Ken Livingstone: can he still win?

Camp Ken is desperate now

Last week, in my favourite sign yet of Camp Livingstone’s desperation, one Labour councillor tweeted a poll from 2008 as showing a Ken lead of 1 per cent in this election. Today’s real poll – from ComRes – looks bad in every possible way for Ken. In a Labour-supporting city, after three weeks of cash-for-dinners, fuel fiascos, granny taxes, pasty taxes, third runways – three weeks, in short, when the Tories left no stone unturned in their efforts to lose votes – he is still six points behind Boris, not far off the eight-point deficit he had (with a different pollster) just before the storms all started. Ken has come down from two points ahead in the previous ComRes, in January.

The killer moment, tracked quite clearly in the poll, was when Ken, with truly amazing foolishness, put the issue of his tax back at the heart of the campaign – and on the front pages – by lying that Boris, like him, had channelled his earnings through a personal company to avoid tens of thousands of pounds in income tax and National Insurance. Ken is the only candidate not to have kept his promise last week to “publish details of everything I’ve earned over the last four years.” He continues to conceal the earnings he has channelled through his company to avoid tax. But a company can’t present a radio show, or give after-dinner speeches, Ken. You did those.

The Tories’ concerns that the tax issue had not percolated through to all parts of the electorate are clearly no longer true. Perhaps the key finding in this poll is that 48 per cent of voters said tax made them less likely to trust Ken, against 34 per cent who disagreed and only 19 per cent who did not know.

When specific policies are tested, the responses are even more negative. By 45 to 28, people do not believe that Ken can deliver his fares cut – a margin of 17 points, almost double that when this question was asked in January (39-30.) Ken’s attack lines are flopping even worse. His claim that Boris’s Daily Telegraph column distracts him from his duties is rejected 52-30.

Can he come back? Well, I detect just the beginnings of a strategy to try to smuggle a Ken victory through second-preference votes. The hope is that the many Labour voters who dislike Livingstone can be persuaded to back the Greens’ Jenny Jones or the independent left-winger, Siobhan Benita, and then give Ken their second preference. This may be presented as “registering a protest” against Livingstone but is, in fact, worth precisely the same to him as giving him your first preference vote.

The Guardian’s long talked up Jones, saying she might come third –not impossible, but still fairly unlikely on the current polling, where she is at about half Brian Paddick’s level. Paddick has outperformed her in the debates.

Someone’s also been trying to create a Benita bandwagon this week by laying money on her – it doesn’t take much to shift the odds on an outsider. In recent days the Guardian has started talking up Benita too, describing her exclusion from the TV debates as “outrageous.” As even one of Ken’s supporters has written, it really isn’t. TV debates have to be restricted in size or they become unmanageable. And if anyone new does get a debate place, UKIP or the BNP, which have both won London Assembly seats and significant numbers of votes in the past, have far better democratic claims to it than Benita – however unpalatable they may be.

I’ve never understood why an independent would choose to run in this most hopeless of all elections – more dominated by the two big parties than any other in the last 40 years – unless she’s using it to raise her profile for another job, or act as a stalking-horse for Ken.

So far, however, according to this and other polls, second preferences are not a factor. Indeed, Boris’s lead actually stretches, from five to six points, between the first and second rounds. Despite some claims today that Lib Dem second preferences are breaking more for Ken than Boris, that turns out to relate to the second preferences of people who voted Lib Dem in 2010, pre-coalition – a very different and larger group than those who will vote for Paddick now. Because of the Lib Dems’ association with the Tories nationally, I would expect at the very least Paddick’s second preferences to break roughly 50-50 for Ken and Boris, as they did in 2008, or – more likely – to favour Boris.

The best hope for Ken is that Boris’s sudden spike after the tax row in the lift wears off, and he goes back to the much more level-pegging that was seen in today’s poll before the F-word was deployed. But there’s not much time left now. Could this be the first election that was turned by a four-letter word?

PS – Sorry, I forgot the real best hope for Ken. It’s Lee Jasper to the rescue!


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