Ken Livingstone brings up his health, even though no one's asking

More brilliant publicity for Ken
More brilliant publicity for Ken

Ken’s comparison of Boris Johnson to Hitler and his belief that anyone who votes for him will “burn forever” has set the seal on a calamitous fortnight. It was the splash in yesterday’s Evening Standard, page 3 in today’s Independent (giving me the chance to do my Ken impression on the Sky News paper review last night) and covered in many of the other papers. Ken’s protests that it was only a joke cut little ice from a man with a record as long as his of dodgy mass-murderer smears. Only two months ago, he compared Boris Johnson’s chief of staff to the Bosnian Serb war criminal, Ratko Mladic.

My fellow Telegraph blogger Toby Young, pointing to Ken’s undeniably erratic recent behaviour, has asked semi-seriously whether the 66-year-old Greatest Living Londoner has “gone bonkers.” I think the interview does raise grounds for asking seriously whether Ken is well.

For me, the most telling thing about it was not the repetition of familiar totalitarian smears, but his protestations – apparently not in response to any question by the interviewer, Amber Elliott – about how healthy he was.

As Elliott put it: “He wants to stress that he’s physically ready for the fight… ‘I’ve got a low cholesterol level,’ he explains. ‘My body chemistry is one of the reasons I’m able to run – my doctor says I’ve got the same heart profile as an Olympic runner. I can’t run like a champion athlete, but I can cope with a lot of stress.’

“Later, donning a pair of protective goggles to enter a building site, he adds proudly: ‘And I still don’t need glasses.’”

It’s the second time in recent weeks that Ken has done this. On 31 July he told the Sunday Times: “Last year I lost half a stone after I simply decided to put less on my plate. Now I’ve lost another half. When I had my medical the doctor was in raptures. He said I had the heart of an athlete. I was dead chuffed. I’m going to challenge Johnson to release his medical profile and see which of us has the best.”

Ken is bringing up his health when nobody’s asking. Is it a case of qui s’excuse, s’accuse?

Ken Livingstone: what his own supporters thought of him last week

Ken Livingstone (Photo: AP)
Ken Livingstone: exception to the rule (Photo: AP)

Riots are never good for the Left, but Labour has done pretty well in its response to them. On the morning after the first violence, David Lammy, the Tottenham MP, set the tone the rest of the party followed. He and others articulated public anger, reserved the right to talk about socio-political causes in future but recognised that while the streets were still smouldering was not the time to play politics.

There was just one terrible exception to the rule. Here is a selection of responses from the left to Ken Livingstone’s statements about the riots last week.

Dan Hodges, New Statesman:

“A measured response to the riots could have been the making of his mayoral candidacy. Instead, he sullied it.

“It wasn’t just the cheapness and transparency of his politicking…nor the tasteless way he used the London bombings to frame his suitability for tackling the London riots. It wasn’t even the crass stupidity and simplicity of his analysis; blame the bankers, EMA, the fact that 14 and 15 year old rioters are enraged at their inability to provide for their wives and children.

“London needs unity. And Ken Livingstone is divisive.”

Observer leader:

“Ken Livingstone was misguided in his attempt to link the disorder to the coalition’s programme of cuts. The closure of libraries and youth centres in Haringey did not cause hundreds of young men to hijack a peaceful protest at the police shooting of Mark Duggan, leading to hours of mayhem.”

Michael White, The Guardian:

“As so often, Ken Livingstone couldn’t resist jumping in with an attack on coalition spending cuts. Truly, he is the Boris Johnson of leftwing politics, opportunist to a fault.”

New Statesman leader:

“It is too simplistic to blame the coalition’s cuts for these riots.”

Heidi Alexander, Labour MP for Lewisham East (whose own constituency office was looted):

“Some argue that this week’s riots are the direct product of Government cuts. I do not buy that; it is too simplistic.”

George Galloway, Saddam Hussein apologist:

“Well done Ken Livingstone on Newsnight; first Labour leader to speak truth about London riots.”

Far right 'delighted' that I was mugged; Ken Livingstone supporters not heartbroken either

The far right claim themselves as scourges of crime and believers in law and order. But, where I am concerned, it seems they feel able to make an exception. On the “London Patriot” website, one Guiseppe di Santis writes: “Nationalists will be delighted to know that the Daily Telegraph London Editor has been mugged, robbed, and assaulted by rioters/looters. Don’t you just love to see Gilligan getting a taste of his own medicine? It will be interesting to see what he has to say in his next smear story about the BNP.”

I can quite understand why the BNP isn’t pleased with my appalling “smears” about them – such as my story revealing how their then (now sadly ex) London organiser, Nick Eriksen, believed that rape was a “myth… to suggest that rape, when conducted without violence, is a serious crime is like suggesting that forcefeeding a woman chocolate cake is a heinous offence. A woman would be more inconvenienced by having her handbag snatched.” Another selective law-and order hardliner, I see!

Also quite pleased about my mugging was Phil Andrews, a politician from Hounslow. “I’d be lying if I tried to pretend this would spoil my day too much,” wrote Phil in a series of posts on the Brentford TW8 forum. “He should be thankful I wasn’t with the lads who nicked his bike. I rarely take pleasure in other people’s pain, but I confess to a feeling of reassurance that what goes around comes around.”

Back in 2006, I reported that the then (now sadly ex) Councillor Andrews had been a senior member of the National Front and Holocaust denier who had served time for causing actual bodily harm to a black police officer. (You can find a picture of Andrews marching with Nick Griffin by searching on the Photographers Direct website – I can’t link directly to it because it is copyright.)

The following year, the good Councillor spent a lot of time bloviating about how he had put my evil lies about him “in the hands of solicitors.” Four years on, I still haven’t had the writ, Phil – perhaps it’s lost in the post? But he did sue some of his political opponents in the Labour Party for saying that members of the ethnic minorities would be at risk if he was elected. He lost. Ex-Cllr Andrews, incredibly, was at one time Hounslow Council’s cabinet member for community safety (he’s lost that too, alas). It’s good to see his commitment to violent assault, er sorry community safety, burns undiminished…

Joining in approvingly on the thread was one of Ken Livingstone’s main online groupies, a gentleman called Tom Barry (“not often I find a great deal to approve of in Mr. Andrews, but Gilligan’s reported behaviour is entirely familiar to me,” he wrote). Tom operates a rather oafish anti Boris-Johnson blog and Twitter stream called Boris Watch and often seems a fairly angry sort of fellow. He has never forgiven me for, literally years ago, mocking one of his many beyond-caricature observations (that time, it was about the anti-bendy bus campaign being part of a giant neo-con conspiracy.) Tom’s furious threats to complain about my “misrepresentations” again never materialised – and could not do so, because the quotes were accurate. I still have all the printouts, as I do of all the latest rantings in case anyone’s tempted to take them down.

I suppose I should be cross. But I have to say I find it gratifying, for two reasons – first, because it shows that I have really got under these delightful people’s skins, and second because it shows them up for what they are, better than I ever could.

Boris Johnson saved by his opponent

Boris Johnson was struggling at the beginning of this week. Traders and residents who’d lost everything in the riots wanted to hear rather more than the usual schtick. Towards the end of his unhappy re-entry visit to Clapham Junction on Tuesday, where he was booed, he pulled it back– and was cheered – but that wasn’t the clip you’d put on the news.

On Monday, with Boris still in Canada, City Hall sources say the situation in the testicle was “complete chaos.” One said: “No-one knew who Boris had delegated his powers to, if anyone.” Boris, in a camper-van in the Rockies, was reduced to communicating on a mobile phone that kept cutting out in the mountainous terrain. It wasn’t just the Mayor who was away. So was his chief of staff, Eddie Lister; his communications director, Guto Harri; his fire commissioner, Ron Dobson; and initially, his police authority chairman, Kit Malthouse (Malthouse was in the UK and got back quickly.)

Boris pulled it back quite a bit more in the second half of the week with his call for an end to police cuts. One of the usual axegrinders claimed they were cuts dreamed up by the Mayor – which is totally untrue; the overall size of the police budget is set by Whitehall. In June, indeed, Peter Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, praised the “fantastic job” done by Boris and Malthouse in fighting Government to keep the cuts to the minimum.

As I’ve said before, I think it facile to make a link between small changes in police numbers – a few percent either way – and crime. Even in public order, the real numbers issue for the Met is not overall force size, but the relatively small number of officers who are fully trained in riot control. But this is politics, not rational debate, and there’s no doubt that Boris has the politics right.  Watch out for the government U-turn in due course!

He has been very visible over recent days, but probably still needs to do more. Riots usually pull politics to the right but there is still a twofold danger for the Mayor: first, that the disorder overshadows his broadly successful record on crime; and second, that any more events like Clapham Junction might expose him as not quite ready for prime-time.

Boris’s greatest asset this week is his main opponent. If he had an awkward 24 hours, it was easily outdone by the nuclear meltdown that was Ken Livingstone’s week. The Kenster started out by seeing the riots as a kind of Tottenham Spring. Even as Croydon burned, he was on Newsnight blaming Boris and calling it a “revolt” against government cuts that mostly haven’t even happened yet.  This is a diagnosis shared, according to the latest poll, by six per cent of the public. Ken has also said: “A lot of these young people, they are criminals, yes, but there’s a disengagement – they feel no-one at the top of society, in government or City Hall, cares about them or speaks for them.”  You can almost feel Boris’s campaign manager sobbing with gratitude, and voters screaming at the TV: “Speak for the victims, not the rioters, you bastard!”

Every bit as bad has been Ken’s attempt to use the death and destruction for the crassest electioneering imaginable. In this week’s New Statesman, he wrote: “In 2008 [under you-know-who], London was widely ranked as the number one city in the world, ahead even of New York. It has taken only three years to bring it to a situation where pictures of London in flames and rioting are being broadcast around the world. Boris Johnson projects the mayor’s role as one obsessed with trivia, a ribbon-cutting celeb-fest – which is why he took so long to return from holiday to London when the riots started. Yet, on his watch, we have seen ordinary Londoners worst hit by soaring public-transport fares, falling police numbers and a rising threat of crime.” It is some achievement to move, in less than 60 words, from “London in flames” to rising bus fares.

On about Wednesday, it having presumably dawned on him quite how badly all this was playing, Ken performed a 180-degree handbrake turn, transforming himself into an instant hammer of the hooded classes. Having contrived to work Margaret Thatcher into his statement, earlier in the week, blaming the Tories for the riots, he suddenly started praising her, saying that we should “look back to the lesson of Mrs Thatcher… she knew what was coming, she recruited more police.”

He’s also started calling for curfews and water cannon – which even the Government opposes. Older readers may remember that only last December, Ken condemned any thought of using water cannon against rioters. “Outside of the North of Ireland we didn’t even see that under Margaret Thatcher,” he stormed. Yes, her again. Does Ken realise what decade he is living in?

The spectacle of a supposedly front-rank politician flailing around like this, saying anything at all which he thinks might get him votes, trying on policies like that looter was trying on trainers, is painful and could perhaps administer the final death-blow to an already faltering campaign. Ken will be the man who made excuses for the rioters, and the man who tried to make political capital out of disaster. Boris (who also seems to have got off slightly lighter than David Cameron, according to another poll) is a lucky, lucky fellow.

Ken Livingstone: the rioters need someone to 'care about them and speak for them'

All he needs
All he needs is care and representation, according to Ken Livingstone

It is hard to overstate how wrong Ken Livingstone has been getting his response to the riots. This was what he told the BBC News Channel last night (about 1 minute 33 seconds in to this clip):

“A lot of these young people, they are criminals, yes, but there’s a disengagement – they feel no-one at the top of society, in government or City Hall, cares about them or speaks for them.”

I spent most of yesterday in Tottenham, talking to Londoners who have lost their homes and everything else they own in the riots. They want politicians to care about and speak for them, not make excuses for the rioters who destroyed their lives.

Later, on Newsnight, Ken described the riots as a “revolt” against the cuts. He said: “If you’re making massive cuts, there’s always the potential for this sort of revolt against that” (bout 22 min 28 seconds into this clip).

Nor can any tragedy, however huge, be allowed to stop Ken working his way through his election talking points. Here’s what he told the News Channel:

“We got police numbers up to 32,000, and we thought that would cope. But the Government’s going to have to review the policy of cutting. They’re planning to cut almost 2,000 police in London…When I was elected Mayor, we only had 25,000 police… The police have got to be confident the Government stands behind them, and the Mayor stands behind them, and when you’re cutting 2,000 police they don’t feel that….

“You can’t just be a mayor when you’re opening fetes and doing charity performances. You’ve got to be a mayor when it’s going wrong…. What people need is the reassurance. What I did when I came back from Singapore [after 7/7], I was on London’s tubes and buses, I was meeting the victims. It’s that reassurance.”

And to Newsnight:

“You’ve got to crack down on this, and I got 7,000 extra police in London. If we hadn’t got those, this would be out of control tonight.”

Lip visibly curling, his fellow guest, Shaun Bailey, the black former Tory candidate and youth worker, said:

“It’s quite horrible to watch people try to make some mileage out of this for their own political thing. It’s not about Ken, it’s not about 7,000 police. These are young people who are not scared of the police, not concerned about the police. It’s a set of kids picking a nice place to riot. To try and link this to the cuts is just electioneering.”

There is, of course, a time and a place for electioneering. But last night, with the city on fire, wasn’t it.

Ken Livingstone and David Lammy: compare and contrast

Screen Shot 2011-08-07 at 23.15.15

Well, who’d have thought it – Ken Livingstone is trying to use the Tottenham riots to further his election campaign. Here he is, blaming evil Tory cuts and crowbarring three attacks on Boris Johnson into a 300-word statement. Even Thatcher gets a namecheck!

The statement issued by Tottenham’s actual MP, David Lammy, who happens to be black, stands in shining contrast. His words, with their clear-sighted rejection of the easy old tunes, show how much the black community – and the Labour Party – has moved on since the days of Ken Livingstone.

Lammy said: “The vast majority of people in Tottenham reject what has happened here last night. A community that was already hurting has now had the heart ripped out of it…by mindless, mindless people.

“What happened here on Thursday night [the shooting of Mark Duggan] raised huge questions and we need answers. But the response to that is not to loot, to rob. This is a disgrace… this must stop. And this is nothing like the sorts of scenes we saw in Tottenham 25 years ago. Then, there was a particular relationship with the police. This is an attack on Tottenham, on people, ordinbary people, shopkeepers, women, children who are now standing on the streets homeless as a consequence…

“I’m concerned that what was a peaceful protest escalated. It seemed to go on for many hours before we saw the kind of policing that was appropriate. What were small skirmishes initially should have been stopped far quicker…

“The IPCC need to be in close contact with the family of Mark Duggan, who felt totally isolated in the initial stages after Thurs night…We don’t want 25 years of rebuilding community and trust destroyed because of mindless nonsense on the streets of London.”

Is it too late to do a swap? Labour would be so much better off with someone like Lammy as its candidate.

PS: Livingstone’s self-appointed amanuensis, Dave Hill, has been talking up the prospects of a “long, late summer of riot and rage,” “grimly confident” that there could be riots in “a dozen other parts of inner-city London any day.” Which parts is, of course, unspecified.

Don’t get too excited, Dave and other bourgeois revolutionaries – the evidence is that civil disorder strengthens the hand of authority, and harms those who challenge it. Last year’s student protests virtually evaporated after the Parliament Square riot. The antics of the Black Bloc in the West End undermined the TUC’s peaceful anti-cuts demo.

And by the way, if you’d actually been in any serious riots, you wouldn’t be so sanguine about the prospect of more.