Jaffer Kolb, a writer from New York now living in London, considers how the men appointed as political leaders of these two world cities have left their mark, and evaluates Ken Livingstone’s legacy.

With a common history and language, not to mention shared world city-status and innumerable expatriates, New York and London are clearly interconnected and, as a result, oft-compared. So when New Labour announced the creation of a Mayor for London along with the establishment of the Greater London Authority, it came as no surprise that pundits looked to New York’s mayoralty as a model of what might come with London’s new system of government.

Looking back, New York’s mayors are a notorious bunch. Outspoken and dynamic figures like Fiorello LaGuardia, John Lindsay and Ed Koch paved the way for community activist David Dinkins, iron-fisted Rudolph Giuliani and, most recently, savvy businessman Michael Bloomberg. These mayors recall an era of cigar-chewing, cut-throat leadership that is equal parts myth and romance. London’s response? Ken Livingstone, a mayor colourful in his own right and once known as Red Ken for his hyper-left wing tendencies.

Livingstone’s antics, including the infamous instance in which he posted a billboard announcing England’s rising unemployment figures across from Margaret Thatcher’s offices at Westminster on the roof of the Greater London Council building, were argued to have led to the GLC’s dissolution in 1986. He famously lost Labour’s backing during the mayoral elections of 2000, eventually running as an independent against Tony Blair’s highly vocal derision. He won the election, of course, and in so doing has set a precedent for London’s mayors that equals, if not exceeds the force of New York’s dynamic figureheads.

In both cities, however, strong personalities tend to compensate for what is ultimately a position entangled in countless inter-agency relationships that require careful orchestration and severely limit the mayor’s power. In New York, for example, Mayor Koch (in the late 1970s) was forced to drop many of his plans to revitalise blighted communities in favour of large-scale developments like Battery Park City. New York shares London’s problems with the public-private partnerships that have tied the hands of mayors. Dinkins, Giuliani and Bloomberg have all followed closely, winning elections on platforms of social change that dwindle as corporate interests exercise their influence.

London’s mayor faces different limitations primarily set out by the mission of the Greater London Authority. The GLA is a symbol of New Labour’s commitment to local government. The authority organises the plans and endeavours of London’s 33 boroughs. The mayor, according to the GLA’s website, is London’s spokesman. He sets the budget for city-wide organizations and has authored the London Plan—a strategic planning blueprint for the city. Yet the boroughs remain responsible for approving their own planning applications, and the mayor can only deny planning permission to the largest of the boroughs’ plans. The minimum scale of such plans is predetermined but loose enough that vast projects can happen without reference to the London Plan.

In New York, mayors have historically attached their names to some of the city’s biggest developments to ensure the continuation of their legacies: Koch’s name is writ large in Battery Park City; Giuliani will forever be associated with Times Square; Bloomberg with Lower Manhattan. Ken Livingstone may not have that option. Where the boroughs control small development, central government continues to determine large-scale projects — the Millennium Dome is as attached to Blair’s name as Canary Wharf is to Thatcher’s. While Ken Livingstone has been outspoken regarding the legacy of the 2012 Olympic site, it, too, remains under the hand of agencies outside of the GLA.

Despite these restrictions, Ken Livingstone has made a firm impression in both transportation and city marketing, arenas in which he holds power and thus securing his place in the annals of political history. However reviled and hotly debated, his congestion charge and improved bussing system have successfully reduced inner city traffic, cut down carbon emissions, and increased usage of public transportation—at least according to figures published by Transport for London. By associating London with sustainability—which he has achieved through stringent guidelines for planners and developers that ensure new projects will not harm the environment or surrounding communities—Mayor Livingstone has succeeded in generating acclaim and investment in the city. Like his New York predecessors, the sheer dynamism of his personality has significantly benefited London and its international stature, leaving both a cleaner city and big shoes to fill behind him.



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