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.