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.

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