For lefties in the 1980s, Ken Livingstone was something of a hero. His leadership of the Greater London Council (GLC) until its abolition in 1986 was a daily act of defiance against Thatcher. Unlike the doctrinaire Trotskyists running Liverpool, who were hell-bent on provoking a political crisis, the GLC seemed progressive, imaginative and exciting. Their use of cultural politics to build a left-wing electoral coalition was Gramsci brought to the streets of Hammersmith, Hounslow and Hoxton. If you were young, you also got to see a lot of bands for free in London’s parks.
The GLC was not without its critics on the left. John McDonnell (now hoping to be leader of the Labour Party) led the opposition to Livingstone, for being a right-wing sell-out. The old right of the party saw Livingstone’s support for racial minorities, lesbians and gay men, and women’s rights as diversions from the traditional concerns of the white working class. At the last night of the GLC, thousands of us stood in Jubilee Gardens by County Hall, and sang ‘We’ll Meet Again’. I doubt we thought it would be over a decade before Livingstone took the reins again.
As Mayor of London, Livingstone had some triumphs, not least beating the Labour machine and winning as an ‘independent’. The congestion charge was bold and imaginative. It stands as testament to the triumph of progressive political will over the popular consensus, like the smoking ban or NHS foundation trusts. But the 1980s politics seemed out of date by the early 2000s. Livingstone could not maintain a coalition big enough to win against Boris Johnson. He gave a platform to misogynist and gay-hating Islamists, undermining years of support for feminism and gay liberation. Most of all, he lost the support in outer London boroughs of white, hard-working families.
It is absurd to assume that Ken Livingstone is the right man to front up Labour’s campaign to win back London in 2012. Times have changed. The 1980s were a long time ago. No-one in the Labour movement has a job for life, nor should expect a selection for an important candidature to be a shoo-in. Ken Livingstone is hoping to win the selection in the first few seconds of the contest. Many of his supporters are declaring their support before seeing who else is in the frame. One other candidate, Oona King, has put her name forward. As a house-music-loving young black woman, she seems more in tune with modern London than the old guard of the 80s Labour left. There may be other candidates who come forward by the June 18th deadline.
The point is that we need a proper contest, with a variety of candidates, to be tested by party members and trade unionists in London. Members in London have until September 22nd to make up their minds. Those rushing to crown King Ken are the same people demanding that the Labour Party leadership election is a drawn-out affair with six candidates including Diane Abbott. The last person to be selected without a proper contest was Gordon Brown, and look what happened next.
If Ken’s supporters think their guy is the best man for the job, they should welcome an open contest, with hustings in every part of the capital, and media debates. The last thing we all need is a coronation.