Love him or loathe him, Ken Livingstone’s stamp on London is impossible to ignore.
He’s an environmentalist, a leftist, a lover of newts, a hater of George Bush. He is also the mayor of London and author of the most controversial system yet devised for curbing the capital’s traffic nightmare.
The system — a $15 charge on cars entering central London — is being extended on Monday to take in such London landmarks as Harrods department store, the Royal Albert Hall and desirable neighborhoods as far west as Notting Hill.
Like much of what this mayor does, the measure is divisive. Many of the 230,000 people living in the new congestion zone welcome anything that reduces traffic on their streets. But some of the residents and others whose businesses depend on shoppers and deliveries from outside are angry.
The latter includes Gordon Taylor, chairman of the West London Residents Association, whose car features a sign saying “Listen to the people.”
“Which he doesn’t do,” Taylor said, claiming the decision could cost Livingstone 150,000 votes if he seeks re-election next year.
“He does polarize people,” said Jenny Jones, the Green Party’s former deputy mayor of London, “because he is very much himself.”
During seven years in office, the man once dubbed “Red Ken” has earned respect for his leadership after the July 7, 2005, bombings of a bus and subways, and disapproval of his short fuse.
He got into trouble for accusing a reporter of behaving like a concentration camp guard. The reporter is Jewish.
He has called Bush “corrupt” and “just about everything that is repellent in politics.” U.S. Ambassador Robert Tuttle has also felt Livingstone’s lash. When embassy staff insisted diplomatic conventions exempted it from the congestion charge, the mayor accused Tuttle of behaving like “a chiseling little crook.”
“I actually quite admire the way he handles himself, even if some of the things he does are quite idiotic,” Jones said, citing Livingstone’s run-in with the Jewish reporter. “But he toughs it out, says, ’This is who I am. Take it or leave it.’ And people are taking it.”
A recent Ipsos-MORI poll commissioned by the city says 36 percent of Londoners are satisfied with his performance, 26 percent are dissatisfied and 28 percent are neither. The rest had no opinion. The poll of 1,418 adults gave no margin of error, but it’s generally 3 percentage points in soundings of that size.
Livingstone, 61, entered London local politics in 1971 and led the Greater London Council from 1981 until 1986, winning fame for such populist measures as slashing subway fares. After Margaret Thatcher abolished the council as part of her crusade against socialism, Livingstone got elected to Parliament for Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour Party.
In 2000 he won the mayor’s job over Blair’s vehement opposition.
A natty dresser who raises pet newts in his garden pond, he has stayed “red” through his two terms in office; he called Fidel Castro’s communist revolution “one of the high points of the 20th century,” and welcomed Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to city hall. Livingstone is working on a deal to fuel London’s 8,000 red buses with cheap Venezuelan oil in exchange for giving Venezuela its expertise in security, tourism, transport, housing and waste disposal.
In the Ipsos-MORI poll, nearly 40 percent of who described themselves as “very dissatisfied” gave this reason: the congestion charge.
The once-a-day charge operates between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. Residents inside the zone get a 90 percent discount, something Taylor’s group complains will encourage more traffic between the two zones and add to congestion.
“His policies always latch on to what’s the latest popular idea,” said Roger Lawson, the London spokesman for the Association of British Drivers. “Mr. Livingstone’s sole agenda, as far as I can see, is to support the policies that will get him re-elected, rational or not.”
Livingstone counters that traffic in central London has dropped by 20 percent. But congestion has risen in the zone, which Livingstone blamed on construction crews clogging streets. Conservatives on the London council say new bus and bicycle lanes are the reason.
But ultimately, the problem is London itself. It has few expressways or wide Paris-style boulevards The subway is extensive, but expensive.
Richard Bourn of Transport 2000, a lobby group, thinks the charge is good for public transportation and public spaces, which includes sprawling Hyde Park.
The original charge started out unpopular and became popular, he said. “We definitely support the mayor on this. He’s doing what people are elected to do — take difficult measures.”