Ken Livingstone: The Brad Pitt of London Politics Is Cool and Focused, despite Opposition and Wilful Pigeons

By Riddell, Mary | New Statesman (1996), July 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

Ken Livingstone: The Brad Pitt of London Politics Is Cool and Focused, despite Opposition and Wilful Pigeons


Riddell, Mary, New Statesman (1996)


The offices of the Greater London Authority sit in a Westminster street whose mid-afternoon torpor makes Ambridge seem like Bangkok. There is a coffee bar (shut), a picture-framer's (shut), a natural food store (shut), a newsagent (shut) and a hairdresser (open, but featuring a drearily off-putting spider plant in the window). This slumberous setting somehow epitomises Ken Livingstone's London, once deemed the coolest city on earth and now in receipt of a wooden spoon award from Lonely Planet judges, who preferred Fishguard. The reign of Mayor Livingstone has been, according to his critics, similarly bereft of spark.

London Underground, on his own admission, gets worse by the day, foot-and-mouth disease has strangled the summer tourist trade, and English Heritage fulminates over plans to dot the city with skyscrapers. Even Ken's Stalinesque decision to halt grain rations to disease-ridden pigeons has made little impact on the clouds of birds buzzing plumply round Trafalgar Square like botulism on the wing. Livingstone, starved of power, has proven equally adept at survival.

"I've loved it. I hated the backbencher's role of just loafing around, making the odd speech, voting this way or that. I felt quite weepy about my last constituency function, but the way of life was no loss ... I have a thousand times more power than I had as an MP, though not as much as I did with the GLC. I used to be able to say: 'Do this, cut that, run more buses.' But here, particularly with the input of the Greens, the radical left is able to work out the agenda it can pursue in a globalised world."

Ken does seem to like power. The GLA magazine marking his first year in office is dominated by an interview conducted by Helen Mirren. The questions (such as "Do people recognise you when you take the Tube to work?") and a series of sofa shots in which he slugs tea and Mirren deploys leg-crossing body language seem designed to make Livingstone as Brad Pittish as can reasonably be contrived. In particular, the cover portrait of two heads nuzzled together like silver-wedding celebrants offers the slickest possible advert for Charisma Ken. If only his relationship with the Chancellor of the Exchequer seemed a fraction as smoochy, Londoners might feel much more optimistic.

We meet in a week when, as ever, there are rumours that a deal will be thrashed out on the Tube. Though the Treasury remains insistent on introducing its public-private partnership option, the prospect of Bob Kiley, the chairman of London Transport, storming heroically back to New York, would be unsupportable for the newly appointed Secretary of State for Transport, Stephen Byers. Something may have to give. It will not, Livingstone says, be him. "We're getting absolutely nowhere. I'm 99 per cent certain that the court case will go ahead." Given Ken's slippery grip on certainty ("I'll never run as an Independent for mayor"), it could all be fixed before this article appears. If not, the judicial review of the government's plan is due to start on 23 July. Livingstone, who says (with much justification) that a Tube track sell-off would be Railtrack Mark II, claims that the public-private partnership plan is "unsafe, uneconomic and inefficient".

How cleverly Ken plays his hand. Following the Cullen report on the Ladbroke Grove crash, public safety and the expert view of his transport commissioner make it impossible, alas, for him to bow to Treasury forces. "The whole world accepts what happened to British Rail was a disaster. Where else would a government just do it again? I'm completely up for a deal. The government has to save face, but I can't compromise safety. I'm not going to sit in front of a judicial inquiry in four years, when two Tube trains have collided, and say we thought we'd take a chance. I've asked Kiley at every stage, 'Does this put lives at risk?', and the answer is yes. Will there be fatalities? Yes, there will. It's only through luck that we haven't had one already. …

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