone. The SWP always give the impression of being theoretical but in reality they are empiric in their analysis of social politics. I asked on a number of occasions why was the SWP politically and theoretically supporting Livingstone in London, while standing against Labour elsewhere as TUSC and SACC and it was never answered until I was fobbed off with this: http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=28310 which is so politically crass. However, the Socialist Party gave a cogent political explanation on the London Mayoral election several weeks before the election here http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/713/14308/11-04-2012/london-mayor-election-boris-versus-ken which its last paragraph finished with “In this election the best way to hold Livingstone to his promises is to elect a Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition Assembly member in the London-wide Member list. Even just one workers’ representative in the Assembly would shake up London politics and be a platform – inside and outside City Hall – to build the mass movement of Londoners needed to fight back in the age of austerity.”

    My critique of the SWP in connection on the London Mayoral election is that they were not prepared to be honest to the working class about Livingstone before the election but are honest after the account. Take the latest commentary by Comrade Charles Kimber in the SW, he says “he has also denounced anti-capitalist protesters and called on workers to cross picket lines. He campaigned for right wing Labour candidates at elections, produced a pro‑business plan for London and backed the police who killed Jean Charles de Menezes.” Kimber also correctly says “There was no sense of a vibrant mobilisation against cuts, racism and the bankers. This would have had a much better chance of beating Johnson.” Why not say all that before and not after the election? Kimber correctly goes on to declare “Livingstone’s defeat is a disappointment. But it also shows that we need an alternative to the Labour Party.”. I agree and that is why the need to develop the working class forces to build a new workers party still needs to take place and I hope the SWP do not become empirical and take fright because they think, like a lot of faux- social democrats here, that it is so something in the distant. Marxism is about telling the social and political truth to the working class and it also teaches us to look at the process, the dynamic, and not fixed categories. I offer the Kimber article as reference http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=28412 . And when the ‘Socialist’ analysis becomes on-line I will post that as well.

  12. stuart on said:

    I agree that we should be honest but we have also to admit that certain tactical questions have to be considered.

    Here is a short article in SW a couple of weeks before the mayoral vote..http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=28216

    The reasons for backing Ken, according to the article, are chiefly around the fact that the Blairite right are undermining him and futher, he is a target for racists and Islamophobes.

    I think that once we have decided to vote for someone because of these principles, it is tactically dubious and rather ‘ultra-left’ to bang on about what is unlikely to offer economically. Of course, you shouldn’t pretend that he is sound on such material questions (though you would at least welcome his promise to reduce fares as far as it goes) but I don’t believe that SWP are guilty in that respect.

  13. Matt Collins on said:

    I think the SWP’s line on the mayoral elections is entirely consistent (as far as I can see) with their analysis of the labour party going back to Cliff. Read ‘A marxist history of the labour party’ if you want to know what that is. It seems more consistent than militant’s general disorientation around the question for the entirity of it’s history.