- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2000

Today Londoners go to the polls to elect a mayor, and the results are likely to humiliate Tony Blair. For Ken Livingstone New Labor's bete noir and the man tabloids once dubbed "Commie Monster" is the prohibitive favorite to become London's first directly elected mayor. Thirty-four points ahead of his nearest rival in the polls, Mr. Livingstone's position is so strong that bookmaker William Hill has declared him "unbeatable" and has stopped accepting bets on the election. When the dust has settled tomorrow morning, Frank Dobson, Mr. Blair's anointed candidate and until recently health secretary, will be consigned to political oblivion, an unreconstructed socialist will hold the reins of government to Europe's largest city, and Londoners will be left to ask themselves, "What have we done?"

Though a Labor member of Parliament (MP), Mr. Livingstone is not his party's official candidate. Having risen to prominence as head of the Greater London Council (GLC), he displayed a combination of profligacy, self-promotion and strident opposition to the Tory government that earned his party the "Loony Left" label and led Margaret Thatcher to abolish the GLC in 1986. A self-consciously anti-establishment figure, some of Mr. Livingstone's political stances are harmless, even amusing. He refused to attend the prince of Wales' wedding in 1981, for instance, while he recently proposed nighttime flights over Windsor Castle, where the Queen stays, to ease congestion at Heathrow. Many of his views, however, are utterly objectionable. Long before the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had stopped bombing central London and trying to assassinate British prime ministers, Mr. Livingstone was inviting IRA ally Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein around for lunch to talk about the need for a negotiated peace in Northern Ireland. Having once suggested that International Monetary Fund leaders should "die painfully in their beds," he argued recently that international capitalists had killed more people than Hitler. And in March, Mr. Livingstone said point-blank: "I think socialism's time is still come. That is why I am running for mayor."

Tory ineptitude and New Labor control freakery go a long way to explaining Mr. Livingstone's rosy electoral prospects. The Tories have put forward Steve Norris, a likeable, self-made car salesman from Liverpool whose multiple mistresses and suggestion that police turn a blind eye to the "victimless crime" of gay sex in public add to his popularity, though belie otherwise conservative credentials. Mr. Norris' candidacy was dead on arrival, however, precisely because he is his party's official candidate, for the taint of corruption, poor leadership and lack of consensus on major policy issues plague the Tories. Recently, two former Tory ministers lost libel suits in which they had denied charges of accepting bribes and committing perjury, while nearly three-quarters of Britons describe party leader William Hague as "weird." The internal fissures over the European question also look to deepen as Michael Heseltine, the Europhile who led the internal coup that toppled Mrs. Thatcher in 1990, announced last week that he will retire from Parliament, in part because he can more effectively criticize Euroskeptics away from the back benches.

Popular reaction against New Labor's iron-handed rule also bolsters Mr. Livingstone's electoral chances. The Downing Street spin machine makes the Clinton White House's seem amateurish; key civil service positions have been purged of nonparty loyalists; legislative power has been devolved to emasculated parliaments in Wales and Scotland designed to do Westminster's bidding; and Mr. Blair forced his own man into the leadership of the Welsh assembly, ignoring wholly the wishes of the party's grassroots. Particularly upsetting is that Mr. Blair rigged the electoral procedure for choosing Labor's mayoral candidate in a way that privileged Mr. Dobson, and accusations have flown that Labor tried to strong-arm the BBC into denying Mr. Livingstone traditionally free campaign advertisements. So bad have things gotten that Mr. Blair tried to blunt criticism by admitting that he had behaved occasionally like a "control freak." As New Labor's most consistently funny and trenchant critic, then, Mr. Livingstone has become truly popular, and a vote for him is seen as a repudiation of Mr. Blair's heavy-handed tactics.

But Mr. Livingstone's popularity also highlights something about the English political landscape. The American Constitution with its built-in checks and balances was founded upon the assumption that man is inherently flawed and that power corrupts, and a mistrust for government runs deep in our political culture. In Britain, however, there exists a far more entrenched confidence in government's possibility to do good. Even a Tory grandee like Mr. Heseltine claimed that intervention was necessary "before lunch, before tea, and before dinner," and recent Economist surveys show that Britons are the world's people least averse to tax hikes. Thus for those who think Mr. Blair has made Labor too Thatcherite, too fiscally and socially conservative, Mr. Livingstone is a socialist whose promises of bigger government repudiate New Labor's ideology. So while London's mayoral campaign proves unbeatable political theater, it might also suggest that for our closest ally the era of big government is far from over.

Robert G. Ingram is a doctoral student in British history at the University of Virginia and a visiting lecturer at Sweet Briar College.

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