Saturday, 3 May 2008

Goodbye to Ken

London, my London, looked little different this morning, when I tried to shake off the mares of the night before (Bojo and the BNP at City Hall) in the Regent’s Park summer series 10k race. I did about as well as the Labour Party on Dismayday, leaden legs limping lumpenly to the finish line.

The sun was shining, the plane trees were fruiting, the bus lanes were still functioning, there was still the same myriad mix of people, united in our variety. This is the city I never dreamt I would stay in when I first arrived here from the provinces. And this is the city I have grown to love and call home.

For someone who likes nothing better than solitude and the wild open spaces, I have become curiously attached to this humming, heaving metropolis. It was only the other day that I was telling someone that when I go I want my ashes to be given to a turning tide on the riverside beach at a Waterloo sunset, when the golden sunlight reflects back from the river to the sky, from Westminster looking west to St Paul’s looking east.

It’s on this stretch of river that Ken Livingstone aimed the rockets from the old GLC’s final firework display towards the parliament of Maggie Thatcher. It seems like an eternity ago now that he so ired the Tory harridan that she abolished London-wide local government altogether. Tony Blair brought it back and when he tried to keep Ken out of it, it was Ken that gave New Labour its first bloody nose instead.

Livingstone wasn’t always the nicest man on London’s political map – no one who rises so high in politics ever can be. He only became leader of the GLC in 1981 by executing a putsch against the man who had led Labour to election victory within 24 hours of the polls closing. He could be rough, tough, sharp-tongued and abrasive. Accusing a Jewish reporter of behaving ‘like a concentration camp guard’ wasn’t the most politic of remarks; nor was his refusal to grit his teeth and apologise afterwards. He made lasting enemies, often unnecessarily, often in his own ranks. I was once on the receiving end of a hungover Ken’s caustic; I know what it feels like, I always voted Ken without illusions.

But London without him at its helm is a lessened city. His backing for minorities, his belief in diversity, hoisted a rainbow flag to which we could rally long before such opinions became mainstream; when to say something like ‘Everyone is bisexual. Almost everyone has the sexual potential for anything’, as he did, was to invite political purgatory. To make the now obvious point that there would be no peace in Northern Ireland until you started talking to the ‘men of violence’ showed bravery at the time beyond the call of political duty.

When Thatcher and the hard-right Tories held sway over the government of Britain, when she spoke of the miners as the ‘enemy within’, or of people feeling ‘swamped’ by blacks and Asians, we could say of London, ‘Not here, not us’, and Livingstone would offer a different voice. When Blair took us to war under false pretences, and when that war brought bombers onto our tubes and buses, Livingstone led us in a different vision of London, what it is and what it represents.

London, despite everything, is a far, far better place to live than when I first arrived here when Ken was starting his climb up the greasy pole of politics. And many of the improvements of the past eight years – from the congestion charge and public transport to community policing and affordable housing – are down to Livingstone in particular.

I thought Boris Johnson was commendably gracious in his acceptance speech last night (when you’re a winner you can afford to be). But the best we can hope for from him is that he doesn’t mess up on what Livingstone has begun. It’s hard to imagine Bojo being so brave or imaginative in his own right. And the people who voted for him to give Gordon Brown a kicking, or because they want the right to drive and park where and when they like in London, or because they think Livingstone had become too arrogant, or because they think there are too many immigrants moving in, or because they’re sick to death of young yobboes, or because they’re worried about their mortgages, or because they think bendy buses are a disaster, or because they’re apoplectic about speed humps, or because they never see a police officer round where they live, or because they don’t like that new skyscraper, or because the neighbours play their music too loud – well, it will be interesting to see how Bojo deals with that ragbag of complainants now that he has to do something rather than simply join them.

As for the Evening Standard, how on earth are they going to fill their pages now that they’ve won their 30-year war on Ken?


Morris said...

Couldn't Boris have settled for Lord Mayor instead, just a square mile for him to mess up and filled with people he'd feel more at home with. Not the gays and 'picanninies'that inhabit the real London.

Anonymous said...

Ugh....Feel like I'm in mourning. London has it's very own George 'W' clone. Boracist will act the fool while all the Torries get stuck in doing what they do best.

Janice said...

Do you think Ken will retire from politics now or take a breather and come back fighting?

gem said...

Thanks for this post.. just spent an increasingly depressing half hour scouring google for something - anything - containing some semblence of sense and truth regarding Ken Livingstone and the mayoral election. I don't live in London but I visit often and love it and think of it as a spiritual home, and am frankly appalled and horrified that Ken has been replaced by that tory clown. London can survive terrorist attempts, but can it survive Boris?

Jim said...

He should never have rejoined the Labour Party. I had a fantasy when he stood the first time that he would join up with some other independent dissenters and start a real electoral challenge to NuLab and the Tories. It didn't happen. I think he would still be Mayor if it had.

Portly Vale Man said...

Great article Steve but what's all this about scattering your ashes in the River Thames? I'm sure Longton's loss will be London's gain but are you really saying that the organiser of the Flat Cap March for John Rudge and the 843 Balloons Go Floating By at Ipswich doesn't want his final resting place to be at Vale Park? Have you told your family about this? Have you told Valemail?

Anonymous said...

I voted Boris last week but like your piece. I have a feeling you'll like Boris too when you get used to him.

angelneptunestar said...

The fans bemoaning the loss of Ken need to grasp the important point. The will of the people has triumphed and they wanted Boris Johnson.

Vox populi vox dei est.

Ken did some good things, but there were also serious concerns and these are always disregarded by Ken troopers. Ken has a good media career to look forward to, he needs to move forward and concentrate on that. He should stop hanging on, all this turning up at City Hall meetings is only delaying the inevitable.