Despite limited powers, London's mayor could prove to be a worthy opponent to any party in Westminster, says former-GLC man Stephen Haseler (right)
Today, Londoners get their government back. It has been more than a decade since Margaret Thatcher, in one of the most daring constitutional coups of modern times, abolished the Greater London Council and split its functions between the boroughs and Whitehall quangos.
The old GLC, of which I was a member and committee chairman in the 1970s, was, for all its faults, a fascinating cross between an authentic big-city government and a regional assembly. The GLC possessed more powers than those allocated by Westminster to the new mayor and Greater London Authority. It controlled transport, but also housing and planning and assorted functions from the London Fire Brigade through to the management of the South Bank and the capital's movie licensing. And the Inner London Education Authority, a kind of sub-division of the GLC, ran the inner-city schools, and very efficiently too.
In my time though, crucially, the GLC had the ability to raise money - not directly, but by taxing Londoners through precepting on the boroughs. In short, like all proper regional governments the world over, it had the potential for conflict with national government.
When I was becoming a big wheel in London Labour politics (I was chairman of the general purposes committee and responsible for the administration of the GLC, senior appointments and, most sensitively of all, overseas trips for members), Ken Livingstone was "looming" on the horizon. He had been elected in the same year as me and, whereas I was adopting the role of young man on the way up (I was very ambitious and very social democratic), he was far more the romantic young firebrand, and in a minority of one, maybe two, within the Labour group. Our Labour regime was led by old-Labour stalwart Sir Reginald Goodwin, and by the Fabian Ashley Brammal, leader of the ILEA and an almost perfect example, to the point of caricature, of old Labour - that is old "rightwing" Labour. Its leaders were all getting on and were pretty traditional.
This 1970s GLC, for all its traditionalism, was also pretty honourable, in a pedestrian kind of way. It genuinely wanted what was best for London, and it tried to secure it by mainstream social democratic means. Yet it was also a very conservative regime and like many big-city Labour authorities at the time, it was tough on leftwing dissidents.
It became a perfect foil for the young Ken. In meeting after meeting of the governing group, he set out an alternative "radical" Labour platform. He was always out-voted but, increasingly, he was speaking for the growing constituency of urban radicalism. I remember him as friendly and funny - characteristics that he still uses to appeal today. He also had his wild-eyed moments, revealing an iron ruthlessness that is the other, perhaps also necessary, side of the successful politician.
After the interregnum of Horace Cutler's Tory regime at County Hall, Labour returned to power in the early 1980s. Ken rose to power on the back of this victorious, egregious, leftwing Labour party, an assorted mixture of loony revolutionary leftists and hard-line socialists who had taken over the Labour Party throughout London. And the way in which Ken led the palace coup, which within hours of the election dumped Labour leader Andrew Macintosh and ushered in the "Red Ken" era, was a first sign of his killer instinct.
During the first half of the 1980s on the GLC, 100 flowers bloomed as Ken's regime, peopled by the children of the 1960s, found itself in power in the country's capital. It was a refreshing change from both Goodwin's and Cutler's administrations, but it was a rag-tag affair with little grounding in reality. The young Trotskyite and radical activists who surrounded Ken were more interested in supporting anti-American rebels in Nicaragua and "alternative lifestyles" in London than in the nitty-gritty of housing and planning. But Ken was politically bright enough to give this burst of unfocused radicalism a clear, populist theme. His "fares-fair" policy for the Underground was a political winner. As was his inevitable confrontation with Margaret Thatcher.
Ken milked that need for an opposition to Whitehall for all it was worth, just as he does now. And when Thatcher decided to abolish the GLC (and the ILEA) Ken became the victim of oppressive dominating politicians - a theme that in the Blair era has resurfaced.
Of course, this time things are different. The office of mayor is relatively toothless, with an assembly that, unlike the GLC majority group, will not give guaranteed support. Yet, even with these weak powers, the new mayor of Greater London will have an enormous political role.
After all, the mayor is the directly elected leader of more than 5 million Britons, the largest single electorate in the the UK, and the representative of Europe's biggest city. And the mayor can claim a fresher mandate than Tony Blair. This makes the mayor of London the second most important, if not the second most powerful, politician in Britain and presents an undreamt of platform to organise a political opposition to prime ministers of any political stripe.
County Hall, in the days of the GLC, was virtually tailor-made for the role of alternative government. It had its own highly professional apparatus and the top London civil servants. And - in many ways the key to its political prominence - the GLC always had a direct line to the London-based media and the whole opinion-forming inner London circuit.
This was London government not only as service-provider but also as an ideas machine. It allowed me and my colleagues in the 1970s to launch a highly publicised critique of Labour's leftwing lurch and in the 1980s it allowed Ken to provide a running opposition commentary to Thatcherism. In short, the GLC amounted to a national institution, taken as seriously as any political party, the Trades Union Congress or the Confederation of British Industry.
Now, with two neo-liberal national parties, a vacuum exists, which a coherent alternative political force could quickly fill. The mayor of Greater London will not be able to form a political opposition alone. But the post provides the perfect catalyst, the organising point, around which such an opposition could cohere. We could see nothing less than the reordering of British politics. And it will all have started in London.
Stephen Haseler is professor of government at London Guildhall University. He was elected as a Labour member of the GLC in 1973. His book, The Super Rich, has just been published by Macmillan.