It was only a few days into the tense balloting for Labour candidate for the new position of Mayor of London in February. At the Town Hall in Ealing -- a sandstone castle in the midst of this mall-heavy West London neighborhood -- a small meeting had been booked in a basement room. Ken Livingstone, the insurgent candidate, was coming to speak.
The mood by this time had become slightly paranoid. "I understand 'the other side' has played the rules all to their advantage," a pudgy volunteer intimated. Local residents filled the seats -- parents with children, construction workers, delegates from the Black Labour Representation Committee -- and an ancient, wrinkled Londoner descended the stairs, with bulging pockets and a flat cap. "What's this for?" he shouted. "What? Ken Livingstone? Oh, that's alright, then!"
It seemed fitting that the Ghost of London Past should make an appearance, shuffling into the hall, before Livingstone himself swept in carrying his cup of coffee in a paper sack. The ballot had been described as a pitched battle between Old Labour and New. Its real importance, time will show, has more to do with the changing shape of internal British politics. The Labour Party isn't threatened in the least by the bumbling Tories -- only by its own rigid control of dissent.
Two months ago, this sort of meeting was the rather modest public face of the hardest-fought political contest in the United Kingdom. The struggle was only for party nomination, not election. And it went towards a position that didn't exist a year ago -- but one that, covering a constituency of five million people who were formerly serviced by small local councils, has begun to look like the number two job in Britain.
Livingstone, a key figure of the 1980s, has the popular backing to be the ruling party's candidate for London mayor -- but the Labour leadership didn't want him. Frank Dobson, a bearded Labourite of the same well-trodden vintage as Livingstone, was the leadership's top pick -- but actual party members don't want him. Blair operatives, from Labour headquarters at Millbank, said their worst about "Red Ken" and his predicted reign of terror from the "loony left." And an electoral college was established to replace a direct general ballot by members -- meant to shepherd Dobson through, regardless of popularity, on the heavily weighted votes of loyal Members of Parliament.
Now Livingstone is running as an Independent. He was expelled from the Labour party on Tuesday, after three decades of membership. He has little cause to care. The climate is changing rapidly from the tense jockeying of the Labour ballot to a firm lead, among the general electorate, for the rogue candidate.
Because all that Labour fixing worked -- but not without letting of blood. Dobson edged out Livingstone by only 3 percent of the Electoral College, at 51.5 percent to Livingstone's 48.5 percent. The victory occurred because of Parliamentary advantage. Though some 49,000 party members and 433,000 trade unionists were given two-thirds of the voting, the remaining one-third went to just seventy-five Labour office-holders and candidates. It's said that just 64 politicians and one trade-union head (who refused to ballot his members) carried the day for Dobson. For observers all across the political spectrum, among those who trust Livingstone and those who don't, there is the widespread recognition that Labour blew it.
But the continuing popularity of Red Ken may be primarily a symbol of the deep-rootedness of Labour ideals in a changed landscape of internal opposition -- and support, perhaps, for an old-style socialist public-spiritedness in the midst of the Third Way. Today, pundits agree that Livingstone is a master of realpolitik. But for those who remembered the Thatcher years, Livingstone was a Labour martyr. As head of a body called the Greater London Council (GLC) from 1981 to 1986, a powerful metropolitan organization that employed 27,000 Londoners, he was the populist hero of the opposition. He made London transportation inexpensive with his Fares Fair policy and added amenities for bicyclists, minorities, women and gays. He was a glorious nuisance to the Tories. When Thatcher abolished the GLC in 1986, it was seen in large part as a move to shut Livingstone down. London has had no independent government since.
Until this year, when New Labour put in motion its gift to London: a New Mayor. The post comes in the context of Labour's general support for principles of devolution. The idea is that if power can be shared with new local authorities, then local desires will be better integrated with the national government. The mayor becomes spokesman for 32 boroughs (plus the City of London) and 640 square miles of territory. He (or she) manages new authorities for transport, development, police and fire, to consolidate services that local councils can't fix themselves. A 25-member Greater London Assembly will be formed to check the mayor's power. And all of this new government will be contained in a lavish glass-fronted bubble, slated for construction on the south bank of the Thames: a symbol of the transparency, inclusiveness and modernization that New Labour wishes to have as its legacy.
The legacy of decentralization, however -- as it's shaping up these days, all over the UK -- is precisely what makes the stakes so high in London. Devolution, really intended to link regional interests more closely to Blairism, has proven to be a genie in a bottle: attractive when planned, uncontrollable when implemented.
With Labour still the only strong political force on the block, central control is still suffering. The new Scottish Parliament has tangled with Blair's government over tuition fees for students. The transfer of power in the House of Lords is stalled. The London debacle is a final challenge to New Labour's authority -- with confusion remaining over the diminished mandate Dobson might carry, as a New Labour puppet, if elected to the new mayorship.
In person, Livingstone was never quite the firebrand that Blairites feared and Leftists crave. He has a natural charm, and enthusiasm about an improved London. But his dominant characteristic is the unflappability of someone who has seen it all and doesn't think much of government promises. The skeptically arched eyebrow is the true Livingstone gesture.
The one place Ken's actual policies diverged from those of the other London candidates was his strong opposition to the partial privatization of the Underground. Livingstone suggested a bond scheme instead, to keep private operators from muscling in on the rebuilding of public transport. Buses, especially, are a pet topic: He wants to see them restored to use by rich and poor alike, with extra stewards and cleaning staff, in a bit of nostalgia for the London of bowler hats and decorum.
The massive popular support for Livingstone that existed both before the ballot and since -- all post-ballot polls have showed strong support for Livingstone's run as an Independent, and Labour may be distancing itself from Dobson's sinking ship -- seems to have most to do with a combination of skepticism and nostalgia. This is the current that Blairites will need to recognize. In the rigid unity that helped the party to defeat the Tories three years ago, no place existed for internal opposition. Now the public wants such a standpoint to express its displeasure. Privatization and market pragmatism may have helped Labour to overcome and humanize Thatcherism. But the core Labour members who stuck with the party through thick and thin -- including those in many trade unions and co-operatives -- are in a position to demand something more than lip service to the basic socialism that unites them.
The Ghost of Red Ken will hover over New Labour's mayoral bubble, whoever winds up being elected on May 4; it will do Tony Blair no good, as hopes build for a second term in government, to be thought of as Scrooge.