Longlisted for the Orwell Prize

I and my Channel 4 colleagues Jane Drinkwater and Steve Boulton have tonight been longlisted for the 2011 Orwell Prize for Journalism for our reports on Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman and the IFE. We now go forward to the next stage next month.

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Ken Livingstone: I'm a great uniting figure

One of Ken Livingstone’s most appealing qualities (to his enemies) is his absolute refusal to learn from his mistakes, or indeed even admit making any. The second element of his BBC London interview with Tim Donovan the other week saw him closely questioned about whether he had changed any of the things that put Londoners off him in 2008. No, appeared to be the answer. My defeat was other people’s fault, not mine. Let’s hope the voters see it the same way, shall we?

Here’s an extract:

DONOVAN: Put aside policy and ideas, isn’t the big problem one of mood and perception – you’re the past, you’ve done it, but London’s moved on? … What is it you can offer and provide for Londoners now?

LIVINGSTONE: One really good thing is that I don’t hit the ground and have to spend two years working out how to do the job, as Boris has done. I go straight in knowing what to do, and mine will be in a sense the midterm election, like they have in America. So the first chance for London to say, we think the cuts have gone too deep and too far.

DONOVAN: Just a referendum on the cuts? But what about you, as an individual offering, having had two terms and London’s moved on?

LIVINGSTONE: And the whole world’s moved on. I was lucky enough to be mayor whilst the Labour government was rebuilding public services. I will be coming into that office, if I’m lucky enough to win, after four years of cuts in London. The rest of the country’s only had two years. Boris cut deeper and faster. They bragged about it. And it will be time to say, enough is enough.

DONOVAN: Have you changed? Are you going to do things differently?

LIVINGSTONE: Oh, it’s a different world. I will be facing a different government. A lot of people think, is this going to be like the conflict between Ken and Thatcher. It isn’t, because I’m not facing Thatcher. We’re facing a fairly dysfunctional government –

DONOVAN: But have you changed, in your approach?

LIVINGSTONE: Everyone changes all the time.

DONOVAN: So how would you say you have changed?

LIVINGSTONE: If you look at, if you compare the situation when I was the leader of the GLC, and then the mayoralty, they were very different times, and a very different response.

DONOVAN: But then are you likely to be in – do you accept you are a divisive figure?

LIVINGSTONE: No, no, I think I’m a great uniting figure. Here in London –

DONOVAN: (Laughing slightly) You don’t think you’re a divisive figure?

LIVINGSTONE: I will be saying these cuts have gone too far, too deep, it’s time to stop. And I think that unites about 90% of Londoners who want to keep the local copper, who don’t want to have fare increases higher than inflation –

DONOVAN: And we’ll talk about that. When you look back, though, do you not think one of the reasons – the main reason – for you losing was because people had had enough? You were regarded as divisive.

LIVINGSTONE: I did have the misfortune to be facing an election just as the British economy went into recession, that didn’t help. And the internal polling the party did showed that Labour’s figures, and mine, went off a precipice after the Budget, when the 10p tax band was wiped out, because that hit at those Londoners who are hanging on to low-paid jobs. They felt the pain of that, and I’ve got –

DONOVAN: Are you just blaming – was it just the state of the party, and Labour, that lost the last election?

LIVINGSTONE: Let’s be honest, it was Labour’s worst result for 60 years.

DONOVAN: But was it just that? Labour’s just lost an election, and we find all the shadow cabinet saying we’ve got to learn the lessons, we’ve been rejected. I haven’t heard anything yet that Ken Livingstone was to blame.

LIVINGSTONE: If you want to come around with me, I’m spending a day in each of the 32 London boroughs –

DONOVAN: I’m talking about then. Sorry, we’ll move on to the future, but then – why Labour, and why you, lost?

LIVINGSTONE: Because we were deeply unpopular. We’d been in office for too long –

DONOVAN: What about you? Would you admit there were any flaws in the way you approached the job?

LIVINGSTONE: Can I say, I don’t spend my time agonising about the past. My view is that if you get defeated, you pick yourself up, and you get on and you come back.

Ken Livingstone: I'll only tell you how I'm going to pay for my plans after the election

Sorry for the interruption in service – I have been away doing the day job – but even in Japan, where communications were patchy, I couldn’t escape the emails from various Boris supporters by turns gleeful and incredulous at Ken Livingstone’s latest round of media appearances.

Even Ken seems to have recognised that the first of these – with the BBC’s Tim Donovan on 13 March – didn’t play wholly in his favour. “That wasn’t an interview, I couldn’t get a word in edgeways,” he snapped to Mayorwatch’s Martin Hoscik the next day. You got plenty of words, Ken – it’s what they were that’ll be the problem.

Ken’s message: vote for me and I will not just end all cuts, maintain existing capital programmes and start work on new ones, but I will also freeze both your fares, in real terms, and your council tax, for four years. When Mayorwatch asked how this remarkable circle could be squared, given that the GLA’s grant from Whitehall is being cut by 20 per cent, Ken replied: “My financial strategy I will not be revealing…On the morning after the election, I’ll let you know.”

I promise I am not making this up. He really did say that. You can see a transcript, or perhaps that should be a Crimewatch reconstruction, of the relevant bits of both the BBC and Mayorwatch car-crashes below.

It is conventional, indeed generally thought electorally necessary, for democratic politicians to give the voters some idea of how they intend to keep their promises before an election – but Ken has never been one for convention. The real problem, no doubt, is that he has no idea how he is going to manage it.

Ken argues that his election will scare George Osborne and David Cameron so much that they will immediately shower him with the billions he needs. The idea that Osborne and Cameron would rush to bail out their political opponent, fund all his fantasy manifesto pledges and aid his 2016 re-election campaign, presumably cutting the NHS or schools to do so, is touching in its child-like innocence – particularly since London already gets highly favourable treatment in transport and has suffered slightly less from the cuts than other budgets. As Donovan points out, why should the Government treat Ken, their avowed enemy, better than they treat Boris Johnson, their political ally?

There are three other possibilities. The first is that Ken is planning a truly enormous rise in his only other tax, the congestion charge, to raise the money – extending it across much more of London and increasing the amount you have to pay. More on this in the coming days.

The second possibility is that it is a cynical ploy, a series of promises which Ken has no intention of keeping. That would be consistent with past form – in 2008, for instance, he secretly agreed above-inflation fare rises, while publicly promising voters the opposite.

But this is surely too obvious even for that. Cynical ploys do not, by definition, have to be true or sincere – but they do have to be credible. A child of five could see through this one. Even the Guardian’s Dave Hill has! The third possibility must, therefore, be that through a combination of arrogance, complacency and perhaps indeed senility, Ken has simply lost it.

Tim Donovan interview, BBC  Politics Show, 13 March

KEN LIVINGSTONE: We’re running on clear commitments. I won’t increase fares, as this mayor’s committed to, two percent above the rate of inflation for 20 years.

TIM DONOVAN: Why not?

LIVINGSTONE: Because we already have the highest fares in the world. Why on earth should we increase fares greater than inflation for 20 years?

DONOVAN: For the very simple reason that your Transport Commissioner is saying that’s what you need to do to pay for the transport investment that you claim you can deliver.

LIVINGSTONE: I’m sorry, it’s not going to pay for transport investment. It’s covering the cuts the Government is making in grant to London. London pumps billions more into the national government than we get back. We need a mayor that’s prepared to stand up to the Government and say, London’s not getting its fair share. And you won’t get that from a Tory mayor who wants to succeed David Cameron as leader.

DONOVAN: I just wonder whether viewers will imagine the scenario of you in a meeting with George Osborne or Philip Hammond, the transport secretary, and that you are going to get any more from them.

LIVINGSTONE: Oh well, just imagine this. If I win this election, it will be a body blow to this government. It’s the first chance people have to say, you’ve cut too far, you’ve cut too deep, you’re making changes in the NHS we don’t want. They will be facing their own election a couple of years afterwards. I think they will learn from that, and they will be prepared to make adjustments.

DONOVAN: So let me be clear about this. You think even though transport bosses are making quite clear they need a steady revenue of 2% above inflation for fares to guarantee the Tube upgrades, Crossrail and so on, you won’t give that to them? You will start freezing fares again, playing around with fares?

LIVINGSTONE: No, no, we’re not playing around with fares. Why should you–

DONOVAN: Just before we go on, you played around with fares when you were mayor, didn’t you? You froze them the year before the election in 2004, then you put them up afterwards.

LIVINGSTONE: Because we had £1.5 billion in reserves. The only reason this mayor has been able to freeze the council tax is because I built up solid balances. Why on earth should I say, let the government off the hook, let me neglect London’s funding, and we’ll squeeze everybody on a bus or a train or a tram?

DONOVAN: Because the economy turns down, and you then need that money. That’s why. And you didn’t give your transport bosses the steady flow of cash, for political reasons – you kept fares down before elections.

LIVINGSTONE: If you examine this mayor’s first budget, he admits in it he inherited balances and reserves of £1.5 billion. That’s a pretty steady flow of money. We’d built up the money to build things like the tram extension up to Crystal Palace, to be able to freeze fares in a difficult year. And this is exactly the time you should be doing that. The reason I will freeze the council tax for four years, and the reason I won’t increase fares above inflation, is because ordinary Londoners are hurting, and you shouldn’t be taking money out of their pockets.

DONOVAN: So what are you going to do, what are you going to achieve? It’s like the cuts aren’t happening, isn’t it?

LIVINGSTONE: No, there’s two obvious things here. You actually make certain that any savings you can find – back-office functions, the amalgamation of certain services at senior level – all that stuff, you do. You then actually say to government, you can’t bleed Londoners like this. They shouldn’t be propping up the rest of the country. Why is it that London families are going to be £800 a year worse off?

DONOVAN: Really interesting scenario. Let’s deconstruct that, in two halves. First of all, you say quite clearly, and perhaps you can confirm this, you would intend your mayoralty to be a platform campaigning against cuts across the board. You see your main aim as to take on the coalition government.

LIVINGSTONE: It’s not my main aim to take on the coalition, it’s to defend Londoners’ living standards. That means no fare increase above inflation, and no cuts in frontline policing. And do you really think a Tory government which has got all those voters in the suburbs, getting on the trains, is going to fight to increase the fares?

DONOVAN: What the government will say is that there isn’t the money there. And as you know, whether it was Labour or anyone else the money wouldn’t be there. So if the money is not there, what are you going to do then?

LIVINGSTONE: There’s the money to build another generation of nuclear weapons. There’s all the people tax-avoiding and tax-evading. Why should we be cutting –

DONOVAN: Do you think Ken Livingstone speaking about that from City Hall, anyone’s going to pay any attention to that at all? What they’re going to say, aren’t they, and you know this, it must be the suspicion, Londoners are going to go, for God’s sake, actually what is he doing about finding those savings in transport, savings in policing? You have 20% budget cuts to face were you to become the mayor. Where are you going to make those savings?

LIVINGSTONE: And I will be saying to government, London’s had four years of cuts, the rest of the country’s only had two.

DONOVAN: Where would you make those savings? Where would you make the savings?

LIVINGSTONE: Well, look back. Every year, I set a target for the police and transport to find savings. Because in any bureaucracy, inefficiencies build in. And we found £70 million a year in my first term, and £120 million a year in my second. And all that those savings did was to pay for more police on the streets.

DONOVAN: Where would you find savings now, for these budgets in the next two or three years?

LIVINGSTONE: Quite simple. If you go back and look at my record, we identified savings in each year. You can’t find those until you get into office and you get your hands on the budget.

DONOVAN: That can’t be true, can it? You had unprecedented, huge amounts of money put in by the government to transport. You had unprecedented amounts of money on the police. You were able to construct these castles. But they were made of sand. As soon as the tide came in, these things have started to evaporate. You can spend – but where is the evidence that you know how to save? You’re a good-times mayor.

LIVINGSTONE: Go back and look. Every year, as mayor, I set a target for savings for each of the component parts – TfL, the police and the fire brigade. Every year I tightened them. And we found things….

DONOVAN: But now, what do you say honestly to Londoners that you’re going to do about police numbers? The money isn’t there, and the government wouldn’t give it to you.

LIVINGSTONE: I am making absolutely clear, as mayor I will not increase fares above the rate of inflation. There will be no cut in frontline policing – that doesn’t just mean neighbourhood teams, it means the murder squads in London –

DONOVAN: But we don’t know how that’s possible when both those services are going to be facing 20% cuts in the next three years and the Government’s not going to give it to you!

LIVINGSTONE: Well, hang on. Will the Government want to take on a mayor of London who is fighting to keep the fares down when most of the long-term commuters are Tory voters coming in from the suburbs?

DONOVAN: Yes, they’ll say. They’ll say, why doesn’t he get on and introduce the proper reforms and changes that will make these services more efficient?

LIVINGSTONE: Reforms and changes can’t compensate for the cuts in grants that this government is making. These aren’t savings, these are cuts, and they are going to have to stop, or we will see firms starting to leave this city because crime will go up if you cut policing. If fares go up, people will get back in the car and congestion will get worse. There is no future for Britain in which you impoverish the capital city.

Mayorwatch interview, 14 March

MARTIN HOSCIK: Very few people saw the recession, and very few people foresaw the need for the government to cut back its funding for London transport. So how can you guarantee to put fares up by less if we can’t rule out the prospect of future tightening in the amount of money that central government gives to London?

KEN LIVINGSTONE: Look, we actually have to look at what’s happening in America. Obama said, no increases in taxes or cuts before 2012. The result is, GDP in America is back to where it was before the banking crisis. We’ve gone down this other route under Boris and Cameron and Osborne – we’ve recovered a third. Fares have become a stealth tax. This is holding back our economy. We will pay off the debt by getting growth in the economy, and that’s the broad view of every sensible economist….If I win, these people aren’t Thatcher. Thatcher was prepared to destroy the world rather than give in on something she believed in. This lot are facing their own reelection two years afterwards, and will start to think, can we really have a series of rows with a Labour mayor defending police numbers and trying to keep fares down for all those Tory commuters coming in from the suburbs?

HOSCIK: But doesn’t the opposite also apply? If they’re facing an election, is there any reason they would give Boris less of a settlement than they would give you?

LIVINGSTONE: Well, it depends whether or not Osborne is going to do anything to encourage Boris, as they’ll both be fighting for the succession when Cameron goes. I mean, let’s be honest, Osborne’ll probably vote for me.

HOSCIK: Moving on to the broader campaign. I appreciate you don’t want to give out too much detail on what you want to do if you’re re-elected. But if you refuse to give out any detail now, doesn’t the early part of your campaign entirely focus on what you did on the eight years you were in City Hall?

LIVINGSTONE: No, I’m not looking back.

HOSCIK: You may not be, but a lot of Tim’s interview yesterday was…

LIVINGSTONE: I’m not unhappy about that. If you want to compare my eight years with Boris’s four, do as much of that as you would like. But I can’t give you promises that I’m going to do vast numbers of new things, because the government clearly isn’t going to give me any more – we might be able to squeeze a bit out, but I’m not going to be able to unleash a wave of new social expenditure. I’m running on the basis that I’ll do better at defending Londoners. I’ll work with a Labour government, when it’s elected, to then start all these big projects. If I win in 2012, we’ll start working on projects like the tram extension, Crossrails 2, 3 and work on major housing programmes.

HOSCIK: But where will the money come from to work on these projects?

LIVINGSTONE: The money to prepare these things is relatively small. And I have to tell you now, I will have to disappoint you, my financial strategy I will not be revealing, because [if I did] the Government will just introduce amendments to the Localism Bill to prevent me doing it. But I have some ideas. On the morning after the election, I’ll let you know. But look, when I got elected mayor, the lawyers kept saying you can’t do this. I did the same when I was at the GLC, so they changed the law that no-one can do it again. And they will change the law, if I start broadcasting what I think are ways we can get stuff done, they’ll change the law to prevent me doing it.

HOSCIK: But can Londoners expect more detail some time soon?

LIVINGSTONE: On the morning after the election, yes.

Ken Livingstone and Lutfur Rahman: follow the money

Speaking is lucrative work for Ken Livingstone
Speaking is lucrative work for Ken Livingstone

Ken Livingstone’s decision last year to campaign against his own party and for a man, Lutfur Rahman, expelled by Labour for his links to Islamic extremism, puzzled many people. There didn’t seem much in it for Ken. Indeed, it is likely to cost him votes. Lutfur won the election as an independent and his fiefdom is fulfilling the gloomy predictions made about it – most recently with unprecedented outbreaks of homophobic hatred in the council chamber.

Now I think I can help solve the mystery. Whenever Ken endorses someone questionable (think, for example, of his role as a presenter on Iranian state TV, defending the Tehran regime) it’s usually because they’ve paid him.

Last February, Freedom of Information requests now reveal, Tower Hamlets council, under Lutfur’s leadership before he was expelled, gave Ken £2,000 of public money for an evening’s work. It was a “personal appearance” at an event to mark National Apprenticeship Week.  Nice apprenticeship if you can get it!

Other personality recipients of Tower Hamlets’ largesse under Lutfur were Barbara Windsor (£13,000), Esther Rantzen (£4,000), the comedian Shoppi Khorsandi (£8,050) and the child advocate Camila Batmanghelidjh (£1,000). You’ll notice that all the others are either celebrities or charities. Ken, however, was a working politician seeking re-election as Mayor. Ken may indeed have brought (unintentional) merriment to millions – but is he really worth twice Camila Batmanghelidjh, or indeed a sixth of Barbara Windsor?

PS A fascinating insight into Livingstone fans’ sensitivities over the extremist issue was provided the other day in a piece by Adam Bienkov, one of Ken’s online groupies, who glosses the great man’s activities in this area as “support for Islam.” It’s not Ken’s “support for Islam” that anyone serious objects to, is it? It’s his support for a particular kind of Islam.

Ken Livingstone: suicide bombers and a suicide candidate

The Boris Johnson campaign tonight launched its attack website against Ken Livingstone, Not Ken Again, slating the old chap’s “tired, regressive” policies, his plans to “reinstall his cronies at City Hall” and reminding voters of some of Ken’s greatest hits (campaigning against the Labour Party, working for the Iranian dictatorship, welcoming the suicide bomb-backing bigot Yusuf al-Qaradawi, etc.)

Indeed, even yesterday, Ken continued to defend Qaradawi, telling questioners who raised the issue at a campaign event in strongly-Jewish Barnet that “you shouldn’t smear a man you haven’t met. I met Sheikh Qaradawi. Am I to believe the Daily Mail rather than what I hear a man say with his own voice? Here was Sheikh Qaradawi saying, not just to me in private but the audience he addressed in City Hall and then to Paxman on Newsnight: No-one should discriminate against a homosexual.  No man should physically assault his wife.”

I don’t know about the Mail. But the good Sheikh did tell that well-known tool of the right-wing lie machine, the Guardian, that he supported a husband’s right to “lightly” beat his wife, and that homosexuality was “a clash between morality and immorality.” In his own book , The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam, not published by Associated Newspapers as far as I know, Qaradawi has reiterated his views on wife-beating and called for gay people to be killed. And Ken unfortunately forgot to mention that among Yusuf’s other statements on Newsnight was strong support for suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. He has also defended rape, saying that “to be absolved from guilt, the raped woman must have shown some sort of good conduct.”

On two fronts, yesterday was a good reminder that the damage Ken’s opponents can do him with their attack websites and the rest is comfortably outstripped by the damage he does to himself. Also yesterday, Ken rolled out what he clearly thought was a bit of an Exocet – a claim that delays on the Jubilee Line between 14 November and 12 December were “300 per cent” higher and on the Victoria Line “100 per cent” higher than in the same four weeks in 2009. Station closures on the District Line, stormed Team Ken, were up by a “staggering 1250%” over the same period.

As TfL’s deputy chair, Daniel Moylan, was quick to point out, this just might have had something to do with the 24-hour strike by Ken’s Tube union allies on 28/29 November, which even by TfL’s admission massively disrupted services and closed at least a quarter of stations.

The heat was suddenly and uncomfortably turned back on Ken, who has received at least £137,500 in donations over the years from the Tube unions, whose running-mate Val Shawross joined a demo in their support recently, and whose campaign headquarters was in the head office of one of the striking unions. Ken has repeatedly refused to condemn the strikers – even though the grievance they are protesting over, ticket office closures, is the same policy that he himself pursued when he was Mayor.

There has, as I and others pointed out months ago, been a genuine decline in the performance of the Tube. It is a weakness for Boris and could have been an important issue for Ken. But just as with his other best issue, the Government cuts – where his position appears to be that there need be no cuts at all – he has undermined his credibility by overstatement. It’s another example of how, far from being the “wily” politician of cliché, Ken is actually a pretty hopeless campaigner.

Lutfur Rahman council: homophobic hatred grows

It’s never been hard to tell the difference between Tower Hamlets’ council chamber and the reading room of the Bodleian Library. But events there have taken a deeply nasty turn since Lutfur Rahman, the man thrown out of the Labour Party for his links to the extremist Islamic Forum of Europe, was elected mayor of the borough with the IFE’s help.

Since the election in October, councillors say, the public gallery at meetings has been regularly filled with a group Tower Hamlets is starting to know as “Lutfur’s crew” or “Lutfur’s army” – and they appear to specialise in a particular form of abuse towards the Mayor’s opponents.

“It has started really since the mayoral election,” Cllr Peter Golds, the leader of the opposition, told me. “Beforehand there may have been the odd comment, but never anything like this.”

“This” is the homophobic abuse to which Mr Golds, several other gay councillors and even a member of the public asking a question have been subjected in the council chamber. “It is horrible, absolutely bloody awful,” Golds says.

Mr Golds confirms that he was repeatedly subjected to homophobic abuse from the public gallery at the council’s abortive budget-setting meeting on February 23. “A prominent supporter of Lutfur Rahman with a very distinctive voice kept calling out ‘Mrs Golds! Mrs Golds!’ when I spoke,” he said. Another Rahman supporter called Mr Golds a “poofter.” A councillor, Anna Lynch, has made an official complaint about the abuse.

At the previous meeting, on February 2, Mr Golds says, Lutfur Rahman supporters in the public gallery heckled Labour’s deputy leader, Josh Peck, who is also openly gay, with the shout of “Unnatural acts! Unnatural acts!” At the same meeting, a member of the public who asked a question about bringing a (gay) Pride march to East London was greeted with “animal noises” from the public gallery, Mr Golds says.

On LabourList this week, Labour’s chief whip on Tower Hamlets, Cllr Rachael Saunders, who was also present, described the 23 February meeting:

“Part way through the meeting Cllr Anna Lynch told the Chair that she had heard someone shout “poofter” when Peter Golds, Conservative leader, who is openly gay, was speaking. Some people had already been evicted from the meeting for disruption by the chair of council, Motin Uz-Zaman. Motin tried to evict the person who had made this comment. An adjournment was called. Anna and Motin were both then threatened by members of the public in the gallery, with shouts that they would “get them”. Some of those involved in the fracas were amongst the Independent Mayor’s most prominent supporters.”

Ms Saunders says, surely correctly: “None of us came to the meeting on Wednesday wanting to talk about homophobia, or about the intimidation and bigotry that too often surrounds Tower Hamlets politics, but when someone shouts “poofter” as a part of a barrage of abuse directed at a gay individual, we have no choice. Labour members there to watch the meeting have since reported clear homophobic abuse from other parts of the public gallery.”

Mr Golds says: “Since Lutfur became mayor the spectator section has had these groups of people in. They are Lutfur’s crew and their behaviour is horrible.”

I’ve seen Lutfur’s little helpers in action a few times myself. On polling day in October they hung around in large groups outside several polling stations, and you had to run a gauntlet of them to vote. I overheard one of them scolding a Bengali woman voter for her “improper dress.” They were also present in force at the last council meeting I attended, in October – aggressively, though not at that stage homophobically, heckling.

Lutfur, according to Cllr Saunders, refused to condemn the abuse during the meeting (and doesn’t seem to have condemned it since, either.) That’s perhaps not surprising. His key ally, the IFE, controls the hardline East London Mosque, which regularly hosts homophobic preachers, including one who staged a “Spot The Fag” contest at the mosque in 2007. It was due to host another such bigot only last week.

Lutfur’s supporters have form for freshening up the politics of the borough. In order to get their man elected, readers may remember, they distributed thousands of leaflets falsely smearing Lutfur’s main opponent as a wife-beater.

Lutfur’s supporters’ response is desperate, even by their standards. The Dave Spart parody website, Socialist Unity, quotes someone who wasn’t there denying the account of three witnesses who were there, and claims the whole thing is an Islamophobic plot!