Enoch Powell (who thanks to a recent revelation and in part to Ken may now be described as a onetime member of the LGBT community) said “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure“. Ken’s career may have ended in defeat yesterday, but it was no failure. Before anything else is said, Ken deserves a tribute. Indeed he deserves more tributes than he will get from his fellow members of the Labour Party, but of that we shall say more anon.
He will remain a giant of London politics long after most people stop remembering that there used to be a Mayor Johnson. He has been a major national political figure since 1981. How many national political figures from 1981 could have even contemplated holding a major political office until 2016? None.
Ken’s greatest contribution to British politics was to take unpopular causes, notably issues of race, sexism, and homophobia, take actions and implement policies which made a difference to significant minorities, and over time see those causes taken into the mainstream of British politics, by the Tories as well as New Labour. Back in the 1980s, however, Ken was vilified for raising them by Thatcher’s government, by almost the entire media, and by most people in his own party, including many on the more traditional Left and in the trade unions. If Thatcher had not decided to abolish the GLC, perhaps Ken’s carer would have ended sooner and Britain might have been a very different place today.
Following the Brixton riots in the summer of 1981, Ken had no choice but to take action on race but his approach was very different from that advocated by others. Lord Scarman’s report into the riots, though recognising “racial disadvantage” and “racial discrimination” as underlying causes, argued that “institutional racism” did not exist. Eighteen years after Scarman, the Macpherson Report, an investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, concluded that the police force was “institutionally racist”, vindicating Ken’s approach.
Under Ken’s leadership (he chaired the GLC Ethnic Minorities committee personally), the GLC consulted with black and other minority ethnic communities, drew up equal opportunities policies, employed race relations advisers, and sought to empower diverse communities by awarding millions of pounds in grants. Ken’s approach broke with the prevailing assumption of assimilation as the core objective, redefining anti-racism as the promotion of the right to be different, the encouragement of diversity. Under New Labour, this multiculturalism became the new British orthodoxy and, thanks largely to Ken, is at the heart of London’s identity.
The experience with gender equality was similar. Ken’s policies achieved real change in practice amongst the GLC’s large workforce. In 1981, no women or black people in the GLC Supplies department, for example, where they made up the bulk of the staff, had ever reached even middle management. The Fire Brigade had only six black staff out of 6,500. That changed radically. In the provision of services too, there was institutional racism. Only 2% of GLC housing lettings went to non-whites in 1981.
For these policies, Ken was hounded by the Sun, the Mail and the Standard but that vilification reached a new depth with the involvement of the GLC in challenging homophobia, notably through its grant-funding. The Blairites who now seem to dominate LGBT Labour could do more to recognise the role played by a heterosexual man who carried on making the speeches he’d been making for years about lesbian and gay rights after he became Leader of the GLC several years before Chris Smith became the first MP to come out.
In London politics, there is much for which Ken will be remembered –of what he did and more still of the vision he had but which he was not allowed to implement. The crowning glory of his achievement, however, is London’s transport system. Ken became Leader of the GLC on the back of his work on London’s regional party executive to put an alternative transport policy at the heart of Labour’s appeal. Cheaper fares (free travel for all was dropped in a concession to the unions) and all day free travel for pensioners on buses and tubes increased passenger numbers by 70%, raised revenue by 11% in spite of the 32% cut in fares, and cut the number of cars entering central London in the morning peak. New rail services like Crossrail and Thameslink were planned.
Even after the GLC was abolished, Thatcher dared not extend to London the bus deregulation and rail privatisation which devastated services in the rest of Britain. And when Ken returned as Mayor, the process he’d begun continued, reinforced by congestion charging, his boldest and bravest move.
But it was not only in mainstream public transport and congestion charging that Ken’s contribution was outstanding: door-to-door services for people with disabilities and a more accessible mainstream network, cycling provision, the regulation of noisy and polluting lorries, the focus on safety and on pedestrian facilities are all part of his legacy.
Ken says he won’t stand in another election (although actually he is a candidate in Labour’s national executive election later this month), and so we can take it he will not hold major executive public office again. He has, of course, made mistakes in his career, though again not as many as you will read about on a number of ‘Labour’ websites. Some of his mistakes will have affected his showing in this election, but they all pale into insignificance in comparison with his positive legacy which remains outstanding.
Ken has a young family and deserves to enjoy spending more time with them. And we look forward to his continuing political contributions in whatever form they take.