more on Livingstone's London
M A Jones
jones118 at SPAMlineone.net
Sat May 13 02:28:21 MDT 2000
Roland Watson meets Nicky Gavron, Ken Livingstone's deputy and the link with
his former party
Ken Livingstone expects no loyalty from Nicky Gavron, a Blairite
millionaire. She describes him as a maverick, but wants a trusting
Second fiddle to London's one-man band
FOR a woman whose political act of getting into bed with Ken Livingstone has
seen her likened to a blood sacrifice, Nicky Gavron is remarkably
enthusiastic about the prospect.
She is less than 24 hours into her new role as deputy Mayor of London and is
just beginning to come to terms with what it will mean for her, personally
A sky-high public profile, with which she is uncomfortable, for starters.
And becoming the bridge between Mr Livingstone and his former party, a
visible sign of the current uneasy truce and the person on the front line
should hostilities resume.
When he made his approach, last Saturday, she made clear that she would use
the job to fight Labour's corner. "And he was absolutely clear about that,"
she says. (And at this point in the interview she clamps her nose, saying it
is the only way she can get close to replicating Mr Livingstone's nasal
accent, though in truth that is not very close.) "He said: 'I'm not
expecting any loyalty from you Nicky,' " she relates, laughing.
She is aware of the possible pitfalls. But Ken, clever as ever, chose well.
Nicky Gavron is much more interested in getting things done than in playing
She is a distinctive addition to the nation's political landscape (for
although she will speak only for the metropolis, that is what she will
become) because she is unlike most of those around her. She supports Tony
Blair, but her background is different from the Blairites who have joined
the team straight from the law and media. She talks of power as something to
be wielded by large numbers of people at street level rather than controlled
from the centre.
Her political experience is largely community-based and, while no one puts
themselves up for election without a degree of ambition - she has been a
Labour councillor for 14 years - she seems genuinely surprised to find
herself catapulted on to a very big stage.
Her sudden arrival means that she has yet to achieve the smooth media savvy
of most new Labour types, although she wants to work on it. She is uneasy
during our interview. She cannot talk through the background snapping of the
photographer with the practised disregard of a more seasoned performer. When
asked her age, she says "mid-fifties" and refuses to be budged. But, as she
sips green tea - she carries her own supply of teabags - she is taping the
conversation so she can learn from it, and she is also trying to watch
videos of her handful of soundbite performances this week.
Nicky Gavron would not be in Britain, let alone London, were it not for the
forces of history. Her mother was a teenager in Nazi Germany when her
parents decided that she should leave the country. Ms Gavron's grandmother
was Jewish, her grandfather was not. Their daughter was still made to wear a
yellow star. She was sent by her parents from East Berlin in the mid-1930s,
made her way to the Midlands and started training as a nurse.
Ms Gavron was born in Worcester, the eldest of four. Throughout her early
childhood money was tight, because the war had prevented her mother becoming
fully qualified, and work for her stepfather was scarce. He was a skilled
labourer who had been a sergeant in the RAF, but after the war he broke
periods of unemployment by selling encyclopaedias and putting up television
Asked when her stepfather had arrived in her life, she pauses for many
moments, looking slightly pained. "What can I say about this? My mother and
father never married. I just want to say that, really. My mother and father
never married and my stepfather brought me up." The next time she mentions
him, she instinctively refers to him simply as her father.
After leaving Worcester Girls' Grammar School, she studied history of art at
the Courtauld Institute in London. It was the 1960s, and apart from a trip
to the Festival of Britain as a girl, her first real experience of the
capital. "It was quite a culture shock, coming from a provincial town," she
says. "I thought London was amazing, with its diversity and openness."
There was never any question but that she would stay. She took a job
lecturing at Camberwell School of Art in South London and before long, to
her shock, realised that she was earning more than her mother and father put
In her early twenties she met Bob Gavron, a successful businessman on his
way to becoming a publishing tycoon. He was a good ten years older than her
with two young sons and was recently widowed. They married and had two
daughters, much earlier than she had envisaged.
She tried to lecture full time, but it did not work out, and her career
effectively went on hold. "I wanted to do a good job on the kids, and that
has been an extremely important and fulfilling part of my life," she says.
The couple divorced 17 years ago, leaving her a millionaire with a profound
regard for those whose marriages endure.
If her journey to the deputy mayor's office started anywhere, it was in the
mid-1970s at the traffic lights at the bottom of her road in Highgate, which
had no phase allowing pedestrians to cross to the library on the other side.
She joined up with other residents to press for a change. Although it took
them 14 years, the initial push gave her her first taste of neighbourhood
She became interested in a playgroup, but then frustrated. "The penny
dropped that schools were closed more than they were open, and they were in
the heart of communities. So I got together with other mothers and we formed
a playgroup association and got the schools open in the holidays across the
When older children with nothing to do threatened to sabotage the groups by
turning up and disrupting them, she turned her attention to a derelict
church. She got permission to start a youth group, went on to make the case
for using the building as a community centre and received a £5,000 council
grant for two years.
Over the years, she has raised £1.6 million from government, charities and
trusts for the Jacksons Lane Community Association in Highgate, which is now
the thriving arts, sports and community centre in which we meet. She says:
"The whole ethos was that people should be able to make a difference, to
make something happen, that the setting up of a mother and toddler group was
as creative as putting on a play."
She is immensely proud of it as a community achievement, and cannot help
pointing out her name above the door as a co-licensee as well as a
co-trustee. She could have continued as a community entrepreneur. "I had no
intention of becoming a politician," she says. "I was very happy, for the
time being, bringing up the children and doing my part-time teaching and
being involved in community action."
Ironically it was the demise of Mr Livingstone's former power base, the
Greater London Council in the mid-1980s, that further galvanised her. As an
authority, she thought it muddled, confused, too large and in need of
reform, but abolishing it was "indefensible".
Having pushed from the outside, she decided to see what she could do from
the inside, and got elected as a councillor in the North London borough of
Haringey. For eight years she was the only Labour councillor in four
neighbouring wards, a record that suggests a strong personal vote.
Service on a multitude of public bodies over the years, ranging from the
arts to disabilities and voluntary service, has seen her tagged as the
"Quango Queen". She balks at the phrase, saying that the majority of the
posts were elected rather than appointed, and consecutive rather than
concurrent. But either way, her CV is weighty.
It is going to be an intriguing political match, Ken and Nicky. She denies
the reported suspicion that she had a line of communication open with Mr
Livingstone while her party was fighting him with all its might. While their
paths have crossed, she does not know him as well as her more suspicious
colleagues. She is guarded about his record at the GLC, describing him when
pushed as "a bit of a maverick".
Does she trust him? She pauses.
"Well, I have never worked with him before. This is a working relationship
and I know that within any relationship it needs hard work on both sides to
make it work, and it certainly won't work if there's no trust."
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