London's new mayor stirs lively racial debate

This week, 'Red Ken,' who rode minority vote to victory, appointed radical activists as advisers on race and police.

London's first directly elected mayor has made a career as a maverick who never shies away from controversy. Quite the opposite, in fact.

So it comes as little surprise that Ken Livingstone, nicknamed "Red Ken" for his socialist views, wasted no time in stirring up a lively debate. Less than a week after winning the May 4 election, Mr. Livingstone appointed two minority radical activists as special advisers on race and police matters.

Aides say that by acting swiftly, Livingston hopes to head off future racial conflict. Analysts note that minority support was key to his electoral success.

A MORI poll conducted on the eve of the mayoral elections indicated that 60 percent of Afro-Caribbeans, and 52 percent of Asians, were set to cast their vote for Livingston, breaking the traditional pattern where 4 out of 5 from that ethnic group traditionally vote Labour.

London is home to almost half of Britain's estimated 3-1/2 million ethnic-minority citizens, mainly of Afro-Caribbean and South Asian origin. Government forecasts suggest that in the next decade London's nonwhite population will reach 2 million, in a city of 8 million.

With such an ethnic mix, racial issues have moved to center stage in London politics over the past two decades.

Three years ago, in a notorious case, a black student, Stephen Lawrence, was murdered by a gang of white youths in a London suburb. Police later came in for harsh criticism for failing to arrest the young men believed to be responsible for the murder. Members of the gang are still at large. Last year, a government report described the London police force as "institutionally racist."

On May 7, Livingstone weighed in, naming Lee Jasper, a black activist, to head a task force on race relations. He appointed Kumar Murshid, a race relations expert from one of London's most deprived districts, to advise him on police policy.

As mayor, Livingstone will have considerable influence on law-and-order issues in the British capital, appointing members to a new London police authority. Until now, police have answered to the Home Secretary, a central government minister.

Livingstone has his own record as a radical politician. Fourteen years ago he headed the Greater London Authority, which espoused gay rights and other minority causes. But then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher abolished it.

Lately, Livingstone has been a member of the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament, where he was widely regarded as a left-winger out of favor with Prime Minister Tony Blair. They represent opposing factions of the ruling Labour Party, and Mr. Blair fiercely opposed Livingstone's candidacy for mayor.

Mr. Jasper and Mr. Murshid are no strangers to controversy either, and in their new roles are already producing more. Saying police "cannot recognize racist officers in recruitment training," Jasper has called for taking responsibility for training away from the police and vesting it in another body.

And two days after the mayoral election, Murshid told The (London Daily) Telegraph that Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, was "an unreconstructed racist" and called for the abolition of the monarchy.

The royal consort is not known for his racial sensitivity. Last year, he made headlines during a visit to an electronics factory, when he said that a clumsily-made fuse box looked as if it had been "put in by an Indian." On a visit to China in 1986, he told British students, "If you stay here much longer you'll all be slitty-eyed."

Tony Travers, a specialist on city government at the London School of Economics, says Livingstone's success in the mayoral race "owed a great deal to support from ethnic minority voters."

"It was the first time Londoners were asked to choose a leader largely on the basis of personality," he says. "The Labour Party cancelled Livingstone's membership when he decided to run as an independent, and the clear-cut nature of his victory suggests that he was able to draw support from a broad cross-section of voters. Race relations are a major London problem, and Livingstone is wise to seek to address the issue."

Aside from his proposed "zero tolerance" policy on racist crime, Livingstone will be preoccupied with improving London's heavily choked Underground, or subway system, and attracting new investment to the capital.

He will also have his work cut out trying to coordinate the activities of London's 33 boroughs, all of which will continue to operate under their own separate councils.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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