Red Ken on the 2007 World Economic Forum
London Mayor Ken Livingston reflects on the World Economic Forum in Davos:
I may not have found socialist soulmates in Davos, but I did not come away disappointed by the discussions.
Davos is one of the world’s most important economic forums. In London 700,000 people are employed by foreign companies or in tourism. As mayor my job is to secure incomes for Londoners. In a rapidly internationalising economy an increasing number of these will depend on foreign companies, tourism and trade. I had the opportunity to lay out London’s advantages at Davos and took every chance – indeed, the success of London against New York was an important talking point of the week. But in addition to my role promoting London, what were the biggest lessons of the week?
The first lesson from Davos was how damaging the Bush administration’s policies have been not only to the world but to the US. Nearly one in three Londoners jobs, 1.4 million, are in financial and business services. These are booming in large part because London is replacing New York as the main international centre for the rapidly growing economies of China, Russia and India. Only in Latin America does New York retain an essentially unchallenged lead.
The discussions at Davos made it clear that the new trends in Latin America will break New York’s monopoly even there. The new generation of Latin America governments, represented at Davos by Brazil’s president Lula, have no interest in unnecessary arguments with the US – it distracts from their priority of developing their own countries. But they will not accept having all their eggs in the basket of New York when confronted with the unilateral behaviour of the US. The Bush administration’s attempts to extend the reach of US law internationally with excessively rigid regulatory demands – exemplified by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act – is hitting foreign companies. The shifting balance of world economic power means the rest of the world is not compelled to submit to this.
Davos reinforced the view that Latin America will follow other emerging economies and shift resources out of New York – in the same way that leading Gulf states, riding the wealth of the oil price boom, are shifting their activity to London because they are repelled by the anti-Muslim and protectionist outbursts by the US right wing.
Whether London will continue to benefit from all this as we are at present is up to us. But the economic shift away from the US is unstoppable. Military disaster in Iraq and the relative economic decline of New York are two sides of the same Bushite coin.
The second key lesson I took from Davos is the way in which new technologies are inextricably driven by the desire to expand personal choice.
My most profound belief is that every person on the planet is equal in their worth and different in their character. They want to live their own life in their own individual way. I am a classic liberal on this – I endorse completely John Stuart Mill’s formula that you should be able to do anything you want as long as it does not interfere with others.
But I am a socialist because I know without an escape from poverty, without healthcare, education, housing, and many other things, “freedom to chose” is a hollow sham. The world of the future will be incomparably more diverse, with greater personal choice, than the one that exists today. New technology is taken up so rapidly because it creates a basis to expand that personal choice.
The first indications of this are already present on the internet: blogging, MySpace, the iPod. But what excited me at Davos was how new technology could be applied to transport, housing, and the environment. Much food for thought for London there.
This, of course, was the Davos where climate change rose to the top of the agenda. In the last 12 months a seismic shift has taken place in how the world thinks about climate change. A session in which millionaires and company chairmen became as agitated and disorderly when discussing Kyoto and carbon emissions as a left wing meeting, was a sight that I won’t forget. The imperative of the environment, of climate change, is now so great that it is not enough to be a world city. It is necessary to be a “planet city” – adding an environmental imperative to the economic, social and cultural imperatives of internationalisation.
What was the great weakness of Davos? Poverty. The grinding poverty that still afflicts the greater part of the world’s population and blights the lives of many even in the most economically advanced countries, had no echo in Davos. But I had not expected it to. I came to Davos for different reasons.
I differ from some of my friends on the left in that I expect that the journey to the type of society I want to take many, many decades. We have to solve many problems before we get there: tackling poverty, education, health, and environmental damage caused by human activity. The important thing for the left is to make most of each situation on the road to a better society, rather than imagining that in one bound we can create utopia.
I did not come to Davos expecting to find socialist soulmates. I came to promote London, to discover the thinking on technology, to meet people who are trying tackle poverty in their developing countries and to work with allies in vital fields such as climate change. I was not disappointed.