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  1. Politics
10 July 2000

Today Mayor of London, tomorrow Prime Minister

Ken Livingstone has junked his leftist past, and now embraces globalisation. John Lloydon a hero tur

By John Lloyd

Ken Livingstone’s abiding purpose is to become the leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister of Britain. Although he says London government – whose powers have just been granted – is an end, it is, in fact, a means. Although he says he is a “boring old fart”, he believes that he has the dynamism, the allure and, above all, the time to achieve the party’s and the country’s supreme political offices. Tony Blair, who thinks Livingstone is a very bad man, can sense this desire, and knows he can do nothing but continue to fight him, by open or covert means.

This explains the fever that is still upon Livingstone to return to the Labour Party. A man concerned only with remaining Mayor of London would be likely to make another calculation than that: because it was running against Labour that helped Livingstone win the post, and left him free of the constraints and traps that dogged Frank Dobson. This is unlikely to change because, although Labour is likely to win the next election, and may do so handsomely, it will not recover that fleeting time when it seemed that it could overturn established political rules, or that its candidates would stroll into any political office in the land. Better off without Labour – unless one means to lead it.

The day after London government was restored by the decision of the present government, Livingstone used his weekly column in the Independent to say that the universal joy had to be tempered by “the sober realisation that so much power remains in central government hands” and his own delight tempered by his “personal regrets” that he could not be a Labour Mayor. “As soon as I can,” he wrote, “I want to be able to engage again, as a Labour Party member, in the vital debates about how the government goes forward into the next general election . . .”

His exclusion from the party for running against the official candidate, Dobson, will be probably the largest “story” at the Labour Party conference in the autumn – a revival of the infighting that is increasingly the reason why, and the prism through which, the media cover politics. A weakened leadership will have to take it on the chin and will even, perhaps, have to discuss peace terms: Livingstone’s re-entry would be a tremendous boost to his ultimate goal.

No politician as able as he fights personal causes for other than personal ends. Tony Benn won the right to renounce his peerage – an important point of principle – because he, too, wished to be in a position to lead the Labour Party one day. He later insisted on a bewilderingly complex means of choosing the party’s leader and deputy leader – which was a point of no principle – for the same, by then much more obvious, end. Livingstone wants to return to the party because he cannot lead it from outside any more than Benn could from the House of Lords.

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The choice of the next leader of the Labour Party is likely to revert to type – that is, that he or she comes from the “left”. Tony Blair and, in Germany, Gerhard Schroder are atypical of left party leaders in coming from the right (although both had been, rather unconvincingly, “left”) and are likely to remain so. Lionel Jospin of France and Massimo d’Alema of Italy were in the mainstream: Britain and Germany are both likely to join that stream once more.

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Livingstone has identified the present bugbear of the party’s left – spin-doctors; and he harps continually on its eternal bogey, the Treasury and spending curbs. He has been a constant victim of the first, and not just under new Labour. Neil Kinnock hated him, and his office made little secret of it. Livingstone will also be a victim of the second: spending cuts. The Treasury will not open its coffers to him, or only will if it sees the reason or the votes in doing so. This, too, he will seek to turn to his advantage.

Yet the clearest sign that Livingstone is seeking Blair’s place is that, in the period between being voted into office just over two months ago and the official inauguration of London government a few days ago, he has shown one thing above all others. He is, consciously or not, emulating the Prime Minister in both form and content. He is absorbing Blair’s lessons, the better to absorb Blair himself.

The junking of his leftist past – largely unnoticed – has been quite breathtaking and very swift. In his inauguration speech, he chose the theme of “London in the New Economy” – and used it as a paean to globalisation. It was “neither possible nor desirable” to reverse the processes of globalisation or technological revolution. London’s advantages in the new economy were, he said, that it was Europe’s financial centre; that it was more “internationalised” than any other capital city in the world; and that it was the centre of inward investment. Globalisation, he said, had to be “built into the foundations of the city”.

Part of this was a sensible and well-pitched demand for more resources, aimed at a government that had itself made a central element of modernisation and e-progress. But it contradicts most of what Livingstone had stood for in the long wilderness years as a back-bench MP – when he turned himself, with some dedication and hard work, into something of an anti-globalisation wonk. In his voluminous journalism for low-circulation journals of the left, he argued ferociously and knowledgeably against the new avatars of globalisation. He thought that globalisation impoverished; that it deepened the divisions between the rich and the poor; and above all, that it should be subject to strong government intervention.

Nothing in his inauguration speech gave a hint of these positions. The pre-election outburst that he would be on the side of the “Reclaim the Streets” anti-capitalist protesters in any future anti-globalisation demonstration was the last little tic of that lengthy and apparently intensely felt political period.

He does have left-wingers about him still. John McDonnell, a former GLC colleague who is a Labour MP and member of the far-left Campaign Group (as was Livingstone), is an adviser on local government; Lee Jasper, the secretary of the National Assembly Against Racism, advises on race relations. Darren Johnson, one of two Green members of the Greater London Assembly, is environment adviser: he startled a recent meeting of academics by saying that all building in London should be stopped, be-cause every new brick was another advance for capitalism. But these are, if not decoration, likely to remain peripheral or silent – like the former leftists in new Labour.

The real importance in his appointments is the “reaching out” and “inclusiveness” that he has practised, much more comprehensively than Blair has been able to do. He has brought in Judith Mayhew, a City solicitor and head of the City of London policy and resources committee, as his adviser. He has brought in a range of business people to sit on the London Development Authority – including Lord Paul, the industrialist and Labour Party fundraiser; Honor Chapman, the international director of the leading real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle; and Tamara Ingram, the chief executive of Saatchi and Saatchi. Nicky Gavron, a right-wing member of the Labour Party, is his deputy mayor.

None is a yes-man or yes-woman. Once appointed to advise or to execute, they will do so according to their beliefs and the responsibilities to their other constituencies (Mayhew, for example, will continue to chair the policy and resources committee of the City of London). If this is successful, it will be a stimulating example of people from quite different ideological viewpoints working together; and it will be Blairism – or the Third Way – at work, rather better than Blair has managed it.

The last striking parallel with the Prime Minister is that Livingstone has given a series of passionate and well-defined pledges, on which he asks to be judged. Transport, he said in his inauguration speech, “will be the real test of my mayoralty – if I get it wrong, I will be a one-term mayor”. He has put himself at the head of the transport committee and has warned rail companies that he will deprive them of their franchises if they do not become more efficient.

Livingstone has used the quiet period between election and executive authority to position himself for the Labour leadership, by tailoring himself in its image. His campaign has been remarkable in its single-mindedness, and demonstrates that he is probably capable of attaining the highest office. But he has not yet shown that he has the substance behind the media control and the organisational flair: and that is what to watch for as he runs London en route to bigger things.