Tag Archives: ken-livingstone

Does the London Mayoralty drive people mad?

Watching Boris Johnson’s appalling behaviour in front of a Parliamentary Select Committee today, I was reminded of someone else: Ken Livingstone circa 2006. The idea of Boris Johnson complaining about partisan attacks is simply too ironic to countenance. This was 2 April, not the day before.

Is there something about the role that makes you a bumptious, vainglorious ass with molecule-thick skin, or is it an entry level requirement in the first place? The jury is out on that one I suspect. Certainly, while the jolly “LOOK AT HIS FUNNEEE HAIR!” HIGNIFY-crafted demeanour of “Bozza” always was manufactured to a certain extent. But I can’t help but wonder if the role itself does reinforce such a mindset.

London Mayors (indeed all directly elected English Mayors) work under a system that gives them almost unchallengable power. To overturn a decision, the Assembly/Council needs to amass a two-thirds majority and the mayor can usually expect at least a third of the council to be of his party. Even independents are pretty safe because the chances of getting the main parties to agree a line are relatively low. On the odd occasion that Livingstone didn’t get his own way, he used to throw appalling tantrums. Johnson doesn’t have to worry about that in the London Assembly, but a Labour-dominated select committee is another story.

If it has taken him just a year before he finds the merest criticism intolerable, what will he be like in another two? And if it has taken him just this long before getting sucked in, how long will it take his successor? Will London even still be standing by then?

Cameron and Johnson timed the Venezuela announcement for after the Crewe by-election

At a stroke, Boris Johnson has undermined the capital the Conservatives have made out of the 10p income tax fiasco. It isn’t that the cheap oil deal with Venezuela was defensible – it wasn’t. It was this sort of tokenism that disqualified Livingstone from office in the eyes of most Londoners. But no-one begrudged low income earners from getting half-priced travel. In Crewe, the Tories ground Labour into the dust attacking them for doubling the 10p rate and blithely ignoring the impact it would have on low income earners. Now the Tories have imposed swingeing cuts on a very similar group in society.

What’s worse is the timing: on a bank holiday weekend just hours after winning the Crewe by-election during which time they had very carefully kept quiet about the plans. It is clear they don’t plan to offer people on income support any alternative, otherwise why the stark announcement rather than a more cuddly “consultation” about how to continue paying for the scheme? It is clear they knew it would be politically damaging. And it is abundantly clear that was not merely approved by CCHQ and Cameron but crafted by them in the first place. Make no mistake – this was Cameron’s decision.

Expect this issue to become a Focus leaflet staple, within London at least. I can think of no better symbol of how paper thin the “new” Conservativism really is. Scratch beneath the surface and the nasty side is just itching to come out. At least now we know, but is has the public already made up its mind?

Oh dear, Livingstone is lost in his own mythologising

Ken Livingstone won the London Mayoral election last week. Well, okay, he doesn’t actually claim that in his Guardian article yesterday, but he comes pretty close:

Nationally Labour’s vote fell by 2% compared to 2004, but in London the percentage of first preference votes I received in the mayoral election went up very fractionally. The increase in the absolute number of votes was striking – up by 220,000, or 30%. There was no Labour “stay at home” factor in London. Four years ago I polled 10.8% ahead of Labour nationally – a week ago this increased to 13%. I received slightly more second preference votes than Boris Johnson. On the London assembly Labour made one net gain.

All of which points to a phenomenally high profile election in which the national and London media helped put out a squeeze message on a daily basis. There are plenty of Labour held seats across the country where they bucked the national trend for the same simple reason: it was clear to the electorate that it was a choice between two candidates.

If the acme of Labour’s ambitions is to come a very good second place in the next general election, they should listen to Livingstone. Otherwise, I suggest they look further afield.

His comments on the Lib Dems are more interesting:

Lib Dem failure in London was massive. They chose to stay outside the progressive alliance of Labour and the Greens. As a result they failed even to reach double-figure support in the mayoral election, and their London assembly seats fell from five to three. Hopefully this suicidal orientation will be reversed in the next four years.

The scale of the Lib Dems’ failure is undeniable (well, undeniable for anyone apart from Mike Tuffrey who sent out an email last week claiming that “actually when the final tally is examined, I think we’ll find that in many areas the total number of people we persuaded to vote for us was up. But that success was masked by a much higher turnout, spurred on by the mayoral Punch and Judy show.” – if only those pesky voters didn’t turn up, we’d have won! No lessons being learned there I fear). I’m not convinced that Livingstone’s prescription for success would have had any effect however. The Lib Dems are a national party which can’t afford to behave like the Greens and avoid scrutiny in the same way. Sian Berry can get away with broadcasting the message “Vote Green, Get Brown“; Brian Paddick and Nick Clegg could not. If we had done so, we would have mortgaged all our potential successes in the local elections across the country, helping the Tories push the message that they were the only alternative to Labour.

There certainly is an argument that we concentrated too much on the Mayoral election and didn’t consider how we could consolidate our standing on the Assembly anything like enough. As a third party which is no longer the repository for protest votes it once was, we have a peculiar problem with the AMS system where people feel they can split their ticket by giving the Lib Dems a vote in the constituency and, say, the Greens a vote in the London-wide ballot and be helping us (solution: our London-wide message in future has to focus relentlessly on the list). But hitching ourselves to the Green-Brown love-in would have done us no good at all.

It might have got Mayor Ken re-elected so one can understand why he thinks it has such appeal, but however much I might have preferred him to be at City Hall right now rather than Bozza, performing the role of Mayoral figleaf has very little appeal for me. Perhaps if Livingstone had understood that, rather than adopt this Bush-style “you’re either with us or against us” approach, he might have been able to come up with a counter-stratagem.

Random points about the London elections

I have a few things to get off my chest regarding the London elections and so I thought I would include them as a miscellenia rather than write seperate blog posts about them.

Bozza and the bloke factor

One thing that continues to perturb me is the rapid rewriting of history from the side of the Conservatives. Specifically, they have gone from fielding a candidate who was clearly selected because of his celebrity cache to insisting (now he has won) that his main appeal to the general public was his policy agenda.

Pish, and indeed, posh. It wasn’t that Boris didn’t have policy – I actually quite liked much of his housing policy for instance (well, the bits they’d nicked off the Lib Dems anyway) – but the average member of the public would do well to remember anything more than the fact that he doesn’t like bendy buses. There was a big emphasis on crime and numerous specifics, but the main tactic there was to deny Paddick his USP (and it worked superbly).

I’ve already mentioned how the number of people saying they’d vote Boris for a “laugh” on Twitter outnumbered the more contemplative souls by something like 4-to-1. Twitterers are not exactly the most representative sample however. So if that doesn’t convince you, I would refer you to the Political Brain by Drew Westen (also namechecked by Martin Turner on Lib Dem Voice today I notice). To horrendously summarise this book, it suggests that what people vote for is not policy but who they make the best emotional connection to. Crudely, they vote for the bloke they would most like to have a pint with. That’s why George W. Bush did so well despite having anything resembling intelligence. It’s why people continue to remind the Lib Dems what a desperate mistake they made getting rid of Charles Kennedy, despite the fact that his shortcomings had become quite insurmountably by the time we did. It’s why Ken Livingstone won in 2000 and it’s why Boris beat him last week.

There’s no shame in that fact. But let’s be honest about it, eh chaps?

The Evening Standard Factor

Again, I’ve already briefly touched on this. In my view, the Standard’s coverage was less problematic than the Metro’s lack of coverage and as I suggested earlier, that was clearly a deliberate ploy of the Rothermere Press’s, taking into account the two paper’s differing demographics.

Listening to Andrew Gilligan’s endless bleating about how his was scrupulously balanced and committed to the facts though is hard to take, especially since I spent an hour on the phone with him two weeks ago being accused of being a Livingstone stooge just for attempting to produce an impartial tool for the elections (an accusation that ended up going nowhere). He might be scrupulous with the facts, but he was driven by a very clear agenda. And you can assemble a bunch of uncontestable facts in any order to make a case that a specific individual is a saint or a sinner.

To be fair on the Standard, having read it more than usually over the past couple of months I can attest that it did indeed contain numerous pro-Ken articles to balance out the negative ones. But the paper itself has a very clear demographic and very few people will be swayed by it one way or another. What the Standard does have at its disposal more than any other paper in London, is the capacity to circulate thousands of posters on a daily basis. The posters, clearly visible on pretty much every single street corner in the capital, were unrelentingly negative about Livingstone. They knew it, just as they knew that no amount of balancing articles in the paper itself would make a blind bit of difference.

And Gilligan knows perfectly well that it was his scrupulously researched articles that resulted in those lurid headlines. Again, I don’t particularly begrudge him, or his newspaper, for doing this. Long live our free press, even if it is a worry that London can’t sustain a second paid-for daily. But let’s have a bit of honesty.

How Labour Blew It

Oh let me count the ways. The major factors have already been covered ad nauseum: the cronyism scandals, the familiarity (read: contempt) of Livingstone himself, the walking disaster that is Gordon Brown. But for me there are at least two other factors which backfired on Labour spectacularly.

The first one was to frame the debate as Livingstone vs. Johnson at such an early stage. I commented on my frustration over this earlier in the year and there’s no question it made Paddick’s job harder. The point I’m making here though is different: it also made Livingstone’s job harder.

I can understand the logic behind it: the idea was that by forcing people to focus relentlessly on Johnson, his flaws would be exposed for all to see and he would collapse in a blond heap of crikeyness. The problem with that stratagem is that it assumed that Johnson would be allowed to do that, either by his own party or by a media that was spoiling for a big personality-fueled two-way contest.

What Livingstone and his supporters should have been doing as an alternative is to insist that the field was open; to talk up the chances not just of the Greens and Lib Dems but specifically of One London. Livingstone should have been insisting that all debates include all the main party contenders based on which parties were represented on the Assembly and done all he could to keep Damian Hockney in the race.

Why? Because if there had been a contender on the right with some credibility, it would have dented Johnson’s popularity. If Hockney had stayed in the race, Livingstone could have kept suggesting in debates that he was where all rightwingers’ votes should go. And Hockney, with his opposition to the Congestion Charge, support of Heathrow Airport and scepticism about multiculturalism would have been able to articulate what a lot of Johnson’s core support actually happen to believe.

A side effect of this also would have been to present potential BNP supporters with a more mainstream party to vote for, which may have kept Barnbrook out of the Assembly. This brings me to screw up Number Two: taking Boris too seriously.

To be fair, the Livingstone campaign team seemed to consistently understand the problems with presenting Johnson as a racist, homophobic snob – even if their candidate kept lapsing into this rhetoric from time to time. But they really failed to get their supporters to rein it in. The StopBoris website was a perfect example of this, as was Zoe Williams’ silly article on election day.

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, it is simply logically implausible to expect people to regard Boris as a buffoon while taking every single word of his deadly seriously. It can’t be done and people already tempted by Boris will simply stare at you as if you don’t have a sense of humour. Johnson is a polemicist and raconteur. His articles are provocative. The right approach is to take his buffoonery head on and to suggest to people that it would be a bad idea to elect a clown as mayor. Whenever Labour stayed on message, they made progress against Johnson. Whenever they went into PC mode, they lost support.

The second problem was that it sent out the message that it is possible for a mainstream political candidate in the UK to be an appalling racist and homophobic bigot and still have a chance of winning the top prizes. Once again, I can’t help but wonder to what extent this helped the BNP who of course were only too happy to associate themselves with Johnson.

You would have thought that Labour would have learned the lesson about the limits of demonising your political opponents 12 years ago. Clearly not.

Does your Mayoral candidate pass the 7/7 test?

Wondering which way to vote in May’s London Mayoral election? Allow me to suggest this simple test:

Pick a candidate and try and imagine what they would be like handling a crisis such as 7/7.

Actually, you don’t need to do that with Livingstone. Love him or hate him, he’s already done this:

Brian Paddick? Well, again, this isn’t a hypothetical as he was the Deputy Metropolitan Police Chief at the time:

Boris Johnson? Does the thought make you want to laugh or cry?

Harsh test though this may be, I think it’s a valid one.

Beware Livingstone supporters claiming you have no choice

Ken Livingstone supporters moving into the clothes peg business. Remember Polly Toynbee’s exhortation in the run up to the general election that people should vote Labour not because they were any good but because the Tories were worse? Well, it seems that Livingstone supporters have started a similar tactic. Seumus Milne, acknowledging that there is “a strong left critique of Livingstone,” nonetheless insists that “the choice [between Livingstone and Johnson] could hardly be starker. No other candidate is in with a shout.” Meanwhile, a bunch of Labour MPs have written a letter to the Guardian demanding that “the real issues in the London mayoral election should be Ken Livingstone’s record after eight years in office” only to immediately add that “Boris Johnson would abolish the 50% affordable housing policy. He opposed the minimum wage, backed section 28 and has called for big cuts to London’s transport and policing budgets. The choice could not be clearer.”

The Labour practice of talking up the Tories in order to shut down debate (and vice versa) is a time honoured tradition, and one the Lib Dems in turn practice themselves all the time. Polly at least had a point; under first past the post voting against the party you hate is more relevant than voting for the party you like. But the Mayoral election will not be conducted under first past the post but the supplementary vote (SV) system.

SV is by no means perfect – unlike AV you still have to take tactical factors into consideration when casting your first preference. But it does broaden the range out to at least the top three. What then becomes important is which candidates enjoy the broadest consensus. Livingstone has always done well out of a broad coalition of lefties, liberals and greens – these are votes Johnson must attract to actually win. Can he? I’m doubtful, and I suspect he can only lose ground over the next couple of months. On this basis it is looking less and less likely that Johnson can win, even if he ends up in the top two.

By contrast, it is not beyond the realms of possibility at all that if Paddick could overtake him. He was very unlucky to have his candidature announced while the leadership election was getting under way which didn’t make for the best of starts. But his relaunch this month has been very successful and he has a broader appeal than the standard Lib Dem candidate.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the only two people who can win this race are not Livingstone and Johnson but Livingstone and Paddick. The fact that Livingstone supporters seek to present the shock haired loon as some kind of looming phantom menace suggests they fear this is true themselves.

New Statesman: not very Bright

Chavez tshirtGiven that Martin Bright has made a very high profile attack on Ken Livingstone this week for, among other things, his links with Hugo Chavez, I have to say I find it very amusing that the magazine of which he is Political Editor, the New Statesman, is currently offering this to all new subscribers:

Pay just £14.99 UK (£26.00 Europe, £32.00 World) for 12 issues of the New Statesman and receive this special edition T-shirt worth £20.99 absolutely free. In addition New Statesman will donate £1 to Venezuela Information Centre UK.

Don’t worry if you aren’t sure about the ethics of all this however; as an alternative you can always get a book on Fidel Castro instead. They cover the whole broad range of left opinion, they do. 🙂

On Boy Cameron fingering Dyke

No-one appears to have used that headline yet, which I’m frankly amazed by, so I thought I’d better get in quick.

Overall, this latest incident does rather confirm some of the points I was making last week about the nature of the London Mayor and the GLA. These institutions lack any kind of civic culture, we are struggling to invent one 8 years after the event, and it is a mistake to think that ‘celebrity’ candidates are going to solve the problem.

But what a nasty, undemocratic, bullying idea of the Tories. I’m delighted it appears to have backfired on them. I’m sure they are attempting to spin this as the Lib Dems playing party politics while they are trying to work constructively in the interests of Londoners, but nothing could be further from the truth. As a party we would never be able to recover from being the Conservative’s mini-me. We have a genuine dilemma of who to stand, but the most anonymous face-slapping moron would be preferable to a joint candidate. Far from beating him, an Anyone-But-Ken candidate would be likely to bolster him – one only needs to cast one’s mind back to 2000 to recall that Labour tried that and got bitten in the arse.

Ultimately, there may be only one way of defeating Ken Livingstone: wait until he’s too old to keep going and enjoy the fact that Labour will end up struggling to find a candidate as much as everyone else. In the meantime, old fashioned party (and non-party) politics will have to do. Anyone got a monkey suit? It worked in Hartlepool.

Why London gives parties nightmayors

The difficulties that both the Lib Dems and Tories are experiencing in finding suitable candidates for London Mayor is clearly unfortunate, but not entirely unpredictable. Labour of course had its own problem back in 2000, eventually opting for the laughable Frank Dobson (ruining his career in the process) who was trounced by the then-independent Ken Livingstone.

The problem lies in the system of devolution that Labour has imposed on London (to be fair, we had a vote, but the public and other parties were never given a say on what system we might want first – it was a fait accompli). The GLA is tiny – 25 members – toothless and subsequently anonymous.

While the London Mayor has only rather limited powers, what powers the office does have are entirely unaccountable. The GLA can only block him on a 2/3rds majority vote, meaning that Labour can force through virtually any proposal despite not having an overall majority. For some, this is its strength – after all Livingstone’s transport policies (which I would go a long way in supporting) would have had a much rougher time if there were greater checks on his powers. Yet the result is that there is very little interest in what the GLA does. It is democratically elected, but its legitimacy is fatally undermined by its lack of relevancy. As a result, while I am a political hack who could bluff my way through any conversation on Scottish and Welsh politics, I couldn’t begin to tell you what the GLA actually does from one week to the next.

The weakness of the GLA is directly relevant to the difficulty that parties have in finding mayoral candidates. The ideal candidate is a big personality who already has a track record of success and a public profile. Back in the day, it was suggested that Tony Blair had Richard Branson in mind for the job. We’ve had talk radio hosts suggested (Nick Ferrari), think tank directors (Nick Boles), cheesy DJs (Mike Read), senior politicians and ex-ministers (Simon Hughes and Steve Norris), but the only candidate who has ever enjoyed public support is someone whose only claim to fame is that he used to run the GLC.

In many respects, this is a good thing, and a valuable corrective to the perception that career politics is all bad and disliked by the public. But the GLA is not the GLC. Love it or hate it, people took great interest in what the GLC did. Livingstone wasn’t the only personality that emerged from it (Tony Banks, John McDonnell). If we had the GLC now, we would already have half a dozen people being lined up as possible successors to Ken’s crown. Instead, if Livingstone went under a bendy bus tomorrow, Labour would have more difficulty than any other party in finding a credible candidate. Nicky Gavron? Ha ha ha. Actually, I’d be tempted to support Dave Wetzel, but it ain’t gonna happen.

I’m more sympathetic to the idea of directly elected mayors than a lot of Lib Dems, but Labour’s policy of rendering them unaccountable is not merely undemocratic, it is unsustainable. At a stroke, it creates a vacuum at the heart of the polity. The GLA needs to be reformed, urgently.