Mehdi Hasan: liar leaves job

The New Statesman has today parted company with Mehdi Hasan as its senior editor, politics.

Mehdi is an effective polemicist, increasingly beloved of BBC discussion programmes – but the job needed more reporting scruples than he possessed, and his temper sometimes get the better of him. My own experience with this came in November 2010. I’d done something to annoy Mehdi – not that hard – so he accused me (in his New Statesman blog) of a long list of crimes including working for the Iranian state-funded broadcaster, Press TV. “Sources at Press TV tell me Gilligan is among the highest-paid, if not the highest-paid, employee at the channel,” wrote Mehdi, asking: “So, Andrew, when will you quit your lucrative job at Press TV?”

The answer to that question was “eleven months before.” Because if Mehdi had actually spoken to any “sources at Press TV” in November 2010, he would have been told that I was not, in fact, “among the highest-paid employees at the channel,” nor indeed in any kind of relationship with them at all. I can only conclude that he had not, in fact, spoken to anyone at Press TV – and that he had made up this quote to further his untruth.

I did present a fortnightly discussion show on Press TV, in which the policies of the Iranian government were often debated and challenged. But I stopped in December 2009. I have not worked for Press TV since, with the exception of two one-off shows in the week of the general election in May 2010, almost six months before Mehdi’s “sources” told him I was its highest paid employee.

The fact that I had left Press TV was also clearly stated on my Wikipedia entry, from which Mehdi quoted elsewhere in his post, and had been reported in the press. Any competent journalist would have checked this. (Fascinatingly, and with slightly Hari-esque overtones, my Wikipedia entry – favoured propaganda battleground for my critics – was changed five days later to put a flattering gloss on Mehdi’s blogpost, including a claim that he had “revealed” new facts about my work for the station.)

I did complain to the New Statesman – they claimed that it was a genuine quote but that Mehdi’s “source” had given him “inaccurate information.” Press TV is a small operation run out of about seven rooms; nobody at the station could have been unaware that I’d left the previous year. They added a note to the bottom of the piece, but continue to publish the made-up quote to this day.

Anyway, best of luck at the Huffington Post, Mehdi – hope they’re paying you!

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Housing benefit cuts have not been a 'final solution' for the poor

Very few policies have been condemned in more lurid terms than the Government’s cap on housing benefit. With her characteristic calm moderation, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee called it a “final solution” for the poor. Even more sensible people than Polly have used language such as “social cleansing.” Indeed, Boris Johnson has used that phrase (though only in the sense of saying that it will not happen on his watch.)

As part of my phased medical readjustment to the post-Ken Livingstone world, I did a piece for yesterday’s paper on how far the prophecies of doom over housing benefit have been realised. As I put it:

The Daily Telegraph decided to get beyond the rhetoric and ask a simple question: 13 months after Ms Toynbee’s “final solution”, how many people have been forced to leave their home areas? The answer, it turns out, is not very many – not yet, at least.

Read the rest here.

And don’t worry, fellow obsessives: there will be a couple more election pieces – one analysing the detailed (ward-by-ward) results once they’re published and another on the dogs that didn’t bark during the campaign.

Boris Johnson v Ken Livingstone: why it was closer than expected

As you can read in my piece for today’s paper, the Tories really did fear that they had lost at one point during the mayoral count on Friday. As Lynton Crosby, Boris Johnson’s campaign supremo, put it at 7.20pm: “I think we could just go down.

I confess I never thought that – and not just because I was with the best number-crunchers and London politics experts in the business, YouGov’s Peter Kellner and the LSE’s Tony Travers. Neither they nor I thought Ken had the numbers – he was getting good enough swings in some of the 14 counting areas, but not enough in most of them. And there were indeed swings towards Boris in four of the 14.

The main reason it was closer than everyone expected is perhaps this. Labour had fewer supporters, but was better at getting those it had to the polls. Compared with 2008, turnout was down everywhere. But it fell by less in the Labour areas than in the Tory ones.

Six of the fourteen counting areas (each covering two or three boroughs) voted for Ken. Turnout in the Ken areas fell by 6.3 per cent on average compared to 2008. In Lambeth & Southwark, it fell by as little as 4.9 per cent and in the North East counting area (Waltham Forest, Hackney and Islington) it fell by 5.5 per cent.

Eight of the 14 counting areas voted for Boris. Turnout in the Boris areas fell by an average of 8.2 per cent compared to 2008. In two Boris areas, West Central and Croydon & Sutton, it fell by 10.6 per cent and in two more, Bexley & Bromley and Havering & Redbridge, it fell by more than 9 per cent. These four areas are Boris’s fortresses, where they weigh the Tory vote – his lead over Ken in Bexley & Bromley was more than 40 percentage points. The bigger-than-average turnout drops in these areas cost Boris tens of thousands of votes.

As the Boris campaign always feared, many Tory voters clearly did believe that Boris was going to win and didn’t bother coming out. The last-week polls giving him leads of up to 12 per cent (four times his actual winning margin) did him no favours.

And whatever the other failings of Ken’s campaign, it managed to deploy lots of door-knockers and phone canvassers and sent out copious direct mail in the final week. Labour had a lot of effective help from the unions. Tory organisation is much patchier – activists in several areas are older and less, well, physically active than Labour’s.

A few Tory areas bucked the trend and may have saved Boris’s bacon. The counting areas covering the affluent west and south-west London boroughs of Wandsworth, Richmond and Kingston had both smaller-than-average turnout drops and swings towards Boris. Banker-land, if you want to be unkind.

But the star trend-bucker was heavily-Jewish Barnet and Camden, which recorded the highest turnout in London, one of the lowest turnout drops and a swing to Boris. If Ken ever did regrets, how he should regret insulting those “rich Jews.”

Ken Livingstone blames it all on the media

In 2008 Ken Livingstone could plausibly claim that his defeat was due to the unpopularity of Gordon Brown. This time there really can be no excuses – Labour in London is 19 per cent ahead in the polls – but that didn’t stop Ken making one. Complaining about his “incredible media battering,” he devoted a large part of his concession speech to attacking the press.

I think democracy’s undermined when those who own newspapers fill them with trivia rather than real issues (applause from the Labour ranks). And I wonder if the negativity and the smears that dominated this election played a part in Birmingham and Manchester rejecting the idea of elected mayors for their cities. However, I’d like to thank LBC and BBC London for what I think was very good coverage of these elections. And I think how different the result might have been if the BBC hadn’t cancelled that Question Time debate and stopped candidates being interviewed on the Today programme. But irrespective of bias in the media (laughter) Labour will win the debate on how to build an economy that works for all in a fairer Britain because we must.

One of the “smears” was presumably my story about Livingstone’s tax avoidance – which today’s Guardian describes as “ruinous” for his campaign. It’s not a smear if it’s true, Ken – which was no doubt why you could never produce those tax returns of yours. Nobody ever needs to make anything up about Livingstone; he gives us more than enough material of his own accord.

Walking away from City Hall last night, Ken was heard to sigh: “All I needed was another three per cent.” Less, actually: if 32,000 people out of 2.2 million had voted the other way, Boris would have lost.

Will Ken spend the rest of his life kicking himself that if he’d made just one less stupid remark, one less unforced error, had been just a little less greedy about his finances, he would be mayor again today? Probably not. Bye, Ken.

Ken Livingstone's likely defeat is Labour's best result of the night

Ken Livingstone’s team is privately conceding this afternoon that it is all over – and that he may indeed have lost by more than last time. The two results already published suggest that they may be right.

In the final tally from Merton and Wandsworth, Boris’s lead is 17 points (51-34) compared with 10 points last time (46-36).

The final tally from Bexley and Bromley shows Boris leading Ken by 40 points (62-22), only fractionally down on last time (61-20).

These are solidly Tory areas, but it’s looking very bad for Ken, who would expect to see at least some swings here if he was going to win.

Health warning: there were big differences in how different parts of London swung at the last general election. It is, I suppose, just possible that high turnout in Ken-friendly areas plus a lot of Jones or Benita second preferences could pull it back for him. But it’s looking unlikely. If he does lose, it will, of course, be written up as a disaster for Labour. It would certainly be a catastrophic humiliation for Livingstone. But it could be the best thing that has ever happened for his party.

Ken sums up, in a single beige-suited package, absolutely everything that Labour must ditch if it is to become electable in the country again: sectarian identity politics, pandering to special interests rather than the general interest, wild and uncosted public spending. There can, indeed, be no clearer sign of the intellectual bankruptcy of tax-and-spend than the fact that Livingstone won’t subject himself to the high taxes he seeks for others.

For most of its life, the Labour Party was a coalition between the Mirror and the Guardian, Bevin and Crossman, industrial working class and metropolitan bourgeois. Its problem now is that the Guardian wing has come totally to dominate. More than a fifth of Labour’s members are in London, with its concentration of middle-class public-sector workers, though the capital is home to only a ninth of the country’s population.

Membership figures issued in 2010, the last to be broken down by constituency, show that Labour has substantially more members in Richmond Park — where it took just five per cent of the vote at the last general election — than in the Rhondda. It has five times as many members in Hampstead as in Hartlepool. It has more members in seven London boroughs than in the whole of Wales. Its presence in the suburban, middle-English swing seats it needs to win is skimpy.

The London middle-class left, of which Livingstone is the ultimate expression, has been the single most destructive force in Labour’s entire history, genetically programmed to detect the wishes of ordinary people and then do the opposite. It is substantially responsible for keeping the party out of power for the best part of the 1980s and 90s. The reason Boris Johnson won Dagenham, Redbridge, Croydon and Greenwich in 2008 – and, who knows, may do so again today – was that mainstream voters thought Livingstone was interested in everybody except them.

If Ken loses again this week, in a city where Labour is currently 19 per cent ahead in the polls, Labour will have no option but to face all these realities. There will be no excuses. That’s one of the reasons so many people in Labour wanted him to lose – and such people were, indeed, almost certainly the deciding factor in his likely defeat.

Boris Johnson camp worried at low turnout

The turnout is very low, according to exit polls
The turnout in today's elections is very low, according to the Tories

Turnout in today’s mayor election is extremely low, according to the Tory campaign. They are claiming a turnout at polling stations in Putney – a strong Boris Johnson area last time – of just 16 per cent as of just over an hour ago. Turnout seems to be down in more Ken Livingstone-friendly areas of the city, too.

The Tories’ worry has always been that with all the polls – including today’s YouGov – showing Boris comfortably ahead, their supporters will think it’s all over and will not turn out to vote.

Lynton Crosby, Boris’s campaign director, said: “The poll leads have led some to think that Boris has won, and this is not the case.”

They may be talking this up to get their supporters out – but if turnout so far is 16 per cent in Putney, that sounds pretty worrying for the Boris vote.

Ken Livingstone's biggest donor was a tax avoider

Here’s a story from our print edition:

The Ken Livingstone campaign’s largest individual donor is a  tax-avoiding property tycoon until recently based in Switzerland and
the British Virgin Islands.

Andrew Rosenfeld gave £90,000 to Mr Livingstone’s mayoral election bid in the first quarter of this year, Labour sources say.  The amount makes him by far Mr Livingstone’s biggest single supporter. Mr Livingstone’s spokesman refused to deny the donation last night.

The sum is in addition to £121,000 donated by Mr Rosenfeld to Labour last October, much of which will also have been spent on the mayoral campaign. The money is partly the proceeds of tax avoidance. Until last year Mr Rosenfeld, who is said to be worth £100 million, lived in Geneva and operated his Air Capital property empire through a series of offshore trusts in the Caribbean to avoid tax. By remaining in Switzerland for five full tax years, he was also able to escape capital gains tax on his property and investments.

Mr Rosenfeld’s huge donation will add to the controversy surrounding Mr Livingstone’s own personal tax arrangements. The Labour candidate’s bid to regain his old job from Boris Johnson has been badly  damaged after it was revealed he channelled his six-figure earnings through a personal company in order to avoid at least £50,000 in tax.

More than four weeks after promising to “publish details of everything I’ve earned over the last four years,” Mr Livingstone has
still not done so, though all the other candidates have published full details of their income and tax paid. Ten days ago he promised that figures certified by his accountant would be produced “shortly,” but none have yet been forthcoming.

Priti Patel, Tory MP for Witham, said: “Mr Livingstone has attacked tax avoiders as ‘rich bastards’ who ‘should not be allowed to vote.’
He clearly believes that doesn’t apply either to him or to people who are willing to give him money.”

Companies House records for Air Capital show that Mr Rosenfeld only changed his country of residence from Switzerland to the UK on 5 December 2011, two months after his first donation to Labour. However, his spokesman said that Mr Rosenfeld had returned to Britain and started paying UK tax in “early 2011” and the company’s status was “entirely separate from his status.”

The records show that all Mr Rosenfeld’s British companies, including Air Capital, are either “dormant” with no money passing through them, or are less than two months old. The spokesman declined to comment on the location of Mr Rosenfeld’s fortune and of the companies he uses to operate his business. However, he said that the British Virgin Islands companies previously used by Mr Rosenfeld were now also dormant. “When he came back to the UK, all those vehicles would then qualify for UK tax if any profits were made out of those companies.”

The spokesman refused to confirm or deny Mr Rosenfeld’s latest donation, saying: “Any donation will be registered with the Electoral Commission.” Mr Livingstone’s spokesman said: “The Labour Party declares all donations received for Ken Livingstone’s election
campaign to the Electoral Commission in line with party funding rules.” Donations for the first quarter of 2012 will only be published
by the Commission in the third week of May, after the elections.

Mr Rosenfeld is a controversial figure who found himself caught up in the “loans-for-honours” scandal when his name appeared on a list of businessmen – all donors to Tony Blair’s 2005 election campaign – who were being considered for peerages. He loaned the party £1 million, which has now been repaid. After Labour’s political fortunes slumped, Mr Rosenfeld switched his support to the Conservatives. Both before and after the last election he made persistent efforts to contact senior Tories with a view to a donation, but they declined to see him. “We did not trust his politics,” said one Tory source. He has since turned back to Labour, promising to donate £1 million to the party.

If elected mayor today, Mr Livingstone will gain enormous planning powers, representing a potential conflict of interest with
his funding from Mr Rosenfeld. Air Capital invests in “distressed property” in London and elsewhere and is closely linked to Goldman
Sachs’ property arm, the Goldman Sachs Whitehall Fund.

During his previous mayoralty Mr Livingstone made a number of decisions which helped Mr Rosenfeld’s then company, the property
developer Minerva. In 2005 he relaxed controls on “protected views” around St Paul’s Cathedral, where Minerva was proposing a massive scheme. Mr Livingstone also approved Minerva’s proposed 50-storey Houndsditch office tower, the tallest in the City, against furious objections from Historic Royal Palaces, which said it would “inexorably ruin” views of the Tower of London. The scheme later fell victim to the credit crunch.

Mr Livingstone had earlier opposed another Minerva development, the £500 million Park Place shopping centre in Croydon, but it was approved by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. Four weeks after the approval, Mr Rosenfeld’s partner in Minerva, Sir David Garrard, loaned £200,000 to the Labour Party.