Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone

A London mayoral hustings convinces Billy Braggthat the leading contender will deliver a better life

Dobbo never showed up. Neither did fellow mayoral hopeful, Ram Gidoomal. Or even, in his supporting role, Trevor Phillips. The fringe candidates from the Natural Law Party and the Pro-Motorists arrived late. In show-business terms, the Operation Black Vote (OBV) mayoral hustings, held at the Westminster Council House last week had only one act worthy of an encore - Ken Livingstone's. For the rest, we had a no-show from new Labour, a nice try by Susan Kramer for the Liberal Democrats, and a smooth performance by Stephen Norris for the Tories.

The hustings, given its timing, should have been well attended by the candidates: OBV, after all, was hosting the event during the week that saw William Hague calling for all new immigrants seeking asylum in this country to be sent to detention centres and treated as bogus until proved otherwise. Asylum has made race an issue at the ballot box for the first time in a generation; and in London, where one third of the population is now reckoned to have African, Asian or Caribbean backgrounds, the issue is key. Moreover, the size of the immigrant community - 1.6 million - means that it can have a decisive say over who will be the mayor of London.

An opportunity to court the community's vote, therefore, should have been high on every candidate's agenda. Operation Black Vote, launched in 1996 to encourage ethnic minorities to vote in elections, certainly expected the star candidates to show up and defend their track records on race. And so did the more than 300 mainly black men and women who crowded the council hall on Marylebone Road kept waiting for the big hitters to do their stuff.

The stakes were high: the Voice, the black weekly newspaper, suggested in a poll that 42 per cent of the capital's black and Asian electors backed Livingstone, but Frank Dobson was not far behind, with 32 per cent. Both of them were way ahead of the other candidates. (The Voice poll also showed that although twice as many black voters as Asian ones supported Ken, they shared concern over the same issues - policing, economic development and regeneration, the promotion of cultural diversity and equality.)

There was another reason for everyone to expect a big turn-out at the Council House. That same afternoon, thousands had gathered to bid farewell to London's most prominent black politician, Bernie Grant, at Alexandra Palace. As it was, although many among the organisers and audience did come directly from there, Grant's funeral gave Dobson an excuse to stay away from the hustings: he was, according to an organiser of the event, tired. (Dobbo's office, though, later claimed he had prior commitments.)

First up at the meeting is the guest speaker, Elihu Harris, the former black mayor of Oakland, California. He is a big powerful man, and delivers a spirited performance, reminding the audience - and the mayoral hopefuls - that Bill Clinton would not have been elected without the support and organisation of the black community.

Next, Stephen Norris steps up to the podium, flashing all of his car salesman's charisma to make a case for the black vote. Unfortunately, Norris is hampered by the fact that the Conservative Party is clearly hoping to gain electoral success by exploiting xenophobia. He himself had called for an end to "politically correct" policing earlier in his campaign.

Tonight, he makes the point that the black communities do not rate transport as high a priority as other voters; he accepts that racism in the Met is a genuine problem that needs to be addressed; and then makes his excuses and leaves before anyone has a chance to take him to task over his party's claim that Britain is being "flooded" by asylum- seekers.

It's a shame he doesn't stick around to hear a contribution from someone who describes himself as one of the most recent arrivals. "Why have so many of my fellow Somali immigrants who are qualified doctors, engineers and schoolteachers been unable to find suitable employment in London?" he asks.

It's now Susan Kramer's turn. She is on sure ground with this audience, given the Liberal Democrats' spotless record on social justice. Her speech though, fails to draw a big response, and the clapping is perfunctory.

Finally, the Green candidate, Darren Johnson, points out that London is a city of diversity but not equality. Contradicting Stephen Norris, Johnson claims that the environment is a major social justice issue given that the London boroughs worst affected by traffic pollution are the poorest - all areas with high populations of black people.

Now, for the star turn. Ken gets up to speak and it's immediately apparent that this crowd loves him. It's the kind of response that a singer dreams of: everyone's sitting up at attention, intent on your every word, eyes fixed on you.

Members of the audience ask what the new mayor of London will do about the high number of deaths in custody of African Carib-bean men. Ken makes the commitment that, if elected, he will ensure that all Police Authority meetings are open to public scrutiny.

Someone points out that there is a feeling in the black community that the Macpherson report has had the effect of making racism in the police force more covert. Ken assures the audience that he will take a personal lead in the campaign to recruit and retain more black police officers.

When the discussion moves to the issue of employment prospects, Ken points out that when he took over at County Hall, only 6 per cent of the GLC workforce came from the black communities. When the GLC was abolished, that proportion had risen to 26 per cent. Indeed, the policies that led to the GLC being denounced as "loony lefties" were almost all to do with promoting equality and diversity. While Margaret Thatcher tried to enforce one culture over all, the GLC first gave voice to multi-culturalism by making Londoners aware of the many artistic communities that had made the capital their home.

As he answers the audience's questions, Ken is laid back, unassuming, even when he delivers his pledges. At the end of the meeting, when the other mayoral hopefuls have left the hall, he stays behind and listens. In the black community, customarily sceptical about what politicians can do for them, Ken's seemingly genuine interest in what they have to say is a sure vote-winner.

Despite what the London Evening Standard might say - or indeed, despite the editorial line of this magazine - many Londoners have positive memories of Livingstone's GLC. By now, dismissing its achievements as nothing more than oppositional politics, Millbank only adds to the myth that the GLC was a one-man show. And the show looks set to go on.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone