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5 July 2004

How we can woo the middle class

Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, argues that he won re-election last month because he retained the

By Ken Livingstone

If Labour were to lose the next election, or see its majority severely reduced, then Iraq would be top of the list of reasons why. But whatever anyone’s dispute with the Labour government – and as someone who has vociferously opposed the war, I have had a few – I have to say that if Michael Howard is sitting in No 10 Downing Street in 18 months’ time, it would be a disaster for progressive politics in Britain. Progressive politics in this country will be driven backwards.

There was a sharp difference between the London mayoral election this year and that of four years ago. Four years ago, a great deal of the mayoral debate was about the right of Londoners to govern themselves; in 2004, the debate was about what the policies of the London government should be. Londoners voted on the issue of the future direction of their city. In doing so, they rejected the Tory argument that London needed no more investment in its police service and public transport system, or that it should be left to the market to decide the level of traffic congestion or the number of affordable homes.

The decisive Labour win in London was against the national trend. It was achieved not on the basis of ill-defined hopes for the future, but on a record of delivering public services and a commitment to protect and to build on that record.

The Tories made noises about improving services, notably the police, where crime and the fear of crime were ruthlessly talked up. But the voters did not trust them, because they did not believe that Tory policies on the core issues in the election would deliver better services and a better public realm. Steve Norris’s full platform was surprisingly orthodox, as Tory manifestos go. His manifesto argued that spending on the bus service was “unsustainable”, and as with transport, so with housing, policing and the environment. Promising no additional police; abolishing the policy that half of all new homes should be affordable; and ending the congestion charge, Norris’s manifesto represented a repudiation of the notion that the city needed both strategic planning and greater investment. The Tory manifesto was a proposal to return to policies that Conservative governments imposed in the 1980s and 1990s – policies that had led to gridlock, chaos and squalor. Far from being a “left-wing” version of Conservatism, Steve Norris’s socially liberal line carried a heavily orthodox Tory sting in the tail when it came to the public services.

My campaign was based on a clear record of delivering more police, better buses, cutting congestion and building more affordable homes. While there were specific London factors at play in this election – such as the personal politics of the candidates, the nature of the voting system and so on – there were clearly general factors, too. Although London is unique, as are all the devolved regions and countries of the UK, it cannot escapes some of the basic issues facing British politics.

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Labour’s strategy has to be to maintain an alliance between working-class and middle-class voters. A decisive factor in winning and then governing London has been to forge a progressive alliance of working-class and middle-class Londoners. This alliance was the basis of Labour’s mayoral success on 10 June. An alliance of this nature is possible because no matter how much one’s relative affluence can ameliorate many of the problems of day-to-day life, it is not possible to eliminate them altogether. Only society as a whole can guarantee a decent street environment, an effective crime-fighting policy or an integrated transport policy.

The new middle class is made up of highly skilled workers, to use an unfashionable term. All the lawyers, accountants, architects and media professionals who in the first half of the 20th century would have been employed in small businesses or would not have existed at all, today exist in their hundreds of thousands and are often found in huge firms. Nor are they part of the relatively homogeneous middle class of the past. Huge numbers of these new middle-class professionals are female and black.

They are well enough paid in many cases to be able to afford a pleasant “private realm” – good-quality housing, a nice living space, access to holidays and other leisure opportunities. But they also live and work in the public realm. In this, they have a common interest with those less wealthy than they are.

The new middle class requires the best possible environment in the streets. They want public spaces to be safe and feel pleasant; thus they want to see more police and visible figures of authority, not in patrol cars but walking around their neighbourhood, in their local parks, near public transport. They expect good state education for their children. They want good healthcare and they want to see good public health. They want their children to go to university. They expect tangible improvements in their quality of life; and Labour’s task is to deliver this through the public services.

Failing to deliver public services effectively is precisely where the alliance between lower- and middle-income earners can be broken up. Those in the new middle class are not persuaded that they should have to pay, on top of their taxes, for private education or health – but they will do so if the system lets them down. This is the opening the Tories have always sought to exploit. One of the biggest arguments against top-up fees in higher education was that it reduced the stake of middle-class people in universal education, threatening the alliance between Labour’s two main constituencies.

The new middle class in the capital relies on public transport to get to and from work. They therefore demand more reliable, more frequent and higher-quality services – as we have delivered on the buses. It is not sufficient simply to improve the service: it has to meet the needs of those who use it. Hence our policy of a dedicated police unit to travel on buses, patrol stations and clamp down on illegal minicabs, combined with huge expansion of the night bus service and licensing of minicab firms. The benefits that these improvements bring are not limited to the usual bus users, notably the poorest.

Likewise, Londoners who live in the poorest areas of our city have the most to lose from crime and fear of crime. But middle-income Londoners demand a good quality of life and safer communities, too. Hence our policy, first to increase London’s police numbers to their highest ever level – 30,000 as of January this year – and then our programme of additional officers placed in six-strong teams in the city’s neighbourhoods. These “Safer Neighbourhood” officers are dedicated to their allocated area, get to know local people and understand their problems. The scheme is as popular in Bromley as it is in Brent.

The key to all this is service delivery, of good public services, with strong public sector management, and the willingness to pay for the best managerial talent to achieve this. The solution is not privatisation or deregulation or any of the other chimeras that the Tories introduced into the political landscape in the 1980s. This was precisely the mistake that Steve Norris fell into. His plans for a looser framework for bus contracts, for example, represented the least efficient means to deliver that service. His failure to promise more police officers reflected the Tories’ unwillingness to invest. Overall, the Tory manifesto amounted to the opposite of what is needed to improve fundamentally the quality of public services – and therefore the quality of the public realm.

A Labour victory by an 11 per cent margin in the mayoral election shows what can be achieved by radical and realistic policies. Nationally, Labour’s record of investment in public services went unnoticed on 10 June because of the war in Iraq. Labour should fight the next election on its policies to deliver improved public services and to head off the threat posed to them by the Tories. The basis of those policies should be tangible delivery to the public.

The mayor was keynote speaker at this month’s London Day Lunch, organised by the NS in association with Thames Water

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