A battle over principles, not people
BY BILL KIRKMAN
Ken Livingstone's comment was in bad taste, but should he have been suspended as Mayor?
IS Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, a likeable man? I have never met him, but I am prepared to believe that many people find him unlikeable. To another question: whether he is controversial, the answer is most certainly yes.
A confrontation which he had, over a year ago, with a reporter from the London Evening Standard, developed into a high-profile controversy. Ken Livingstone, who has a strong dislike of the Daily Mail, the Evening Standard's sister paper, accused the Jewish reporter of behaving like a concentration camp guard. Ken Livingstone refused to apologise. He was reported to the Standards Board for England, which set up an adjudication panel. That panel has suspended him from office for four weeks.
Most people agree that Ken Livingstone's initial comment was in very bad taste and showed bad judgment. His refusal to apologise has been seen as arrogant and intemperate, and most people probably agree with that.
Does all that mean that he should have been suspended by the adjudication panel? The suspension raises an important issue of democracy. Ken Livingstone was elected mayor by a large majority of London voters. His election came in spite of a strong campaign waged against him by the Labour Party, which expelled him, and put up a candidate against him. The party ended up with metaphorical egg on its face when their official hostility in effect rallied voters behind him. In due course, the party readmitted him, in a climb down which reflected a political reality.
Meanwhile, Livingstone has proved to be quite an effective mayor, particularly in dealing with congestion of the streets, and public transport.
Even if he had not, the fact that he has been elected is crucial. The Standards Board, and the panel which it established, is not an elected body. The Standards Board is an appointed body, whose task is to ensure that standards of honesty are not breached. It is concerned with such matters as financial probity, and conflicts of interest. It is surely totally inappropriate for it to embroil itself in political controversy. Its intervention in this case has been widely criticised, on the ground that it cannot be right for an unelected body to remove an elected official on a matter of political judgment, or bad taste. That criticism is surely right. By behaving in this way, the Standards Board is posing a threat to democracy. Interestingly, that view has been taken by many who are not allies of Ken Livingstone, and who are highly critical of his behaviour. The point which they make is that it is for the electorate, not the Standards Board, to decide the political future of Ken Livingstone.
Ken Livingstone would not be everyone's choice of champion in a battle for democracy, but the battle is about principles, not people. There is always a need for vigilance against threats to democracy. The Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge drew attention to another in a recent article in The Times. He referred to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, just introduced by Tony Blair's government. a Bill which empowers ministers to alter any law created by Parliament without the need for detailed debate or a (House of) Commons vote. Ministers, David Howarth remarks, are just asking us to trust them, and all their successors, not to do the wrong thing. "No one should be trusted with such power", he declared and suggested that Britain was "sleepwalking into a sinister world of ministerial power".
The point is well made, and the author, an experienced academic lawyer, deserves to be taken seriously. Anything which erodes the power of Parliament surely erodes democracy. As I wrote in August ("Cambridge Letter", August 21), about the failure of Parliament to insist on being recalled in the aftermath of the July bomb attacks in London: "It is the role of Parliament, in short, to ensure that the Government is held to account". The circumstances were different, but the issue the place of Parliament in the constitutional process, is similar.
Back to Ken Livingstone. Interestingly, Trevor Phillips, Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, has just made a (controversial) speech urging British Muslims to accept that in the U.K., where free speech is central to "Britishness", it must be preserved even if it offends people. What Ken Livingstone said was certainly offensive, and showed him in a very bad light. It may lead London voters to withdraw their support from him, but that decision should be for voters, not unelected officials.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, UK. Email him at: email@example.com
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