Ken Livingstone and the Big City.
One of the funny things about England is how fixated journalists and the political class are on Westminster politics. Compared to Germany, Italy, and America, English attentions are politically centralized.
This is probably one of the reasons why local government within this country has withered and why it is still the case that anyone interested in politics looks to the City-State of London and to the Houses of Parliament rather than local councils or Mayors.
The other side of that, of course, is that many elected on the fantastically small turnouts that characterise our local democracy are functional halfwits or crooks. We really need to lose about two-thirds of UK councillors, I think.
Many commentators have over and over condemned Ken Livingstone, London's directly elected Mayor. Livingstone is involved in a complicated fight for re-election which, because of the electoral system used, could conceivably see him lose on second-preference votes to his opponent, Boris Johnson.
Johnson is a clever man who has allowed himself to be pigeonholed as a sort of Tory buffoon in recent years. However, he has produced enjoyable books on ancient Rome, developed a career as an Etonian maverick, and avoided desperate attempts by the Labour Party to portray him as a racist and contemptuous. He tends to speak directly, and given the state of British political duplicity, this often stands him in good stead with the public, as it did with Charles Kennedy.
The Roman book demonstrates Johnson's grasp of Latin and Greek also speaks to Johnson's rich heritage. His Great-Grandad was Ali Kemal, interior minister in the puppet government of Ahmed Tevfik Pasha, Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire. City politics may allow his exotic personality to be something more than a suppressed joke for the middle classes, but I cannot bring myself to endorse a Tory. I know what they do to working people. I grew up with their callous indifference to Corby, after all.
Big cities have their own fascinating micro-climates. Very often, the things that Mayors do to hold them together would be appalling if practised on a national scale, but the Japanese shadow theatre of ethnic politics seems to be a given when people think that it doesn't really matter. Livingstone has played London's complicated racial patchwork in ways that have outraged some richer white and Jewish communities, and which would be awful if he actually had any foreign affairs power.
He has, for instance, embraced mad Islamist clerics, just as he met with the IRA in an earlier incarnation on the Greater London Council. The 'Militant Islam Monitor' went spare, rightly by their lights, over his association with Yusuf Qaradawi, for instance, as did Harry's Place. 'Organized Rage', the left-wing blog, has taken a different tack.
Livingstone has also been accused of anti-semitism, and his race adviser has just been implicated in the sending of highly sexualised e-mail to an attractive lady of Indian extraction whose lobby group was attracting huge amounts of funds. You can read about it on the Ligali African forum here.
Really, though, are we talking Karl Lueger or Robert Moses here? Leuger was a brilliant administrator and Mayor of Vienna on the late nineteenth century from whom Hitler, according to Mein Kampf, learned his antisemitism, despite the fact that Leuger's cynical use of the old and vile prejudice never seemed to result in actual anti-Jewish policies or violence. I have to say, and I mean this, that that is not to excuse Leuger's cynicism, just to contextualise it. Part of myself is permanently in love with Jewish culture and I'm proud to write that.
To be fair to Leuger ( who enjoyed many personal friendships with Jewish people), Hitler also probably learned a good deal of his hate for God's tribe from my own church. Leuger was a Mayor in a fevered and weakening multi-ethnic state who played on anti-Jewish feeling. Livingstone has never done anything like that.
To listen to some of his critics, associated with the London Evening Standard, he is little better than Leuger though, a ridiculous proposition.
Daniel Z, quoted on the site of Bob from Brockley, (whose blog I enjoy), puts the other side a little more strongly.
Robert Moses, the great builder of modern New York (though never Mayor) also might be invoked in discussions of what big-city leaders do and how to judge Livingstone. Moses' sweeping vision for a modern city led to some of the great architecture of the 60s, such as the World's Fair (which ruined Moses' reputation), the WPA pools that cooled 66000 New Yorkers at a time in the Depression, the Triborough Bridge, the UN building and the Twin Towers.
Moses was much attacked towards the end of his career for his buildings, before being fired by a flash-in-the-pan centrist whom liberal republicans loved, John Lindsay. Lindsay went on to practically bankrupt New York, nominate Spiro Agnew to the Vice Presidency, switched parties, and failed to become President. By contrast, the achievements of Bob Moses stand, more or less.
Livingstone has been the butt of many attacks for his own vision of London buildings and architecture, but he has presided over the congestion charge, the bankruptcy of Metronet, the attempt to create a London overground and a cross-rail link, and the use of the Olympics to regenerate East London. I think that those achievements are concrete and serious, and that no one else would have done them.
Livingstone shouldn't be judged by the standards of Westminster. He should be judged as a Mayor. I think that he has performed a little worse than my former Oxford student colleague Cory Booker in Newark, much better than David Dinkins did in New York. I would also choose Livingstone over Giuliani, and I think that he compares well with Walter Veltroni and Bertrand Delanoe.
There is one final thing to note. Livingstone, by any standards even if Ian Paisley had not retired, is the longest-functioning, and most successful regional politician in the UK since Joe Chamberlain in the late nineteenth century. His political career started before the Thatcher adminstration and just about all the usual suspects have tried to destroy him (including Thatcher herself) over the past thirty years. Yet he's still there and he is still standing. I think that in itself is a credit, because I admire people who can take it and then go on.
Have a look at this Time piece and make up your own mind. Livingstone surely deserves a shot at another term, and if I had any intention of validating contemporary British politics by voting my vote would go to him.