After some catch-up chats at City Hall, people around Boris Johnson have told me they are “amazed but overjoyed” at the appointment of Simon Fletcher, Ken Livingstone’s former chief of staff, as the London Labour Party’s campaigns and research director. “We had to pinch ourselves when we heard this,” one said. “From their point of view, it is almost unimaginably stupid.”
Fletcher, a former member of the Trotskyist group Socialist Action, ran the 2008 mayoral election campaign which converted a Ken lead of 27 points in mid-2007 private polling to a defeat by 6 points on election night. To the despair of the mainstream Labour figures involved, Fletcher’s campaign majored on a series of themes without wide credibility or traction: that Boris was a racist neo-con “to the right of Norman Tebbit.” (A small symbol of the fact that the campaign was marooned in the 1980s was that it picked as its bogeyman this Thatcher-era politician who few people under 30 would ever have heard of.)
The campaign had nothing to say on the issues that Londoners most cared about – above all, crime. It targeted the small and essentially irrelevant Guardianista vote and largely ignored the white working class, who voted Johnson in their droves.
That old slogan “no compromise with the electorate” springs to mind. Behind it all was the settled conviction that London was the left’s property, and that a Johnson mayoralty was not just inconceivable, but somehow illegitimate.
In the eighteen months since, it is as if nothing has changed. Even last week Fletcher was still banging on about Boris’s outrageous failure to implement Ken’s gas-guzzler charge. Livingstone has shown no sign whatever of acknowledging his mistakes, or reaching out to the people he lost.
He actually thinks he did well last time. He certainly did better than the Labour Party in the same day’s London Assembly elections. But to compare a party contest like the Assembly with a personality contest like the mayoralty is simply not comparing like with like – particularly when there are two such strong, polarising personalities involved. The awkward fact for Ken is that Boris also outpolled his party – by almost exactly the same margin.
Since the election, Ken and his team have seriously undermined their own credibility by criticising Boris for everything short of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. The only thing that has changed is Ken’s overnight handbrake turn from slavish defender of the City to Dave Spart-style command economics. That might please his fans on the left, but it surely puts him even further from electoral success.
There are two interesting political consequences of Fletcher’s appointment. It makes it more likely that Ken could be the Labour candidate in 2012 – something the Tories openly long for. The last poll showed that some candidates could beat Boris. But if there were a Johnson-Livingstone rematch, that six per cent Boris lead of 2008 would stretch to sixteen points. That was several months ago – but more recently, at William Hill, Ken’s odds have lengthened from an already discouraging 8/1 to 14/1. “We are starting a Tories for Ken campaign,” says one senior City Hall figure.
More interestingly, perhaps, it suggests something which might be happening to Labour nationally, and which could accelerate in the event of a general election loss – a retreat to core-vote certainties, an abandonment of the New Labour middle ground, and an electoral oblivion every bit as complete as that which faces the party in London.