'Red Ken' leads hunt for capital job

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 May, 1998, 12:00am

With London voters expected to give overwhelming backing today to the Government's proposal to have an elected mayor, residents are increasingly turning their thoughts to who might fill the powerful post.

And without a hint of irony, they appear from opinion polls to have swung behind the man whose populist policies led to then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher abolishing the last elected London-wide authority.

He is newt-loving left-wing Labour MP Ken Livingstone, to the horror of 'new' Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair - who is casting around for another candidate from within the party.

Fortunately for the Prime Minister, given the popularity of 'Red Ken', today's referendum is about holding a first election for mayor in 2000, giving Mr Blair two years' breathing space.

Mr Livingstone is the only person to have declared himself a candidate, though other names touted include Tory lord and author Jeffrey Archer, tycoon Richard Branson and ex-Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten.

Mr Blair is said to want actress-turned-MP Glenda Jackson, a junior transport minister, to run as an official Labour candidate.

Whoever gets the job will become a politician of national renown, with the largest personal mandate in the country, having been directly elected by five million voters.

The mayor, backed by a 25-member assembly, will have an annual budget of GBP3.3 billion (HK$42.4 billion) and the final say in deciding strategy for the capital's development, as well as powerful patronage to appoint his cronies to positions of authority.

Mr Livingstone was the chairman of the old Greater London Council until it was abolished. Some of his more infamous policies included banning Robertson's marmalade from the capital because its golliwog trademark was considered racist, and mounting an exhibition in the Royal Festival Hall to celebrate 60 years of Soviet rule in Russia.

But he is probably best remembered by Londoners for his Fares Fair policy, which slashed fares with subsidies to persuade more people to use public transport.

When the move was ruled illegal, he encouraged commuters to break the law and not pay the full fare.