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.