19 MAY 1984, Page 25

The making of Ken

Ferdinand Mount

Ken Livingstone is a credit to the his Parents. He is polite, friendly and rerfut, He has the resilience and good ountour by which we measure whether some- t„ile i8 Properly grown up. And he is nicely 'Med out too. Even when in clothes rich might be thought rather informal for

leader of the GLC — bush-jacket, to13,en-necked shirt — he looks clean and cer-

ainly not inconsiderate. He lived with his Parents until he was 27. At school, he got tent' 0-levels; later, while workin as a lab

zoechtlician g

, he also secured an A-level in 141NY; he was briefly married and re- ' °I1 good terms with his former wife; n"-- arkS hitch-hiking tour of West Africa, he wince nursed a baby ostrich for 1,000 miles, keanPPed in a towel (the baby ostrich, not m"is. ) and eventually gave it to Lagos "ldr ann,s zoo. sinHe developed his interest in politics rather th-wlY He joined the Norwood branch of vice) Labour Party when he was 23. The Nor-

d branch was later to become notorious

e nest from which the far-Left fledgling Cuckoo don I s grew to take over the entire Lon- - 'Labour Party. But when Livingstone joined it, there was scarcely anyone there at all, Left or Right. 'By the time I went to my second branch meeting I was Chairman and Secretary of the Young Socialists and on the local government committee. By the time I went to the third I was membership secretary of the party and on the executive committee.'

He was influenced by Pope John XXIII, by his trip to Africa and by Mr Ted Knight, later to be the leader of Lambeth Council, who returned from the Marxist wilderness via the Norwood Labour Party. Livingstone has in recent years read several books on Irish history which have converted him to the view that what Britain has done to Ireland over 800 years was worse than what Hitler had done to the Jews. He says he paid no attention to economic issues until 1981, when he became leader of the GLC.

John Carvel, in this sympathetic but only occasionally indulgent little biography, says of Livingstone, I think quite fairly: 'When he joined Norwood Labour Party in 1968, it was already virtually empty and he was ideologically vague, a young man who was casting around for ideas to explain his disappointment at the Wilson government's failure to match up to the "trembling of ex- citement" he had felt at its outset in 1964.'

It is to political activity, not to a political cause that Livingstone, like so many others, has devoted himself for the past 16 years. The motives are vague, the mind unfurnish-

ed, but the energy unbounded. 'I did the work on my own. There wasn't anyone else then. Nobody had paid much attention to the GLC.'

Of course, Ken Livingstone cannot be as nice as all that; his endearing self- deprecation is also calculated self-defence; he knows what he is up to. At the moments in his life which are crucial for self- advancement, the niceness turns into a kind of robotic blankness; he ditches constituen- cies, colleagues, policies without a backward glance.

All the same, it is niceness which is Liv- ingstone's distinctive and brilliant contribu- tion just as, on a somewhat larger stage, what President Reagan has brought to the Republican Party is niceness: 'The Eleventh Commandment in the Republican Party is that thou shalt not speak ill of any other Republican'. With hindsight, that may sound bland and trite. In the Republican Party of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was shatteringly original. It was not simply that the factions were in the habit of speak- ing ill of each other; they had come to regard ferocity and malevolence as signs of ideological soundness. In such a world, you don't have to be very nice to radiate a unique aura.

All the same, there is no use pretending; it is a bit of a surprise to see Mr Livingstone and his ilk in charge at County Hall and in the other Metropolitan counties. 'Hollow men crowding into a vacuum' may do as a

description but not as an explanation. Why has the old Labour Party collapsed so total- ly in the big cities? And why have the Trots poured into the vacuum? — for Mr Liv- ingstone says: 'If you did one of those multiple-choice tests, where you are forced to choose: are you a Stalinist, or a Trot or a Social Democrat? you'd most probably end up being forced to put me down as a Trot by a process of elimination'. Not exactly whole-hearted commitment.

Where did Livingstone learn his sort-of- Trotskyism? Not from the bitter ex- periences of a slump, like his parents' generation (although Mr and Mrs Liv- ingstone were themselves Tories). Not from the dole queue or the coal face. He claims it was when he joined the Chester Beatty cancer research unit in 1962 as a lab techni- cian. 'I was suddenly dropped into an en- vironment where everyone in that room ex- cept one was a committed socialist from a committed Labour background.' His only other experience outside local politics came eight years later when he joined a teacher training course at Philippa Fawcett College in South London, where he remembers a lecturer shocking the middle-class female students by talking about class divisions in society.

There is no doubt a whiff of false in- nocence about this account, but it is clear enough that Livingstone's was a white- collar conversion. 'Socialism' was both a reaction to and a welcome break from the

The Spectator 19 May10 numbing routine of lab and classrootil. What happened to him was much like what happened to young clerks and students all over Europe in the first half of the 19th cell tury when they were converted to ria," tionalism. In Elie Kedourie's classie description (in Nationalism, published in 1960): 'Politics could indeed be exciting... mean provincial towns where nothing ever happens, dusty libraries, prosaic lecture rooms became the stage of an absorbing secret game, a game of hide-and-seek, Id° which nothing was as it seemed, an everything took on the glowing colour °f romance. Such are the delights of

spiracy.' c°-

There is no mystery about why Pe°P,e like Ken Livingstone — empty, vagij1 looking for a tremble of excitement - should be drawn towards these delights; The real question is how did it come ah°111, that local politics should offer slice delights. After all, local politics sure delights. for being tedious, narrow, Prue vincial. Councillors and aldermen were comic figures of legendary tedium. . ry It is only by retracing the curious history of local government in this country over run last 50 years that one can begin to galt:re inkling of what may have happeneu;.s to ry is no better starting-point for both his and analysis than Alex HenneY's study ; Without such a study, we have no defen% against the innumerable bogus pretension of local government enthusiasts. , No important changes have occurred to local government since the turn of the cen- tury. The first, much remarked on, is that it has grown: in money spent, in numbers of employees, in publicity, in political visibili- ty. Between 1890 and its peak in 1975, total local government expenditure per head grew ten times in real terms, from £33 to £334 at 1975 prices. The number of people employed in local government doubled bet- ween 1952 and 1979 alone, until one in every eig

council. ht people was working for the But the second change, much less discuss-

ed, is that a considerable number of services have been removed from local government in those years, notably electricity, gas, water, hospitals, and unemployment assistance.

These two changes between them dispose

of a fallacy that there exists some kind of constitutional settlement determining once and for all the size and shape of local government. As Mr Henney points out, 'we do not have a history of local government stretching back hundreds of years to the ,Inciot. Elected county councils are still less than a century old, while elected municipal authorities were created in towns 150 years a80 as a counter to corrupt, often self- Perpetuating bodies.' Parliament — under governments of various parties — has given and taken away powers blithely and created, reorganised and dissolved local authorities without any sense of guilt about tampering with an immutable tradition.

But the two changes have also combined

to Produce an unlooked-for change in the nature of local government activity. For the tervices that were removed from the town ;than were overwhelmingly of a technical, kner,avY,' type, usually demanding some Iciss,wiedge of engineering and commerce; Cite the services which were left in the u_ands of the council and which have grown spectacularly are overwhelmingly of a Personal, apparently simple type — and therefore open to political frolic: schools, "uses buses.

the daY prided themselves on the amount of ineedom they conceded to local government vi„the basic statutes governing these ser- an-,i's, Particularly education; both the 1902 Of'1 the 1944 Education Acts make a virtue „i government impotence to interfere. To


gsems day, the Department of Education and prience justifies this impotence on the ellinds that the 1944 Act represented a `settlement, of the thorny Church v State oControversy which had bedevilled education or oases century. In reality, the settlement was

P what was to prove extremely

see ttled ground. But that was not how it seemed at the time, for local government Alt h had an aura of aldermanic dullness. eelongh party politics had already intrud- cooln cei vable the big cities, it then seemed in- would local education authorities

abuse their

ideological newfound powers for go reasons. ry ne final disaster: as the cost of local ernrnent rose, government after govern-

ment softened the impact on the rates by in- creasing the grant from central government to reach a peak of two-thirds of total expen- diture in 1975-6. Even this subsidy was not enough to keep the rates within politically manageable limits; rate rebates and domestic rate relief were introduced, and millions of people paid little or nothing in the way of rates in return for the services provided by local government. Local authorities became less and less responsible to their ratepayers, the more they could draw for their funds upon central govern- ment and local industry. Thus Livingstone's playground was com- pleted. Publicity without responsibility, pleasure without payment, pontifying without profession — these are the guiding principles of the GLC as now constituted. The first instinct is to restore responsibili- ty, to reduce the grant from central govern- ment, to increase the frequency of local elections, to make Mr Livingstone more im- mediately and painfully answerable to his electors. But is responsibility enough? In some ways, fully responsible local govern- ment might well be worse, more domineer- ing and intrusive, since it would have a ge- nuine right to claim a mandate.

The deeper question beyond the abolition of the GLC is whether people really wanted housing, transport and education to be run

by the council in the first place, or whether council control simply seemed to be a con- venient and respectable arrangement at the time. If the latter, then neither equity nor ef- ficiency requires that councils should operate any of these services themselves; they could all be run by charitable trusts or private firms, or in the case of housing, given over to private ownership; in the Netherlands, for example — by no means a `Right-wing' country — most schools are privately owned and operated, but the State pays the school fees, as with our own voluntary-aided schools. Mr Henney in- cludes a comparable scheme in his seven- point plan, which rightly combines measures to reduce the importance of local governments with measures to increase its accountability, such as annual elections of one third of the councillors. In other words, what Mr Henney is up to is to take the fun out of local government. This is an ad- mirable — and profoundly democratic aim and one which accords with the deepest instincts of the British people. Local government ought to be subordinate and pedestrian, to do mostly with drains and pavements and not to meddle in questions of liberty and morality. 'Local' is not to be confused with 'personal'; and the town hall has no more right than Whitehall to claim intimacy and the right to intrude.