Goodbye to Ken


6:16 pm - May 4th 2008

by Steve Platt    


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London, my London, looked little different this morning, when I tried to shake off the mares of the night before (Bojo and the BNP at City Hall) in the Regent’s Park summer series 10k race. I did about as well as the Labour Party on Dismayday, leaden legs limping lumpenly to the finish line.

The sun was shining, the plane trees were fruiting, the bus lanes were still functioning, there was still the same myriad mix of people, united in our variety. This is the city I never dreamt I would stay in when I first arrived here from the provinces. And this is the city I have grown to love and call home.

For someone who likes nothing better than solitude and the wild open spaces, I have become curiously attached to this humming, heaving metropolis. It was only the other day that I was telling someone that when I go I want my ashes to be given to a turning tide on the riverside beach at a Waterloo sunset, when the golden sunlight reflects back from the river to the sky, from Westminster looking west to St Paul’s looking east.

It’s on this stretch of river that Ken Livingstone aimed the rockets from the old GLC’s final firework display towards the parliament of Maggie Thatcher. It seems like an eternity ago now that he so ired the Tory harridan that she abolished London-wide local government altogether. Tony Blair brought it back and when he tried to keep Ken out of it, it was Ken that gave New Labour its first bloody nose instead.

Livingstone wasn’t always the nicest man on London’s political map – no one who rises so high in politics ever can be. He only became leader of the GLC in 1981 by executing a putsch against the man who had led Labour to election victory within 24 hours of the polls closing. He could be rough, tough, sharp-tongued and abrasive. Accusing a Jewish reporter of behaving ‘like a concentration camp guard’ wasn’t the most politic of remarks; nor was his refusal to grit his teeth and apologise afterwards. He made lasting enemies, often unnecessarily, often in his own ranks. I was once on the receiving end of a hungover Ken’s caustic; I know what it feels like, I always voted Ken without illusions.

But London without him at its helm is a lessened city. His backing for minorities, his belief in diversity, hoisted a rainbow flag to which we could rally long before such opinions became mainstream; when to say something like “Everyone is bisexual. Almost everyone has the sexual potential for anything”, as he did, was to invite political purgatory. To make the now obvious point that there would be no peace in Northern Ireland until you started talking to the ‘men of violence’ showed bravery at the time beyond the call of political duty.

When Thatcher and the hard-right Tories held sway over the government of Britain, when she spoke of the miners as the ‘enemy within’, or of people feeling ‘swamped’ by blacks and Asians, we could say of London, ‘Not here, not us’, and Livingstone would offer a different voice.

When Blair took us to war under false pretences, and when that war brought bombers onto our tubes and buses, Livingstone led us in a different vision of London, what it is and what it represents.

London, despite everything, is a far, far better place to live than when I first arrived here when Ken was starting his climb up the greasy pole of politics. And many of the improvements of the past eight years – from the congestion charge and public transport to community policing and affordable housing – are down to Livingstone in particular.

I thought Boris Johnson was commendably gracious in his acceptance speech Friday night (when you’re a winner you can afford to be). But the best we can hope for from him is that he doesn’t mess up on what Livingstone has begun. It’s hard to imagine Bojo being so brave or imaginative in his own right.

And the people who voted for him to give Gordon Brown a kicking, or because they want the right to drive and park where and when they like in London, or because they think Livingstone had become too arrogant, or because they think there are too many immigrants moving in, or because they’re sick to death of young yobboes, or because they’re worried about their mortgages, or because they think bendy buses are a disaster, or because they’re apoplectic about speed humps, or because they never see a police officer round where they live, or because they don’t like that new skyscraper, or because the neighbours play their music too loud – well, it will be interesting to see how Bojo deals with that ragbag of complainants now that he has to do something rather than simply join them.

As for the Evening Standard, how on earth are they going to fill their pages now that they’ve won their 30-year war on Ken?

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About the author
This is a guest article. Steve Platt is a former editor of New Statesman magazine and is now a contributor to various publications, including Red Pepper. He blogs at Plattitude.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Debates ,Mayor election ,Westminster

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Reader comments


1. Mary Ingrams

Sums it up so well, it’s exactly how I feel. I love London so much and can’t bear to think what Bojo is going to do to it. At least Andrew Gilligan will be out of a job as well

But the best we can hope for from him is that he doesn’t mess up on what Livingstone has begun. It’s hard to imagine Bojo being so brave or imaginative in his own right.

Boris won’t be running our city, his advisers and Conservative HQ will be.

As for the Evening Standard, how on earth are they going to fill their pages now that they’ve won their 30-year war on Ken?

The Daily Express have done very well out of a dead Diana, I’m sure the Evading Standard will find something else to bitch about….

I wrote a rambling long angry mini-essay to much the same effect elsewhere yesterday. You put it much better than I managed to. He’s obviously an egotist, his rise in politics isn’t particularly edifying and I have many issues with things he’s said and done (most of all his stance on MMR, and his pretty unforgivable refusal to criticise the police over the de Menezes shooting). It’s hard to understand exactly what makes him tick – it’s obviously partly just ambition, but had he merely been ambitious he wouldn’t have been so naive as to alienate so many people, he wouldn’t have refused to apologise for so many things on so many occasions and he wouldn’t have been so brave as to take on so many unpopular – but utterly just – causes.

For all the things he’s said and done, and for all that he might not be the nicest person in the world, he has, even if it has been at times for electoral gain, done all the things you outline and more. As I say, I don’t agree with a lot of the things he’s said and done but it’s hard to think of many people who have done more for progressive politics in Britain. I love Ken and I know I really shouldn’t.

it’s hard to think of many people who have done more for progressive politics in Britain. I love Ken and I know I really shouldn’t.

Spot on. And reading these articles just makes me more depressed. 🙁

Jesus…you know he hasn’t died you know!

These reactions to his electoral defeat – that even he takes the blame for – is a getting a bit ‘Diana syndrome’ like…

6. Alexandra

leon said

“Jesus…you know he hasn’t died you know!”

No, but London might be about too. Or at the very last change for the worse.

As Steve Platt says it’s a far better place than it was -congestion charge, transport, etc have made a difference. It’s also a better place than when I came to London 15 years ago and I don’t want to see it going backwards.

7. Bandolero

Oh for crying out loud.

Another sad leftie harking back to… you guessed it! Margaret Thatcher!!!

It just hasn’t hit anyone on the left yet that this year’s new intake to the NUS- the freshers- were all born AFTER Thatcher was deposed. The doors are wide open now- there is no longer any notion of Labour being a ‘natural’ party of government.

Writers still looking for comfort from the old Thatcher blanket are about as relevant today as she is.

Find a new story to tell.

No, but London might be about too.

You’re off your rocker if you think the election of Boris Johnson is going to cause London to ‘die’.

“It just hasn’t hit anyone on the left yet that this year’s new intake to the NUS- the freshers- were all born AFTER Thatcher was deposed. The doors are wide open now- there is no longer any notion of Labour being a ‘natural’ party of government.”

If you think that then you are in for a nasty shock if the Tories ever get back in. It’s not about being a ‘natural’ party of government but about making the Labour Party the representatives of the working class once more. Or is the working class also irrelevant and only students count?

Remember what they say about those that don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Saying that I don’t see where this article is seeking comfort from the old thatcher blanket or at 25 am I too old to understand how the doors are wide open now.

I liked Ken at first too.

“Everyone likes Ken, except those who actually know him.” Neil Kinnock I think that was.

I like that sign above County Hall – “Trust the People”.
Well the people have spoken.
And it’s rather pathetic that Ken supporters now want to disenfranchise the “suburbs” as a result.

And FFS can we please, as Leon says, cut the bloody hyperbole.
London isn’t going to “die”.

@10 cjcjc

> London isn’t going to “die”.

I agree.

> Ken supporters now want to disenfranchise the “suburbs”

If you’re referring to the other thread about the Standard (wot I wrote), you need to get your dictionary out. I don’t want to disenfranchise them. Just send them to another franchise, where they belong.

And now I’m off for the day – to the suburbs.

I live in zone one so I have no direct interest but it is the suburbanites who are most affected by the area of policy over which the mayor has most control ie transport.

“It just hasn’t hit anyone on the left yet that this year’s new intake to the NUS- the freshers- were all born AFTER Thatcher was deposed. The doors are wide open now- there is no longer any notion of Labour being a ‘natural’ party of government.”

Doesn’t mean we don’t know what she did, i don’t remember ever having a tory government, and im sad to admit that soon, i’ll have too:(

i don’t remember ever having a tory government, and im sad to admit that soon, i’ll have too:(

I do, very well indeed. In fact I actually remember some of the Thatcher one too…

Ken had two sides. One is as you describe, and he has been a good public servant as Boris said. I am sure he will go on to make another career for himself either in the media, where he will do well, because he is such a character, or in politics in some other form.

However, the side of Ken iIdon’t like and that I suspect was the real reason he lost, was what I think of as his “dodgy” side. i should like more financial openess – donations declared and everything financial clearly set out on the web. The Lee Jasper thing hurt Ken because he did not seem to welcome the enquiry.

Ken has had two chances, many people feel that that is enough.

16. Steve Platt

I too think Ken had two sides (as I mentioned in my piece), but I’ve never been aware of either of them being ‘dodgy’, certainly not in a financial sense. Lee Jasper didn’t do anything wrong, as far as I’ve read – the worst you can level against him is guilt by association (the Rev Wright syndrome). But mud sticks, especially when it’s London’s only paper that throwing it about, and Livingstone suffered because he stood by his advisor.


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