Has Labour stitched up the Mayoral selection for Ken Livingstone – and the election for Boris?

Nominations for Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London will “probably” close within the month and the successful candidate will be in place “by this September,” according to a Labour Party spokesman.

The accelerated timetable makes it much more likely that the only runner so far declared, Ken Livingstone, will be Labour’s candidate. Other heavyweights considering standing may not be ready or willing to throw their hats into the ring so early.

Two other things favour Ken. Unlike in the national party leadership selection, the votes of MPs will not be given special weight. Most London Labour MPs, in the last parliament at least, privately despised Ken (only three signed a Compass Group letter in his support during the 2008 election campaign.)

Also, whoever becomes Labour’s national leader is unlikely to want Ken as their standard-bearer in the 2012 election, Labour’s first big electoral test as an opposition party. However, they will now have no say in the matter, because the mayoral candidate will be chosen at the same time as they are.

All this raises the delicious prospect (for me at least) of an 18-month re-run of the last mayoral election campaign: there’s quite a lot more material in the locker I never got round to, and some interesting new stuff as well!

Ken is popular with the immediate electorate, Labour activists. But the results of the recent general and local elections should give them real pause about choosing him. Those results show that Labour should have a substantial chance of regaining the mayoralty in 2012: in the general election the party got slightly more votes in London than the Tories, and the capital was Labour’s second-best region, apart from Scotland. The Labour vote fell by less here than anywhere else in England and Wales.

Labour also won back control of nine London boroughs, more than doubling its tally (to 17.) In addition, by 2012 the Tories are likely to be pretty unpopular with the various cuts they have to make. Quite a lot of the Lib Dem vote in London which went to Boris last time might well go to Labour in 2012, now that the Lib Dems are in government.

As well as substantial achievements (the destruction of the Tube PPP – not something Ken ever managed) I also see some weaknesses in the Boris mayoralty – exemplified perhaps by its feeble compromising over the new “son of Routemaster” bus.

But one of the most important things which could prevent any Labour victory is Ken’s candidacy. The voters have already had a choice between Boris and Ken, and they have already made up their minds on the subject. Little has happened to change their minds.

In the two years since his defeat, Livingstone and his supporters have refused to learn any lessons or admit any errors, continuing to claim that he was only cheated of his birthright by the evil lies of the Evening Standard (no specific lies are ever cited, by the way, because there weren’t any.)  He has done nothing to address the actual causes of his defeat, reach out to the substantial parts of the electorate whom he alienated or talk about the things they care about. He remains a divisive candidate who attracts both passionate love and passionate loathing and is unlikely to be able to win the centre-ground voters where the election will be decided. I know many white working-class Labour voters who were happy to vote for the party this month, but will never vote for Ken.

What limited opinion poll evidence there is also supports this. The only public poll, for the Evening Standard last year, showed that if the election were re-run between Boris and Ken, the Tory’s winning margin would stretch from 6 to 16 points.

Ken will endlessly claim that he (in the mayoral election) outperformed his party (at the London Assembly election) in 2008. This is true – but it is simply not valid to compare a party election, like the Assembly, with a personality contest between two strong, polarising personalities. The unfortunate fact is that on this measure Boris also outperformed his party – by almost exactly the same margin.

It does appear that some movements of rival heavyweights may have been detected in the undergrowth. Speculation centres on Alan Johnson, the former home secretary, James Purnell, the former work and pensions secretary, and John Cruddas, the well-respected leftwinger. Cruddas has said he’d back Ken in the past – but his decision not to stand for the leadership has led to some wondering whether he’d step in to London. They need to make up their minds quickly, whatever they’re going to do.

No doubt some Ken tribalists will say that all the above is a cunning double-bluff on my part to derail the candidacy of the man Boris most fears. But I can tell you categorically that Boris does not fear Ken. A re-run of the 2008 election with the 2008 candidate is, quite simply, Boris’s best hope.

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