Ken Livingstone 'cannot win', says top Labour official

Boris Johnson (left) and Ken Livingstone
Boris Johnson (left) and Ken Livingstone

The official in charge of the London Labour Party has been removed after saying that Ken Livingstone, Labour’s candidate for the mayoralty, “cannot win” next year’s election if he continues as now.

Hilary Perrin, Labour’s London regional director, has been moved back to her previous role overseeing all the regional directors after Ken and his chief of staff, Simon Fletcher, appealed to Ed Miliband’s office. Another London Labour official, Paul Harrington, has also left his job. An awayday to plan the campaign, supposed to take place last Friday, was cancelled.

Ms Perrin’s view about Ken’s chances was repeatedly expressed inside Labour HQ in front of witnesses, some of whom I’ve spoken to. But the remarks were not, I’m told, the immediate cause of her removal – her views are very widely shared in the higher ranks of the London Labour Party. Instead, Ken and Fletcher blamed her and her staff for his poor opinion poll showing (the latest poll puts Ken further behind his rival, Boris Johnson, than when he lost in 2008.) They say that she and the regional party have failed to galvanise grassroots support.

This seems unfair. In the same poll of Londoners that put Ken seven points behind Boris, Labour was 19 points ahead of the Tories. It is clear that Ken is the drag on the Labour ticket, and not vice-versa.

There has long been tension between Team Livingstone and Labour’s  professional campaigners. “You can cut the mistrust with a knife,” says one person in Labour HQ. During the 2008 election, many Labour staff and London MPs were aghast at the ineptitude of the Ken campaign and its refusal to take good advice. Though the organisations are now more closely integrated than before, Ms Perrin and many others are deeply worried that Ken is making many of the same mistakes as in 2008 – trying to paint Boris as a right-wing monster, not a theme with much credibility or traction, and in the process coming across as negative and nasty.

For the exemplar of this approach, look at Livingstone’s extraordinary speech to last month’s Labour conference – in which he said Boris “wished for” higher unemployment, appeared to blame the Mayor for the riots and explicitly equated them with Boris’s behaviour in the Bullingdon Club. The speech attacks Boris by name 22 times. Boris, in his own speech to the Tory conference, didn’t attack anyone, and didn’t mention Ken once.

Ms Perrin is the second holder of her job to be effectively ousted by Ken in six months. Her predecessor, Ken Clark – who strongly opposed Livingstone’s support for Lutfur Rahman, the Tower Hamlets politician sacked by Labour for his extremist links – was also removed at short notice earlier this year.

Ms Perrin’s replacement is a Labour official, Patrick Heneghan. However, he will work under Fletcher, who now has a new title of campaign chief of staff.  “Ken is calling the shots,” said one Labour figure. “I’ve never worked on another campaign where the candidate is in charge of the campaign.”

In Labour circles, there are two theories about Ed Miliband’s role in the latest turmoil. The first is that he is simply in thrall to Livingstone. The second is that he is giving Ken enough rope to hang himself. Either way, this is another stage in the continuing meltdown that is the Livingstone comeback tour.

Update: Labour has issued the following statement, which I give in full. It is not, you’ll note, a denial. “London Labour has been put on an election footing as we approach 2012. Ken Livingstone’s campaign and the national and regional party are working closely together to deliver the strategy that will win in London and deliver an administration that puts Londoners and our city first. London deserves better than the mismanagement it is suffering under its Tory Mayor.”

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