Ken Livingstone draws 'diving' lines

Underwater: Ken campaign wants to create "diving lines"

A year and a quarter since he became their candidate, Ken Livingstone’s supporters are having to dig pretty deep for victory these days. The latest issue of the Labour paper Tribune claims that recent polling has shown “a decisive advantage opening up for Mr Livingstone.” Those would be the polls showing Boris seven and eight points ahead, respectively!

Second place in the desperation stakes goes to a claim, earlier this month, by Tom Copley, a Labour London Assembly candidate, that “the mayoral race is narrowing towards eye-wateringly close percentages” with Ken “just 1.4% short of the swing across London he needs to seize victory.” This was based on a poll showing Boris 1 per cent ahead of Ken in the London byelection seat of Feltham and Heston, compared with 5 per cent in the same seat at the 2008 mayoral election.

I hope somebody’s had a chance by now to explain to Mr Copley the folly of extrapolating a London-wide swing from one single, solidly Labour constituency. Equally dubious is comparing byelections with “proper” elections. Older readers will remember those “just for fun” Peter Snow graphics predicting that the Lib Dems would sweep Westminster on the basis of some great byelection triumph.

In a “leaked strategy document” last week (indistinguishable, to the naked eye, from a press release – but getting more coverage because it had “confidential” written across the top) Simon Fletcher, Ken’s chief of staff, made a characteristically brilliant and timely campaign play. In order to create what Fletcher called a “clear diving line” the campaign would, he decided, paint Boris Johnson as… a Tory! This searing insight emerged at pretty much the same moment as the Tories went back into the lead in the national polls.

It is fun to mock Livingstone’s hopeless thrashing around. Has there ever been a campaign which has worked so hard, for so long, to so little effect? How much further, I wonder, can Ken “dive?” But at this end of year assessment it is clear that Boris’s campaign, too, has weaknesses, though they are small compared to Ken’s.

The first is that Boris’s rebuttal operation is useless. Earlier this month Ken announced something which was reported by the BBC as a pledge to introduce rent controls. This could be a popular idea, but isn’t actually Ken’s policy – for the very good reason that the mayor has no power to control rents. Part of the reason it was reported as if it was Ken’s policy was that Boris responded as if it was, attacking the notion of rent controls.

Livingstone’s actual promise was merely to “campaign for” a “living rent” – though he has absolutely no levers to deliver that, either. In the campaign for a “living wage,” the GLA, as a major employer, did have power to set both wages, and an example in the labour market. It sets no rents whatever and has no such presence in the housing market. The rebuttal should have quickly exposed Ken’s policy as yet another fantasy offering; instead, it actually gave it more substance than Ken could have hoped.

Last month, when Ken announced a plan to “bring back” the zones 2-6 Travelcard, a spokesman for Boris defended the “abolition” of the card. It was left to this blog to point out that the zones 2-6 Travelcard never went away.

All this also illustrates the broader risk – that Boris allows his opponents to define terms. I am reasonably sure that Ken’s hoped-for Exocet, his fare cut, can work for Boris if the mayor can define it as an issue of Ken’s honesty: pointing out that Ken has neither the money, nor the intention, to carry it through; lovingly listing the many times he has promised to hold down fares, then proceeded to do the precise opposite.

Just before Christmas, however, Boris raised the possibility of some fares cuts of his own. It may have been a careless response to an Assembly question, but it was still pretty stupid – it gave just a breath of legitimacy to Ken’s fantasy policy, undercut the argument about there being no money and moved the debate on to Livingstone’s ground. Time, perhaps, for Johnson to announce that he’s looked into the idea and it’s unfortunately not possible after all.

In the end it may not matter much: this election will be about personalities, not policies, and Boris just has a nicer personality. Even on policy, Ken has unleashed his big guns very early – perhaps another sign of his desperation, but risking their being old news by the time most voters start tuning in.

It never does any harm, though, to guard all your flanks.

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