Off on holiday

… with the spam sandwiches and the handkerchief knotted round my head. See you in July!

Ken Livingstone: many happy returns

Happy birthday dear Ken, happy birthday dear Ken. Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday dear Ken!

It’s the big 65 today for the Duracell bunny of British politics  – whose age has sometimes been seen as an obstacle to his goal of retaking the mayoralty (should he win the 2012 election, he will be nearly 71 by the time of the next one.)

But since ageism is a terrible thing, and since it is Ken’s special day, I thought I’d lay off for once and give him a little present: the fruits of my extensive research on Pensioners In Power.

It is true that Ken’s opponents, Oona King and Boris Johnson, are 42 and 45, respectively (Boris, spookily, has almost the same birthday as Ken; he turns 46 on Saturday.) It is true that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, is 43.

It is also true that Ken was first elected to political office in 1971 (Boris was six years old at the time).

But there is hope. At least three people in frontline British political office are older than Ken – the Leader of the Commons, Sir George Young; another Ken, the Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke; and the Business Secretary, Vince Cable (a London MP, sometimes spoken of as a potential mayoral candidate himself – that would be interesting.) Clarke has been an MP since 1970. (They might well, of course, all have retired by 2012 or 2016.)  

Most importantly (and I’m conscious that I’m now giving Ken a fact he’ll use, endlessly, on the campaign trail), Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, is 68, more than three years older than Livingstone – and successfully overturned the city’s term limit law before winning re-election last November.

British politics may be an increasingly ageist trade – three of the last four prime ministers have been the youngest in democratic history at the time they were elected. But the way it works is not always straightforward. As Lib Dem leader, Ming Campbell copped a lot of “pensioner” gibes – but was actually slightly younger than his predecessor, Paddy Ashdown.

The problem, as I’ve always said, is not Ken’s age – it’s the distinctly elderly nature of his policies.

London mayoralty becoming a contest: Oona King leads almost 2-1 among MPs

Oona King, who is seeking Labour’s mayoral nomination, will tomorrow announce she has the backing of at least eleven London Labour MPs – almost double the number who support her rival, Ken Livingstone.

Livingstone’s support among London MPs has risen only gradually – from four to six – since he formally declared his candidacy more than two weeks ago. But King’s team is hopeful of several more names over the next few days and is looking to get more than half the 38-strong London parliamentary party.

Tomorrow’s announcement, at an event in Westminster, is the latest sign that Oona wants to make it “game on” with Ken. Quite a serious team, including a number of former Labour policy advisers, has been assembled.

As far as I can tell the MPs are Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham & Morden), Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar & Limehouse), Stephen Timms (East Ham), Margaret Hodge (Barking), Joan Ruddock (Lewisham Deptford), Mike Gapes (Ilford South), Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East), Stella Creasy (Walthamstow), Andy Love (Edmonton), Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) and one other (I had thought it was Teresa Pearce, but she says she’s neutral.) None is as big a name as Ken’s latest backer, Jon Cruddas – but they may make up for that in numbers.

Unlike in the national leadership election, MPs’ votes will have no special weight  – but the fact they have, so far, gone almost two-to-one for King is pretty significant. It signals the deep concerns the party’s election-winners have about Livingstone’s ability to perform the same feat.

It also signals that MPs feel King is a competitive candidate (otherwise why bother hacking off Ken?) All she needs now is a few policies…

Revealed: Boris Johnson's LDA to be abolished

The controversial London Development Agency is to “disappear in its current form,” a spokesman for the Mayor has said. The chequered ten-year career of the LDA, which has suffered numerous scandals, will end by next year, with the agency dismantled and many of its staff losing their jobs.

The plan is that the housing and regeneration functions will transfer to a new GLA-controlled homes and regeneration body, joining up with the London parts of the government quango the Homes and Communities Agency. “What we want to do is take regeneration out of the LDA and put it with the housing responsibilities of the HCA and create a housing arm of the GLA,” said the spokesman.

The rest of the LDA’s functions will either be brought in-house at the GLA itself – or will be scrapped altogether. Some, perhaps many, of the LDA’s skills, employment and industrial support programmes will survive, but it is not clear how many.

“All that will just have to be found a place, if its worth doing at all, in house,” the spokesman said. “We still want some of what the LDA does. Programmes will be brought over. But we are not going to take over the LDA lock, stock, and barrel, and give everyone a desk at City Hall.” There will be “significant cost savings.”

This is big news – the biggest change to the structure of the GLA since it was created, with implications for hundreds of millions of pounds of spending and the support of many projects. The LDA never looked at all like a well-run organisation – it was at the heart of the Lee Jasper cronyism scandals, and followed that with the fiasco of a massive overspend on Olympic land acquisition. But many will worry that some useful parts of its work could be thrown out with the rest.

PS – No doubt by total coincidence, City Hall has also announced today another juicy story – the return of the mayor’s former youth adviser Ray Lewis – which seems to have captured the attention of other media outlets.

Veronica Wadley: reach out the hand of friendship

Now that my former editor, Veronica Wadley, has been installed by Boris Johnson as chair of the Arts Council in London she will, of course, be in charge of supporting the capital’s endangered cultural treasures.

In the spirit of magnanimity in victory, can I therefore suggest an early and substantial grant for the Guardian’s Dave Hill, perhaps the most complete heritage specimen of Eighties metropolitan lefty journalism remaining in our great city.

Dave campaigned with his characteristic calm moderation against the “cronyism” of Wadley’s appointment, doing at least 45 separate pieces on it, but he probably helped her in the end. He never looked all that credible on the subject of cronyism, given his equally fervent attempts to whitewash Lee Jasper and the rest of the Ken Livingstone circus. The two cases are different, I concede. Veronica Wadley will be paid £6,400 rather than £127,000 a year and will not (I hope) give large sums of public money to close friends whom she wishes to “honey glaze.”

Some may object that Dave is not “endangered.” To which I reply: have you seen the Guardian’s latest financial results?

Great Ormond Street: the turmoil continues

If a large number of your own senior staff signed a letter of no confidence in you, most people would probably throw in the towel. But Jane Collins, the besieged boss of Great Ormond Street Hospital, is digging in. After at least 40 of her full-time, NHS-employed consultants signed a letter asking her to quit – as I reported at the weekend – the Great Ormond Street PR machine has announced the existence of a counter-letter of support: signed, they say, by 122 consultants. The chairman, Baroness Blackstone, has expressed her “complete support” for Ms Collins.

The problem, my hospital snouts tell me, is that many of Ms Collins’ 122 supporters are not in fact full-time consultants at the hospital, or employed by the NHS. Some are honorary appointees; others do little or no work for Great Ormond Street; others do little or no NHS work; others are essentially academics. Great Ormond Street has sometimes been dishonest in the past, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re spinning now.

Even if all the 122 were full-time NHS consultants, it is still difficult to see how the chief executive can continue after losing the confidence of so substantial a minority of her working senior staff.

There is an important meeting next week. The ball is now with the original 40 – if they are to succeed in their declared intention, they need to press forward and not lose their nerve. Otherwise the hospital could end up in a significantly worse position than it already is, with a disliked chief executive surviving indefinitely amid continuing disaffection and turmoil.

Ken Livingstone and the truth about the white vote

Ken Livingstone’s most trusting media friend, the Guardian’s Dave Hill, has understandably seized on an article on the Labour List website which suggests that one of Ken’s key electoral weaknesses – the intense hostility towards him among “white, hard-working families in Outer London” – doesn’t really exist, or doesn’t matter.

The piece, by one Declan Gaffney, described by the Guardian as an “independent policy consultant,” is supposedly based on research by the GLA, comparing the 2004 and 2008 mayoral and assembly elections. Mr Gaffney’s article leaves you with the impression that Ken didn’t do much differently among white voters between the two elections.

Alas, Mr Gaffney is not all that independent – he was one of Mr Livingstone’s policy advisers at City Hall. And double alas, Mr Gaffney’s analysis seems to have, shall we say, overlooked several of the researchers’ key findings.

As the researchers put it, between 2004 and 2008 “those areas with a higher proportion of the population listed as white British became less likely to vote for [Ken].” Between 2004 and 2008 the negative correlation between being white and voting for Livingstone (that is, the unlikelihood of voting for him) grew by a quarter, from minus 0.64 to minus 0.8, a very substantial amount. (The text of the researchers’ report says minus 0.64, the tables say minus 0.66.)

The researchers also find that the negative correlation between being employed and voting for Ken rose by about 40%, from minus 0.36 to minus 0.63. Not all the employed are white, of course. But this also seems to deal fairly clearly with the “hard-working” side of the equation.

The research provides no data specifically on outer London – but we only need to look at what happened in the actual election. In 2004, Ken won 11 of the 20 outer London boroughs, and came very close in two or three more. In 2008, he won just six of the 20 boroughs.

While rightly criticising the lazy assumption that the London suburbs are lily-white (though they are whiter than he suggests), Mr Gaffney makes the equally simplistic claim that “hard-working families” means C2s, skilled manual workers. Ken’s loss of white support in outer London was more complicated than that.

There was clearly a massive defection in some white working class areas: Redbridge, Merton, Croydon; Boris, remarkably, won a majority of the wards in even Barking and Dagenham. My own borough of Greenwich (though classed, bizarrely, as inner-London) voted for Boris. Greenwich has been a Labour fortress almost since it was created.

But some of the key defectors from Planet Ken in 2008 were liberal-minded members of the white middle class in places like Richmond and Kingston. Both of these Lib-Dem-leaning boroughs voted for Livingstone in 2004. By 2008, however, they were alienated by his cronyism and embrace of radical Islamists, and had, in Boris, a fairly centrist Tory they could turn to. Ken did not win a single ward in Richmond last time.

Ken’s vote went down most among not the C2s – they had already fled  – but among ABC1s. Equally important was a substantial rise in suburban turnout – a swing not from Labour to Tory, but from non-voting to the Tories.

Mr Gaffney also claims that Labour generally (in the Assembly elections the same day) did more or less the same among whites as Ken. There was, therefore, he claims, “no evidence of a ‘Ken factor’ affecting his share of white British ethnic group votes more than Labour’s.” This last claim just isn’t true. In 2004, Ken did significantly better among many groups of whites than Labour. In 2008, his vote among whites as a whole, and among ABC1s, fell more, sometimes far more, than Labour’s. There definitely was a “Ken factor.”

Ken faces an electoral mountain in the suburbs which he shows no sign of being able to climb (paying a state visit to Croydon last week won’t be enough, I fear.) Mr Gaffney’s article is a sophisticated form of the denial to which so many Livingstone supporters retreat when confronted with unpalatable facts about their hero.