The London Mayor thing. The Ken thing.

I love London.

I don’t mean it’s a great place to live. It can be. It can also be hell. It’s a hard place to live. It’s expensive. It isn’t easy to make close friends here, if you’re starting from scratch. You don’t get much space, and within that tiny space it is possible to be infinitely lonely. People come here, and hate, it and go. People come here, and love it, and stay. Those are Londoners.

Some Londoners were lucky enough to be born here. I am one. I grew up in a time when “London Mayor” meant some old Lord, well connected in the City, who wore a big chain and a tricorn hat, who was wheeled out once a year in a fairytale gold carriage to be waved at by grateful orphans. Nobody knew what he did (I found out later, when I was involved with the Guilds for a while. It doesn’t matter, for the purposes of this piece).

Back then, London was governed in the same way as the rest of the country, but with the addition of the Greater London Council, which provided an overview on housing, roads and so forth. Local councils looked after their own services. As with everything in this country, it was all strongly party-political. In 1977 the country was in a mess. We had had, or were having the oil crisis; everyone – EVERYONE was on strike. The previous year, we had had a serious drought, the Notting Hill Carnival riot. and, to my personal delight, a Biblical plague of ladybirds. It was all getting a bit Ragnarok.

In the middle of this, with an election looming, a Labour splinter group stood up and said that they had no faith in their party’s election manifesto. Ken Livingstone was in that group. It didn’t go down well with Labour.

After a few years of political pushy-shovey, in 1981 Ken became the leader of the GLC. He wanted to spend money on the poor. Hell he did spend money on the poor, on the gay, on the disabled, on the homeless. Thatcher was our Prime Minister. It didn’t go down well with the Conservatives.

In 1985 the GLC – which by then had pretty much got everyone’s back up by pointing out that the poor a) existed, b) needed to be addressed and c) were going to require some actual cash, was disbanded. County Hall – our graceful County Hall, with its open arms curving towards the river – was sold to a Japanese company.

I was 15. My family, which was Daily-Mail reading Conservative, believed solidly that Ken was quite mad. But even I could see that this – the breakup of the GLC and the flogging off of its beautiful offices – was a big “fuck you” to Ken. Directly to Ken, who had been openly socialist and lefty, and had dared to champion the scummy poor, whom no decent person ever even spoke about, other than in the hushed tones of pity or with braying disapproval, because everyone knows the poor could stop being poor if they wanted to badly enough. That they continue to be poor, and to whine about it, and to bring forth poor children to continue their filthy tradition, is mere testimony to their weakness of character and to their deliberate stupidity.

This was 1985. I’m not making this up. This was how it was.

Oh, this is how it still is.

We spent 14 years in the wilderness. Where a council failed to deal with an issue, or was not given sufficient budget to deal with its issues, those issues simply spilt over into the neighbouring boroughs. Things fell apart. The centre did not hold, etc etc.

In 2000, some great beast slouched towards the South Bank to be born, and the Greater London Authority was set up.

It was to be controlled directly by an elected London Mayor. London opened its arms to Ken Livingstone and buried its face in his chest. Because we remembered him, and what we remembered about him was not any specific policy, but that he GOT London. He got the fact that without affordable public transport, London will break. He got the fact that the Police needed to stop being racist. He got the fact that London is a massive porridgey mix, that 97 languages are spoken in Haringey – and while around him politicians postured about forcing immigrants to all speak English, Ken was printing leaflets that all those people could read. He was pragmatic. He celebrated that mix and tried to support it from the bottom up. He had a great grasp of what a brilliant thing that mix was. And there was more: he seemed to understand that poor people aren’t people who have malevolently decided to be poor, all up in yo face. They are just people who deserve a decent place to live and the ability to educate their children to a decent standard, and some expectations for those children that include them getting an equal chance to shine, alongside children from less poor backgrounds.

The point of Ken was that, with his unsmiling lefty pragmatism, he never seemed to waste any time judging anyone. He just got on with trying to make it work.

He wasn’t perfect. He screwed up sometimes. Some things worked, some didn’t. Sometimes he employed people he shouldn’t have, made bad decisions. His relationship with both political parties – but most notably with his own – always looked awkward. Although he was Labour, Labour knew he wouldn’t toe the party line if he disagreed with it. Ken was Ken first. This is the very quality the public like about him.

The same likeably-ungovernable quality is broadly true of Boris. There’s a difference though: we’re supposed to like Boris because he’s so jolly Borissy, isn’t he? He’s playing a cult of personality card, and playing it well, as a stepping stone in his career. That’s what the Mayorship is, to Boris. It’s the ramp up to PM. The Cult of Boris (say it carefully), is part of an interesting modern Tory phenomenon, where politicians – Louise Mensch springs to mind as another example – stick their heads above the parapet and ask us to admire them not for their policies – which run a poor second place to the Sturm und Drang of whatever they’re currently on Newsnight talking about – but because they’re … entertaining. Yes, I mean that pejoratively.

Ken, on the other hand, doesn’t really care whether you like him per him, or not. He cares, with occasionally damaging tunnel vision, about whether the issues are being addressed. Ken has always understood with perfect clarity that the rich in London will always look after themselves, and that they have the means to do so. If you want to keep London from descending into pockets of anarchy surrounding a series of leafy gated communities, you must care for those who have the fewest advantages. The Mayorship has never been a career step for Ken. Looking after London is the ultimate destination. Looking after London is what he wants – wanted – to do.

So what now? Belts are tight. People are buckling up for things to get even rougher. Few of us below a certain level have anything to spare, and the attitudes which always accompany hard times nibble on the edges of us now, as a city and as a race (Londoners are a race, a single race of many colours and languages. This is a fact). Suspicion, intolerance, fear. It is going to get worse over the next four years. Mark my words. The best we can do is to help one another, where we can. To not let suspicion, intolerance or fear become our response to hard times.

Ken has said that he will not stand again, and I am heartbroken. I mean it quite literally. I am afraid that this was a turning point. That for the sake of finding Boris entertaining, for the sake of Boris’s career path, we have agreed to see London split apart into have and have-not, we have agreed, as a city, to condemn the saddest Londoners to fall by the wayside, and that the unlikely glue that holds Londoners together as one race will be dissolved in a miserable and unworthy bath of money and ambition.

I don’t think we will see anyone else like Ken, anyone else with his grasp of the bottom-up, unpretty mechanics of London. I don’t think I will feel about another politician the way I felt about him.

I never liked him – he was never easy to like – but I loved him. I loved him because I love London, and so did he.

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18 Responses to The London Mayor thing. The Ken thing.

  1. jools says:

    Lovely post. I live away from London now, but I work there most days. It’s like an old friend I love dearly, see often, and sometimes shake my head and slightly despair of.

    Do you remember Thamesday in the 1980s? I remember the market stalls along the south bank, the bands playing in Jubilee Gardens, and most of all that County Hall opened up some of its conference rooms to host craft activities for kids. For free. I remember the last Thamesday when everyone knew the fate of the GLC and County Hall. There were fireworks along the Thames, and tears. I was only about twelve, but I remember thinking it was the end of an era.

    London will continue to be great because of the people who live there, but I think sometimes it needs a champion to stick up for it. I don’t think it has one right now, and I hope it finds another one soon.

    • chiller says:

      Thank you.

      I’m sorely tempted to stick my own foot in political waters at this point. It’s so unfashionable to love anything, isn’t it?

      • Broadcast Belle says:

        You should stick your foot in the political waters. I’m 22 and feel to become rare young councillor as I’m falling in love with London as I get older but also see the poverty.

  2. Trite though this will sound, Ken lost the election because, out of bunch of tax-avoiders, he was the most degenerate tax-avoider. Not only that, but due to the socialist views which he always claimed to have, in order to win election, the tax avoidance also made him appear a massive hypocrite. The money which you say he lavished on the poor in the 1980s came from taxes, and he singularly failed to reach into his own pocket to help the cause, at a time when he was in an outstanding position to do so.

    • chiller says:

      While it’s great that you’re participating in the shopping mall of modern politics, it’s a shame you’re only browsing one aisle.

      • I have no strict political allegiance, but I do have a great respect for principled politicians of any colour. I am a Gordon Brown fan for that very reason: despite the hubristic mistakes he made as chancellor, he stuck by his principles through thick and thin. I never found Ken to be particularly principled, but often self-serving, as epitomised by the lamentable tax avoidance episode. The dealings with Chavez were another example of his exploitation of the poor in order to promote his own reputation. I agree that Boris’s sideshow is just that – a diversion from his lack of coherent policy and principle, but I didn’t vote for him either. Unfortunately, and unlike Brighton two years ago, London failed to paint it green.

  3. Lovely post. I’ve always admired Ken. I miss my city a lot sometimes and I’m very sad about the prospects for the future given this result. Having lived in Berlusconi’s Italy for over 13 years I’ve seen how selfishness, self-love, relentless self-promotion and a continual pushing towards racism, ignoring the poor and needy and focusing on SELF SELF SELF can totally destroy a country. Italy was already on its knees, desperately corrupt and ridden with problems but the advent of Berlusconi first with his media empire at the start of the 80s and then with his entry into politics has taken the country I have come to consider home in many ways to an all-time low. I’m not in any way comparing Boris as mayor to Berlusconi. Let that be clear (I’m sure you got me there though). However I see on a daily basis how the constant pounding of people’s minds has led so many to focus on themselves if they’re ok, or even better rich, and if not, to WANT to be rich, to AIM for it and treat the poor, the immigrants (immigration is a relatively new phenomenon here – 15 years back it was a rarity to see anyone from Africa, Latin America, China etc), the disabled, the elderly as WEAK and UNABLE and UNCOMFORTABLE to think about, so best ignored. These sort of attitudes sneak up on one. I’ve always been proud to cite London as “better” than where I live now in many ways regarding tolerance, care, love even, yes love. I hope that Londoners who care about the city as you do are able to make sure that on some level this continues.

  4. SE1 says:

    “The point of Ken was that, with his unsmiling lefty pragmatism, he never seemed to waste any time judging anyone.”
    Tell that to London’s Jewish community. And those who work in the City.

    “Ken has said that he will not stand again, and I am heartbroken. I mean it quite literally.”
    Do you literally mean that?

    • chiller says:

      Yuh-huh. I spent 20 years working in the City and was raised in NW London’s Jewish community.

      > Do you literally mean that?

      Oh, not just literally. Like, totally literally.

  5. John Souter says:

    Enjoyed your post – do not share your emotions for London but understand and enjoy the integrity of your conscience. Would we had more of the latter from our politicians.

    As a rural far northener I regard London and its City (I’m not sure which is in control) as the sump of the UK. A tape worm draining nourishment from the nation while secreting chemicals which distort the nations appetites and diet.

    But if you live there and love it then good luck to you and, as much as I found the attention given to the London Mayoral by our so called unbiased media to be far in excess of national interest or practical purpose I am inclined to your belief that the best man lost.

    Boris as PM? Perish the thought. But were it to happen it could lower the final veil of Westminster being anything other than the Zoo of Buffoons.

    • chiller says:

      I do love it – London is as much an essential element of my upbringing as my mum or dad. Like New York and quite a few other truly great cities, it seems to exist in a bubble and be inhabited by people who have absorbed its character. It’s just not like anywhere else. At its best, London is the most inclusive, varied, exciting place I have ever been in. At its worst, it can become a frightening trap. I understand your suspicion of it, and the resentment for its distant issues taking up your time.

      If Boris gets in as PM, maybe we could persuade you down to help us all revolt. 😉

      • John Souter says:

        Create a revolt free of political distortion and I’ll bring down a Combine Harvester with me – best anti kettling tool I can think of.

        Of course it would have to be after the Olympic missiles have been dismantled and you agree to reimburse any access charges -oh and ban Eastenders from being broadcast anywhere north of Watford. We of course would reciprocate with Coronation Street going beyond the ethers of Salford. Or am I being too ambitious?

      • chiller says:

        Oh, you think they’re going to dismantle the Olympic missiles? You optimist!

  6. anita makris says:

    Hi there,
    Many thanks for this blog, it is very moving and Ken should somehow get to read it. I think, there are some people who think like you. And even if Ken doesn’t care if he is liked or not, but he hopefully knows that there are people who understand what he was doing and is trying to do – only that they are in the minority. I am also so disappointed about this result.

  7. ourgaff13 says:

    Well, I think Ken’s just sulking – he’s said this before and come back stronger than ever so I’m hoping it’s sulking!

    Great post, enjoy reading everything you write.

  8. Jono Kenyon says:

    I feel very similarly to you. For me, Ken stood for progression and inclusivity. I watched him open new tube ticket halls and playgrounds. For me Ken epitomised forward thinking politics, as you said sometimes this was to his personal detriment.
    He has gone, and London will be the poorer (literally) for it.

    Great post!

    • chiller says:

      Thanks very much! Yes, I remember Ken standing up for gay rights and no racism in a country where it was a solid fact that saying the things he said would make you unpopular. I think he was incredibly brave and principled on those fronts, and those are the fronts that made a big difference to London.

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