Magazine article The Spectator

It's Going to Be Worse Than You Think

Magazine article The Spectator

It's Going to Be Worse Than You Think

Article excerpt

WHAT a card, what a comic! How could anyone be seriously opposed to Ken Livingstone, the man who informs London, in that voice that sounds like a cross between Kenneth Williams and Private Pike from Dad's Anny, that when he is mayor, `the sun will be shining every day'?

With just a week to go before polling, he is now such a runaway favourite that the bookies have even decided to stop taking bets on him. `To all intents and purposes, Ken Livingstone looks unbeatable,' says Graham Sharpe of the bookmakers William Hill. And that view is borne out by the opinion polls, which have consistently shown Livingstone to be more than 30 per cent ahead of his rival, an astonishing margin for a British electoral contest.

Livingstone's seemingly inevitable triumph has certainly not been built on solid policy pronouncements, for it would be hard to conceive of a more irresponsible and frivolous candidate. Ten days ago he launched his election manifesto for London and it was typical Red Ken stuff, packed with trivial, eye-catching gestures such as promoting an annual St Patrick's Day celebration and banning lobbyists from the Greater London Assembly. On the major issues in the capital such as crime, business and transport, his document was, like the man himself, long on rhetoric but short on practicalities.

Yet Livingstone's essential shallowness hardly appears to matter to Londoners. They seem to prefer a clownish, studentstyle activist to a realistic civic leader. Ken Livingstone has become that rarest of British beasts, the genuinely popular leftwing politician. Usually, the only radical socialists with an affectionate following are either long retired from office, like Tony Benn or Michael Foot, or confined to the pages of fiction, like Harry Perkins, the prime-ministerial hero of Chris Mullin's novel A Very British Coup. But, with Livingstone, the nearer he comes to power, the more his following grows, even among otherwise sensible people who should despise his puerile antics. As one New Labour member, Paul Richards, ruefully put it to me, `Even if every single Labour supporter stays at home, Ken will win easily because so many Tories are backing him.'

Apart from Livingstone's comic appeal, there are two other reasons why the public is strongly behind his campaign. First, the electorate wants, understandably, to give Tony Blair a bloody nose. Ken has become the ideal lightning rod for disenchantment with New Labour's failure to deliver on its promises and its obsessive control-freakery. Second, there is a widespread belief that the London mayor will have no power; therefore, when Ken wins, he will not be able to cause any serious harm. But this kind of thinking is based on a dangerous fallacy. In reality, a Livingstone mayoralty will be able to cause great mischief across the capital, with disastrous consequences for business, public services and taxation. Far from being little more than a cuddly figurehead, Livingstone, armed with unprecedented powers and a personal mandate unique in the history of British politics, will soon be a menace to public life in the capital.

Take the issue of crime. It is impossible to see Red Ken as a crusader for zero tolerance of law-breaking, like the mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani. Indeed, respect for the law has never been one of Livingstone's strong points. This is the politician who notoriously sided with the rioters during the recent violent protests in the City, who explained that he had `always been in favour of direct action', and who has argued, only this month, that the IRA are not criminals but `people who believe they are fighting for the freedom of their country'. In a similar vein, he has called for the decriminalisation both of prostitution and of the use of drugs like cannabis and Ecstasy.

Given those attitudes, it is little wonder that many police officers are privately expressing despair about combating drugs or terrorism under a Livingstone mayoralty As one experienced police officer put it to me, `Livingstone will be a nightmare for us. …

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