Ken’s one-man show

All of British politics may be in flux, but the Mayor enjoys an unchallenged position in the capital

Published in the Evening Standard 15 December 2005

Incredibly, a row which should have ended nearly 12 months ago is going to stretch into another year. Yesterday the Independent Adjudication Panel for England ? an ethics watchdog meant to supervise the conduct of local government officials in England ? adjourned its hearing into the row that has dogged Ken Livingstone through 2005. The Panel had to decide whether the mayor brought his office into disrepute when he likened Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold to a Nazi war criminal and a concentration camp guard outside a party last February ? and yesterday it put off that decision till next month at the earliest.

Don?t worry, I?m not going to rehash the arguments on both sides of this long, sorry story. Whatever the merits of their original positions, both sides should have moved to close this saga down a long time ago. The mayor could simply have apologised for any offence caused to Jewish Londoners at the start, while the Standards Board ? the body acting as prosecutor ? could have decided it had no business investigating late-night exchanges between politicians and journalists. Both sides would have saved us all hundreds of thousands of pounds.

But the row goes on, threatening Livingstone with censure or, worse, suspension ? thereby temporarily stripping him of his powers and handing them to the London Assembly. That couldn?t happen at a more sensitive time ? just as the mayor is drawing up his budget.

What?s strange about the whole business is that this cloud hangs over Livingstone just as the rest of his sky looks so clear. For, far away from yesterday?s tribunal and the Finegold row, the mayor has pulled off one of the most astonishing political transformations of our time. Once a backbench has-been, a relic of the forgotten battles of the 1980s, he is now in the most commanding position enjoyed by any politician on these islands.

Just look around. In the rest of the UK, the story of December 2005 has been the restoration of normal political life. Rejuvenated Conservatives now promise a return to familiar two-party combat, as they at last seem capable of threatening the government. After eight years in which New Labour’s dominance was total, David Cameron’s arrival has suddenly put the Tories in contention.

It?s a new landscape ? one in which all the key players have reason to worry. Tony Blair now frets that his authority is draining away. Gordon Brown fears that, next to Cameron, he will look like last year?s model. And Cameron knows that, for all the euphoria, he has a steep mountain to climb: to win an overall majority at the next election he would need to win a staggering 130 seats.

Elsewhere in the UK, there are similarly furrowed brows. Labour rule in Scotland, but only in coalition with the Lib Dems. In Wales, Labour’s grip is similarly perilous.

London is the exception. Here Livingstone’s command is total. The Tories may be giving Labour sleepless nights nationally, but for Livingstone they pose only the remotest danger: try as they might, his own aides cannot name a Conservative who could plausibly challenge the mayor and hope to win.

It used to be that the mayor’s greatest headache came from his own side. It was Tony Blair who predicted that Livingstone would be a ?disaster? for London. Brown, meanwhile, made himself a roadblock in the mayor’s path ? thwarting his dreams of taking charge of the Tube.

Yet now Livingstone?s relationship with Labour is all hugs and back-slaps. Just this month the government proposed giving the mayor a clutch of new powers ? over everything from waste to planning. Ask why and ministers will admit that the PM got it wrong: Livingstone has not been a disaster. Instead, the mayoralty has proved a success, with tangible achievements from the congestion charge to an increase in bus usage.

Now in its third term, the government is desperate to find mechanisms that can deliver. Despairing of the national bureaucracy and vast, lumbering government departments, they find the mayor’s office a surprisingly effective alternative. That’s partly why they want to beef up Livingstone’s powers. They hope London will become an attractive model for other British cities, as Manchester or Birmingham decide they want some of what Ken’s having. On this, unusually, both Blair and Brown seem united. I’m told that even Brown’s Treasury now enjoys a healthy working relationship with the mayor’s office ? despite their sour history.

It seems an impossibly rosy picture: rave reviews from business for his stewardship of the Olympic bid, plaudits for his first response to the July 7 bombings, a consensus that as an executive, the mayor gets things done.

So politically the sky is blue, the view from City Hall spoiled only by the ongoing Finegold row. Underneath that apparently technical, legalistic dispute is a genuine political problem for the mayor. It is that much of London’s Jewish community continue to believe that the mayor ? so attentive to the needs of other minorities ? somehow has a blind spot, if not worse, when it comes to them. It?s not just crass remarks about war criminals. It?s also his embrace of the Egyptian cleric Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, whose belief that suicide bombing is always wrong unless the victims are Israeli, hurts Jews badly.

There are others who share the Jewish community?s frustration. Gay activist Peter Tatchell has railed against Ken?s indulgence of Qaradawi, given the latter?s brutal attitudes to homosexuality, while plenty of Londoners shake their heads when they hear their mayor sound off on foreign policy questions that, they believe, should be none of his business.

But the outlet for this discontent must be political, not legal. It has to be voters, not an unelected quango, that removes Livingstone from power ? if that?s what Londoners want. Right now, his political position is almost uniquely strong. If voters want to turn that around, they will have to start making that case not in a tribunal, but in the public square. Given how things stand, that will be a tall order. But that?s what democracy is all about.