Ken Livingstone and Oona King: battle lines are drawn

To the Sally Army hall in Mare Street, Hackney, for the first of nine official Labour Party hustings to ascertain whether Oona King or Ken Livingstone will be Labour’s salvation in the 2012 Mayoral election.

As readers will know, the Salvation Army’s slogan, prominently displayed on the wall above the speakers last night, is “Blood and Fire.” There was a certain amount of fire from both of them – and the clear potential for a little blood, too.

Both were, I thought, quite good – Ken was noticeably fresher and more energised than at the appearances I witnessed during the 2008 election campaign. That’s not to say he had any fresh ideas, mind; broadly, he was the comfort-zone candidate, with a lot of crowd-pleasing references to the awfulness of Thatcher, Iraq, tuition fees, taxing the bankers and the evils of union-bashing British Airways. His most passionate moment was on the need to resist the coalition’s proposed housing benefit cuts which may well see significant numbers of inner-London families thrown out of their homes.

Oona is still less practised than him, and worked in occasional slightly clunky mentions of the fact that she’s black, a woman, and young. But she was honest enough to speak some truths that the audience might not have wanted to hear: that she would not promise to cut public transport fares; that, in an era when email is changing everything, digging in to defend the status quo on the Post Office might actually end up destroying it and costing postal workers’ jobs. Her most passionate moment was talking about youth crime and the turf barriers, invisible to adults, that imprison young people in their immediate areas; her most interesting soundbite was that “we have to shift our money from funding social failure.”

His pitch: “The Tories talked about a doughnut [in the 2008 election], but they ended up with a sliver victory. Boris’s victory depended on four boroughs… the Labour Party is already coming back in London. I ran ahead of Labour in every ward, white and black, inner and outer London, Jewish and Muslim.”

Her pitch: “You only get a Labour government (sic) if you choose a candidate who can beat Boris at the election… I have heard you say at a lot of hustings that you ran ahead of the party. The fact is, you lost. We have to look at the figures. We have to reach beyond [the core vote] and go way beyond the people in this room.”

Clear and quite promising battle lines are being drawn here. I’ll be attending a few more hustings over the next couple of weeks to see how it goes.

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