Libya: has Nato made its first real mistake?

In Nato’s nearly two-month war in Libya, civilian casualties have been conspicuous by their almost complete absence. But in the early hours of this morning, did that change?

Around two hours ago, Gaddafi government spokespeople held a press conference here in Tripoli to give details of what, if true, would be the worst civilian killing since the bombing began.

According to the Libyans, eleven imams – part of a larger delegation on a peace mission across the front line – died today when Nato bombed their guesthouse in the town of Brega, around 500 miles to the east of the capital. Gruesome pictures of some of the dead were shown.

Nato admits bombing a target in Brega, but says it was a “command and control centre.” If it has indeed made a mistake, this is a big story.

I say “if” because after being repeatedly lied to by the Libyans we are naturally sceptical of their claims. Only yesterday, we were told that the bunker in Gaddafi’s leadership compound hit by Nato was a “sewage facility” – something that even the more sophisticated officials here admit is untrue. We’ve also been solemnly assured – and were told again today – that the regime has not been bombarding the rebel-held city of Misurata.

Yet – though there is of course no equivalence between the two – Nato has also lied in the past when it has made embarrassing mistakes, as in the Kosovo war when it took it several days to own up to civilian bombings.

This incident feels potentially quite real, but we need more information. We’re promised that some of the survivors will be in Tripoli later tonight or tomorrow; it might be possible to untangle it then. Perhaps a visit could be arranged; so far, only Libyan TV has been, which does not inspire confidence.

If it is true, the Libyans would be entitled to be angry; but at the press conference today, they overplayed their hand by saying it was a worse crime than that of the Nazis, and by wheeling out an imam who promised to kill a thousand people from Britain, France and the US for every one killed in Brega. We’ll be watching to see how the story is resolved.

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Ken Livingstone: my brilliant career

"I'm so good"
"I'm so successful"

Ken Livingstone revamped his campaign website this week, removing some of those unpopular promises he’s had to dump (like bringing back the western extension of the congestion charge) and putting up lots of pictures of London suburbs and him meeting white people.

Just like the pics, much of the rest of the site is a backhanded acknowledgment of Livingstone’s weaknesses. There is an attempt to restore some of that long-lost cuddliness with “ten things you may not know about Ken” – such as the fact that the great man has lent his name to a coffee shop on an Indian boat jetty. A rickety structure above some rather dirty water – how very appropriate!

My favourite bit, though, is his list of achievements as mayor. Of course, some of the achievements are real, some of them are his doing and a few of them are even both. The congestion charge and the provision of more buses fall into this last category, though passenger use of the network started to revive in 1993, long before Ken turned up.

Rather more of Ken’s proclaimed achievements, though, are either untrue or are the work, wholly or mainly, of other people. He claims credit, for instance, for the introduction of the Oyster card. Although the system debuted after he became mayor, and many people do credit him with it, it was actually ordered and paid for by central government – in 1998, two years before the mayoralty was created.

Police numbers – another claimed achievement – did rise under Ken’s mayoralty, but the increase was very largely the consequence of national policies and Home Office money. In early 2008, for instance, Ken claimed that his budget that year would “provide an extra 1,000 police for London” (press release 30.1.08) and spoke of his part of the council tax “funding an additional 1,000 police officers in the coming year” (speech and press release 19.2.08). In fact, every single one of the extra officers was paid for not from the City Hall budget or Ken’s part of the council tax, but by the Home Office and the London boroughs.

Under Ken, average bus fares were not, as he claims, “held level in real terms over eight years.” According to the Department for Transport, average London bus fares rose by 6.3% in real terms, or 39.4% in actual terms, over those years (and would have risen by at least 17.9% in real terms were it not for Ken’s cynical gesture in cutting the fares a few months before the election, something he secretly planned to reverse as soon as safely re-elected.)

There was not “near-doubling in the numbers cycling.” There was an 83% rise in cyclists passing 29 sample points along main roads, but a 50% rise in cycling in London overall, from 300,000 to 450,000 bike journeys a day, much in line with the rise in use of the rest of the transport system.

The claim of the “biggest transport investment programme since the Second World War” is preposterous. Only two relatively small London new rail projects were authorised and delivered in Ken’s time: the DLR extension to Woolwich Arsenal via City Airport and the upgrade of the East London Line, with its short extension to Dalston and Highbury.

In the years prior to the mayoralty, by contrast (and mostly thanks to the horrible, evil Tories) we got the core DLR itself; its extensions to Bank, Beckton and Lewisham; Thameslink; the Heathrow Express; the Jubilee Line extension; and the Croydon Tramlink. After years of dithering under Labour, and despite a deathbed conversion a few months before the election, it is also the Tories who are paying for Crossrail.

Ken’s claims to have been “backing lesbian and gay rights” also ring a little hollow in the light of his embrace, and continued defence, of Yusuf al-Qaradawi and other Islamist homophobic bigots. And some other achievements – that wonderful oil deal with Venezuela, for instance, and the brilliant record of the now-defunct London Development Agency – are unaccountably missing from the roll of triumph.

In 2008, for the Standard, I did a piece analysing some of Ken’s false claims about his stupendous record. He’s still repeating some of those false claims – but interestingly, several others he used to make, about huge rises in affordable housing, dramatic falls in crime and so on, are nowhere to be found in this latest list.

The truth is that Ken had two important and worthwhile achievements – the buses and the original central London congestion charge – both of which came in the first three years of his mayoralty. The remaining five years saw a gradual atrophy into silliness, arrogance and gesture politics of the Hugo Chavez/ Lee Jasper variety.

Ken Livingstone: killing bin Laden makes Obama look like a mobster

"Hm. How can I best boost my popularity?..."
"Hm. How can I best boost my popularity?..."

He never stops surprising us, does he? Today, Ken Livingstone joined a very select company – the Taliban and the leader of Hamas – in condemning the killing of Osama bin Laden. He denounced President Obama’s role in the operation as the act of a “gangster” which made the President “look like some sort of mobster.” Even his supporters are aghast, incredulous, clutching their heads in horror. Shamik Das, editor of the Left Foot Forward website, calls it “madness.”

In one sense, of course, Ken is right. Bin Laden probably should have been arrested and tried – though who can doubt that the outcome would have been exactly the same? And would it, in fact, have been better for the security of the West? Mightn’t the deliberate, drawn-out nature of a trial and execution have increased the risk of making bin Laden a martyr?

Ken lost the last election partly because he pandered to Islamic extremists and spent too much of his time talking about foreign policy instead of bus priority schemes. He is now, at least theoretically, fighting another election. How many of the people whose votes he needs hold a candle for Osama bin Laden?

Ah, that’s the beauty of Ken, some people will say – a man of sterling principle unafraid to express a view merely because it’s unpopular. But the mayor has no influence over US counterterrorism policy, so his intervention served no purpose. And with the hopes of your party resting on you, this wasn’t an act of principle – it was an act of pure self-indulgence which suggests, yet again, that Ken is simply not serious about winning this election. It’s not the first, either (remember Lutfur Rahman?) Not content with all his existing skeletons, Ken is giving his grateful opponents entire new self-storage warehouses full of the things.

That is why so many Labour people like Shamik Das are tearing at their hair.