Why Livingstone is pointless

If you want to understand why Ken Livingstone is such a popular candidate for mayor of London, even among Tories, look no further than a survey of 400 business executives, reported in the London Evening Standard on 7 March. They were asked to compare London with other major European cities. The capital scored well on cultural diversity, enterpreneurial spirit, freedom from regulation, workforce skills (odd, that, since the present workforce must very largely be the product of the late and constantly maligned Inner London Education Authority) and freedom from costs and taxes. On all these, at least 80 per cent of business executives rated London average or above average. By contrast, at least 40 per cent rated it below average on the health service, public transport, flow of road traffic and clean streets.

In other words, even business people, who duly acknowledge that London has been turned into a paradise for them, recognise the city's public squalor. If elected, however, Mr Livingstone, being a performer rather than a doer (as our political editor argues on page 7), is unlikely to make much difference. Further, the powers of the mayor were deliberately designed to minimise the damage that someone like him could do. And that is precisely his attraction. If Mr Livingstone had the power to raise council taxes, he would have nothing like his present 55 per cent lead in the opinion polls. He presents the people of London with the opportunity for a cost-free protest vote, a phenomenon that has been a familiar part of the British political landscape ever since the Liberal landslide at the Orpington by-election in 1962. Thus, new Labour's elaborate attempts to stop Mr Livingstone were not only incompetent, counterproductive and wrong, they were also pointless - an example of control for the sake of it.

A vote for him is equally pointless because Frank Dobson at least offers the prospect of some movement on London's Tube, even if his and the government's solution is far from the ideal one. All that Mr Livingstone offers, to quote our political editor again, is paralysis. But a Livingstone vote is pointless in a more profound sense: it does not resolve the central dilemma of modern politics.

This concerns how to create high-quality public services while retaining the low levels of personal taxation to which people have become accustomed. Voters persistently tell opinion pollsters that they will pay more taxes for better education and better health. Some of them even put their polling booth cross against a party that promises an extra penny on income tax for education, in the certain knowledge that this party will never be in a position to impose such a tax. Yet they have not, for a quarter-century, voted in any numbers for a tax-raising party that is likely to form a government. In 1992, Labour said it would raise taxes and spelled out in detail how it would do so; it lost the election. In 1997, it promised not to raise taxes; it won. Since then, the Chancellor has raised taxes only by stealth; Labour stays well ahead in the opinion polls.

How will the Exchequer make up the likely shortfall in revenue caused by the growing propensity of large corporations to arrange their affairs across different countries so as to avoid taxation? Should we have better arrangements for taxing land and property, since these have the virtue, unlike the goods and services bought and sold over the Internet, of being fixed and immovable? Should we tax inherited wealth more effectively? Such questions ought to dominate political debate, as should questions about the future role of private money in the provision of education, health and pensions. Instead, all is silence. While it taxes by stealth (and indeed continues to announce lower rates of income tax), the government exaggerates its spending on education and health by announcing each new initiative several times over and by all manner of accounting chicanery. Thus, it sustains the public's illusion that it can have its cake and eat it. Yet, in their hearts, the voters know that this is not true: they know it every time they set foot in their child's school, every time they enter a hospital, every time they travel by public transport, every time they pass a beggar in the street.

If Mr Livingstone were a serious radical, taxation would be the centrepiece of his campaign. He would tell Londoners loud and clear that, if elected, he would campaign, day in, day out, for the power to tax them. Instead, he will trade on the demand that the fabric of the city should improve but that somebody else should pay. He says that he is standing because he has listened to the people of London. But will he now also speak to them, and tell them the truth?

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Ken, the great conductor