Socialist Worker

Listening to the people?

Issue No. 1721

Ken Livingstone and GLA

Listening to the people?

By Hassan Mahamdallie

LONDON MAYOR Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Assembly (GLA) held their first "People's Question Time" in Westminster last week. About 1,000 people came to the two-hour meeting, set up to canvass the views of Londoners.

It was Livingstone and the GLA's first public outing since last May's election. Very little has been heard of the GLA since Livingstone rode to power on the back of the political mood against New Labour. Most of the audience's questions were aimed at Livingstone, partly because of his popularity and partly because most of the assembly look like faceless bureaucrats.

It became obvious the New Labour GLA members, loyal Blairites all, are in an unofficial coalition with the Tories in an attempt to keep Livingstone in check. New Labour GLA chair Trevor Phillips made a point of saying that the assembly was there to "scrutinise" the mayor's plans on behalf of Londoners. In reality, they are representing their political masters against the wishes of the majority of Londoners. This became clear over the privatisation of London Underground. New Labour is determined for it to go ahead.

But opposition to the "Public-Private Partnership" (PPP), as New Labour calls it, was the central plank of Livingstone's election manifesto. Before the meeting the RMT rail union held a small protest against John Prescott's plan.

Livingstone said, "The government is still pressing ahead with its PPP of the underground. The disaster we saw at Hatfield would be replicated on the tube."

One underground worker challenged Trevor Phillips: "People in London are against PPP." He got a big clap from the audience when he challenged the Labour GLA members to say whether or not they "support Ken in his campaign to stop splitting up the tube". New Labour GLA member John Biggs, who chairs the Transport Operations Scrutiny Committee, was cat-called when he told the audience, "The Labour government was elected with a mandate for PPP. In my view it should go ahead." Trevor Phillips said that the GLA had commissioned an independent report from former Observer editor Will Hutton on tube privatisation.

But he failed to mention that the report, although a fudge, broadly argues against privatisation. Phillips tried to claim, to heckles, that "PPP is not privatisation".

Only the Green Party GLA members and Livingstone challenged this from the platform. Livingstone said, "Balfour Beatty are responsible for the track at Hatfield. By this time next year Balfour Beatty could be doing the maintenance on two thirds of the underground. I do not trust these people." Livingstone went on to say that "this should be a live issue at the general election" in London.

He promised to take the government to court if the privatisation went on. But he made no call to mobilise ordinary people in London against the tube sell-off. The limitations of the mayor's official powers became clear during the question time.

Livingstone fielded questions on issues from transport to city planning, housing and the environment. He answered them all, but on many he admitted he had no power to do anything. The one key area the mayor does have control over is the police. The GLA has responsibility for the Metropolitan Police's budget. But on this subject Livingstone leant very much to the right.

He praised present Met commissioner Sir John Stevens and refused to back calls for the scrapping of stop and search. Although Livingstone is seeking ways of coming to an "understanding" with the government over tube privatisation, he is heading, at the moment, towards some sort of confrontation.

But he shows no signs of mobilising the sort of direct action needed to nail the government and stop the sell-offs of the tube and council housing. Livingstone has no organisation on the ground to support him, despite the tens of thousands of people to the left of Labour who consider themselves to be Ken supporters.

There is a danger that the hopes people have in Livingstone can be frittered away as he gets into bureaucratic wranglings with central government. That is why it is important for the London Socialist Alliance to put forward an organised left wing alternative to New Labour in every workplace and estate.

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Sat 4 Nov 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1721
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