Ken Livingstone and Lee Jasper: latest news from the power couple

My post on Ken Livingstone’s plans to share a platform with his disgraced former race adviser, Lee Jasper, next week prompted an emergency mobilisation of the groupies. One of Ken’s most trusting fans broke almost a month’s silence on his blog to assure us that the Once And Future Mayor had “confirmed” he would not reappoint Jasper if re-elected.

Ken himself suddenly discovered a pressing “family commitment” rendering him unexpectedly unavailable to speak alongside his former aide. Even Jasper, with characteristic good taste, has today tweeted: “I will not be rejoining Ken’s team if re-elected. Done my time on the plantation.” Comparing a City Hall job paid £127,000 a year to slavery tells you more about Lee Jasper than I ever could.

Ken’s promise over Jasper, on the day of his resignation, was clear: “I bet my own life that they will clear Lee Jasper, and I will reappoint him when they do.” Jasper wasn’t cleared, of course – he was condemned in a report by the district auditor – but that hasn’t stopped Ken repeatedly claiming that he has been.

I have a feeling that the latest Ken “confirmation” may well be on a par with those other Ken confirmations that he would “save the Routemaster,” “hold down” the congestion charge to £5 until 2013 and “reinstate” the charge’s western extension zone.

Actually, it’s more than a feeling. The chairman of Ken’s re-election campaign, David Lammy MP, was guest of honour a few weeks ago at a meeting of Jasper’s new front organisation, Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC – geddit?) Jasper himself spoke alongside him.

And as the blogger Mark Wallace has noted, there’s also something oddly similar in the words used by both Ken and Jasper to describe the death while under arrest of the reggae singer Smiley Culture. Jasper has been leading a campaign over the death – and was quoted in the Standard on 5 April saying that the black community is at “boiling point” over the issue. Ken, who is definitely, definitely not being advised by Jasper, was quoted in the Sun on 26 April as saying that the black community is at “boiling point” over the issue. (Jasper, by the way, claims that the press just get him mixed up with Ken. That was precisely Ken’s problem at the last election, as it happens.)

Ken Livingstone: royal pretender

I was most amused earlier this year to see Ken Livingstone demanding free Tube travel for the royal wedding to “make the day go smoothly.” (No doubt this was partly to divert attention from the then threat by his ASLEF paymasters to make the day go very unsmoothly indeed.) This morning, Ken once again took up the cudgels for Kate and Wills, asking for the suspension of Tube engineering works in honour of “one of the biggest occasions for the capital in a generation.” (In fact, there are virtually no Tube engineering works at all on the wedding day – but we’ll let that pass.)

Let’s remind ourselves what Ken really thinks about the monarchy, shall we? It was, he wrote in 1996 (for that well-known organ of progressive thought, The Sun), “our most sordid soap-opera,” the result of “1100 years of inbreeding,” populated by “not very bright…airheads in high heels” with “Fergie’s HIV tests and Di’s military maneouvres on full public display.” Tasteful, I think you’ll agree.

And Ken’s thoughts on the happy groom whose day he wants to smooth? “It is in the interest of the Royals to end the monarchy,” he wrote. “We must abolish the monarchy. Let us hope it is in time to save Prince William from the same screwed-up life.”

In politics, it’s always best to be true to what you think. That was, of course, supposed to be Ken’s USP. Now, however, worried about the dislike with which he is viewed by the white working class, he has thumbed clumsily through the populist playbook.

I don’t actually think anyone cares what Ken thinks about the royals. But people can spot a phony.

Ken Livingstone and Lee Jasper: a friendship reborn

Lee Jasper (Photo: Julian Simmonds)
Lee Jasper (Photo: Julian Simmonds)

Older readers may remember Lee Jasper, the £127,000-a-year Ken Livingstone race and policing adviser forced out in a cronyism scandal, who came to stand for everything that was sleaziest about Ken’s City Hall. In recent months, despite Ken’s denials, the signs have been growing that Ken, if re-elected, is preparing to do what he promised in 2008 – and bring Jasper back.

Next week, according to emails sent out by the organisers, Ken and Jasper will share a platform for the first time since the scandal, at the May Day rally in Trafalgar Square no less. It will be a major boost to Jasper’s attempts to rebuild his presence on the London political stage. He has started turning up at City Hall, on his old beat, recently disrupting a meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority in protest at the death while under arrest of a man charged with serious drug offences. And Ken strongly defends Jasper, hosting him several times on his LBC radio show and claiming that he has been “cleared” and that various enquiries have found “no evidence against him…no-one has come up with any wrongdoing.”

The truth, alas, is a little different. Jasper was forced to resign after channelling tens of thousands of pounds of public money, for no clear purpose, to a company run by Karen Chouhan, aka “my darling Kazzi,” a married woman who he wanted to “honey glaze,” “whisk away to a deserted island beach” and “cook slowly before a torrid and passionate embrace.”

Millions more went to other organisations run by some of Jasper’s other friends, many of them based in the same small room at a business centre in Kennington and virtually none of them delivering anything in return for the cash. To this day, substantial sums remain unaccounted for.

The main independent inquiry into the affair, by the District Auditor, condemned Jasper’s behaviour as “not appropriate” and “below the standards expected” of a GLA officer. It found that Jasper had concealed his relationship with Chouhan and that there was no documentary evidence to show why the money had been paid to her company. Even Livingstone himself conceded, in an LBC interview on 6 March 2008, that Jasper had “breached absolutely” the GLA’s code of conduct.

I can, of course, understand Jasper’s obsessive need to lie and rewrite history – but Ken’s use of the same tactics is a little more puzzling, and can be explained only if he is planning a future for his ex-race advisor.

Boris Johnson: getting a grip?

Edward Lister
Edward Lister

For all his advancing years, Ken Livingstone still likes to keep abreast of the news. He discovered something terrible yesterday: Boris Johnson is a Conservative! Ken’s spokesman stormed that the appointment of Eddie Lister, leader of Wandsworth council, as Boris’s new chief of staff, “shows that his administration is deepest Tory Thatcherite blue”.

Lister’s appointment is highly significant: under him and his predecessors, Wandsworth became both highly efficient and a Tory fortress, not things you can yet say about Boris’s City Hall. Sir Simon Milton, Lister’s predecessor as chief of staff, always struck me as someone who was good at sailing the ship, but didn’t greatly mind what direction it sailed in. Lister might well do better at banishing the more-than-residual Livingstonism which lingers in the Thames-side testicle.

Lister’s most important job is at transport, the alpha and omega of the mayoralty and Boris’s greatest weakness. It is fair, as Livingstone also says, to see the second-tier adviser reshuffle announced today as Boris’s attempt to get a so far elusive grip on the bloated behemoth that is Transport for London.

Daniel Moylan, TfL’s deputy chair, is stepping up to more of a full-time role in the post – dropping his deputy leadership of Kensington and Chelsea council. Moylan is a main architect of perhaps Boris’s single greatest achievement – the end of the Tube PPP. He is another one of those politicians who wants to “do” things rather than just “be” things.

I don’t know Isabel Dedring, the new deputy mayor for transport, at all, so I reserve judgment. She was, however, until 2008 a senior figure in TfL (indeed she came to City Hall on secondment from it) and was chief of staff to its former commissioner, Bob Kiley. These were the formative years in which the failed culture of TfL was set.

Only yesterday Ben Rogers, of the independent Centre for London think-tank, part of Demos, tweeted: “Meeting at TfL. Interesting how ‘socialist’ they are even under Boris – little future for cars, it’s all public transport.” Alas, TfL, as any Tube user can testify, isn’t much good at public transport either.

Boris’s number one priority must be to improve service on the Underground. This should actually be quite possible – the Jubilee line can surely only improve and surely at some point over the next twelve months the signalling will start to work a bit better. He ought to be able to show a rising curve of service by election day.

Yet he also needs to remember that hundreds of thousands of people voted for him because they quite like their cars.  TfL has successfully frustrated all Boris’s manifesto promises to make traffic flow more freely, despite growing evidence that this is actually better for the environment (and for public transport users, ie bus passengers) than constant starting and stopping at red lights. There is discontent among his core vote about this.

TfL also remains stuck in an old-fashioned heavy-metal mindset where the answer to every transport problem is a new, lumbering, carbon-generating bus or train. Unlike more advanced transport administrations elsewhere in Europe and Japan, they are not putting at their heart non-carbon solutions such as cycling, walking and reducing the demand to travel. Indeed they still boast, Soviet-style, of the ever-increasing hordes rammed, in ever-greater discomfort, into their ever-more-crowded buses and trains.

So there is plenty of work for the new team.

Boris Johnson: mayor of gimmicks

Boris Johnson: mayor of gimmicks? (Photo: PA)
Boris Johnson: mayor of gimmicks? (Photo: PA)

Remember the “living bridge?” The “island airport?” The Olympic sculpture? At least none of those mayoral gimmicks involved significant amounts of public money. Today, it was announced that Boris Johnson will spend £50.5 million of taxpayers’ cash on constructing a new cable car across the Thames from the Dome to Custom House.

This is a project born largely of a gag. In the Mayor’s public speeches, he can usually rely on a big laugh when he jokes that it is a tribute to Vince Cable. Today, however, the joke is on us.

It was supposed to be privately funded. But the private sector has been understandably reluctant to pony up. So, in the middle of a public spending crisis, Boris is spending tens of millions of the transport budget on what is essentially a tourist attraction for out-of-towners.

Attempts to give it some sort of public transport rationale are threadbare – the Jubilee Line already provides an almost exactly parallel service. When it’s working, of course. How is that resignalling project going, by the way?

The cable car has already doubled in cost from the initial estimates. The rush to build it in a year – in time for that other great sinkhole of vaguely justified public money, the Olympics – will almost certainly mean that costs escalate even further. Every contractor involved will take it as a green light to scalp the taxpayer with “unforseen” urgency charges. The timetable is also incredibly ambitious.

The whole thing could quite easily become a running sore at the exact moment when Boris does not need it – in the months immediately before his bid for re-election.

In the meantime, of course, passengers on the transport network that actual Londoners actually use continue to suffer substandard performance. And passengers on the transport service along the river (that actual Londoners actually use, and whose expansion would be a worthy monument for Boris) have seen their boats cut for want of a subsidy about one-hundredth of that now being blown on the cable car. (And yes, I know they hope to get commercial sponsorship – but realistically, that will come nothing close to recouping the construction cost.)

The charge against Boris is that he has been a do-little mayor who lacks seriousness. It’s not actually true – he has done a couple of very important things, such as getting rid of Ian Blair and the Tube PPP. But this decision reinforces all the doubts about him. It will also undermine his claim with Whitehall that his budget (the vast majority of which comes from the Treasury) is necessary and justified. It is a strategic mistake.

High-speed rail: Birmingham says no

Some fascinating straws in the wind from Birmingham, proposed destination of the Government’s £17 billion high-speed supertrain.

If anywhere was going to be in favour of HS2, it should surely be Brum – which stands to see its London service speeded up the most (by a claimed 35 minutes.) The council and various local business groups have been dutifully campaigning for the albatross.

But in a survey by the Birmingham Post, two-thirds of those who responded opposed the new line and 70% said other transport investment should be a higher priority. Fifty-five per cent also disputed the Government’s claim that high-speed rail would be good for the local economy.

The survey doesn’t appear to have been a representative opinion poll, so it really is only a straw in the wind – but it is still interesting that the pro-HS2 camp has been unable to mobilise supporters in what should be the scheme’s heartland.

Even more interestingly, the Post itself has written a leader saying that the Government’s case for HS2 has “run out of steam” and adding that Whitehall’s forecasts of passenger numbers and projected economic benefits “appear to be inflated.”

That is absolutely right. HS2 could, in fact, substantially damage existing plans for the regeneration of Birmingham’s Eastside. The centrepiece of the scheme, a new £123 million university campus on which £30 million has already been spent, was scrapped after the Government said that HS2 needed the site. A new scheme, for a campus only just over half the size, has now been drawn up – and the university is still waiting for its £30 million back. The new, shrunken campus is to go on a site planned for a new “vertical theme park” – which has in turn also been scrapped.

Inflated, too, has been the Government’s claim of the journey time saving of high-speed rail. The figure they quote for the fastest time on the existing line – 1 hour and 24 minutes – is wrong. The fastest train at present does it in 1 hour 12 minutes, so the saving is 23 minutes, not 35 – and even less once you factor in that HS2’s Brum terminus is further away from the city centre than New Street, the existing stop.

It simply won’t do for the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, to go on claiming that all HS2’s opponents are “Nimbies.” The fact is that the case for HS2 is in deep intellectual trouble.

Lutfur Rahman councillor charged with fraud

A polling station in Tower Hamlets - Mayor Rahman continues to generate controversy
A polling station in Tower Hamlets - Mayor Rahman continues to generate controversy

One of the most prominent supporters of Tower Hamlets’ extremist-backed mayor, Lutfur Rahman, has been charged with fraud.

Councillor Shelina Akhtar (also spelt Shelina Aktar) appears in court next month. Her arrest, last year, was first reported by this blog.

Akhtar is one of eight councillors who were thrown out of the Labour Party after backing Lutfur – himself barred by Labour for his close links with the extremist Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE).

Akhtar – whose day job, hilariously, is as a part-time “youth and enrichment worker” – is accused of part-time self-enrichment. She is charged with one count of “false representation” and three counts of failing to notify a change of circumstances which would have affected her entitlement to benefit.

She remains a member of Tower Hamlets council at the time of writing and continues to draw another much-needed benefit entitlement – her £200-a-week councillor’s attendance allowance.

In less than six months, three of Lutfur’s tiny band have been the subjects of police investigations. The second is Shiraj Haque, Lutfur’s chief business backer who is currently under investigation for a massive alleged scam involving selling fraudulent wine in his restaurant empire. The third is Lutfur himself – who has been accused of failing to declare substantial donations from Mr Haque, a criminal offence under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. (We have been asked to point out Lutfur was later sent a police letter saying that there was “no case to answer.” However, the complainant, Cllr Peter Golds, insists that the police never investigated the matter seriously. See PCC adjudication here.)

And that’s not including Cllr Alibor Choudhury, the former employee of an IFE front organisation who Lutfur has, quite incredibly, put in charge of the council’s budget. Alibor has a deeply unsavoury past and a record of encounters with the police. In 2006, he was charged with violent disorder in connection with a gang attack. The case was stayed at the committal stage after Alibor claimed he had been the subject of an “abuse of process.” Hmm… I’ll tell you a bit more about Alibor’s dodgy back-story when I get a moment.

Nor does it include Zamal Uddin, a convicted sex attacker for whom Lutfur gave a character reference in court (the mayor claims that he didn’t know what crime Uddin had pled guilty to, an explanation that simply beggars belief.)

I predicted when Lutfur won the election that his mayoralty would become a “slow-motion car crash.” It’s crashing rather quicker than that. Lutfur’s curious attraction for the criminal – and allegedly criminal – is yet another reason why Labour must be deeply relieved that it did not give way to some people’s siren calls to readmit him.

Since this blog was first posted Mr Rahman has asked us to report that the police investigation into the declaration of donations has been concluded, finding there was no case to answer.

Ken Livingstone: my policies "make no sense"

Imitation is, of course, the sincerest form of flattery. But now that “High Street Ken” Livingstone – the Chelsea motorist’s newest friend – has decided to imitate Boris Johnson’s policy of binning the western extension of the congestion charge, let’s recap what he said about this very idea just fourteen weeks ago.

“Londoners from Charlton to Chalk Farm will pay for the Chelsea congestion charge axe,” steamed Ken. It was “a political choice with direct consquences that cost Londoners across the city more in fares… cutting £50m-£70m in revenue a time when public services are under severe pressure makes no financial sense and… no sense in terms of traffic flow or pollution either.” The date of this passionate denunciation? December 24, 2010.

According to Ken’s ever-elastic calculations, the “£50-70 million in revenue” from the western extension which he quoted in December has now turned into a “£100-150 million cost” of bringing it back. That, he says, is why he’s not going to. Both numbers are, of course, total nonsense – as I described recently, the revenue brought in by the extension was far less than £70 million, or “Transport for Livingstone’s” claimed figure of £55 million. And even TfL could not manage to spend £150 million on re-erecting a few number plate cameras.

It’s the Ken groupies I feel sorriest for. Having worked so tirelessly to push the old line, they’re now having to pivot on a sixpence and explain the “intriguing” latest development as a “re-thinking of budgetary priorities.”

But this U-turn does raise more serious questions about Ken’s sums – which are shaping up to be a huge new problem for him in addition to all his existing problems. Three weeks ago, in interviews with BBC London and Mayorwatch, Ken pledged to stop Boris’s planned cuts in GLA services and preserve all existing capital spending (such as Crossrail)  – while at the same time freezing public transport fares in real terms and freezing his element of the council tax for four years. When asked how he could possibly square this remarkable circle, given that the GLA’s Whitehall grant is being cut by 20%, he replied: “I’ll tell you the day after the election.”

The Mayor of London only has four sources of income: Whitehall grant, council tax, public transport fares and the congestion charge. The first is falling dramatically. Ken has now, in effect, promised to freeze the other three, or at least very heavily limit how much he can raise from the C-charge (unless his pledge on the western extension is because he is secretly planning a far wider extension of the congestion charge, something I’ll be looking at in a future post.)

Yet as well as pledging not to bring back the western extension, Ken on Tuesday also promised to start work on three further vastly expensive capital projects – Crossrail Two (this appears to be the project formerly known as the “Chelsea-Hackney line” – two gifts for Chelsea in one week, Ken!), Crossrail Three (Waterloo to Euston, apparently – anyone heard of that one before?) and a second Thames Barrier.

There’s something desperate about this fantasy-project one-upmanship. The Johnsons at number 21 are buying the family a Crossrail, so the Livingstones at number 23 must get a Crossrail Two – and Three! (Perhaps Lembit Opik or Jenny Jones can promise us Crossrail Four and Five?) And, er, I know what, I’ll buy you a second Thames Barrier! Why? One for ASLEF, and one for the RMT, perhaps?

But the main effect is as follows. With each week that passes, the gap between what Ken is pledging to spend and the money he is pledging to raise grows wider. How on earth is he going to pay for everything?

Ken’s latest answer is “the bond markets” – alas, he doesn’t seem to have realised that you can’t borrow on the bond markets to finance non-capital spending, such as keeping down Tube fares or financing Lee Jasper’s lady friends.

There’s only two ways out that I can see. With the oil price going up, perhaps Ken can get his old employers in the Iranian government to sling us a riyal or two. Failing that, there’s always Comrade Hugo…

Evening Standard triumphs at the Press Awards

Congratulations to my old paper, the Evening Standard, on winning two British Press Awards last night for its outstanding “Dispossessed” series, led by my former colleague David Cohen. It was Cohen who discovered that London children are still being buried, four at a time, in communal paupers’ graves – a useful reminder that for all its liberal self-congratulation, London is probably the most unequal city in Western Europe. It was he who gently teased out the hypocrisy of some of our beloved “thought leaders”, such as Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, who has dramatically raised the pay of his senior managers, while sadly being unable to afford to pay his cleaners a living wage. Amusingly, even Ken Livingstone, who is trying to butter up the paper’s new management, has tweeted his congrats to the Standard – not something he did for our previous award-winning campaign!

Lutfur Rahman: the payback continues

In previous posts, I have described how Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of Tower Hamlets expelled from the Labour Party for his links with an extremist Muslim group, the IFE, has been steadily rewarding those who put him where he is – mostly at taxpayers’ expense.

– In just the three months between December and February, IFE front bodies have been given at least £149,000 of council money.

– Shiraj Haque, Lutfur’s legally-troubled business backer, has been given back his role organising a council-funded festival: a role from which he was removed in 2007 after allegations (denied) of financial impropriety and people-trafficking.

– A key crony of Ken Livingstone, who broke Labour rules to back Lutfur for mayor against his own party’s candidate, has been given a well-paid job at Tower Hamlets – without going through a formal recruitment process.

Now further rewards can be disclosed. Lutfur’s election agent, Gulam Robbani – who also happens to have been a governor at the IFE’s school, the London East Academy – has also been given a lucrative council post, as has Stephen Beckett, another of his supporters.

And Lutfur’s media allies have been duly rewarded. Tower Hamlets’ payment records show that in the month of January alone, the council paid £10,000 to the London-based Bengali-language TV station Channel S.

Channel S, widely watched in Tower Hamlets, was censured by the broadcasting regulator Ofcom after it acted as a blatant and ludicrous pro-Lutfur propaganda operation during October’s mayoral election. For a taste of just how bad its coverage was, see the transcript here.

Even more reprehensible is the £940 paid by the council in the same month to a “newspaper” called the London Bangla. During the election, a special edition of this publication appeared, stuffed on virtually every page with the most extraordinary series of baroque smears and lies against Lutfur’s principal opponent, Labour’s Helal Abbas. Mr Abbas, the London Bangla claimed, was a wife-beater, an enemy of Islam and had physically attacked canvassers for his opponent. We still haven’t quite got to the bottom of who paid for the vastly extended print-run, and door-to-door delivery, of that particular number of the London Bangla. Let’s hope it’s not us, eh?

More payback revelations in the days ahead.