Maverick leftist leads historic London race

`Red Ken' poised to become city's first direct-elected mayor

May 05, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair couldn't stop him and the Fleet Street press couldn't derail him.

He's Ken Livingstone, a maverick left-wing politician who was poised last night to become London's first directly elected mayor, according to exit polls.

Separated from the Labor Party after he decided to run for mayor as an independent, Livingstone emerged from a hard-fought campaign as an ultimate survivor of British politics.

The man known as "Red Ken," who ran the Greater London Council that was put out of business by Margaret Thatcher, is headed back into power.

"It's a quite wonderful feeling," Livingstone said in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview. "I never thought I'd be back in this type of position. I want to establish a system of government that serves as a model for the rest of Britain."

According to a BBC poll, Livingstone gained 42 percent of the vote, ahead of the Conservatives' Steven Norris (25 percent), Labor's Frank Dobson (14 percent) and Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer (12 percent).

Livingstone needed 50 percent of the vote to win a first-ballot knockout. But according to the poll, he was expected to pick up the majority of second-preference ballots cast and claim the triumph. Final results are due today.

"My first job is to draw a line in the sand of a very unpleasant, divisive campaign," said Livingstone, who added that he wanted to move back into the party fold.

"Tony Blair and myself both want the new system to work . ... We have a huge interest in working together so it benefits Londoners and the Labor Party," Livingstone said.

There is a fear among Labor activists that Livingstone could emerge as an opposition foil to Blair, who is experiencing a mid-term swoon.

From the stalemated Northern Ireland peace process to the potential loss of thousands of jobs in the auto industry to the growing debate on letting asylum seekers settle in Britain, Blair faces mounting problems.

With a huge majority in the House of Commons, few analysts envision Labor losing in the next general election, which will likely be held next year. But the Conservatives could cut the deficit.

Besides suffering the embarrassment of seeing Livingstone win in London, Labor was expected to lose ground against the resurgent Tories in local elections across Britain yesterday.

To "New Labor," Livingstone is the ghost of the old left, big-spending and brash-talking. That's why Blair and his allies blocked Livingstone's path to the party nomination as they sought to prop up Dobson's candidacy.

Instead of folding, Livingstone trawled London's streets atop a garish purple double-decker bus, his nasal voice booming from a loudspeaker.

Even though the people were behind him, the pols and newspapers were against him.

"A vote for Ken is a vote for them," The Sun of London wrote opposite a picture of May Day rioters who paralyzed central London on Monday.

The Financial Times said Livingstone was the "least suitable" of the main candidates, concluding "Mr. Livingstone's priorities, in short, are likely to be: number one, personal aggrandizement; number two, Ken's political future."

Livingstone's ability to stir things up is both a charm and a liability.

In the 1980s, he ran the Greater London Council, a citywide body that was a thorn in the side of Conservative Prime Minister Thatcher.

Livingstone famously posted London's unemployment numbers in a giant banner atop the GLC's headquarters, which was opposite the Houses of Parliament.

Thatcher got even, though. She put the GLC out of business and sold off its building.

Livingstone eventually retreated to the "back benches" in the House of Commons, his left-wing policies out of step with the centrist "New Labor" Party that Blair created in the mid-1990s and rode to power in 1997.

But Livingstone found an opening. And surprisingly, it was Blair who supplied it by championing local assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, and a local parliament to Scotland. For London, a prize was reserved, a directly elected mayor and 25-member assembly.

Next to France's president, London's new mayor will have the largest direct electoral mandate in Western Europe, representing 5 million voters in a sprawling metropolis.

The new mayor will wield limited executive powers over such areas as transportation, policing and planning.

Perhaps more important, though, he'll have access to the nation's big bully pulpits in the heart of the media-saturated capital.

Apparently, come July 3, when the local government takes power, "Red Ken" will be known as "Mr. Mayor."

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