Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

What if loyalty hadn’t drained Ken of his maverick energy?

Michael Calderbank examines the reasons behind Ken Livingstone's defeat in the London mayoral elections

May 8, 2012
5 min read


Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


  share     tweet  

With Labour’s strong showing at the polls depriving the Blairites of the opportunity to machinate about taking back the leadership, the defeat of Ken Livingstone was seized upon with predictable alacrity as an occasion to snipe at the left. Not that all, ‘Labour’ activists waited until the votes had been counted to start the attack, of course. Lord Alan Sugar thanked the party which gave him his title and unelected position in the legislature by announcing he would refuse to support its candidate for the mayoralty.  Prominent blogger Alex Hilton openly voted for independent candidate Siobhan Benita, whilst Dan Hodges went one better by joining his Torygraph paymasters in advocating a vote for Boris.

In this context it was no surprise to see right-wing hack (and self-styled scurge of the left) Luke Akehurst so quick off the mark in dancing on Ken Livingstone’s political grave. Livingstone’s enduring popularity with Labour supporters in London had long frustrated the likes of Akehurst, for whom Ken represented a stubbornly persistent strain of the Bennism otherwise purged or easily marginalised from New Labour: ‘This flying circus of 1980s vintage ultra-leftism was only kept in the air because its ringmaster, Ken, had a machine and a populist charisma and an administrative ability that no one else on the Hard Left had.’

Ironically, of course, Ken’s original election as Mayor was won in the teeth of a concerted attempt to subvert the selection process and bar Labour members from picking Ken as their preferred candidate. As an independent, Ken’s campaign had the force of a political insurgency, leaving the official party candidate and right wing parties in his wake. If returning to the Labour fold provided the financial and political security that comes with a permanent machine, it did not come without strings attached. In office, Ken’s populist left rhetoric did not sit comfortably with his active role as defender of the City’s role as a hub of global capitalism, or the conduct of the Met police in the Jean Charles de Menezes case. True, he out-polled Labour’s GLA vote share in his 2008 Mayoral bid, but the association with the Brown government can’t have helped.

No single factor can account for the defeat this time. Boris was a uniquely difficult opponent, having the ability both to mobilise the Tory core vote whilst also acting as an affable clown who appealed to a section of the electorate otherwise bored by humdrum politicians. Johnson was also supported by a highly effective negative campaigning machine martialled by Australian fixer Lynton Crosby, making Ken’s opaque tax affairs a key campaign issue and deflecting proper scrutiny of Boris’s own record and policy platform. In this the Tories were assisted by their influential friends in the media. The grip of the Evening Standard over London politics (particularly since its transition to a free-sheet thrust into the hand of hundreds of thousands every day) has been especially pernicious. The print media is very rarely a friend to Labour candidates, still less so when they stand on the left. But the free distribution of such an obviously partisan perspective becomes perilously close to a ‘donation in kind’ to the Conservatives. There is a strong argument that free-sheets should be bound by the same kind of political neutrality criteria that applies to the broadcast media.

But whatever the strength of his opponent, Ken’s narrow defeat was not inevitable. Even Akehurst has to admit the meticulously professional way in which Patrick Henegan and Simon Fletcher ran the campaign, and in putting lower fares and the need to tackle London’s housing crisis at the centre of the manifesto, Ken’s team locked onto genuine concerns for ordinary Londoners. But Labour failed to drive up turnout sufficiently in its inner-London heartlands. Labour’s ‘offer’ was solid but Ken’s candidacy did little to electrify the contest, in stark contrast with the way George Galloway was able to do in Bradford West.

Far from having a slicker, more ‘on-message’ and centrist politician fighting the contest (which is what many of Ken’s critics appear to prefer), in reality the downturn in Ken’s fortunes has accompanied the loss of his insurgent edge. Far from Ken being too tainted with a 1980s leftism, his electoral fortunes would surely have been boosted by a return to the oppositional tubthumping of his GLC days. If he stood in a looser relation to the party machine, he could have galvanised national opposition to cuts and austerity (including the slightly milder dose prescribed by Miliband and Balls), and defended direct action and other forms of resistance. He could have spoken out against the ongoing war in Afghanistan and of police harassment of black, Asian and white working class youth. By giving free reign to his maverick radicalism, Livingstone might have electrified popular opinion in London and beyond, and looked less like a tired shadow of his former self. Sadly, this isn’t what most of his critics have in mind.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


Labour’s NEC has started to empower party members – but we still have a mountain to climb
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair


1