13 April 2012

Ken Livingstone, dinosaur machine politics, and the case for change in London

I have spent rather too much time towards the back end of this week following an entertaining, but at the same time philosophically deep, Twitterspat between the erst-while uber-Blairite Telegraph (and ex-New Statesman) blogger Dan Hodges and various other Labour bloggers and Twitterati from the left, right and centre of the party (including Owen Jones, Eoin Clarke, Mehdi Hasan, Luke Akehurst and Hopi Sen) concerning the merits of Ken Livingstone's campaign to win back the London mayorality from Boris Johnson. And specifically, whether Ken should be supported just because he's the Labour party candidate even if you have serious misgivings about him as a candidate.

Unusually, I find myself in a certain measure of agreement with Dan Hodges on this issue... in that I don't think Ken deserves the automatic support of Labour members, let alone the wider left or centre of London politics, just because he's currently the main challenger to Johnson.

We need to get something straight about what Ken isn't, first of all (and I'm speaking as someone who voted for, and donated money to, Ken in his independent mayor bid of 2000 - the last time I was eligible to vote in a London election - and who was also an enthusiastic supporter of his re-election bids in 2004 and 2008). He is not a "hard-left" Labour candidate; if anything he is a maverick centrist, who enthusiastically endorsed most of the New Labour agenda while he was mayor. That's not to say his two terms as mayor were particularly bad; on the contrary, he made many good innovations, including congestion charging, low public transport fares (at least on Oyster cards), the Oyster card itself, and the rather nice red "ON" in the "MAYOR OF LONDON" posters. But this was back in the day when he was mainly focused on policy, rather than making an increasingly bizarre sequence of unforced errors, for example:
  • making ludicrous, borderline anti-semitic allegations about London's Jewish voters (as Jonathan Freedland has pointed out in an excellent article in the Guardian).
  • emulating George Galloway by hanging out with a selection of reactionary and homophobic religious leaders (as pointed out by Nick Cohen, for example).
  • making unwise remarks about denying the vote to tax avoiders - unwise because on some definitions Ken is a tax avoider himself (I will be devoting a specific post to this as it is important to clear up confusion about what "tax avoidance" consists in, but suffice to say for now that the right-wing arguments that Ken is a tax avoider DO have some validity, and the issue is a time bomb which has exploded in his face at just the wrong time).

The sad thing is that Ken's policy platform is basically sound - on transport policy, reinstating EMA, and many other areas. But he's become an electoral liability to the Labour campaign. I've been arguing for several months now that Ken was going to win this election - albeit narrowly - because he only lost by 6 percentage points in 2008, and Labour was at least 10 points down in the national polls then. Logically, with Labour now 5 to 10 points ahead
in the national polls, Ken should be in front of Johnson by at least 10. But instead he's around 5 points behind. I think if Labour had chosen Oona King to be selected as mayoral candidate in 2010 rather than Ken, she'd be kicking Boris Johnson's ass (and god knows, that bastard needs to have his ass kicked).

Some people - notably the brilliant left-wing Labour commentator Owen Jones - have argued that there is a right-wing media conspiracy against Ken. And yes there is, but the Tory press EXISTS to put the boot in to Labour candidates by means fair or foul. Labour's failure to reform the media to make it more balanced despite several opportunities to do so from 1945 onwards ensures that - at least until the next Labour Govt - Labour candidates are going to have to struggle against a tidal wave of lies, bullshit and smear operations. So, given that we know that, isn't it a hostage to fortune to put Ken Livingstone -a very articulate politician, but also a guy who is often the rhetorical equivalent of a cluster bomb - in the hot seat? Why not go for someone less gaffe-prone?

There's then the final line of defence, which is to say that Ken should be backed just *because* he's the Labour candidate. One of the reasons I'm not in the Labour party is this kind of dinosaur machine politics, which has in recent years been mainly been the preserve of the Blairite right, but which elements of the Labour left are now showing they can do just as well. My view on this is quite simple: supporting Labour candidates who aren't worthy of the role is a bad idea. It degrades, and in the end is likely to destroy, the Labour party. Tony Blair wasn't worthy of being PM by 2005 and no way would I have advised people in Sedgefield to vote for him then. I'd have backed Reg Keys. Likewise, I don't believe Ken Livingstone is worthy of being mayor in 2012. I don't have a vote so this matters not a jot to the election itself, but if I did, I would be voting Jenny Jones of the Green Party as 1st choice on the ballot.

And who knows? If Ken continues to disappoint in the next couple of weeks it's quite possible that Jones, the Lib Dem Brian Paddick or the indepedendent candidate Siobhan Benita could start to move up in the polls. And then things might start to get really interesting.


Anonymous said...

It's 2012.

... and apart from the odd newspaper or 2, the British media is distinctly left-biased already.

twitter.com/arrgeekay said...

Same old argument for re-instating EMA, from someone who probably hasn't seen the inside of a classroom in a while. Why should kids be paid to go to college? My mother is a teacher, and believe me, both she and her colleagues in her college were all against EMA. Too often, she had disillusioned pupils in her class, only there because they can pick up their EMA. On top of that there were many, documented, instances of teachers (including her) being bullied into marking a pupil as present, when in fact they weren't, only so they would qualify for EMA. And according to her, this was widespread. Also, the re-instatement of EMA is not within the Mayor's gift - see here http://tinyurl.com/c98jg6k. Also, his transport policies are dependent on a so-called "surplus fund" which all the other candidates and TFL are adamant doesn't exist. Dinosaur machine politics? It is rife in this country, with the left refusing to see anything other than good in the Labour party and it's candidates, such as Ken. What about the 13 years in which Labour had to shape education policy? Look at the falling standards in our schools across the board. And don't even get me started on Ken's avowed ambition of making London a beacon for Islam. I'm sure the female and LGBT population of London would be delighted with that. I'm glad you don't have the opportunity to vote this time round, the very last thing London needs is Ken. A dinosaur indeed.

Hal Berstram said...

Some great comments here - for example:

Claiming the media is "left biased" - ho ho.

Why should kids be paid to go to college - er... because it increases staying on rates?

"the left refusing to see anything other than good in the Labour party and it's [sic] candidates" - well I think this blog kind of disproves that.

2010 mistake corrected, though - thanks.

Van Patten said...

Well in response to the previous comments, it would indeed be ludicrous to characterise the Print media as 'left of centre' - the BBC, though remains a doyen of the Hard Left.

I think the point about EMA is that it is a central government policy which the Mayor cannot do anything about, hence why Ken has being condemned for making that promise.

However, in terms of the overall post I have to agree, although I'd take issue with whether Ken's platform is 'basically sound' as the Fares promise is unfunded and I think we'd have the same unsavoury bunch of cronies (people like Lee Jasper & Darren Johnson) that marred his previous 8 years in office.

Regarding Owen Jones, - I described him as one of the most dangerous men in Britain, if not the World, and as one of my Twitter colleagues @FatCouncillor pointed out:

'Anyone who thinks Owen Jones is the answer to any problems can come over to my office and I'll set them straight by any means necessary' following a particularly woeful appearance on BBC Question Time.

And,in terms of a 'right-wing' conspiracy, what about the disgraceful Hard Left 'hatchet job' part funded by the taxpayer through the Compass Think tank which attacked Boris prior to the 2008 election?, of which I believe you were part - that people saw through in sufficient numbers in 2008 to deliver a fantastic result for London & The country - nothing from Owen or the various other fifth colmnists such as Sunny Hundal, Eoin Jones or Dave Hill then or now!