There was a fascinating private meeting earlier this month at the Bancroft Library in Tower Hamlets. Paul Harrington, the operations director of the London Labour Party, came to persuade the borough’s Labour councillors to support a Labour candidate.
Unusual, yes – but then that candidate is Ken Livingstone. As well as all his other negatives, Ken is the man who sabotaged the Tower Hamlets Labour Party last year, campaigning against the Labour candidate for the mayoralty of the borough and backing instead an independent, Lutfur Rahman, sacked by Labour for his links with Islamic extremism. Lutfur won; Labour lost.
Next year, Ken will be trying to regain a mayoralty of his own – London. It’s not going terribly well at the moment – despite the Tories’ national unpopularity, the latest poll puts Ken further behind Boris Johnson than when he lost in 2008 – so he’ll need all the help he can get. He’s hoping that his amazing disloyalty is now forgiven and forgotten. From the reports I’ve received of the meeting, it doesn’t seem to have been.
“Harrington gave a rallying speech and said he wants the [Tower Hamlets] Labour group to fully support Ken,” said one councillor who was there. “But everyone was pissed off – there was some quite sharp questioning.”
The candidate Livingstone campaigned against, Helal Abbas, the former council leader, spoke, saying how disloyal Ken had been to Tower Hamlets and Labour. Councillors then asked Harrington whether Ken would apologise to the party for his behaviour. No, said the official – Ken doesn’t do apologies. Oh yes he does, said another councillor – when he’s forced to by the courts.
One councillor asked whether Ken would share a platform with Lutfur. Harrington said he would not – though Lutfur has already had a recent “pre-election rally” for Ken at which the two men shared a platform.
Another councillor asked whether Ken’s campaign would be run by the East London Mosque – the fundamentalist institution, controlled by the extremist Islamic Forum of Europe, that backed Lutfur and arranged some pretty interesting help for Ken at the last election. Harrington promised that it would not be. That such a question is even asked is, however, highly significant. Ken’s links with, and support for, Islamic extremism are one of his key weaknesses, sure to be exploited to the full by his Tory opponents.
“Everyone was angry at Ken’s conduct,” said another councillor. “Most of us will support him because we are more loyal to the party than he is, but it won’t be enthusiastic support and quite a lot of our members will not turn out on the doorsteps for Ken.”
This is not, incidentally, a phenomenon confined to Tower Hamlets. Ken does have fervent pockets of support in the London Labour Party – but also attracts strikingly high levels of antipathy. Labour activist friends of mine in three boroughs say they are finding it difficult to get people to work for Livingstone’s re-election. Even in 2008, and even in places like Hackney, many activists were unenthusiastic.
What does it tell you about Ken’s chances that even active members of the party need persuading to support him?