Ken Livingstone: the antique's roadshow begins

Ken Livingstone in 2008 with his campaign poster (Photo: AP)
Ken Livingstone in 2008 with his campaign poster (Photo: AP)

Ken Livingstone’s victory in the race to be Labour’s London mayoral candidate is the best possible news for Boris Johnson and the Tories, but depressing for those of us who care about competitive politics.

I like Boris – but I wanted him to have to fight for re-election, to have to promise more than the minimum. Against Ken, the chances are that for all the sound and fury to come over the next eighteen months, Boris is reasonably assured of victory. Today, rather than the first Thursday in May 2012, will probably come to be seen as the day the mayoral election was decided.

The majority of Londoners have, I think, come to a settled view about Ken, and are unlikely to change their minds. Nor, more importantly, has Ken shown any sign of wanting to change their minds. His platform is a resurrection from the grave of all the policies and attitudes that turned middle-ground voters off. Elections are won at the centre, but he has turned sharply away from the centre since losing the mayoralty.

Perhaps that’s because he clearly expects to be swept back into City Hall on a tsunami of hatred against Lib-Con cuts. This could be a powerful issue for Labour, but it’s unlikely to work for Ken, for two reasons.

There is, I’m sure, a potentially fruitful argument Labour can make about whether the cuts need to be so big, and so soon. But the position Ken has taken – that there should be no cuts at all, and that the deficit, in his words at the Southall hustings, is a “scare” – just isn’t credible. Voters tune out. He has already, in effect, ceded this vital ground to the coalition.

Secondly, Boris is perfectly capable of separating himself from the government – just as Ken did from Labour, suffering no ill-effects from standing as a Labour candidate in 2004 despite the Iraq war.

Ken’s timewarp quality is also evident in the fact that he’s still running on his record. But if that didn’t work in 2008, it’s definitely not going to work in 2012. The record is in many cases an obstacle – Ken can’t attack Boris over ticket office closures and fare rises, for instance, without it being pointed out that he did, or proposed, exactly the same.

More fundamentally, people don’t vote in the mayoral election on policies. It’s a personality contest – and Boris is a far more likeable personality. Significant numbers of people hate Ken – a significant driver of voting last time. Relatively few hate Boris, though many are indifferent to him.

I can see only three ways Ken could win, all of them pretty unlikely. First is that some absolute catastrophe befalls Boris. Second is that such a perception of “foregone conclusion” takes hold that Boris’s voters don’t turn out – that is why the Tories have to behave as if this is a race. Third, most interesting, is the arrival on the scene of some dramatic third candidate whose transfers would go to Ken.

Conventional media wisdom has often been that Ken is a “wily” politician. Certainly, it was wily to get the Labour selection contest held so absurdly early that no heavyweight rival had time to enter it.

He’s good at that sort of party intrigue; but overall, I’d say he is perhaps the stupidest top-flight politician I’ve ever encountered. Ken’s besetting flaw is the sin of pride: an absolute refusal to admit he has ever been wrong about anything, and a stubborn determination to cling on to his mistakes (such as Lee Jasper) beyond the point of all political sanity. That’s what makes him such an ideal opponent.

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