The irresistible fall of Ken Livingstone

History repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” (Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon)

We had a rough idea of the outcome of the 3 May 2012 London Mayor election as soon as we knew we were running the same candidate as we ran in the May 2008 one.

The message then from the electorate was clear. This time we asked them the same question. We should not be surprised that they gave the exact same answer.

The tragedy for the London Labour Party is that we ran again with a candidate in the downward phase of their relationship with the London electorate, with deep and public flaws, at the same time as the nationwide relationship between Labour and the electorate is in its upward phase, demonstrated by fantastic results in the rest of the
country and for the GLA.

I have been working hard as a volunteer borough organiser in Hackney for nearly a year and a half. For most of that time I have known we were flogging a dead horse.

The professional leadership of the London campaign – Campaign Director Patrick Henegan and Ken’s Chief of Staff Simon Fletcher – deserve massive praise for getting as close a result as they did. In technical terms it was a superb campaign. Huge credit also goes to the lay membership in London, who made herculean efforts despite knowing that
the fundamental flaw in the campaign was the candidate. The one mistake I could identify is that pleas to run hard on crime in thefinal week to appeal to the suburbs were ignored.

The immediate problems with Ken are well chronicled and any one of them was big enough to account for the narrow margin he lost by:

  • The ambiguity over his tax arrangements, a self-inflicted wound that made him look dodgy and vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.
  • His antagonistic stance towards the Jewish community. This must rank as one of the most bizarre electoral tactics any candidate in the democratic world has ever employed – deliberately shunning a group of 120,000 voters with a high propensity to turnout and a known record as a swing vote. The clumsy and insulting language Ken used at his meeting with Jewish Labour activists (set up by them to try to help his campaign!) came on top of a history of offending the community with his jibes at Jewish journalist Oliver Finegold and his embrace of extreme Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Ken appears obsessed by the Jewish community, and not in a positive way – entire sections of his autobiography are devoted to critiques of Zionism. For most voters this just made Ken look like a crank. For the Jewish community it caused real fear – I have had Jewish friends beg me not to vote for Ken because they fear his use of language that they perceive to include anti-semitic tropes will make their community more vulnerable to anti-semitic attacks. If you don’t believe this had an electoral impact look at Camden & Barnet, the GLA division where there is the largest Jewish electorate – Labour GLA candidate Andrew Dismore got about 20,000 more votes than Ken. This whole episode has caused permanent damage to Labour’s relationship with the Jewish community which could damage our chances of winning back a number of North London parliamentary marginals. They cannot believe we tolerated his behaviour. It left me, for the first time in my life, feeling morally compromised by my party’s choice of candidate.
  • Ken’s backing for independent candidate for Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, was inexcusable and alienated two key groups in Tower Hamlets – the wing of the local Bengali community opposed to Lutfur and the loyalist Labour activists running the local party. Any other person who had appeared to campaign against Labour like that would have been auto-excluded from the Party. Ken got away with it on a technicality. But he paid a price for it electorally and organisationally on Thursday.

But these were just the latest episodes in the story of someone who has been playing a destructive role in the London Labour Party for four decades.

The wider phenomenon of Tony Benn and the Bennites was seen off by Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, with its Trotskyist entryist wing, Militant, expelled.

The London variant of Bennism, Ken and Livingstonism, was never comprehensively tackled. Its Trotskyist entryist wing, Socialist Action (formerly Tariq Ali’s International Marxist Group) wasn’t just not expelled, it ended up holding most of the key jobs in City Hall from 2000 to 2008. The sinister praising of totalitarian and authoritarian Latin American regimes and Middle Eastern religious wingnuts comes from the politics of this group.

A specific feature of the London Hard Left has been politically corrupt communalist deals – attempts to trade influence for votes with the self-appointed leaders of blocks of ethnic minority voters. This is what ultimately was behind the Tower Hamlets scenario that was part of Ken’s downfall.

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. This carried him through the 2000 and 2004 elections and enabled him to thrive outside Labour for a few years when he was expelled.

But his uniqueness meant the left had no one else to run in 2010, and fearing a moderate Labour Mayor of London and loss of their City Hall powerbase, they arm-twisted Ken into running again even though he probably knew the electorate had delivered a decisive verdict in 2008.

Unlike many I don’t think the timing of the selection or the nature of the Electoral College was the reason we ended up with the wrong candidate. I think it was political fear. The fear of losing to him that made Tony Blair bully the NEC into readmitting Ken in time to run as a Labour candidate in 2004 when he had further time to serve outside the Party for having run as an independent. The fear of losing to Ken (who was undoubtedly popular, or rather had massive name recognition, with the London membership) or being character-assassinated by his machine like Frank Dobson was that stopped heavyweight moderates running against him in 2010. The fear that even if they beat him he would run as an independent again.

The London Labour Party has allowed Ken to bully, charm and organise his way to dominance over our city’s centre-left politics for four decades.

Our corridors are littered with the political bodies of his victims, many of them better men than him, from Andrew MacIntosh to Frank Dobson to Trevor Phillips.

Enough now. This story has gone on decades too long. Let’s allow Ken to retire from the political frontline as his dignified concession speech said. Let’s remember his practical achievements as Mayor in transport, crime, and the Olympics. They were fine ones and ironically not the least connected to his leftwing branding. But let London Labour at long last move on from the influence of an outdated 1980s model of factional leftism and start a new chapter with new leadership.

Livingstone and Livingstone’s supporters have run their course. Sadly they already lost the race in 2008 and this extra, unnecessary lap has merely gifted the mayorality to Boris in a year when any other Labour candidate with less baggage would enabled us to join the rest of the country in celebrating a Labour victory. We need a new model of London Labour politics that is about uniting, not dividing the Party and the city.

More from LabourList