Why I believe Ken Livingstone lost

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 26JAN08 - Ken Livingstone, ...Last night, we discovered that Boris Johnson, the Tory mayor of London elected in 2008, had been re-elected: he gained 44% of first-preference votes against Livingstone’s 40.3%; when second-preference votes were counted, his vote rose to 51.5%. Livingstone has since announced that he will retire rather than fight another election in 2016. According to this BBC report he blamed a slanted media and an unpleasant campaign and called Johnson a “do-nothing mayor” whose achievements over the past four years consisted of opening things he had started, and that it would be the mayor two terms on from the current one who would have a really difficult job. None of the other mayoral candidates retained their deposits (5% of the vote is necessary), and Brian Paddick, the Lib Dem candidate, dropped to fourth place behind Green Party candidate Jenny Jones. The result bucks a nationwide trend of Labour gaining council seats from the Tories; even two Tory London Assembly members, including the well-respected deputy mayor Richard Barnes and the infamous Barnet/Camden representative Brian Coleman. The turnout was a shockingly low 38.1%, down 6% from 2008.

I have my own theories about why Ken Livingstone lost again. I do not entirely believe that it was that he lost a popularity contest with Johnson, or a propaganda battle with the Evening Standard (which is no longer owned by the same company as the Daily Mail, but rather by the owner of the Independent), though I do think their attitude towards Livingstone falls into the issue of the responsibility of the press for impartiality which I wrote of in my previous post. In some sections of the community, he was a highly unpopular politician, particularly the Jewish community which regarded him as at best heavily biased against Israel and towards Muslims and at worst as an outright anti-Semite. I am not sure how much the general population are influenced by accusations of anti-Semitism, but it certainly would have lost him votes in their districts and among some people who are sensitive to that sort of thing, and earned him negative media coverage, even in the Guardian. There were some “anti-Ken” websites which focussed almost entirely on his connections to “undesirable Muslims” both in London and abroad, rather than on his policies or actual mayoral record. Livingstone also made an awful lot of ambitious promises, including a drastic reduction in public transport fares by October (he said he would resign if he could not fulfil this), as well as bringing back the Education Maintenance Allowance, something many people thought he could not do.

I also distrusted Livingstone because I regarded him as a “divine-right poltician”, someone who thought he was owed the job somehow, and his followers unfortunately reinforced this attitude. Even when the idea of the mayoralty was being discussed before 2000, there were those who envisaged the office as one for Ken to move straight into. He was someone who didn’t listen, holding a consultation into the western extension to the Congestion Charge zone and introducing it anyway when its unpopularity became obvious. As I wrote a few weeks ago, if he had been planning to bring that back, I would have voted against him. His Low Emission Zone clearly displayed some spiteful touches, including industrial estates on the outskirts of London where there was no environmental reason (like those in Chessington in the south-west and Cowley/Uxbridge in the west), which bars unapproved (mostly old) trucks coming in from outside London to deliver goods, but Johnson has not removed that and applied it to vans after having delayed it for a couple of years.

This time, for me it was largely about getting rid of Johnson because he was part of the same clique as Cameron, and because although it didn’t appear that his mayoralty had been the disaster I had been expecting (and his office was praised by the Spartacus Report team for giving a comprehensive response), others were saying he had let down people with disabilities by cancelling accessibility upgrades on the Tube that were not Olympic priorities and that during his period in office, only a tiny number of affordable homes had been built in London despite his loud protestations about “Kosovo-style social cleansing”, and that he had not returned from his holidays last summer when the whole city was hit by riots and looting. His much-vaunted “cycle superhighways” are just long streaks of blue paint, just a more prominent version of London’s already useless on-road cycle lanes, and the so-called Boris Bikes were in fact Livingstone’s idea; he also showed himself to be every bit as out-of-touch with the ordinary Londoner as Cameron, once describing £250,000 as “chicken feed”, and his past record of racist comments and anti-Muslim journalism easily give Livingstone’s supposed anti-Semitism a run for its money.

I would happily have voted for any other anti-establishment Labour figure, as would many others; Labour made a huge mistake by putting up someone who had already served two terms and lost as their candidate. Some people on the radio yesterday expressed the view that London is a “Labour city”, but Labour cannot take this for granted: although certainly cosmopolitan, London is an expensive, gentrifying city, and many places that would have been solid Labour a generation ago are now occupied by people who might be minded to vote Lib Dem or Tory — and let’s not forget, even in the days of the GLC, there were Tory GLCs. The north of Croydon, for example, did not return a Labour MP until the early 1990s despite its ethnic diversity. Boris Johnson is, at the end of the day, a likeable character for many people, and his mediocre record and close connection to David Cameron were not enough for Livingstone to overcome his unpopularity. He was the wrong man for this contest.

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