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KEN LIVINGSTONE - BACK FOR MORE

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Best remembered for his GLC days, London mayoral hopeful Ken Livingstone has some modest policies that seem to have...
Best remembered for his GLC days, London mayoral hopeful Ken Livingstone has some modest policies that seem to have got lost in the rhetoric surrounding the forthcoming elections. Simon Parker reports.

For many Londoners, and those on the left, the Greater London Council was a beacon of resistance to Margaret Thatcher's government, while for New Labour it was a disastrous time that helped make the party unelectable for 18 years.

To the Conservatives the GLC was an overly powerful, troublesome council. Their decision to abolish it removed a significant hurdle to a process of centralisation still being played out.

On 4 May, Ken Livingstone looks likely to win the chance to be in charge of London again, and part of his plan as the city's mayor will be to reverse that process. The Independent candidate says doing a good job within the mayor's limited powers is crucial to 'winning the case for more devolution at a regional level and to local government'.

The policy is not entirely altruistic. Mr Livingstone wants extra powers for the

mayor, including responsibility for the NHS in London and more power over the railways. His desire for extra power has already provided his detractors in the Labour Party with ammunition.

Even before he decided to leave the Labour Party and run as an independent, his former colleagues were lining up to call him a self-obsessed oppositionist, who simply wanted the mayor's job as a means to attack the government.

Mr Livingstone suggested in a recent interview that his desire for devolution is more principled: 'Socialists are beginning to rethink what is the wave of the future, and clearly socialism has to be about devolution, democracy, decentralisation and empowering local people.'

Judging from his policies for London, Mr Livingstone has moved on from the radical politics he championed in the 1980s. His manifesto for the capital in 2000 certainly is not as radical as the one that saw him elected 19 years ago. He plans to keep the underground in public hands through a bond issue but that does not put him substantially to the left of Susan Kramer, the Liberal Democrat candidate.

Despite the Greater London Authority's limitations, Mr Livingstone believes , in some ways, it could be a better form of city government than the council he once ran. He said: 'One of my main criticisms of the GLC's arrangements was that it was saddled with huge service delivery responsibilities, especially in housing, which should have been done at a more local level. I've stressed I will not want to interfere with matters that belong to the boroughs.'

Mr Livingstone's politics are clearer in his big political statements than in his policies. As this interview was being written, the latest polls showed the first major dent in Mr Livingstone's opinion poll support: A 12 point drop to just below 50%.

The fall is being blamed on comments, 'gaffes' in the eyes of some, such as his claim in the New Musical Express: 'Every year the international financial system kills more people than World War II.'

These sweeping political statements work in two ways. They undoubtedly put off the voters of middle England but they also attract a certain type of voter. People who see themselves as intellectually outside the political system, including the young, ethnic minorities, the gay community and the poor, all love this stuff. They also form a substantial section of the vote in London.

For many of them, his policies are neither here nor there. His views on racial equality, homosexual marriage and drugs are what matters. They speak of a moral courage the Labour Party is seen to lack.

This has completely fudged the debate in London's mayoral elections, focusing it on rhetoric rather than making the underground run on time. It also distracts attention from the fact Ken Livingstone seems to have a reasonably sensible set of policies.

He is, for instance, currently the only candidate to have said explicitly he wants to learn from local government when making policy: 'Many London boroughs are breaking new ground in environmental initiatives, new regeneration and community safety partnerships, improving educational attainment. I want to learn from those successes in agreeing the new London strategies for planning, transport, the environment and economic development.

'Promoting and spreading proven achievements and solutions will do much more to improve services and the quality of life in London than naming and shaming.'

But he emphasises the flow between local and central government will be two-way. The boroughs will have to play their part and recognise their responsibility to work within the GLA's strategies. Mr Livingstone plans, for example, to set targets for affordable, low cost homes and then leave it to the boroughs to work with developers and housing associations to make sure land is brought forward to build on and targets are met.

'It should not be necessary for the mayor to have to resort to their development control powers to ensure all councils are making their contribution to meeting London's housing needs,' he says, 'though I will be ready to do so if necessary.'

That still leaves the issue of whether he can work with London's Labour-dominated councils after such an acrimonious, and public, split with the party. Tory mayoral candidate Steve Norris has said the main parties will use the London Assembly to block Mr Livingstone if he wins the top job. Despite that, the signs are Mr Livingstone would be a viable mayor. Using the assembly to block Mr Livingstone's policies would not be a smart move for the big parties.

The reason Red Ken has ridden through the party onslaught is simple. A vote for Mr Livingstone has always been a vote against the government of the day and the inevitable compromises and disappointments of party politics. If he wins next month London will have a chance to make up its minds about him all over again.

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