Ken Livingstone: An insight from within the bunker

Redmond O’Neill, one of Ken Livingstone’s most important political aides at City Hall during the last mayoralty, died last month, an event which produced many strong and heartfelt tributes from senior figures. Tim O’Toole, for instance, former managing director of the Tube, praised his “kindness, his gentle soul and his rigorous mind.”

A rather different perspective, however, comes from several of the less elevated GLA toilers with whom O’Neill dealt. This no-holds-barred piece by Bob Pitt, another former mayoral staffer, sheds light not just on O’Neill but on one of the broader weaknesses of the Ken administration. Pitt writes:

“I know it’s not done to speak ill of the dead, but in the case of Redmond O’Neill, who played a prominent role in the London mayor’s office during the eight years that Ken Livingstone held power, I feel an exception should be made…

“Having had some experience of working with him in the mayor’s office during 2004-8, I saw another side to O’Neill, namely the abuse and bullying of staff for which he became notorious at City Hall. It was the kind of behaviour you would expect from the worst sort of manager in the worst private sector company. Yet it took place under an administration that was supposed to be pursuing a progressive agenda and the individual responsible for this behaviour claimed to be a socialist…

“This was why many staff at City Hall had mixed feelings about Ken’s defeat. They were sorry for Ken that he lost the election, and understood that it was a big setback for progressive politics in London, but they really didn’t want people like O’Neill coming back for another four years…

“There are not a few PAs, portering staff and other non-political employees who actually find it pleasanter working under Boris Johnson’s administration than under Ken’s. On a one-to-one basis they are at least treated with some basic respect and civility, which is more than they got from O’Neill and those around him.”

Pitt’s (accurate) thesis is that this treatment inspired many GLA staff to help me and others with our journalistic investigations, sorry “witchhunt”, into the Livingstone City Hall; and he makes a broader point about the politics of those around the then Mayor.

O’Neill and most of Ken’s other key people were members of a Trotskyist sect, Socialist Action; and though the GLA’s policies were not Trotskyist, its centralist, controlling methods certainly were. As Pitt says:

“The problem was that O’Neill and other individuals who had spent decades running a small Trotskyist group on that basis suddenly found themselves at the head of a much bigger and broader organisation, where they antagonised and repelled people by importing the arrogant, top-down, authoritarian culture that characterises the internal life of the far-left sect.”

Pitt, a long-time member of the Left who now works for a Labour member of the London Assembly, simply cannot be dismissed as another evil member of the Right-wing lie machine. I agree with (almost) everything he says.

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Blogging: Iraq war interrupts normal service

Apologies for the blogging hiatus over the last week – hope any readers of the newspapers, or TV viewers, will understand why. Normal service should resume tomorrow. There’s been enormous interest in my story on the leaked classified Iraq papers, and we are slowly getting some of the documents published in full online. It’s been a big job, though.

The Telegraph has been leaked around 45 classified documents adding up to more than a thousand pages. There are several dozen “post-operational reports,” written by individual commanders and units, and two “overall” reports which pull them – and some other reports we haven’t got – together. There’s a bit of overlap between them, with some of the findings which appear in one report also appearing in others. There are also hundreds of pages of very frank classified transcripts of MoD interviews conducted with senior commanders returning from battle.

It is our wish to place as much of this as possible on the Telegraph website, but the process of checking such a large number of papers – for anything which might compromise our sources, reveal private personal information or compromise national security – is necessarily lengthy.

Our sources have asked that some documents not be published at all, and that others be re-typed by us before publication. Finally, we may withhold some documents, or parts of documents, because they contain material or background for future stories. Therefore, not every document from which we have quoted in the newspaper will be published at this stage.

PS: The admirable Chris Ames, whose Iraq Inquiry Monitor should be essential reading, writes that one of the 45 documents we were passed by our sources has separately appeared on Wikileaks, something I hadn’t spotted. Clearly no other journalist noticed it, either: none of the quotes we used have appeared before, with the exception of a handful which appeared in both our document and two separate, shorter reports with different titles obtained by two colleagues in 2007 and 2009.

Boris Johnson: Goodbye to the Piffle Tower

We already have microseconds, milliseconds, and the interval between the traffic light going green and the bloke behind you honking his horn. Now, however, there is a new yardstick to measure an incredibly brief period of time. Let’s call it the “piffle moment”.

On October 25, older readers may remember, it was reported that Boris Johnson was planning to build a “394-foot structure resembling a cross between a pylon and a Native American totem pole” at the Olympic site. Partly because of its slight similarity to the work of one Gustav Eiffel, and partly because of Boris’s famous “inverted pyramid of piffle” denial of his affair with the journalist Petronella Wyatt, but mostly because it was quite a decent joke, it was swiftly dubbed the Mayor’s “piffle tower.”

Well, all of 17 days later, tucked away unnoticed in a story by my former Standard colleague Katharine Barney about the candidates for Boris’s proposed Olympic edifice, we find the following:

A design for an iron construction that would have been six times taller than the Angel of the North has not made the shortlist of finalists.

The proposed monument featured a translucent structure with viewing decks above the Olympic Park.

The piffle tower, it turns out, is yet another of those wheezes that have poured from Team Johnson, only to last about as long as the edition of the newspaper they appear in. Remember the “living bridge”, a “new Thames crossing for London, packed with shops and flats?” Remember Cycle Fridays, a series of “escorted cycle rides” which served a few dozen people? What do you mean, no?

Some things Boris’s opponents attack as vanity projects don’t really qualify. Growing more food on London rooftops is a nice idea. The new Routemaster will be London’s first green bus, desperately needed in a city whose highly polluting, all-diesel bus fleet lags decades behind other capitals’.

But there are too many silly little initiatives coming out of City Hall. The endless quest to be seen to be doing things is taking time and energy away from actually doing things – and will ultimately also irritate and annoy the voters. New Labour learned that the hard way. Let’s hope Boris doesn’t have to.

Alastair Campbell fails to control the media

A few days late, perhaps – but amply justified by the material – let me draw your attention to a fine confrontation on BBC1’s This Week between one of my favourite London MPs, Diane Abbott, Michael Portillo, and that twinkly old charmer, Alastair Campbell.

The former Chief Persuader produces his usual denials that he abused and bullied people (“balls… absolute bilge”) and is then told by Portillo that he’s personally heard it happen while waiting for a radio interview. Abbott joins in: “You can still see the bruises on them… Your modus operandi was about bullying.” Campbell: “I know you don’t like saying good things about the Labour government.” Abbott: “Oh, here we go.”

It’s really quite funny to see how thin-skinned Campbell is and how riled he gets. Asked later by Abbott whether he’ll be helping in the election campaign, he snaps: “I’ll probably help more than you do, Diane.” Abbot, silkily: “I’m certainly turning people out to vote in my own constituency, many of whom were worried by some aspects of what you represented in the Labour Party.”

Legendary stuff – which Alastair has curiously failed to mention in his equally-legendary blog. Never mind, you can see it here.

Nick Griffin for Barking: Has the BNP made a mistake?

Has Nick Griffin messed up his calculations? (photo: PA)
Has Nick Griffin messed up his calculations? (photo: PA)

Nick Griffin’s decision to stand against Margaret Hodge in Barking at the next general election might, just might, turn out to be another example of the BNP’s legendary capacity for unforced error.

True, in 2005 Barking gave the BNP its best parliamentary result ever – its candidate, Richard Barnbrook, got 16.9 per cent, and was just 27 votes away from coming second. True, nine of the 30 councillors in the wards which make up the seat are BNP – and there would probably be more if they had stood candidates in every ward at the last local elections. This part of London is the heartland of the British far right, something metropolitan liberals often forget when congratulating each other on the capital’s multicultural tolerance.

And true, Hodge has been a weak MP. Until only a few years ago, she didn’t have much of a presence or a proper office in her constituency. She is loathed by many in her own local party. She has said some incredibly stupid things that have played straight into the racists’  hands.

But if the BNP’s secret weapon is the behaviour of some of its opponents, its saving grace is its own incompetence. Griffin may not realise that things have changed in Barking since 2005. Hodge has upped her game organisationally, opening an office, campaigning quite hard on the ground and ruthlessly purging her local party enemies (though this last could still backfire – many of the people she has got rid of are rather good, and justifiably very unhappy with her).

More importantly, Barking is now a good deal more ethnically mixed than it was four years ago. Griffin’s opponents have a larger anti-BNP vote to call on, if they can get it to the polls. BNP support is often strongest in places where the ethnic presence is comparatively small, or comparatively new. That was the case in Barking in 2005; it is less the case now.

If I were Nick Griffin, I would have skipped Barking and gone for next-door Dagenham and Rainham, which is demographically at the stage Barking was when the BNP started to make headway there.

Yes, Dagenham does have an excellent Labour MP, Jon Cruddas – who really gets it about how Labour, particularly London Labour, has stopped talking to the white working class. And yes, Cruddas has been an active ground presence in his seat far longer than Hodge has in hers. But against that has to be set the work of the Boundary Commission. In the new redrawn Dagenham, some of Cruddas’s best wards have been taken out of his seat and some classic Essex Tory country in Rainham has been added in.

The BNP will be hindered in both Barking and in Dagenham by the general expectation that the Tories will win nationally, which usually tends to depress the far Right vote. In Dagenham, the risk, with a big name like Griffin, was still probably not that the far Right would win the seat, but that they might take enough votes off Cruddas to let the Tories through the middle. It could still happen – Labour has a tough fight here – but the man breathing slightly easier today will probably be Jon Cruddas.

A historic anniversary: 35 years since the opening of Britain's first McDonald's

As a resident of the London Borough of Greenwich, I am proud to live in a place stuffed with historic landmarks – buildings around which has swirled the eddy of Our Island Story.

Such as, for instance, the McDonald’s in Woolwich. Forget the Royal Naval College. It was the rather humbler environs of Powis Street, SE18, that witnessed – on November 13, 1974 – an event of far more importance in the shaping of modern Britain, the opening of the UK’s very first Golden Arches.

As you can see from the first menu, it was actually pretty expensive – 43p for a burger and 97p for a Quarterpounder With Cheese was quite a lot of money in 1974. But nothing, nothing could stop grease-starved Brits’ stampede for the Big Mac.

Thirty billion discarded plastic drink cups later, the restaurant is holding a special 35-year birthday celebration today to mark the historic event. Woolwich’s MP Nick Raynsford, the Mayor of Greenwich and someone even wackier and more famous than either of those two characters – Ronald McDonald himself – will be dropping in to the party.

It’s all here on the excellent Twitter feed of the restaurant’s manager, Taimoor Sheikh.  Share and enjoy!