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Sunday, May 04, 2008 

The London post

Dashed hopes, tears and the death of left-wing politics.

My love for London is paralleled only by my love for Damascus. I've never campaigned for any politician - mainly because most don't deserve my energy. But I've spent the past week on the streets of London, knocking on people's doors, plastering stickers all over London's trains (photo, below) and handing out leaflets outside tube stations, shouting the same two words at anyone within ear-shot: Vote Ken.

Ken is London. This is his city. In the past eight years he has built a capital for the people. But his influence goes back much further than this decade.


A left-wing activist, he started out on the rebellious councils of north London in the 1970s. That's where he got his name of Red Ken. He moved on to the GLC - which ran London. His Labour Party was in turmoil, but he was a massively popular figure at the height of Thatcherism.

He led regeneration projects, redeveloped parts of London that hadn't seen government money since the end of the Second World War, and made transport cheap enough for everyone to afford.

And even during his years in power, he could still be seen on the picket lines at factories, supporting striking workers.

But in 1986, his time was up. Margaret Thatcher hated him and everything he stood for, and she abolished the GLC.

He sat quietly in Parliament and saw Tony Blair come into power. Blair had promised to restore self-rule for London, and in 2000, London voted for its first Mayor.

Ken was no friend of Blair's New Labour. Socialist 'Red Ken' was very very Old Labour. And he hadn't shaken off that maverick, independent, radical, free-wheeling reputation he gained in the 80s.


Blair wanted his Health Minister to become Mayor - Ken was furious, everyone saw the position of Mayor as made for him. So, he stood as an independent. Blair kicked him out of the Labour Party - boosting his popularity even further.

Ken won by a massive majority, despite the entire media and political establishment battling against him - and he forced Labour into a humiliating fourth place. Ken inflicted Tony Blair's first bloody nose, and he later boasted that was his biggest achievement. (Photo: City Hall - the Mayor's office, next to Tower Bridge.)

But he also saw it as a belated victory against Thatcher. His first words as Mayor:

“As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted 14 years ago."


During his eight years in power, he won the 2012 Olympics for London, which is already forcing billions of pounds into London's poorest eastern areas.

He imposed a controversial Congestion Charge on cars coming into the city - it's now universally accepted to have been a fantastic idea, cutting pollution and traffic. Leaders of other cities are trying to copy it. And he won admiration for the way he dealt with the aftermath of the terror attacks on London's transport network:

"Those who came here to kill last Thursday had many goals but one was that we should turn on each others like animals trapped in a cage and they failed. They failed totally and utterly. There may have been places where that would have happened but not here."


And why did the bombers fail? Because of the tolerance and diversity of this city. Nowhere in the world can compete with London's open-mindedness. And Ken - defender of minorities and the poor - has protected that.

He lives in a poor area of north London and travels by tube. Wherever he goes, he's mobbed by fans as if he is a pop-star or actor. It was the highlight of my month when he sat in front of me on the train, and talked to me.

Ken has made housing affordable again in one of the world's most expensive cities, and made travel free for anyone under-18 and over-60.

But he also stood up to America. He was vocally anti-war, when everyone else was silent. He called the US Ambassador to London a "chiseling little crook" when he refused to pay the Congestion Charge.

And he made friends with Hugo Chavez, signing a deal to get cheap oil, in return for advise on how to develop Venezuela.


Along comes 2008. There's never any doubt Ken would win his third election. Until Boris Johnson came on the scene - a comedian and journalist, and very-right wing Conservative politician. He has said black people have smaller brains, and called Nelson Mandela a tyrant. He is still a supporter of the Iraq war (when no-one else is), loves George Bush, and cried when Margaret Thatcher was kicked out.

He is everything Ken is not.

So how could he win? He came from nowhere. He targeted the richer white suburbs, which don't even feel part of London. It was always going to be close. Ken won the inner city, Boris took the edges. The result: Boris - 53%, Ken 47%.


I love Ken because I love this city. Ken is such a passionate Londoner. He's a visionary, an independent man of the people. We've lost all of that, and gained a politician to run our city.

Ken is still my Mayor for another five hours. Shed a tear with me at midnight.

I never used to be proud of London - during the last eight years, I've become a Londoner. I've become part of Ken's city.

(Thanks to you-know-who for the Facebook status graphic.)

My commiserations. Ken was the best politician in the whole of Britain, not just in London. I love the man, and the city he represents. At the very least, it's a huge embarrassment to have a man like Boris as London's public face.

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About me

  • Written by sasa
  • From Damascus, Syria
  • From Damascus to London via Beirut. Based in and out of the central Damascene hamlet of Saroujah. News and feelings from the streets every day. I'm talking rubbish? Leave a comment. Welcome to the information democracy. See below for info about this site.
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