Peter Tatchell

The Rise and Rise of Citizen Ken

Citizen Ken

By

The Hogarth Press 237pp £8.95; order from our bookshop
 

Citizen Ken by John Carvel proclaims itself as the ‘first full report’ on the life and political progress of Ken Livingstone – head of the Greater London Council and one of the youngest and most radical Labour local government leaders for decades.At his current rate of popularity, the thirty-nine-year-old Livingstone seems destined to remain a major force in British politics well into the twenty-first century – a prospect that must send shudders through the combined ranks of the Tory, Alliance and Labour establishments. Indeed, though neither an MP, nor an ‘heir apparent’ to a safe Labour seat, Livingstone’s stint at the helm of Europe’s largest metropolitan authority has given him more practical experience of political power than Neil Kinnock and many of Labour’s front bench team in the House of Commons. No doubt some of the present Party leadership are looking over their shoulders with apprehension and admiration at Livingstone’s success in coming up with the ‘impossible’ formula of popular appeal and radical socialist policies. With the re-selection of MPs beginning in January 1985, they realise that Livingstone’s arrival at Westminster is unlikely to be longer than four years away. They also fear that a move amongst Labour’s grassroots to draft Livingstone for the Party leadership (depending on the outcome of the next general election) cannot be staved off for too many years beyond 1988.

At his current rate of popularity, the thirty-nine-year-old Livingstone seems destined to remain a major force in British politics well into the twenty-first century – a prospect that must send shudders through the combined ranks of the Tory, Alliance and Labour establishments. Indeed, though neither an MP, nor an ‘heir apparent’ to a safe Labour seat, Livingstone’s stint at the helm of Europe’s largest metropolitan authority has given him more practical experience of political power than Neil Kinnock and many of Labour’s front bench team in the House of Commons. No doubt some of the present Party leadership are looking over their shoulders with apprehension and admiration at Livingstone’s success in coming up with the ‘impossible’ formula of popular appeal and radical socialist policies. With the re-selection of MPs beginning in January 1985, they realise that Livingstone’s arrival at Westminster is unlikely to be longer than four years away. They also fear that a move amongst Labour’s grassroots to draft Livingstone for the Party leadership (depending on the outcome of the next general election) cannot be staved off for too many years beyond 1988.

All the same, Carvel does occasionally manage some interesting revelations from Livingstone about the roots of his political beliefs: ‘I tend to look at modern politics through the perspective of animal behaviour and anthropology …’ Livingstone refers to the co-operation and interdependence of early hunter-gatherer societies, where the human population lived ‘in balance with the environment’ and where there was no pressure to work excessively hard or go to war because the inhabitants had an ‘abundance’ of resources. In his view, ‘everything we are has emerged from the hunter-gatherer tradition. All of our ability, the development of our intellect, all of our early culture grows out of those kinship groups operating overwhelmingly in a co-operative way’. Livingstone believes that these natural egalitarian and sharing relationships of the hunter-gatherers have been distorted ever since the beginnings of agriculture. It was the emergence of agriculture which disrupted the balance between humanity and nature and distorted human relationships by creating surpluses over and above what people need to survive. These surpluses led to the accumulation of riches, wars of acquisition and eventually to institutionalised hierarchies of wealth and power. Commenting on our present state of social development, Livingstone says:

If you look at the way the City of London works, it is operating in exactly the same way as the most primitive of those societies based on agriculture twenty thousand years ago. The basic motive force is greed and exploitation, which is there from the start once you move away from that co-operative group. We haven’t learned to cope with surpluses and distribute them without greed becoming the major factor and the desire for power over others. I do not think that is a natural state for humankind to be in. I think we developed as a co-operative animal … and have been forced to live in a competitive world.

Aside from a few other minor intellectual excursions, Citizen Ken is confined to a history of Livingstone’s rise to power, beginning with his joining the Labour Party at the age of twenty-three in 1968. As Carvel points out, Livingstone became a Party member ‘at a time when almost every other socialist of his age was deserting Labour for the headier comradeship of Trotskyism and other brands of insurrectionary politics’. Carvel quotes the leader of Lambeth Council, Ted Knight, describing the young Livingstone as a rather ‘centrist’ member of the Labour Party. Indeed, Livingstone opposed Knight when he stood for the Chair of Norwood Labour Party in 1972. Nevertheless, soon afterwards the two of them began a long political association and Knight claims that it was largely under his influence that Livingstone was impelled in a more leftward direction.

Livingstone’s roots in local government began with his election to Lambeth Council in 1971 and to the GLC in 1973. In both cases he immersed himself in the very practical issue of housing. Indeed the whole of Carvel’s book conveys an impression of Livingstone as a radical pragmatist – someone who has strong principles, but who attaches more importance to action and results than to the minutiae of political theory. Twice in these early years, when power conflicted with principles, Livingstone was ready to forego the former. The first occasion was on Lambeth Council in 1973 when he resigned as Vice-Chair of Housing, largely in protest at the Borough’s failure to re-house slum dwellings as promised. The second instance occurred in 1975 when Livingstone led a left rebellion by nine GLC Members against the Labour leader of the GLC, Reg Goodwin, who had forced through a package of cuts in services, particularly housing, and increases in GLC rents and bus and tube fares.

By the late 1970s, Livingstone was firmly establishing himself as a leading left spokesperson on local government. He probably deserves much of the credit for re-awakening an interest in local socialism and reviving Labour’s radical municipal tradition of the 1920s and ’30s. Livingstone was the left’s natural choice for the leadership of the GLC long before the Labour Group assembled following their victory in the 1981 elections.

Citizen Ken captures all the elements of high drama which have been such a feature of Livingstone’s tenure as leader of the GLC: the controversies surrounding his views on Ireland, gay rights and the Royal Wedding; his subsequent vilification by the tabloid press; the declining support for his leadership within the Labour Group, following internal splits over whether or not to defy the Law Lords ruling against the GLC’s ‘Fares Fair’ policy.

Carvel suggests that effective defeat at the hands of the Law Lords marked the beginning of a second phase of the Livingstone administration at County Hall which was more steeped in the ‘art of the possible’. Livingstone’s shift in tactics, from confrontation to cunning, produced results. He was able to reintroduce a modified, legally acceptable version of ‘Fares Fair’ and this in turn reunited the Labour Group around his leadership.

Once described by the Sun as ‘the most odious man in Britain’, by late 1982 Livingstone was sufficiently popular to be voted runner-up to the Pope in the BBC Radio Man of the Year popularity contest. Within two years, Livingstone had won public opinion to his side and against government plans to abolish the GLC and the 1985 London elections. Mrs Thatcher badly misjudged. In deciding to rid the capital of Livingstone by abolishing the GLC, she in fact rescued his reputation and strengthened his popular appeal. Even the House of Lords could barely resist his charm and persuasive arguments.

It is, of course, a great irony that a left-wing socialist like Livingstone should end up lobbying the Lords to save his administration from abolition. But it’s no less ironic than him boycotting the Royal Wedding in 1981 and then inviting the Queen to open the Thames Barrier three years later. Unprincipled or merely a clever tactician? Citizen Ken portrays Livingstone both as a man of principle who is prepared to stand by controversial policies, such as his support for gay rights, and as an astute politician who would rather make an occasional tactical compromise than go down the road of martyrdom and defeat. His tactical trimming has not endeared him to the more uncompromising sections of the left; but it has ensured that Labour has remained in power to carry out the bulk of its manifesto commitments and it has contributed to a revival of Labour’s electoral fortunes in London.

The book doesn’t tell the whole story about Livingstone’s GLC; it is notably weak on the important and innovative policy areas of planning, municipal enterprise, anti-racism, women’s rights and policing. Nevertheless, it does give a clear insight into why the administration at County Hall has become a model for progressive local authorities from Amsterdam to Adelaide. It is surely only the first of many volumes yet to come on the rise and rise of citizen Ken.

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