Why I might vote for Ken Livingstone (for the first time)

London is having its mayoral elections on 3rd May this year (most people know about the elections; the date hasn’t been so widely mentioned on the news) and the two main candidates are Ken Livingstone and the Tory incumbent, Boris Johnson; the Lib Dems have Brian Paddick and the Green party has Jenny Jones. Realistically, it’s a two-horse race between Johnson and Livingstone, as the last one was (much as I wanted Paddick to win and both of the other two to lose). This might be the first time I actually vote for Ken Livingstone as a first choice, which I didn’t either time he did win (2000 and 2004) and by 2008 I regarded him as an arrogant politician who thought himself entitled to the job and who failed to understand why he was becoming less popular.

I’ve been reading the ongoing commentary about his comments about Jews on the blog Harry’s Place (see this article by Jonathan Freedland for the details), and those might well influence a lot of people not to vote for him. He might curry favour with some Muslims by making such observations (to the effect that Jews are unlikely to vote for him anyway as they tend to be wealthy — while they tend to be middle-class, at least in London, the number of them who are actually wealthy is fairly small, as with any community), he is likely to put off a large number of other voters who will not vote for anyone they see as a bigot, especially an anti-Semite, even if they do not have strong pro-Israeli views (and many ordinary white voters do not). In this instance, this behaviour has to be balanced against Boris Johnson’s much longer-established history of bigotry: referring to African people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, more recently describing the St Patrick’s day dinner in London as “£20,000 on a dinner at the Dorchester for Sinn Fein”, not to mention publishing a series of anti-Muslim rants in the Spectator while he was editor, after the London bombings and riots in Europe triggered by the death of Muslim youths at the hands of French police; I covered that on this blog at the time.

However, his stint as mayor has not been the total disaster, for Muslims or anyone else, that I had expected, and some of the criticisms (such as the regular fare increases) are things that had already started happening under Livingstone. The single adult bus fare had been kept at 70p for years, so it was not surprising when it started to rise, especially as new buses (which provide better accessibility, especially for passengers in wheelchairs) had been brought in across the board, replacing the entire previous fleet (although many of those have simply been displaced into provincial bus services, many of them run by the same companies that run buses in London). There are signs that Johnson is not as amenable to mainstream Muslim culture as Livingstone was, such as the way “Eid in the Square” has turned from a religiously-focussed event to an entertainment event and the recent “Inspire” event at City Hall, but Muslims can’t expect politicians to patronise and subsidise Muslim religious life.

What put me off Livingstone was one simple thing: the western extension to the Congestion Charge. Besides making my life as a delivery driver quite a bit less enjoyable and more difficult (at the time, my job involved transporting goods from Park Royal to a hospital next to Paddington station, and it made any detour through Notting Hill impossible, regardless of the traffic on the Westway), it appeared to me as an attempt to buy votes by penalising supposedly richer people in west London that he calculated would not vote for him anyway (in fact, it became cheaper for some of these people to commute into the old zone, because they paid a reduced resident’s rate to access the whole of central London). The extended zone also included a large residential area north of Bayswater Road where there is a lot of council housing and not everyone is rich, and is not central London by any stretch of the imagination. I was never keen on the Congestion Charge to begin with (I favoured drastically reducing central London parking, making it available only to residents, traders, the disabled, short-term shoppers and a few premium executive spaces), but the western extension was a deal-breaker. He has now abandoned that policy. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is proposing making the Tube network driverless, thus “saving” money on drivers (by sacking them) and supports the proposal to “redevelop” Earl’s Court by demolishing a council estate whose residents want to stay put and will almost certainly be dispersed into much less suitable accommodation if the plan goes ahead.

Picture of George Galloway in a red cat-suit with a substantial scoop neck, on Celebrity Big BrotherI have a great deal more confidence in Livingstone than in George Galloway, who is currently standing in a by-election in Bradford against a Muslim Labour candidate who is a former councillor. I have seen Imran Hussain, or “Imran for Bradford” as his Twitter page calls him, described as an “insipid councillor” but he has run campaigns against the English Defence League and has been leader of the city council for the least two years. If he is inadequate, I wonder why the community cannot find someone better to stand against a Labour establishment candidate in a largely Muslim constituency than Galloway, whose record in Parliament last time he was a member was abysmal and who became best known for making a fool of himself on Celebrity Big Brother. As Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, he voted on just 7.6% of the occasions where there was a vote (as independent MP for Glasgow Kelvin from 2003 to 2005, his voting record was even lower — just 3.5%). The chances of his putting in a decent show as MP for Bradford West should be judged on the basis of that — he will just use his Parliamentary seat as a base for his career as a public speaker and radio presenter, and rarely represent his constituency where it matters.

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