In February 1987 Patricia Hewitt, the press secretary to Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, wrote to Frank Dobson, who chaired the London group of Labour MPs. ‘It is obvious from our own polling, as well as from the doorstep that the “London effect” is now very noticeable,’ Hewitt wrote. ‘The “loony Labour left” is taking its toll; the gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear amongst the pensioners; and fear of extremism and higher taxes/rates is particularly prominent in the GLC area.’
The Greater London Council no longer existed – it had been closed down by the Conservative government the previous year – but the memory, Hewitt believed, lingered on.
Ken Livingstone, however, whose leadership of the GLC had provoked the closure, was quick to deny that this was the case. In the previous general election, in 1983, he argued, the swing to the Tories had been less pronounced in London than the national average.
But no one else was looking back to 1983, when there was a general election due in the next few months. Even more urgently, the Hewitt letter came the day after the Greenwich by-election, when Rosie Barnes, the SDP candidate, took the formerly Labour seat. Her opponent, Deidre Wood, was portrayed as an extremist largely because she had once been a GLC councillor. (Among the other defeated candidates was comedy legend Malcolm Hardee, whose Rainbow Dream Ticket, Beer, Fags & Skittles Party got just 124 votes.) There was a very real fear that the image of Livingstone might drive away voters in the forthcoming election.
In fact, the concern about ‘the GLC area’ proved to be misplaced. Livingstone was genuinely popular by now in London, maybe not among ‘the pensioners’ but certainly with a younger electorate.
To cement that appeal, the GLC’s generous approach to cultural politics was warmly reciprocated by alternative comedians, artists and musicians. ‘Ken Livingstone’s a folk hero,’ as Dexys Midnight Runners pointed out on ‘Reminisce Part One’ (1983), while Bananarama referenced the legal battle over the GLC’s transport policies in their rather charming instrumental ‘Give Us Back Our Cheap Fares’ (1982). That affection grew over the ensuing years, as the GLC era became slightly rosier in memory than it had been at the time.
Livingstone himself, meanwhile, had been elected to Westminster in 1987, but from the outset was seen by the party establishment as a trouble-maker who needed to be brought to heel. For a year he wasn’t allocated an office or even a desk, let alone offered a job. When an opportunity did arise, it was quickly snuffed out. ‘I was put up for the coypu control committee,’ he remembered. ‘Then they announced that the coypu was extinct, and the committee disbanded.’
When a Labour government finally emerged, a full decade on from the Greenwich by-election, it created the post of Mayor of London, and there was never really any doubt who should be the first holder. Livingstone ran a superb popular campaign to get the Labour nomination and, when that was gerrymandered out of his grasp, he stood as an independent and won at a canter. He was, in short, still popular in London – popular enough that Tony Blair subsequently bent the rules to let him back into the Labour Party.
But that view of Livingstone isn’t shared outside the capital. It’s not just that his personal support didn’t extend beyond the M25; more than that, he’s always been actively disliked by the wider electorate. Patricia Hewitt was right: he did create a London effect, he did alienate voters.
And by the end, he was alienating voters in London too. He won the mayoralty twice, but then lost it to Boris Johnson in 2008. (‘You lost the election to that guy?’ marvelled Jerry Springer on Have I Got News for You?, after seeing a clip of Johnson being characteristically bumptious.)
Refusing to recognise reality, Livingstone stood again in 2012, although he was now old enough to qualify for one of the Freedom Passes he’d pioneered at the GLC. He shouldn’t have done so. He looked old and tired, and his politics felt desperate and dated. He was beaten again by Johnson, and now it really was time to settle down in Chez Guevara, the retirement home for romantic lefties.
Except that last September he was summoned from his slumbers on LBC Radio. Jeremy Corbyn, his old colleague from the days of London Labour Briefing, had been elected leader of the party and he wanted to get the band back together. John McDonnell, who’d chaired the GLC’s finance committee, became shadow chancellor; Diane Abbot, former GLC press officer, was in the shadow cabinet; and Livingstone himself became accepted as a kind of free-ranging unofficial media spokesperson for the leadership.
Whether he actually was representing Corbyn and McDonnell’s views, whether he had access to their thoughts, didn’t matter much. He was just a better invitee for a television show: Corbyn comes across as awkward, McDonnell as menacing, but Livingstone exudes relaxation; he’s more comfortable in a broadcast studio than any other leading figure on the British left has ever been. He’s also better known than Corbyn or McDonnell, is more readily available (having never been known to turn down a TV request), and can normally be counted on for a provocative comment, delivered as though it were perfectly obvious common sense.
Last week, of course, he went a provocation too far, and he is currently suspended from the Labour Party. A long succession of Labour leaders has regarded him with deep suspicion and dislike: he was egocentric, it was believed (and coming from politicians, that was some charge), always liable to go off-message. But to have pushed even Jeremy Corbyn into taking disciplinary action against him? That surely was an impressive achievement.
The questions over Livingstone’s political future – the question of whether such a thing exists – don’t matter much in the big picture. Because it’s already too late. The London effect has now taken over the party. It was evident when Ed Miliband was the leader, and it has got worse with the elevation of Corbyn and McDonnell. Corbyn is still popular in the capital, but far less convincing in the country beyond.
The round of elections this week are widely expected to confirm this. Labour should retake the London mayoralty, but is predicted to perform poorly (at best) elsewhere in England, Scotland and Wales. The Conservative attack on Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayoral candidate – for what are alleged to be associations with extremists – is not aimed solely at a London audience, but rather is intended to make sure that Labour remains synonymous with London.
In a system of proportional representation, it would have made sense long ago for Livingstone to have been the leader of a separate but allied grouping, a London Labour Party. Then a Corbyn-led version could have ploughed its own furrow without scaring the horses (to mix equine metaphors). But it may be too late to close that stable door.
The concept of London as a separate nation, the idea that the rest of the country deeply dislikes a liberal metropolitan elite – these things have become clichés. They’re the stock-in-trade of a legion of commentators. But they are also rooted in truth. In 1971 Michael Palin wrote of friends of his in Guildford: ‘They talked about “London” as a descriptive term for all rather suspect, critical, left wing, un-British opinions.’
In the 1980s the GLC gave that perception a personal face. And, for better or worse, it’s now the face of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party; even if Livingstone himself is permanently removed from the front line, the memory will remain. Just as Patricia Hewitt feared.