Last night, I sat in City Hall as Ken Livingstone’s political career ended; bizarrely, my parents were there as it was beginning. Back in the early 1970s, they were all members of Norwood Labour party’s insurgent left, battling the party’s right together following the perceived disappointments and betrayals of Harold Wilson’s Government. And so began a two-pronged struggle that would mark the rest of Ken’s career: against the Tories on the one hand, and the right-wing flank of his own party.
Ken’s concession speech moved me last night, not simply because it was a teary admission that his four decade-long political life had come to an end. Despite his flaws – of which there are many – Ken saw himself as part of a wider struggle. There are all too few politicians on Labour’s frontbench today who feel the same.
Ken always battled a broad coalition of enemies, and relished doing so. After taking on the Lambeth Labour Right, he won a seat on the Greater London Council and took on the cuts policy of right-wing Labour leader, Sir Reg Goodwin: he was dismissed as Vice-Chair of Housing Management as a result. After a number of left-wingers were selected as GLC candidates, Ken successfully challenged the then-leader Andrew McIntosh in 1981 and, for the first time, became London’s figurehead. So began a protracted showdown with Margaret Thatcher – who he antagonised by publicising Britain’s surging unemployment figures on a billboard on City Hall’s roof – particularly over his ‘Fares Fair’ policy to promote public transport. For his support for gay rights, anti-racism causes and peace in Ireland, Ken was routinely lambasted by the Tories, the right-wing press, and members of his own party.
There was no charismatic Tory figure to defeat Ken in the 1980s, and Thatcher simply did away with the GLC altogether, plunging him into the political wilderness. Only when Labour stormed to victory in 1997 were his political hopes resuscitated with the promise of a new London mayoralty. But there was no place for left-wingers in Tony Blair’s New Labour, and the leadership stitched up the process with the help of right-wing trade union leader Sir Ken Jackson, who refused to ballot his own members. After taking on Thatcher, it was now Ken versus the New Labour machine.
I remember coming down from Stockport, aged 15, to campaign for Ken in Brixton in 2000. Back then he was the exciting insurgent candidate, and his election was an early slap in the face to the whole New Labour project. ‘As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted 14 years ago,’ he began his victory speech, cementing a loveable cheeky-chappy image that some will now, perhaps, struggle to remember.
So why did this battle-hardened fighter – who has faced decades of Tories, the media and Labour right-wingers desperately trying to destroy him – face his final defeat last night?
First off, it’s worth adding caveats. Last week, Populus were suggesting that Boris Johnson would win by 12 points. The final 3 point lead was narrower than most polls suggested it would be. There’s been a lot of talk about the ‘Ken drag’, but in the end he only lagged the London Labour GLA vote by less than a percentage point, and was pretty much in line with what Labour won nationally.
Nonetheless, London is not a Conservative city, and yet a Conservative Mayor is now beginning his second four-year term in office. In large part, that is because mayoral races tend to reduce politics to a personality contest, in which issues are sidelined. And that benefited Boris Johnson.
Boris is difficult for even a left-winger to muster much heartfelt fury about unlike, say, David Cameron, who is introducing policies that are having a massive detrimental impact on people’s lives. The mayoralty has limited powers. As Adam Bienkov has noted, there was a lot of continuity between Boris and Ken’s reign: the Tory Mayor simply carried on with most of Ken’s projects. The fare hikes were his greatest injustice, but you can’t get as worked up about them as, say, trebling tuition fees, privatising the NHS or slashing taxes on the rich.
Boris has a bumbling demeanour which I thought was largely manufactured, until I debated his father Stanley Johnson who is strikingly similar. It has led his enemies to underestimate him as a clown, when he is probably one of the few genuine intellectuals in front-line politics, and certainly brighter than Cameron. He is witty and affable: ‘he makes me laugh’ became almost a cliche on the doorstep during the mayoral race. And despite his promotion of right-wing policies to Daily Telegraph readers – over taxes on the rich, the City and Europe – he has cynically, but successfully, distanced himself from a toxic Tory brand.
Ken, on the other hand, made a number of mistakes that – in a personality contest – probably proved fatal. He was right to take a stand about tax avoidance by the wealthy, which costs the Treasury up to £25bn a year, at a time of massive public sector cuts. He was wrong not to instruct his accountant to do everything possible to avoid anything that could be construed as tax avoidance. He was crucified as a result: as a typical hypocritical left-winger who wants the electorate to ‘do as I say, not as I do’. And it also fatally undermined trust in him, making his policy commitments – such as slashing fares – somehow seem less plausible. Even supporters like me were not going to sully our own politics by defending his tax arrangements: watch me squirm here.
The breakdown in his relationship with the Jewish community was as totally avoidable as it was inexplicable. Ken is not an anti-Semite. He has one of the most courageous anti-racism records of any prominent politician. Some hard-line Zionists attempt to shut down any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic – or to smear Israel’s many Jewish critics as self-hating Jews. Like other supporters of Palestinian justice, Ken has been a victim of this in the past. But he has certainly been chronically insensitive about a community that has ever right to be sensitive – given the small matter of two millennia of anti-Semitic persecution, and the fact that the attempted extermination of the Jewish people remains a living memory.
Describing Oliver Finegold, a Jewish reporter at the Evening Standard, as a ‘concentration camp guard’ – because he worked for a newspaper then owned by theDaily Mail, which had supported fascism in the 1930s – was unacceptably insensitive. His failure to apologise and make amends permanently damaged him.
He was recently accused of anti-Semitism because he told a private meeting of Jewish Labour supporters that the Jewish community would divide in political allegiance much like the rest of the country, with wealthier voters opting for the Tories. It was then construed as Ken suggesting that Jewish people wouldn’t vote for him because they were rich – an old anti-Semitic slur. However unfair the spin may have been, he should have just left the whole subject alone and gone out of his way to win over Jewish voters.
A number of Jewish friends told me they simply could not vote for them, and I did not feel it was my place to argue against their decision. One did when confronted with the voting paper, and I’m sure that some of those last-minute changes of heart ensured the result was as close as it was. But it wasn’t just Jewish voters who are offended. Allegations of anti-Semitism – however false – and his tax situation sapped the enthusiasm of even Labour activists pounding the street who wanted to push a real alternative to the Tories.
In truth, it would have been an astounding result if Ken had won – given the fact he has inevitably assembled so many enemies over such a long period; given the sustained media campaign against him; and given the lack of scrutiny of Boris Johnson, which I wrote about here. It was closer than it could have been. It is fanciful to believe that a candidate such as Oona King – who would have been savaged as a lightweight and an unswerving loyalist, against an independent-minded Boris – would have done as well. But Ken’s defeat was unavoidable. And there is a lesson for left-wing politicians. If they’re out to get you, don’t give them ammo.
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