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Talking With 'Red Ken' | The Nation

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Talking With 'Red Ken'

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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.

About the Author

D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan, who writes from The Nation's London bureau, is the author of American Radical: The Life and Times of I...
Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis writes from The Nation's London bureau. Her work has appeared in many other publications,...

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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.



The Nation:

Do you find the narrow stage of London after Westminster confining?

KL:

No, I love it. I think short of being Prime Minister or Chancellor it must be the best job in politics, because you have a relationship with the city. What you wrote in The Nation about the comparison with Ed Koch--I took that as quite flattering, because I think in that sense Ed Koch did seem very New York.

TN:

Though he had a lot more power than you do.

KL:

Yes, but this is just a start. If I get it right, this will be the pattern for devolution to the English regions. It will be what locks us into becoming a federal state, and therefore you have a role in defining how that goes. Of course, I'd much rather have all the powers. The mayor of New York's budget is seven times greater than mine.

TN:

There was a lot of talk during the [London] mayoral campaign about zero tolerance and about what Rudolph Giuliani had or hadn't been able to do in New York. What do you think can be learned from the experience of American cities in the last ten years?

KL:

It seems to me that mayoral politics in New York over the last twenty-five or thirty years has been about the failure to integrate the black population into the mayor's governing coalition. Koch didn't manage to do it, then you had Dinkins as a reaction, and now Giuliani quite specifically doesn't want to do it. You've permanently excluded a section of the community, and to some degree Giuliani's added the lesbian and gay community to that. Whereas there's actually no chunk of London which I don't want to embrace. The group I could have had the most trouble integrating is the business community, and the polls show [them] having a 20 percent swing in my favor. I think they're just pleased I haven't cut their throats. And zero tolerance is--I mean, it's easy. I could have a dramatic reduction in crime figures if central government would give me the money to go up from 25,500 to 39,000 police, which is what Giuliani's got for a city with the same population.

TN:

Do you want 39,000 police?

KL:

Oh yes. The place where I've felt safest in recent years was Cuba, where, I think more as a job-creation scheme than as a system of state repression, there's a copper wandering along on every street corner wherever you go. You could have a 21-year-old woman walk naked through Havana at midnight and she wouldn't be pestered. When I was a kid in London there was always a policeman coming round the corner. Now you rarely see that.

TN:

You're not a New Labourite, you're not a Third Wayer and yet you're obviously working very closely with businesspeople. How do you see your politics as a leftist relating to the business community and working with them?

KL:

Twenty years ago, when I was head of the GLC, politics was totally politicized. So was the business community. You were heading towards a real revival of the cold war. You had Afghanistan, cruise missiles, Reagan had taken over. Mrs. Thatcher was convinced we were going to have some kind of communist state in London. It was an incredibly tense time. The business leaders just lined up solidly to the right. Now, this entire neoliberal agenda has been shown to be bankrupt. You've had twenty years to let market forces work their wonders, and we've got a collapsing transport system. More crime. Poor schools. The business community's in there now arguing to increase the provision of services. So there's a natural affinity. And I suspect that because for ten years we've not had an ideologically divided world, people now listen to what someone is saying to see whether they agree with it, rather than simply categorizing it. The tragedy of what Clinton hasn't done, and what Blair hasn't done, is trying to define what the left and our future has to be about. It has to be about devolution, decentralization, democratization and greening. And sustainability. This is the agenda of the future for the left. And it is one which could co-opt a substantial proportion of the business community.

TN:

In your newspaper columns you talk about the need to build globalization into the foundations of the city. Most people on the left think of globalization as Starbucks closing down the local coffee shop, multinational companies displacing local----

KL:

I have to say that closing down most of what passed for coffee shops in London--I have no objection to the cappuccino culture. You can get a decent cup of coffee at last. As someone who still considers himself to be a Marxist in terms of how I analyze things and, without any shame, a complete economic determinist, these great economic forces work their way through the world whether you want them to or not. You can't stop them. All you can do as a politician is prepare the people you are responsible for, for them, and try to moderate them or guide them to some degree. Globalization is irreversible. The thing is, how do you make it democratic? How do you make it accountable?

If we're looking at globalization then let's really take on board the dishonesty of the American agenda, which is about preserving its own economic predominance. If you really want complete free trade, then yes. Then all those Third World farmers could sell their food in Europe and Japan and America, and their economies would begin to grow. We don't have free trade--no major power, certainly not America or Japan, is in favor of it.

The left has always got to--what did Lenin do when he came to power in Russia? He didn't try to rebuild feudalism. He actually looked at what was then the most advanced form of capitalism, Fordism, and he imposed it wholesale, as did Stalin after him. If Lenin were alive today he'd be going for the Internet revolution. Lenin always saw what's happening, where's the most advanced economy, what could he copy out of that.

TN:

How does that work for a city?

KL:

It means you have to try to stay at the front of cultural change. Twenty years ago, when we were finalizing our campaign to take over the GLC, we were still thinking in terms of how can we rebuild our manufacturing base in London, how can we constrain the City? That battle's over, the City won. Thirty-three percent of our employment is financial-services related. The only survival for London now is to make sure that your goose is not killed off by Wall Street or Tokyo. Because if we stopped being the largest financial center in Europe, all the other jobs that rest on that come down with it. You've locked London into a generation of decline, and it would be a disaster.

TN:

You have this economic wave or world order that's uniformly capitalist now and doesn't seem to be viewing movements for more democratization or accountability with anything but hostility. So what can you do locally?

KL:

You're part of that global resistance. Clearly the neoliberal tide has run out of steam. The tragedy is, the space that was created in the 1990s with the election of Clinton and Blair and Schröder--none of them has actually tried to articulate a radical breakthrough in the way that, say, Roosevelt did in the 1930s, and that is their failure of leadership. I suspect the real challenge is not going to come from any Western city. It's going to come from the excluded people. The question is, What is the left going to do to work with the forces bubbling up from below, people like Lula in Brazil, around the world? What sort of alliance of forces is going to effectively challenge American economic hegemony? It will be when India or China decides to make a stand. My guess is that fifteen or twenty years down the road the Chinese will say, We don't really think the dollar deserves to be the global reserve currency. At that point, what might Europe do? That'll be the most dangerous time since the Cuban missile crisis, as America loses that predominant position and has to accept that it shares power with other peoples, the majority of whom aren't white.

TN:

But aside from cheering on the Third World, where does that leave you in London?

KL:

If I can bring in the congestion charge [Livingstone has proposed a 5 pound fee for all cars entering central London] and get re-elected, mayors around the world will copy it, because it's the way forward. But until somebody else does it, no one's going to volunteer to be first. There's two things: I have a chance to influence the way the federal agenda develops in Britain by how I conduct myself. And I have a chance to affect urban transport patterns all over the world for the rest of time if I can get the congestion charge right.

TN:

So why is the Labour Party so afraid of you?

KL:

Well, don't forget that the whole Blair project was based on the fact that no one from the left could win, but we've shown that that's a load of old rubbish. It's very nice to have the business community showing a 20 percent swing in my favor since the election. They also still think I'm a socialist. I deal with them and we have respect and we honor the deals we make, but they also know that this isn't the world I would create if I was given a free hand. I'm making the best of what I've got.

TN:

What's your view of the political future in the longer run?

KL:

I think we are locked into a long period of movement towards progressive politics. There'll be temporary setbacks, but if you actually look at the patterns, if you look at the Gallup poll figures on capital punishment, the only time there was a majority in America against capital punishment was '67-'68, at the end of twenty-five years of economic growth. I believe in Kondratieff long-wave cycles. I think we've just been through a twenty-five-year down wave. What prevents things from taking off is that every time the world economy starts to pick up it quickly overheats, because America, and to a lesser extent Britain, is disproportionately pulling in capital. But when that long wave does get under way, you'll get what you had then, increasingly progressive politics.... Come back in twenty years' time and it will be 1968 all over again. I'll be on my zimmer frame [walker] then. You've got to have that perspective. I'm sure lots of your lefty readers will say, What a ghastly little shit Livingstone is, he's compromised with business and so on, but you've got to know where you're going over twenty-five years, and you've got to build alliances now that allow you to move forward.

TN:

So where are you going over twenty-five years?

KL:

I'll be on my zimmer frame saying, Charge! We'll get it right this time.

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