"Red Ken" explains why big business is a progressive force in the new, global London. He also discusses the city's high-density growth, Sharia law and segregation in the capital, and how he will sink Labour if it won't invest in Crossrailby Simon Parker / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
Simon Parker You still describe yourself as a socialist, but the approach you take to London and to politics in general appears to be quite different to what it was in the 1980s, in the GLC days. How do you think your views have changed since then, and what does it mean to be a socialist today, running this most capitalist of cities?
Ken Livingstone Well, the whole world has been transformed since the early 1980s. I grew up in a world in which everything came down to where you stood in a conflict between America and the Soviet Union, and that poisoned the politics of every country. When I became leader of the GLC, in 1981, we had an agenda that now looks incredibly moderate in terms of discrimination: making the police accountable and so on. Now you have David Cameron embracing most of these things, but in those days it was seen as a threat because it was somehow on the Soviet side. When we cut the fares on public transport, the Daily Mail said this was the first step towards the introduction of a full Soviet economy; you need to remember that everything was being seen through the prism of Fleet Street, where there wasn’t a single black reporter, no-one was openly gay, and there were no women in any senior positions. It was a repository of homophobia and misogyny and racism: they felt threatened by our approach and just laughed at it all.
My role has changed since GLC days too. Then, my job was the day-to-day management of the Labour caucus. Now, I just have to make sure my budget goes through the assembly once a year—and in the rest of my time I can put together coalitions of interests around a common agenda. City Hall is the centre of a web. So, for example, you get everybody signed up to Crossrail [the proposed east-west rail link through central London, running from Maidenhead to Shenfield and Abbey Wood]. Where before I was looking inward to the party machine, now I look outward. It’s a position that, thanks to the prestige of the office enables, you to broker deals with government or the private sector—Americans understand this better than we do. Another example of this kind of coalition: we have just launched our climate change strategy, which identifies how to reduce emissions by 30 per cent in ten years, and 60 per cent in 20. New York and LA and Chicago are working on similar strategies as well, and here it’s involved working with the boroughs, with the private sector, with the government. City Hall is the centre of the web—together we can get all this done.
There isn’t a great ideological conflict any more. The business community, for example, been almost depoliticised. One of the first people to lobby me when I became mayor was Judith Mayhew, from the City Corporation. She came and said, “We’ve all changed, it won’t be like the last time, there’s so much we can do together.” I didn’t believe a word of it, but it turned out to be true.
David Goodhart And you’ve changed too, haven’t you? All of your egalitarian impulses seem now to take a cultural rather than an economic form.
KL It only seems like that because I don’t have any powers for the redistribution of wealth in London. One of the few levers I have is the rather rough and ready fare structure, so, while I increase fares to service the £3bn debt that we’re incurring to extend and modernise the [underground] system, at the same time I make fares free for kids on the bus, which saves families about £350 per year per child. Of course, I’d like to do more. I’d like to levy a precept on income tax. If that was the case, I’d make it on everybody over 40 per cent [ie to be paid by everyone in the 40 per cent tax bracket]. London is such an expensive city to live in, and if you’re poor in London it’s much worse than being poor anywhere else. That’s what I’d do. I get something like £800m in through the council tax, I can’t remember exactly—I’d rather raise that out of the 40 per cent band.
DG Much of the recent London “boosterism” is based on claims that it has overhauled New York as the global city. But what is striking is how similar London now is to New York—a hyper-capitalist, deregulated, inegalitarian, financial services-driven, mass-immigration-driven city-state. And you seem to embrace that. I never hear you saying critical things about the City or City bonuses.
KL I think the bonuses are obscene and I have said so. It rated a paragraph in the Standard. Had I the power to tax them, my comments would attract a lot more attention. On the more general point—the world has changed. At the time of the GLC, it was the end of the pre-global era. We now have to ask what socialists can do in this new, globalised world. If you want to do something to redistribute wealth, for example, then a small tax on financial transactions would do that.
DG Do you support a Tobin tax?
KL Well, the Tobin tax was conceived about 30 years ago to retard financial transactions—that’s not going to happen. But a small tax of one tenth of one per cent would probably fund all that you want to do in terms of the alleviation of world poverty now. I work with the powers I have. I have to think: what’s the furthest I can go in the direction I want? In terms of climate change, our new agenda will put us at the forefront of any city or government—but if I had legislative powers then I would ban energy-unfriendly lightbulbs and copy what the Germans have done in terms of recycling.
Tony Travers You’ve been criticised for being too close to developers, and yet I take it that one of the reasons that the mayor of London has to be friendly to developers is that they are the only people who can really push the city onwards.
KL You most probably never hear from the developers that I throw out of my office, with their ghastly schemes; but broadly the brighter developers will come to me with a well-designed scheme, and they will be signed up for a big Section 106 deal [which obliges a proportion of developments to be set aside for affordable housing].
TT So in a sense, you tax through them.
KL In the old days, they would have gone into the GLC and no doubt paid a big backhander to some planning officer. Now they come in and they pay a big backhander to the city in the form of a Section 106. I think that’s an improvement. And I can get more affordable housing out of property developers than I can out of the government, which hasn’t funded any.
TT In a sense, you and the developers are on the same side.
KL We accept globalisation and are working with the trend.
TT You were quoted in Davos as saying you were aligning yourself with “positive globalisation” against the forces of reaction, and in that sense you’re allied with business, with capital, provided it is driving the city forward. And so the forces of reaction, be they politically reactionary or anti-development—such as the heritage lobby—both of these are on the other side.
KL Absolutely right. This is not the world I would have created, but it’s the world I have to live in. My generation of socialists fought to keep a modern manufacturing base in London, and we failed. Given the primacy of financial and business services—80 per cent of all the new jobs coming to London over the next decade—we must do everything we can to encourage all the other bits and pieces, because when you hit an economic downswing, cities that are heavily dependent on financial services will suffer. In the world before Lenin’s seizure of power and world war one, if you read what socialists said, some of them even talked about persuading Conservative governments to adopt socialism as a more rational way of doing things. It wasn’t automatically assumed that you’d have the seizure of power and the imposition of socialism from above. It’s a question today, again, of working with the most progressive forces in capitalism and government: to try to give Londoners the skills for the jobs that are coming, to mitigate carbon emissions, to redistribute wealth within the very limited powers that I’ve got, and make it a generally happier city to live in.
SP And one of the criticisms of the legislation that set up the GLA and the London mayor- with your limited powers over transport and planning- is that you only really have two policy options: to go for growth or to mess it up.
KL It’s certainly true that we’ve got the power to massively damage London’s economic base by restrictive planning, by being hostile to inward investment. But on the other hand we are not saying: let’s go for any kind of growth. We are saying: let’s contain as much of the growth of southeast England as we can in London on brownfield sites, let’s get more intensive development of each site. Over the last four years in London, the number of homes per hectare has gone up by 300 per cent. We don’t want horrible American suburbia, towns that are absolutely lifeless except as people rush to and from work. We’re looking more to cities like Madrid or Paris in terms of intensity and development.
DG Can we really get 8.5m or 9m people in London without breaking into the green belt?
KL Absolutely. I’m totally hostile to breaking into the green belt. London is the least dense large city in Europe, by a mile, and it’s not a question of dropping 20-storey towers in the wilds of Bromley—it’s about having intensive development around transport nodes, which doesn’t necessarily have to be high-rise, it can be medium rise, the sort of stuff you’ve got in Kensington and Notting Hill and so on. And you can go on to these awful old postwar estates, and say, “We’re doubling the number of people who live here,” and they say, “It’s high density already”; but it really isn’t, often it’s very low density, and that’s the problem—there’s no-one around in the day, there isn’t a social mix. When Thatcher got in, the social composition of council housing was almost the same as the national composition, there were even A/B people in council housing. By the time you’d had ten years of it, all the good stuff had been flogged off and it had filled up with the poor and the out of work.
DG Moving on to the multiculturalism question: a lot of your radicalism now seems to be focused in this area—but it is obviously a word with many meanings. How do you define it?
KL There are all these attacks on multiculturalism without anyone saying what it is exactly they’re opposed to. They’re opposed to people living apart. You get politicians both in my own party or the Tories saying that the Muslim community is growing apart, but it would be good if the first point they made was that employers must offer Muslims jobs, employers must reach out to Muslims. Shell has established a Muslim workers’ group because they recognise that it’s important to make them comfortable in that company. Almost 10 per cent of London is Muslim, and you’re two and a half times more likely to be out of work if you’re a Muslim—especially if you are of Bangladeshi or Pakistani origin—and the biggest thing driving separation in Britain today is the failure of our education system to give Muslim kids the skills they require, and the failure of employers to recruit and promote them. When you look at the dynamism up and down Brick Lane in the Bangladeshi community, you have to wonder why that dynamism and drive is not feeding into the city. So the people moaning about multiculturalism should start saying employment is a real problem and the other big issue is access to housing. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there were furious rows in London as left-wing councillors like myself and Ted Knight and others said black people must be given homes on new estates, not just re-lets. And when you then look at some of the northern towns, where we have more recently had these eruptions, it’s quite clear that Labour councillors in those areas did not reach out to ensure that there was a multi-ethnic dimension in housing, and they allowed ghettos to develop. Now we haven’t got ghettos in London. In actual fact, between the 1990 and 1995 and 2001 censuses, the number of wards with a predominant community has fallen, and even in the very heart of Southall or Brick Lane there’s still quite incredible diversity.
DG Some people query that and say that there is an appearance of greater mixing produced by mainly affluent Asians moving out to the suburbs, but that this is doing nothing to reduce segregation in the old inner-city wards.
KL There is no segregation in any ward in London. Certainly not in the American sense… I think there are five wards out of 625 in London where there’s about 80 to 90 per cent of one minority ethnic group.
DG How soon before London emulates Leicester in having a non-white majority?
KL Not in my political career. I think we are at about 29 per cent black and Asian. If you add together British ethnic minorities plus all foreigners, you get about 40 per cent who are not white British [Greater London’s foreign-born population was 2,288,000 in 2006, out of 7,517,700 total; approximately 30 per cent]. I’m not certain it will happen even in your lifetimes, black Londoners have started moving from inner London out to Barking because it’s the only place they can afford to buy homes, and they may eventually more further out as well. Is the black and Asian population growing? Nothing like the rate it used to be. There’s a growth from age demographics, but immigration from India and Africa is becoming harder, and the government’s policy is clearly to open us up to Europe.
DG One definition of multiculturalism is the formal, legal recognition of group difference within a society.
KL The right to be different.
DG Well, the right to be different is the informal understanding, which almost everybody accepts, but much more problematic is the acceptance of legal separation, and one example of that is Sharia law. As you know, Toronto got quite close to allowing Sharia law for Muslims—is that something that you would draw the line at? What about Sharia law in Tower Hamlets?
KL Where do I hear anyone asking for Sharia law in Tower Hamlets?
DG If they did?
KL Well, I’ve been active in London politics for 40 years and no one has asked me about Sharia law, so I might conclude that this is such a hypothetical nonsense it’s not worthy of an answer. Back in the mid-1990s, when I was MP for Brent East, Hizb ut Tahrir, the radical Muslim group, organised a debate in my constituency about whether the caliphate and Sharia law should come to Britain. They invited me along. There were about 300 Muslims there, mainly young, and I made a case for liberal democracy and the right to vote and so on, and it was about 90 per cent in my favour. And all through the Salman Rushdie affair, with at least 10 per cent of my constituency Muslim, not a single person in my constituency ever raised it. The average Muslim in London wants a job, a job for their kids, to pay the mortgage. The reason they have come here is because they want the chances this society offers. There are any number of nutty groups out there; at the other end there’s the BNP campaigning for its nutty agenda as well. There was that poll a few weeks ago, saying that a third of young Muslims thought Sharia law would be a good idea—you talk to young white English people and many of them are in favour of extreme things as well. Young people often are, I don’t think there’s anything unique in that.
DG What about the conflict between the deep cultural conservatism of some of the Islamic figures you support—Yusef al-Qaradawi and so on—and your allegiances to feminists and gays and so on?
KL You should read our dossier on al-Qaradawi, which rebuts most of the allegations made against him. But look, I’m not going to take stuff off a website run by a former Israeli intelligence officer as a literal interpretation of what al-Qaradawi says, nor am I going to believe what I read in the Sun when I meet the man myself and I hear him. You saw him on Newsnight when he came over. Whether we agree with him or not, he stands in relation to Islam as John XXIII did in relation to Catholicism [John called the second Vatican council (1962-65), which is widely seen as having begun in Catholicism a new attitude towards engagement with the modern world]. Everyone has forgotten this now, but the Catholic church wasn’t in favour of democracy, and a lot of the British left were strongly anti-Catholic because they feared the agenda of the papacy, and rightly so; and when John XXIII, was elected, we didn’t say, “Oh, he’s not in favour of women priests and homosexuality so we can’t have anything to do with him.” We said, “My god, a human Pope at last!” The reason the Wahhabis so hate Qaradawi is that he preaches about an engagement between Islam and the west. You’re not going to get him to condemn suicide bombings in Israel, because he thinks there’s a war going on, but he condemned 9/11, he condemned 7/7. I heard him say as well at the meeting we held here, you should not attack homosexuals, you should not strike your wife, and so on. He has been demonised, just as Tariq Ramadan has. But I believe you work with the progressive forces. We won’t get him to come on a gay rights march, but we won’t get the chief rabbi of Jerusalem either. Qaradawi made a speech after the tsunami saying that with all the sodomy and promiscuity, they had brought it on themselves, and you got the Tories saying I must condemn it, and I said, well, I don’t agree with it, but this is exactly what the chief rabbi had said in Jerusalem. When you go to Moscow, the only thing the bloody religions can agree on—the patriarch, the local chief rabbi and the local imam—is that they all don’t want a gay rights march in Moscow.
DG There is clearly deep alienation among substantial parts of the white working class in the London area, most visibly in Barking and Dagenham, people who see their communities changing too rapidly and who feel they have not benefited from London’s new dynamism. What do you say to these people, people who might be considering voting for the BNP—how do we bring these people back in?
KL I point out to them that the reason they haven’t got homes is not because black people have taken them, which is the line of the BNP, but because Mrs Thatcher stopped building them, and to its shame this government didn’t reverse that decision when it got in. So instead of that situation through the postwar period, where roughly equal numbers of public and private sector housing were built each year, since 1983 the ratio has been something like 90 per cent to 10 per cent, so now you have a huge backlog of people who desperately need housing. This is why we’re pressing ahead to maximise the amount of housing that’s available for rent, which is a real struggle because most developers would rather not do it. The other thing we’re doing, through the skills and employment board that I now chair, is to review what the skills package should be for Londoners. Part of our problem is that particularly in the east end and southeast London, a working-class male, black or white, assumed that he could sell his physical strength to earn a decent living, but that world is gone. Therefore, in a country where only 25 per cent of people have numeracy skills beyond the standard required of an 11 year old, and only 50 per cent have literacy skills beyond the age of 11, an awful lot of the domestic population are excluded from most of the jobs coming; and what we will try and do with the new skills board, which is overwhelmingly dominated by business representatives, is to make sure that people get basic skills. You’ve got 76,000 courses available in London’s further and higher education institutes, and 26,000 you can get government support for. This is ridiculous; what you really want is a small number of choices that people have about how they’re going to specialise and get basic skills that are going to get them into a job.
DG But why should any employer bother to train anybody locally when they can just hire someone from Poland who already has the skills?
KL Well… we’ve set up quite a lot of extra courses on the back of winning the Olympics because there will be extra demand for building skills. But all the people it was easy to get back into work we’ve done, we’re now down to the hard core of people who were hidden in the much higher unemployment figure of ten years ago. None of them are easy. We’re running this experiment at the moment, subsidising childcare because the cost of childcare and the high cost of housing mean that disproportionately people in London just stay at home looking after the kids rather than trying to find a job where they’d be worse off, so the government has to do something about these benefit traps which are particularly bad in London. And a lot of these people have never had a secure job, and have parents who have never had a secure job, and have none of the normal skills of getting up at a regular time in the morning—they need a one-to-one relationship with the state, so one individual should be responsible for their benefits and getting them into training. At the moment, people just get lost in the system.
TT Would that require having a more customised benefit system in London to take account of those traps and the high level of immigration?
KL Up until last year, I was able to say that in my entire time as mayor I had never been served coffee by an English person in a Costa or Starbucks or anywhere, and yet these are all jobs that presumably anyone who’s out of work could have got. But through either a combination of illegal work or benefits, it hasn’t been worth them doing these service jobs, and you’ve got to change that equation. And the group you start with, which is the easiest, is single mothers or couples who’ve got a kid where the mum isn’t able to get into work, and that has to be about providing affordable childcare. And this is not about a New Labour-style quick fix; it means putting in place a structure and a strategy, and changing the learning and skills basis over five to ten years. Otherwise we will continue to have the highest unemployment rate in Britain [approximately 7 per cent].
DG Can you see any limit to immigration into London? Or do you think pretty well unlimited immigration is good for the city?
KL Oh god, you sound like Andrew Green, the crusty old bore who runs Migration Watch. London’s dynamism is fuelled by openness. If you want to close it off, that’s fine, but London won’t be able to subsidise the rest of Britain. The FT did a study about 18 months ago which looked at every city and region in the EU—London was the only city which matched American levels of productivity and competitiveness—the next, which was 20 per cent behind us, was Brussels, and we were about twice as productive as the European average. Now that isn’t because of higher levels of domestic investment, or the splendour of our education system, it’s because we’re a relatively open society and lots of young people from around the world want to come here, because they like the cultural style which says you can live your life as you choose without being told you’ve got to have a certain set of values; that’s why Nicholas Sarkozy included London on his campaign trail, because we’ve got, what is it, 300,000 French people; it is that openness and dynamism, and don’t knock it, because that subsidy that props up the rest of Britain is actually earned off these people’s backs. You want to close it down, that’s fine, you just won’t live in the style to which you’ve become accustomed in the rest of Britain.
TT And the scale of the city, which is projected now to grow to 8 then 9m [the 8 million mark is expected to be passed around 2016]—is there any limit to the growth of the population?
KL Well, with present technology, there clearly must be a problem once you start getting much over 8.5m, I’d have thought. It’s a matter of how many people you can squeeze into a hectare. Who knows what building technologies will do or what transport technologies might be in 25 years. But as long as we’ve got the investment, this [produces a fat glossy report] is what you need to spend on transport between now and 2025, that will get us up to about 8.5m, and I have to say honestly, given my expected longevity, I’m not worrying about what happens when we get to 9m, I won’t be mayor then.
TT You say that, but the city grew from 6.75m to 7.5m without huge investment.
KL But it got really unpleasant, didn’t it? When I got elected, the infrastructure was really straining. If you want to continue to have a dynamic financial centre that equals Tokyo and New York, you’ve got to spend a lot of money.
TT And that, inevitably, bring us to the Crossrail problem [of finding agreement on funding for the project between the government and private investors]. Why do you think the government flaps about so much? It’s been on the agenda for 17 years in its present form, and still no money.
KL I know, but how is that different from any other decision government takes apart from bombing the shit out of someone in the third world? Those are the only decisions they take rapidly, killing black or brown people. On any decision about tax, investment or road pricing—show me any decision they ever make quickly.
TT But if they don’t make this one, you think it will limit London’s growth.
KL Oh yes, that’s why it’s going to happen.
TT You don’t think that the Olympics, which is a very good way of getting a large area of London cleared quickly, might intrude on their willingness to make that decision?
KL They’re not happy that they’ve got to deal with both decisions at the same time; but they know they can’t duck Crossrail. The good thing about this government, as opposed to the earlier Blair governments, is that it’s all full of people who are 38 to 45, who know that if they screw up this decision have got to deal with the consequences in ten to 15 years. This fills me with real joy, and I point it out to them at every stage. Do you really want to be prime minister of England or Britain in the middle of the next decade when it’s going mad in London and you’re losing seats?
TT Do you think Gordon Brown worries about the public private partnership which he visited upon London, which is clearly not delivering value for money? He doesn’t seem to be very worried.
KL I never discuss my relationship with Gordon, because you achieve so much more if it’s private.
TT But the PPP was clearly wrong, you and I have always agreed on this.
KL Absolutely wrong. I’m sure everyone in the treasury now accepts that.
TT And you’ll have seen the performance figures on the underground that show no improvement in performance whatsoever, despite so far spending £6bn out of the £30bn that came from the PPP.
KL There are small improvement figures. And what we’ve done over the last three years is a lot of the initial work. We’re now about to move to the next stage, which is going to be much more disruptive: station and line closures will triple this year as we start the actual replacement of track. But I agree with you. We’re spending £1bn a year for work we could have got for £700m.
TT It’s actually £1.7bn they’re spending a year at the moment.
KL Basically, they were fighting the last war: they were fighting incompetent underground management, not realising I’d sacked them.
TT But the point is there’s no payback for Gordon Brown, no negative payback in the way that there was no payback for the Conservative ministers who did rail privatisation—it all passes on.
KL Life isn’t fair, is it?
TT Then why should there be payback if they don’t invest in Crossrail?
KL If you hadn’t had Michael Howard as the leader of the Tory party at the 2005 general election,…