Mon, Jul 12, 2004 - Page 16 News List

London's prickly mayor sees city's F1 future

A thorn in the Labour Party's side, Ken Livingstone is full of wild schemes that Londoners seem to love

DPA , London

London Mayor Ken Livingstone is nothing if not confident. His latest scheme to bring Formula One racing to the city's West End looks like a madcap stunt, but a straw poll taken by the city's Evening Standard last week found almost three-quarters in favor.

The "cheeky chappie" of Labour politics has played all his cards right since splitting with the party in 2000 to contest the mayoral election as an independent.

Livingstone would be a "disaster" for London, Prime Minister Tony Blair opined, backing the decision to throw the rebel out of the party for five years.

"Red Ken" went on to win handsomely. He promptly embarked on policies, like charging for cars to enter the center, that many said would make Blair's prophecy come true.

Bolshie Londoners would simply boycott the five-pound congestion charge, and the technology was in any case not up to the job, they said. The objectors have since quietly eaten their words.

Likewise his decision to pour money into buses, seen by many Brits as the transport of the poor and unemployed, appears to have paid off.

Buses are more frequent and are running to schedule, prompting Londoners to take to them in droves. The capital's buses are carrying more passengers than at any time since the 1960s, with the number topping 6 million on one day in April.

Earlier this year, Blair was forced to retract and bring the mayor back into the party, overriding the grumbles of many senior party stalwarts.

"I am fundamentally and irretrievably against it. Ken Livingstone has only ever belonged to one party -- the Ken Livingstone party," former Labour leader Neil Kinnock said. He was overruled.

Livingstone has indeed always been his own man. He ran London as head of the Greater London Council from 1981 to 1986, during Labour's darkest hour.

Many Londoners recall his battle with the Conservative prime minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher. It was one of the few he lost.

To Thatcher's disgust, Livingstone hoisted a tatty banner with the number of the city's ever-rising unemployed on the roof of the GLC offices, directly across the Thames from the House of Parliament. She repaid this slur on her policies by shutting down the GLC altogether.

London was forced to do without a central governing body, and Livingstone retreated to the back benches of the House of Commons, where party leaders thought they had effectively buried him.

The party hierarchy fought hard to keep him out of the contest when Blair's government set up a Greater London Assembly and called city elections in May 2000, but Livingstone's popularity was decisive. He beat the official Labour candidate into a humiliating third place.

Once in office he set about modernizing the city with all the powers at his command. The private car, allowed free rein throughout the Thatcher years, was firmly in his sights.

Livingstone has also improved grimy London's appearance by pouring money not only into the West End but also into the poorer boroughs that rim much of the inner city.

Pavements were widened, trees planted, landmarks like Trafalgar Square pedestrianized and the privatized bus services induced by means of hard cash to increase their services.

Since taking office, Livingstone's methods have been true to his maverick image -- nothing is taboo.

He has abandoned the radically leftist policies of his immature years to link hands with the city's financial bosses in promoting high-rise buildings and business-friendly policies.

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