Our story begins with an election. The party in power (the more liberal of the two major parties) has been skating steadily to the right, taking the votes of union members and ethnic minorities for granted. But with the economy booming, even the party’s inept and unengaging nominee should have an easy victory–especially since the opposition fields a candidate well to the right of most voters, and whose affable personality only partly covers up a wayward past. When a famous left-wing gadfly proposes to run as an independent, the media belittle his chances. Former colleagues deride him as an egotist, and, as his candidacy catches fire, threatening to swing the election, the denunciations grow louder still.
So far, so familiar. But the London version has a surprise ending: The independent wins. Ken Livingstone, the former leader of the Greater London Council, whose in-your-face style and socialist politics so irritated Margaret Thatcher that she abolished London’s municipal government just to get rid of him, took office as the city’s first-ever directly elected mayor last summer. After more than a decade of direct rule from Westminster, the institutions of local government have to be reinvented–a process further complicated by Livingstone’s expulsion from the Labour Party as punishment for daring to run against their man. In a political culture where all the important decisions are made inside party caucuses, Livingstone’s outsider status makes him hard to predict, and harder to control. Which, we suspect, suits him just fine.
When we talked with Livingstone at the end of his first hundred days, the list of accomplishments trumpeted by his press office seemed pretty thin: a rollback of bus fares here, some already-budgeted money there. His quickness with a quote–one of the many ways in which he resembles a younger, left-wing Ed Koch–has kept him in the news (as when he suggested replacing the statues in Trafalgar Square with figures whose fame didn’t come from suppressing the rights of black or brown people), but his substantive pronouncements are still in the future tense. The main exception is his recent surprise appointment of Robert Kiley, former chief of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and a veteran of the Boston T (as well as the Central Intelligence Agency) to head Transport for London, the new superagency in charge of the capital’s buses, streets and subways.
As Livingstone points out, he has just a fraction of the powers–or budget–available to the mayor of New York: Labour has carefully kept schools, hospitals and local taxes out of his reach. He starts out with real power only on transportation, and even here he first has to convince the government not to go ahead with plans to partially privatize the subway system. Drafting Kiley may have shortened the odds in Livingstone’s favor; October’s fatal train crash at Hatfield, which focused attention on the private rail companies’ pursuit of profit at the expense of passenger safety, has also made the argument for public ownership respectable again. Livingstone knows how much rides on his ability to revamp London’s neglected transport system and successfully introduce a congestion charge, a tariff on inner-city-bound cars designed to break the capital’s gridlock and, not incidentally, provide him with revenue independent of Westminster’s largesse. If he pulls it off, his political influence will rise and rise. If he fails, he’ll be dismissed as a gadfly who couldn’t govern.
Even the décor in Livingstone’s office is provisional: The only personal touches are two paintings, of a cheerful Cuban village scene and a “scary red tree,” and a chair for his bad back. But as he talked about the challenges and contradictions ahead–the Ford workers at Dagenham whose jobs he can’t save, the banking and investment firms that London can’t afford to lose–he seemed surprisingly relaxed, a man in his element taking the long view. Livingstone is a socialist mayor dependent (once again) on a government that at worst hates him and at best suspects him; a radical in power shoring up islets of resistance against the tide of rollbacks. His fatalism about global forces can seem glib, a license to cut his losses, but it is also pragmatic: In city politics there is no choice but to act locally, thinking globally where you can. If it is almost impossible to imagine an American leftist in a similar position, that is only an indication of how far we have to travel. And, perhaps, an indication of the road ahead.