Fourteen years had passed since Margaret Thatcher’s abolition of the Greater London Council and with it, she might have thought, its leader at the time, Ken Livingstone. But on 4 May 2000, 20 years ago today, Londoners directly elected the very same “Red Ken” to be their first executive Mayor. The Prime Minister of that time, Tony Blair, wasn’t any keener on Livingstone than Thatcher had been. Indeed, Livingstone was the last person the architect of “New Labour” had wanted at the helm of the new kind of London-wide government he had introduced to fill the void Thatcher had created.
Blair had practically ordered Labour members in London to select Frank Dobson, the MP for Holborn & St Pancras, to be their party’s candidate. The defeated Livingstone responded by running as an Independent, winning with room to spare (Dobson finished a distant third, well behind Conservative Steve Norris) and soon announced that he would take the government to court over its plans to finance upgrading the Underground in partnership with the private sector.
He failed in that endeavour – it later fell to Boris Johnson to, as he put it at the time, “re-nationalise the Tube”. But a striking range of people think Livingstone, especially in his first term, has been the best London Mayor so far. By the time he was re-elected in 2004, he had been re-admitted to Labour and was soon working hand in glove with Blair to win the 2012 Olympics bid. The greatest irony of all is that Livingstone saw City Hall, with its limited formal powers, as a base from which to orchestrate consensus rather foment conflict. Interviewed by Prospect Magazine in 2007, a year before Boris Johnson toppled him, he sounded positively, well, Blairite:
“My role has changed since GLC days. Then, my job was the day-to-day management of the Labour caucus. Now, I just have to make sure my budget goes through the Assembly once a year—and in the rest of my time I can put together coalitions of interests around a common agenda. City Hall is the centre of a web. So, for example, you get everybody signed up to Crossrail. Before, I was looking inward to the party machine, now I look outward. It’s a position that, thanks to the prestige of the office, enables you to broker deals with government or the private sector…There isn’t a great ideological conflict any more. The business community, for example, has been almost depoliticised. One of the first people to lobby me when I became Mayor was Judith Mayhew, from the City Corporation. She came and said, ‘We’ve all changed, it won’t be like the last time, there’s so much we can do together.’ I didn’t believe a word of it, but it turned out to be true.”