Why Ken Livingstone lost

As I am sure most of you know by now, London now has a new mayor, Boris Johnson. Johnson won on second preference votes, a circumstance one would have expected would have favoured Livingstone as he would have received many second preferences from people voting for left-wing and Green candidates, but no. (In fact, the results table shows that the other broadly left-wing candidates received huge numbers of second-preference votes, mostly from people who voted for Livingstone, or even Johnson. However, they were not counted as only people who are not eliminated in the first count benefit from second preference votes - and even then, where people vote for the top two in both their preferences, their second preference does not count.) I am somewhat worried by the prospect of Johnson being mayor, not only because of his Islamophobic record, which I do not need to reprise here, but because he is clearly a career politician; Livingstone never set his sights wider than London.

So, why did Johnson win? The most obvious answer is that Livingstone lost. As I have written elsewhere, one should beware of taking the opinions expressed on phone-in radio shows as representative of what people generally think, because their audience is limited, particularly in the daytime, by the fact that workers in many professions cannot listen to them as they work. As a result, there tend to be a high proportion of unemployed people, retired people, housewives and drivers, which is why I am able to listen to them. However, there was profound dissatisfaction with Livingstone’s eco-tax schemes (admittedly, Johnson supported at least one of them) and the suspicion that they were just about raising money. There was also a general climate of suspicion about claims that crime was going down, and the well-known spate of murders of teenage boys, often by teenage boys, contributed to this. There is a general sense that society is going to the dogs and that politicians are not doing anything about it.

The second obvious factor is the attitude of the Evening Standard, or “Evening Boris” as it had been dubbed, because of its fairly open campaign to get rid of Livingstone by running a series of prominent negative stories about his administration. However, even these were often based on heavy-hitting headlines which proved to have little substance behind them. These included one that a pro-Ken campaign was linked to a Muslim terrorist group, which actually was no reflection on Livingstone at all, because it was independent of him. The fact is that Muslims were generally being encouraged to vote for Livingstone because he was favourable to Muslims, while Johnson had proved himself to be quite the opposite while editor of the Spectator. Against this, we might consider that people voted for Livingstone in 2000 when the 1980s was obviously much fresher in people’s minds than it is now, and when Livingstone was leader of the GLC in the 1980s, the Standard was bitterly opposed to him then as well. In 2000, he ran as an independent against three party candidates. Not everyone reads the Standard; not everyone likes the Standard. We should remember that the Tories have run two election campaigns based on appeals to readers of papers like the Standard and Mail, and lost handily. A newspaper with a 2-million circulation, like the Mail, might well be a profitable business, but it does not necessarily make it a recipe for winning an election. A lot of people actually hate reading these newspapers, and listening to phone-in radio.

Third, Ken Livingstone had become arrogant, and had arguably taken his congestion charge idea, which was initially successful when applied to central London, too far with his western extension, which took in huge residential areas of “zone 2” in North Kensington and beyond, extending almost as far as Harlesden. Livingstone had not promised to actually extend the zone in his 2004 manifesto, but only to “consult on” doing so; when his consultation produced a raft of objections from both residents and business, he simply ignored them and did it anyway. In 2003, Livingstone wrote in The Londoner, a GLA-sponsored publication, that “it [was] now quite clear that £5 was enough”, but within months of being elected, raised the charge to £8. This might not have been quite so unpopular if there were any gradations in the charge beyond a simple residents’ discount (which, when applied to the wealthy car-owners of southern Kensington and Chelsea, enabled them to commute by car to the City for much less than they had been able to, while raising the charge for people coming from places like Brixton), but there was not, the upshot being that anyone making the shortest of journeys into the zone, even to make one delivery or to visit someone in the council estates near Vauxhall or Holland Park, had to pay the flat £8 charge. This is unfair by anyone’s standards, but Livingstone was deaf to the criticisms.

Fourth, the public transport he was supposed to be spending congestion charge revenues on was not satisfactory either. Many people were dissatisfied with the atmosphere on buses around school time, since Livingstone had allowed children free fravel, all day (however, even when we did have to pay, as when I was at school, buses were noisy at letting-out time; one member of the school staff that I travelled home with called the experience of sitting on some of the buses to sitting “in the middle of a drunken brawl”). It is true that some areas might have seen a thickening of public transport provision, but there has not been much over the past four years in my area, besides the extension of one of the bus routes through New Malden to Tooting rather than just Wimbledon (replacing another route, which had been diverted).

Fifth, he was associated with the Labour party, whose fortunes have been waning in the past year or so. Of course, Labour could survive the highly unpopular Iraq war, but when people’s pockets start to be hit by rising food and fuel prices, they start to voice their discontent at the polls. As noted in yesterday’s Observer, the outer suburbs, which had been won over to New Labour and to Livingstone earlier, were reverting to type. Another Tory MP, who was interviewed on BBC London radio on Friday night, noted that many people in the outer boroughs do not feel a connection to London (the postal addresses speak for themselves; people sending mail to most of the outer parts of London are expected to state the county as Kent, Essex or Surrey, or the long-disappeared Middlesex, rather than London); they often vote as do actual dwellers of those counties do (which usually means Tory). It is noted that many outer-suburban residents are uncomfortable with the changes in their neighbourhoods; many of them, noted Ben Page of the polling company Ipsos-Mori, are “people who don’t really want to live in London so they live in Bromley”, being joined by people who want to live in London but cannot afford to (however, Bromley itself has always been an affluent area; the less well-off may have settled in Penge, the bit around Crystal Palace, or perhaps Elmers End and Beckenham).

Sixth, there was the personality factor. Livingstone is a known personality around London, while his last Tory opponent, Steven Norris, was not - he was a dull career politician with connections to a much disliked rail contractor, Jarvis. Boris Johnson is a well-known TV personality and generally seen as a likeable chap. He pulled a lot of the right strings, and his upper-class education lent a certain, well, class to his humour. He also has “green credentials”; OK, he rides a bike and supports the low emission zone (for now).

Speaking as someone who lives in one of those outer boroughs (Kingston), I am surprised and a bit disappointed that Brian Paddick did not get a better showing around here; we have at least two Liberal Democrat MPs in this area who have survived a few general elections. so they must be popular. I personally complained to my MP, Edward Davey, about problems with youths congregating in a nearby subway, and the use of that subway by lazy motorcyclists, which is illegal and dangerous, and he took up the case; the youths seem to have moved on, although the CCTV (or the replacement of the subway with a footbridge) that I asked for did not materialise. Liberal Democrats are popular with middle-class voters who are dissatisfied with both Labour and the Tories, and one would have thought Brian Paddick would have benefited from his party’s success in Kingston and Richmond, but he came third place as everywhere else. (The constituency takes in Hounslow as well.)

Livingstone may also have suffered from voter apathy; it was noted that turnout in parts of London expected to support Livingstone was lower than in areas that voted for Johnson, and this included ethnic, and particularly Muslim, hot spots. (There was no electoral college; the votes were counted on a cross-London basis.) Turnout overall was just 45.33%, so the “Stop Boris” campaigns obviously did not motivate that many people. Some of them, of course, may well have worked against Livingstone - the Muslim campaigns in particular, which might not have even got the Muslim vote out in Livingstone’s support.

So, I am personally glad that Livingstone’s time in office is over. I would have hoped that Labour could have found a replacement for him rather than let him face the electorate again with an image as tainted as his had become. They actually need to do this on every level, since the charm of New Labour has really worn thin. That, however, is the problem with politics based around dominant personalities; once they are gone, there is nobody left to replace them. During Tony Blair’s premiership, all the genuinely progressive figures in his team were eventually sidelined, leaving the heavies and the functionaries, and with the heavies (like Charles Clarke) gone, only the functionaries are left. This is exactly the picture of the Tories in 1997; if Labour are to win another election, they need to respond to public discontent and get some new ideas, fast.

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