They called us the ‘loony left’ but we showed the world what was possible once socialists take power even over one city, from free transport and free festivals to recognising same-sex partnerships — we need that ambition once again, writes KEN LIVINGSTONE
It is hard to believe that last year marked 20 years since I became mayor of London and that this year marks 40 years since the Labour left gained the leadership of the Greater London Council (GLC).
The Morning Star gave great support in both of these struggles and although the world — and British politics — are very different to 20, yet alone 40, years ago our socialist principles are still just as important in both understanding the key challenges facing us and developing policies that can tackle them — for the future of the planet and its population.
While looking at both experiences there are of course many things I would do differently and we certainly made mistakes, but I am still deeply proud of both periods of running London from the left. Additionally, where we could, we also sought to give a platform and support to communities and campaigns organising for a better society.
The progressive role of the GLC was the reason that Thatcher abolished it. In those remarkable years, we sought to demonstrate that a progressive alternative based on our socialist principles was not only possible, but that it could deliver for Londoners, with policies such as Fares Fair reducing transport costs by 32 per cent.
I am perhaps most proud that in that time we also fought so strongly for equality. Our stances against racism, sexism and homophobia were derided as “loony left,” with the Sun claiming I was the most odious man in Britain. But we stood our ground and we were at the forefront of changing attitudes towards women, LGBT, disabled and black people, including within the Labour Party itself.
Then in 2000, when I won the mayoralty against the odds and against Tony Blair’s New Labour machine, I joked that I was continuing what “I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted 14 years ago.” And while we had less power in many ways than in the GLC years, I sought to continue this strong stance.
We organised events such as the Respect Not Racism (later renamed Rise) Festival, Eid in the Square, the Trafalgar Square Hanukkah celebrations and the St Patrick’s Day celebration of London’s Irish community. We led the campaign with others for a statue to mark Nelson Mandela and I issued a public apology for London’s role in the slave trade on the anniversary of the Haitian revolution.
Then as London mayor I set up the Britain’s first Partnership Register for same-sex couples in 2001. This paved the way for the 2004 Civil Partnership Act and the subsequent achievement of same-sex marriage in 2014.
We also tried again to improve London’s transport system, making travel free to under-18s and over-60s and doubling the number of buses on key routes.
Soon after winning the election we mounted a legal challenge to the Blair government’s misconceived decision to part-privatise the London Underground. Although we lost the court battle, we were proven right and the Underground is now back in public hands.
We took a risk in introducing the congestion charge but it showed that practical policies could help protect the planet alongside environmental campaigning.
We also brought together municipal leaders from across the world to tackle climate change in the C40 organisation of mayors. All around the world this organisation continues to this day and crafts policies to help tackle the climate emergency.
Boris Johnson quickly rolled back these policies as mayor and abandoned the further steps we planned to take. Now the left must again, in London, nationally and internationally, prioritise putting forward a socialist, green agenda.
I am proud we used our platform both at the GLC and at the Mayoralty to support progressive political causes and didn’t give up on internationalism. In particular, I remember declaring London an anti-war city to oppose Bush and Blair’s illegal war in Iraq. I also remained a champion of Palestinian rights and peace in Ireland, despite the backlash our support for both had led to in the GLC years.
Finally, without doubt, the time I was most proud of London and Londoners when I was mayor was after the terrorist atrocity on July 7 2005.
Londoners overwhelmingly heeded our calls for unity — and by continuing to respect London’s diversity we showed that people could come together against both terrorism and those who sought to use the tragedy to fan the flames of division and hate. Today, that message of unity and hope is needed more than ever.
Looking back on 20 and 40 years ago, at this time of global crisis and the era of leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi and the rest, it is clear to me that we still need a real economic and political alternative to Thatcherism and its New Labour inheritors. I look forward to continuing to campaign for this socialist change with Morning Star readers in the struggles ahead.
This article originally appeared in The Morning Star