By Ben Folley
Thursday night’s London Labour Party mayoral hustings presented the first official opportunity for the candidates – Ken Livingstone and Oona King – to present to party members their vision for London in 2012. Questions were asked on transport fares, council housing, the Olympic legacy, and action for those with disabilities and there was significant discussion on what course of action a new mayor might take, but what struck me was the message about taking on the Tory government and rallying Labour for the next general election.
Ken Livingstone stressed that the economic agenda of the Cameron government, ideologically driven to cut the size of the state and public spending, will hurt ordinary Londoners. For Ken, a Labour mayor could provide the leadership to build public opposition to the cuts agenda out of all proportion even with the position’s formal powers. Oona was keen to focus on the constraints of the post and what “the mayor can actually do”. In response to that, Ken was keen to demonstrate that using the mayor’s powers to redistribute wealth, through the Freedom Pass and social housing targets he introduced when in power, went hand-in-hand with taking the fight to the Tory government and providing the catalyst the party needs to win the next general election.
On another agenda, the difference between the Livingstone and King was most clearly exposed on an issue of great importance to Londoners – the coalition commitment to revisiting Royal Mail privatisation. Whilst Oona refused to say she would campaign against it, repeating that the industry ‘needs to change’, Ken blasted the anti-union agenda of Royal Mail management and stated his belief that privatisation will lead to a more expensive, less comprehensive service to the public. In one anecdote he said he had offered to exempt Royal Mail vans from the congestion charge if the management had paid the charge for their staff driving into work, which they had refused to do. For him, privatisation of other monopolies in the 1980s has led to a worsened service and Labour should champion the advantages of public ownership.
Labour cannot win the mayoral race if it has a candidate who caves into the agenda of the government. We will be politically disarmed if our leading London Labour figure is someone who through their arguments assists Tory-LibDem arguments or refuses to side with those opposing privatisation. We need unity in the London labour movement and that includes unity with the trade union members who will be on the sharp end of the government’s agenda.
Oona King’s answer on post office privatisation shows she cannot deliver that. If we want to win in 2012, Ken is the candidate who genuinely lead the opposition. In fact, Guardian blogger Dave Hill has already identified that Ken Livingstone is now positioning himself as the leader of London’s opposition to the government’s agenda.
A clear difference of vision between Labour and the Tories – one to win back Labour’s vote in London – is needed. Oona fails to attribute Labour’s low level of support nationally for contributing to Ken’s defeat in 2008 and says only she can reach beyond the core Labour vote to defeat Boris. Oona King’s record actually shows she cannot deliver Labour’s core vote, losing a safe inner-London seat on a general election polling day where Labour won overall.
In fact it is only Ken who can demonstrably show he can reach beyond the Labour vote – exceeding its list vote in all wards in 2008, achieving an increase in both the numerical vote and the share of the vote, and delivering large swings to Labour in City and East London and the winning back of an Assembly seat in Brent and Harrow. It is a credit to the positive nature of his campaign that he did not seek to compare that record with his rival’s on Thursday night.
No one thinks Labour’s vote will stand still at 2008′s historically low levels, so there are limits to how much we can refer to it in determining the 2012 vote. Already this year we have taken back councils as Londoners feared an incoming Tory government. They are now seeing the cuts agenda being brought in with housing benefit cut and many boroughs losing the new schools Labour had planned. A campaign that challenges the Tories’ economic agenda is one that can rebuild Labour’s vote in London, and Ken is up for the fight.