The political chief of Britain's capital city has become besieged by allegations of misdeeds and a far-left conspiracy that could sink his bid for re-election this year. On Monday, an explosive piece of Channel Four Tv investigative journalism about London Mayor Ken Livingstone could end his eight-year reign. Here the Dispatches programme's main whistle blower, Atma Singh, tells The-Latest why he bravely decided to expose his former boss.
I started work in City Hall in July 2001 as a policy adviser on Asian Affairs for Ken Livingstone. I had previously worked on his 2000 campaign and even entered Romney House on the Sunday after his election with his team. Norman Foster's Greater London Assembly (GLA) building had not been even been built.
I was introduced to Ken Livingstone years earlier in the 1990s through involvement with the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA). I worked on the GLA executive and about three months after the ARA had started in November 1991. I was involved in left-wing politics and respected him as a prominent figure on the left of the Labour party. I had come to know many of those who now make up his most trusted advisers years earlier through a Trotskyite group called Socialist Action. I joined in 1981.
Socialist Action believed themselves to be the inheritors of the Fourth International — a Marxist group seen as the true inheritors of Trotsky's political vision. Essentially, they believed they were working towards a global revolution. Their support of Hugo Chavez today reflects these earlier political beliefs. The Venezuelan president's stated aims of establishing a workers' state chime with Socialist Action's own objectives in the 1990s and early 2000s of advancing global revolution.
They believed Britain needed a workers' revolution and hoped to foment anti-state forces. In the early days, they held rallies and marches and published pamphlets in the hopes of mobilising a political alliance with forces of international socialists.
Socialist Action's leaders were John Ross, who has acted as economics adviser to Ken Livingstone for many years, and Redmond O'Neill, his deputy chief of staff. Other members of the group included Anne Kane, who has undertaken consultancy work for the mayor, and Simon Fletcher, the mayor's chief of staff, who was always on the periphery.
We would meet in pubs and community centres around London, although the hub was in Shacklewell Lane in Hackney, where Lithoprint printed Socialist Action's monthly magazine and other pamphlets.
In the late 1990s, Socialist Action decided to operate as an entryist organisation so at meetings and rallies we would use code-names. I was called Chan.
One of their key objectives was to put "their" people in positions of responsibility in other organisations. I suppose they wanted to ensure they would not be marginalised and would always be tapped in to left-wing politics. In the last 20 years they have had members working for the Anti-Racist Alliance, National Assembly Against Racism, the National Abortion Campaign, Labour CND, NUS Black Students Campaign, Stop The War and even at one time Sinn Fein.
But those jobs have often been given at the expense of others who actually understand the issues better. It is a trend which I have observed continuing to the present day at the heart of the mayor's office.
This is typical of the behaviour of many Marxist organisations and after a while I began to feel it wasn't right especially when it came to Asian affairs. They always wanted to impose their own views and positions on what I was doing on behalf of my community. I officially left Socialist Action in 1994; I wrote to Redmond O'Neill at the time to explain that I no longer wanted to be considered a member. Socialist Action didn't understand the basic principles of black politics, which has to begin with respect and honesty and a willingness to promote black people as political figures. This was most dramatically shown in the way that, with Livingstone's help, they went about trying to wreck the black-led ARA because Marc Wadsworth, its leader, refused to allow them to control it.
Despite this rift I continued working closely with SA members, and even carried on paying a small subscription into the group's bank account until 2004.
In the mid-1990s Socialist Action became very loyal to Ken Livingstone. I think that Ken Livingstone ultimately wanted political power so he didn't object to Socialist Action pursuing their agenda as long as this coincided with him having an increase in power. They organised his campaigns successfully and dealt with spin. Ken Livingstone was never a member of SA but he was close to the group. Almost like the leader — certainly the most prominent politician that the group is associated with.
Socialist Action continued to meet regularly when Ken Livingstone decided to run as an independent candidate in the 2000 London mayoral elections. I remember that John Ross was working in Russia at the time. Ken had visited him and met Guennady Ziuganov, the leader of the communist party in Russia. Ross had been writing articles on economics and distributing them at the Duma. As soon as Ken Livingstone won the election Ross flew back to London. I remember him arriving at the Silk & Spice Restaurant where we were holding the celebration party. I think he was carrying his luggage.
Once elected, the mayor appointed his firmest champions as his policy advisers in City Hall. The Socialist Action meetings continued while advisors were in office — until at least 2001 — at least that's the last one I attended. In these meetings members discussed everything from politics in the Balkans to the Public Private Partnership that ran the Tube, even the GLA New Years Party. They discussed whether the Congestion Charge in London should be set at £6 or £5. They were held in the upstairs room of a pub in Islington.
Of all the things discussed the theme that was regularly returned to was what they called a "bourgeois democratic revolution". Essentially, that London should be a city-state and a beacon for socialism. They saw themselves as holders of political power in London.
The advisers who surround Ken Livingstone are driven by a desire to maintain as much political power as possible through control of London's finances, control over the staff who run London and the removal of opposition. They wanted to control everything that was sensitive politically and kept a strict control over what went out to the press for instance. They advise the mayor on policy decisions and worked to implement these decisions on his behalf. The advisers were completely responsible for their area, we made decisions about what the mayor should say in his speeches, which events he should attend, which meetings he should go to. In 2002 they began to reconsider how City Hall might be organised. Restructuring was done, firstly proposed by John Ross, and he hired KPMG.
The whole point of that restructuring was to put a lot more power in the hands of the mayor's office in terms of policy advisers and less power in the hands of the other directors. And so eventually the directors, as they came to be known in the mayor's office, would be the people who would make the decisions, not only in the GLA's City Hall or Romney House but in the whole of the GLA. So it would change the balance towards the political side. Ken said it was a democratic side of the GLA versus the bureaucracy of the officers.
The mayor's office also wanted to control anything that was sensitive politically and particularly what went out to the press for instance. And what went to the assembly. The structures got tightened so that under the Freedom of Information Act the amount of information that was in the public domain was restricted by having, for instance, shredders for anything confidential.
It was made clear that this was our role during the run-up to the 2004 election. We were expected to participate in campaigning activity to ensure that Ken Livingstone was re-elected. We were asked to write articles and briefings on behalf of the mayor, to arrange and go along to trips and visits to bolster the campaign. We were even asked to fundraise on behalf of Ken Livingstone. I personally collected cheques and am aware that other policy advisers did so too.
I met Hemlata Singh (a donor) in a coffee shop next to City Hall before the election and collected £30,000. And I persuaded Sir Gulam Noon to donate £6,000 to the campaign for a marketing strategy. There were several others.
It was clear to me this was not proper behaviour. We were told to use our personal email addresses and have meetings outside of City Hall. I have since found out that we were in fact breaking the GLA's regulations and am angry that the culture in City Hall made this seem normal.
Ken Livingstone absolutely relies on his advisers and trusts their decisions. However, I did find that he didn't want to hear about anything where he himself had failed in quite major ways. As long as it wasn't a political problem and wouldn't damage him in the polls he would ignore it. I started to point out that that there was a lot of tokenism in the GLA; there was only a certain level at which Asians could ask for things. There was a lot of rhetoric of support for Asian issues and there were Asian events, but these things didn't demand an increase in expenditure and didn't empower the Asian community. There was no attempt to look at what Asians wanted or what their needs were. I believe that race relations are dealt with simply as an electoral issue: 'How can we get them on board while not actually delivering?'
I repeatedly raised my concerns about this but I felt that I was being ignored, progressively marginalised. The stuff was very petty — they would organise meetings while I wasn't there. Committees I once chaired would be dissolved and someone else put in my place, and after the 2004 election I rarely accompanied the mayor on visits.
It's a shame that by ignoring me in this way Ken's staff were also ignoring Asian affairs. On the issue of the number of Asians who were on the senior management teams of the GLA which was zero, he just didn't want to know about that. He left it up to Redmond O'Neill or Lee Jasper.
One time Ken proposed to have another Chinatown in London, the people in China town wanted it, so he announced it in Trafalgar Square on Chinese New Year. Initially there was a lot of reluctance in the mayor's office to pursue this. Then there was some serious work to try and look at it and to get the backing of a local authority to find space for it. And then suddenly it was abandoned. I believe the mayor's office were reluctant to give greater power to the Asian community.
My health, meanwhile, deteriorated as a result of the stress of responding to this vicious behaviour and I had to take leave. Relations broke down when I returned to work and in March last year I began a grievance complaint on the grounds of harassment and bullying, which I believed had been conducted over the past two years with the aim of forcing me to leave the GLA.
I felt I was treated the same as when I was in Socialist Action - like a small child being told what to do, which included being shouted at. I accepted it for a long time but I shouldn't have. It's just abuse.
The mayor's office launched disciplinary proceedings, claiming that I had neglected my duties and I began proceedings with the employment tribunal. We settled out of court and part of the agreement was that I wouldn't speak out about the way I was treated. At the time I was too ill to continue to fight and reluctantly accepted this but now I feel passionately that I should speak out. They think they are untouchable. I think they're wrong.
Atma Singh was adviser on Asian issues to Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, from 2001-07
1 Response to "Why I blew the whistle on Mayor Livingstone"