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.