It’s not. London’s Rubbish was the title of a spoof of London’s Burning Stuart Maconie and I wrote for our first radio series in 1993, which – and this is pretty clever – instead of the fire brigade centred around the capital’s refuse collectors. (We were, historians will note, a year ahead of Common As Muck, William Ivory’s BBC comedy drama about binmen.) Although I was a permanent resident of London in 1993, Stuart lived in Birmingham – as indeed he still does – and had a more circumspect relationship with our glorious capital than I. Having spent my first 19 years in Northampton – a town I have a strong emotional bond with, and where the bulk of my family still reside – I fell for London within six months of emigrating here in 1984. I have never wished to live anywhere else. Except for Galway.
The important thing to note, on the day that the results of London’s Mayoral and Assembly elections come in, is that when I arrived here, in the mid-80s, all fired up by the left-wing politics of the NME (which provided me with a much-needed political education after indoctrination in Tory selfishness from my Dad), Ken Livingstone ran the place. Under siege from Margaret Thatcher’s ideological hatred of “Loony Left” policy, for which he was a lightning rod, and the public sector in general, his GLC was both a beacon and a blot on the landscape. It would be disbanded within two years after the Local Government Act of 1985. (ILEA, the Inner London Education Authority, which controlled the art school I went to, was also on the block, dissolved in 1990. Its decision to amalgamate the four London art schools in 1985 lit the spark under my first student demo, which took us to County Hall, Ken’s home, with our hand-painted placards.)
Because of the turbulent times, and a conversion to Labour that led me to joining the party in time for the 1987 General Election, I have only positive memories of “Red Ken.” He introduced “Fares Fair”, which reduced public transport costs through subsidy, proposed a statue of Nelson Mandela, and – whatever your feelings on the issue – was bold enough to conduct a dialogue with Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams in 1982, which was exactly what New Labour did some years later but was considered in poor taste at the time. The right-wing press was full of nonsense about the “Loony Left” and it would have been easy to get sucked into it, but my memory of Ken is one of admiration and a feeling that he was on the side of ordinary Londoners.
By the time of the 2000 Mayoral elections, Ken was out-manoeuvred by the Blair government and forced to stand against the Labour candidate, Frank Dobson. Again, I cheered him on, being well past the honeymoon period with Blairism and gung-ho for anyone who’d stand up to Blair. I voted for him. That he won seemed a moral victory as well as one for common sense. (He’d run London before; he was well qualified to do it again.) By the time of the 2004 Mayoral elections, he was readmitted to Labour, and I voted Green. Same again in 2008, by which time, unfortunately, a reinvigorated Conservative party had shrewdly fielded lovable TV buffoon Boris Johnson, and he swept Ken aside.
I would say, as a London resident, that the biggest issue is always public transport. Ken froze bus fares when he first got in, and introduced the Oyster swipe card to reduce queuing and delay on buses and trains, which definitely had the desired effect. It meant that travellers without an Oyster had to pay more per journey, which was seen as a disadvantage for visitors. I was against Oyster for years, mainly because I didn’t want to be electronically tagged every time I used a bus or Tube, but I gave in, as it was so financially advantageous to pay this way.
Ken introduced the infamous “bendy buses”, which because of their length were easy to sneak onto, wreaked articulated havoc on other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, and some of them caught on fire, and these have since been scrapped by Boris. But Ken was always against the Public Private Partnership as a way of regenerating the Underground, a point on which he and I agreed. He was also powerless to stop it going through, and, I think, unprincipled enough to still rejoin Labour when they courted him. Fares, especially for those commuting in from the outer reaches of Greater London, have shot up under Boris. Whether Ken could have stopped this, I don’t know.
The results are not yet in. Because of the make-up of the Assembly, and proportional representation, it’s actually worth voting Green, as you can actually place them in power. There are two Greens on the Assembly as I type. This pleases me. So, pretty much physically unable to put a cross next to “Labour” yet (the scars of betrayal are still weeping), I voted for Jenny Jones, the admirable Green candidate. You get a second choice, so I was forced to put a cross next to Ken, as a protest vote against Boris. (I almost bumped into him on the campaign trail in 2008 in a high street in South West London, and a schoolboy shouted out, as he passed, “Boris Johnson’s got a big fat head.” I admired this boy for his astute political observation – and the fact that he didn’t swear.)
I like going out to vote. I like clutching a polling card. I find it a novelty to walk into a church hall, which is not something I would normally do. I like to think I was one of the first to cast my vote yesterday morning, popping in at 7.10am on my way to get the paper. I don’t imagine my first- or second-choice votes really made a difference, as Londoners seem more invested in the cult of Boris (and perhaps a historical distaste for “Red Ken”) than in the party he stands for – a party who are surely close to being discredited forever nationally? I have a lot of time for Liberal candidate Brian Paddick, but the Liberal Democrats are as dead to me as the Tories.
I think what I like about elections is that they focus your mind. It’s all very well shouting at the news and throwing your newspaper down in disgust, but on a daily basis, you are powerless to do anything more meaningful about it. On election day, you get a cross, or four crosses in the case of yesterday’s.
London is a huge city with massive problems. We’re currently looking down the barrel, literally, of the Olympics, which promise to bring the place to a halt for weeks. (There are helpful posters up all over London advising us to leave for work earlier or later, or stay at home, or walk to work, or cycle, or if that’s not feasible just go and fuck ourselves, during the games.) It takes three hours to get into the place by airport. There are missiles mounted on a tower block in East London. The local paper, the London Evening Standard, is now almost totally given over to propaganda about the Olympics, and has been a parish magazine for Boris, who thinks that earning £250,000 a year for a newspaper column is “peanuts”.
As I publish this, he’s in the lead. I am delighted to see that Jenny Jones is ahead of Brian Paddick, as that feels like a slap in the face for the party that seems happy to act as David Cameron’s houseboy.
Whoever gets in, London will continue to be dirty, overcrowded, dangerous and slow, and the Tube will continue to fall to bits. But I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Except Galway.