Ken Livingstone: the antique's roadshow begins

Ken Livingstone in 2008 with his campaign poster (Photo: AP)
Ken Livingstone in 2008 with his campaign poster (Photo: AP)

Ken Livingstone’s victory in the race to be Labour’s London mayoral candidate is the best possible news for Boris Johnson and the Tories, but depressing for those of us who care about competitive politics.

I like Boris – but I wanted him to have to fight for re-election, to have to promise more than the minimum. Against Ken, the chances are that for all the sound and fury to come over the next eighteen months, Boris is reasonably assured of victory. Today, rather than the first Thursday in May 2012, will probably come to be seen as the day the mayoral election was decided.

The majority of Londoners have, I think, come to a settled view about Ken, and are unlikely to change their minds. Nor, more importantly, has Ken shown any sign of wanting to change their minds. His platform is a resurrection from the grave of all the policies and attitudes that turned middle-ground voters off. Elections are won at the centre, but he has turned sharply away from the centre since losing the mayoralty.

Perhaps that’s because he clearly expects to be swept back into City Hall on a tsunami of hatred against Lib-Con cuts. This could be a powerful issue for Labour, but it’s unlikely to work for Ken, for two reasons.

There is, I’m sure, a potentially fruitful argument Labour can make about whether the cuts need to be so big, and so soon. But the position Ken has taken – that there should be no cuts at all, and that the deficit, in his words at the Southall hustings, is a “scare” – just isn’t credible. Voters tune out. He has already, in effect, ceded this vital ground to the coalition.

Secondly, Boris is perfectly capable of separating himself from the government – just as Ken did from Labour, suffering no ill-effects from standing as a Labour candidate in 2004 despite the Iraq war.

Ken’s timewarp quality is also evident in the fact that he’s still running on his record. But if that didn’t work in 2008, it’s definitely not going to work in 2012. The record is in many cases an obstacle – Ken can’t attack Boris over ticket office closures and fare rises, for instance, without it being pointed out that he did, or proposed, exactly the same.

More fundamentally, people don’t vote in the mayoral election on policies. It’s a personality contest – and Boris is a far more likeable personality. Significant numbers of people hate Ken – a significant driver of voting last time. Relatively few hate Boris, though many are indifferent to him.

I can see only three ways Ken could win, all of them pretty unlikely. First is that some absolute catastrophe befalls Boris. Second is that such a perception of “foregone conclusion” takes hold that Boris’s voters don’t turn out – that is why the Tories have to behave as if this is a race. Third, most interesting, is the arrival on the scene of some dramatic third candidate whose transfers would go to Ken.

Conventional media wisdom has often been that Ken is a “wily” politician. Certainly, it was wily to get the Labour selection contest held so absurdly early that no heavyweight rival had time to enter it.

He’s good at that sort of party intrigue; but overall, I’d say he is perhaps the stupidest top-flight politician I’ve ever encountered. Ken’s besetting flaw is the sin of pride: an absolute refusal to admit he has ever been wrong about anything, and a stubborn determination to cling on to his mistakes (such as Lee Jasper) beyond the point of all political sanity. That’s what makes him such an ideal opponent.

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Ken Livingstone: this is what brain-death looks like

I continue to be astonished at Ken Livingstone’s utter determination to repeat, almost word-for-word, the messages that lost him the last election. Gas-guzzler charge – check. Defence of Lee Jasper – check. As one Labour blogger says, after hearing him at a hustings, it’s like he’s been cryogenically frozen.

Last week came the latest creaking heritage replica from the Ken playbook. During the 2008 campaign, he and Labour colleagues repeatedly claimed that Boris Johnson would cut the Freedom Pass – an obvious lie, since the Mayor of London has no power over the pass (it is run and funded by the London borough councils, not City Hall.) Of course, no such cuts have happened, and the scope of the pass has in fact been extended.

Now, Ken is making the exact same charge against his opponent for the Labour nomination, Oona King – even though her transport manifesto pledges to “defend the Freedom Pass” and states explicitly that “there will be no reduction in the scope or scale of the Freedom Pass while I am Mayor.”

Could the words “scope or scale” provide wriggle room for means-testing, something which she’s been accused of contemplating at a couple of the hustings? No, says King in an email to supporters: “Claiming that I favour a means test for the Freedom Pass… is simply not true….If the Freedom Pass is cut [by councils or the Government] I will fight to find the money to replace the lost funding.” Unwisely, perhaps, she goes on to say that if the Mayor had to step in to rescue the scheme, and if there was no money at all in her budget to fund it, then there could be cuts for the wealthiest pensioners – but it’s clear that that describes an eventuality which even the Con-Dem government has explicitly promised will not happen.

It is noticeable over the last few days that even Ken’s little helpers in the blogosphere have not taken this one up, and a claim needs to be pretty rocky for that not to happen. Botoxing up this wizened old smear is yet another sign of the Ken campaign’s complete intellectual brain-death.

Ken Livingstone vs Oona King: focus on sleaze

Oona King, Ken Livingstone’s opponent for the Labour mayoral candidacy, is starting to focus on one of Ken’s greatest vulnerabilities – sleaze.

Last week, at the GMB union hustings, Ken became angry and defensive when the subject of cronyism and his disgraced adviser, Lee Jasper, was raised. Appearing with Ken on BBC1’s Politics Show on Sunday (40 or so minutes in), King returned to the attack, calling for an independent commission to vet the mayor’s hires. “I think there’s been cronyism, the perception of cronyism without a shadow of a doubt, with both the mayors we’ve had so far,” she said.

In the same interview, Ken conceded that Jasper had helped do for him in 2008. The more interesting question is whether the scandal still has the power to hurt him now – and on this evidence, I’d say it does.

On Sunday, to a surprising degree, Ken continued to display the same stubborn denial of reality which got him into such terrible trouble two years ago. He actually claimed that Jasper had been “cleared” and that various enquiries had found “no evidence” against him,” adding: “No-one has come up with any wrongdoing. In the end he went not because of any wrongdoing about funding groups, but because he had inappropriate emails with a woman. That was it.”

Perhaps I should remind Ken that far from “clearing” Jasper, the main independent inquiry – by the District Auditor – actually concluded that his behaviour in channelling grants to organisations run by his friends and business associates was “inappropriate,” that “the standards expected” of a GLA officer “were not followed” and that Jasper concealed his relevant interests.

The Auditor found that City Hall “could not demonstrate that [it] had achieved value for money” from the funding of any of the organisations and reported that there was no “documentary consideration” of whether value could be achieved.

And those “inappropriate emails,” in which Jasper proposed to “honey-glaze” a married woman, Karen Chouhan, and “let [her] cook slowly before a torrid and passionate embrace?” Well, what was “inappropriate” about them was not their language, excruciating though that was. It was the fact that Jasper personally channelled at least £100,000 of City Hall money to two organisations run by Mrs Chouhan (or, as he put it in the emails, his “gorgeous, wonderful, sexy Kazzi”) without declaring his relationship with her. The very organisations, in fact, whose funding the District Auditor found could not be justified!

As I’ve always said – and as the BBC interviewer, Tim Donovan, himself closely involved in exposing the scandal, also pointed out – it wasn’t the allegations themselves which hurt Ken the most, but his head-in-the-sand response to them. Oona should be thrilled that he seems determined to repeat the performance.

Ken Livingstone and Oona King: battle lines are drawn

To the Sally Army hall in Mare Street, Hackney, for the first of nine official Labour Party hustings to ascertain whether Oona King or Ken Livingstone will be Labour’s salvation in the 2012 Mayoral election.

As readers will know, the Salvation Army’s slogan, prominently displayed on the wall above the speakers last night, is “Blood and Fire.” There was a certain amount of fire from both of them – and the clear potential for a little blood, too.

Both were, I thought, quite good – Ken was noticeably fresher and more energised than at the appearances I witnessed during the 2008 election campaign. That’s not to say he had any fresh ideas, mind; broadly, he was the comfort-zone candidate, with a lot of crowd-pleasing references to the awfulness of Thatcher, Iraq, tuition fees, taxing the bankers and the evils of union-bashing British Airways. His most passionate moment was on the need to resist the coalition’s proposed housing benefit cuts which may well see significant numbers of inner-London families thrown out of their homes.

Oona is still less practised than him, and worked in occasional slightly clunky mentions of the fact that she’s black, a woman, and young. But she was honest enough to speak some truths that the audience might not have wanted to hear: that she would not promise to cut public transport fares; that, in an era when email is changing everything, digging in to defend the status quo on the Post Office might actually end up destroying it and costing postal workers’ jobs. Her most passionate moment was talking about youth crime and the turf barriers, invisible to adults, that imprison young people in their immediate areas; her most interesting soundbite was that “we have to shift our money from funding social failure.”

His pitch: “The Tories talked about a doughnut [in the 2008 election], but they ended up with a sliver victory. Boris’s victory depended on four boroughs… the Labour Party is already coming back in London. I ran ahead of Labour in every ward, white and black, inner and outer London, Jewish and Muslim.”

Her pitch: “You only get a Labour government (sic) if you choose a candidate who can beat Boris at the election… I have heard you say at a lot of hustings that you ran ahead of the party. The fact is, you lost. We have to look at the figures. We have to reach beyond [the core vote] and go way beyond the people in this room.”

Clear and quite promising battle lines are being drawn here. I’ll be attending a few more hustings over the next couple of weeks to see how it goes.

Ken Livingstone: many happy returns

Happy birthday dear Ken, happy birthday dear Ken. Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday dear Ken!

It’s the big 65 today for the Duracell bunny of British politics  – whose age has sometimes been seen as an obstacle to his goal of retaking the mayoralty (should he win the 2012 election, he will be nearly 71 by the time of the next one.)

But since ageism is a terrible thing, and since it is Ken’s special day, I thought I’d lay off for once and give him a little present: the fruits of my extensive research on Pensioners In Power.

It is true that Ken’s opponents, Oona King and Boris Johnson, are 42 and 45, respectively (Boris, spookily, has almost the same birthday as Ken; he turns 46 on Saturday.) It is true that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, is 43.

It is also true that Ken was first elected to political office in 1971 (Boris was six years old at the time).

But there is hope. At least three people in frontline British political office are older than Ken – the Leader of the Commons, Sir George Young; another Ken, the Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke; and the Business Secretary, Vince Cable (a London MP, sometimes spoken of as a potential mayoral candidate himself – that would be interesting.) Clarke has been an MP since 1970. (They might well, of course, all have retired by 2012 or 2016.)  

Most importantly (and I’m conscious that I’m now giving Ken a fact he’ll use, endlessly, on the campaign trail), Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, is 68, more than three years older than Livingstone – and successfully overturned the city’s term limit law before winning re-election last November.

British politics may be an increasingly ageist trade – three of the last four prime ministers have been the youngest in democratic history at the time they were elected. But the way it works is not always straightforward. As Lib Dem leader, Ming Campbell copped a lot of “pensioner” gibes – but was actually slightly younger than his predecessor, Paddy Ashdown.

The problem, as I’ve always said, is not Ken’s age – it’s the distinctly elderly nature of his policies.

London mayoralty becoming a contest: Oona King leads almost 2-1 among MPs

Oona King, who is seeking Labour’s mayoral nomination, will tomorrow announce she has the backing of at least eleven London Labour MPs – almost double the number who support her rival, Ken Livingstone.

Livingstone’s support among London MPs has risen only gradually – from four to six – since he formally declared his candidacy more than two weeks ago. But King’s team is hopeful of several more names over the next few days and is looking to get more than half the 38-strong London parliamentary party.

Tomorrow’s announcement, at an event in Westminster, is the latest sign that Oona wants to make it “game on” with Ken. Quite a serious team, including a number of former Labour policy advisers, has been assembled.

As far as I can tell the MPs are Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham & Morden), Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar & Limehouse), Stephen Timms (East Ham), Margaret Hodge (Barking), Joan Ruddock (Lewisham Deptford), Mike Gapes (Ilford South), Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East), Stella Creasy (Walthamstow), Andy Love (Edmonton), Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) and one other (I had thought it was Teresa Pearce, but she says she’s neutral.) None is as big a name as Ken’s latest backer, Jon Cruddas – but they may make up for that in numbers.

Unlike in the national leadership election, MPs’ votes will have no special weight  – but the fact they have, so far, gone almost two-to-one for King is pretty significant. It signals the deep concerns the party’s election-winners have about Livingstone’s ability to perform the same feat.

It also signals that MPs feel King is a competitive candidate (otherwise why bother hacking off Ken?) All she needs now is a few policies…