Labour did extremely well in these elections and the Tories and Lib Dems did not. I’ll be writing more about that in detail later. In the end, it will be the far bigger story. But there does need to be a forensic examination of how Labour won London and lost the Mayoralty. This needs to be done quickly but exhaustively. Labour and London Labour need to move on, but we need to move on in a way that gets it right next time.
Pretending that Ken was a good choice is daft. He was clearly a drag on the Labour ticket and no amount of appalling statistics mangling is going to change that. But Ken wasn’t running this campaign alone and those who will run future campaigns need to learn from all the lessons of this campaign.
I grew up with the GLC and saw the difference it made to my inner city upbringing. From funding trips on the Jenny Wren and to a working farm in deepest Suffolk for deprived kids, to providing our run down school with equipment (the most iconic being the little brown rubbers that almost, but not quite, worked as bouncy balls). The GLC, and Ken’s leadership of it made those of us in poor, inner city London feel less abandoned in Thatcher’s Britain.
In 2000, I voted for Ken for Mayor as an independent. This is something I feel decidedly uncomfortable about now. Not because Ken wasn’t a great Mayor. He was. But because it made my ability to ask Labour members uncomfortable with voting for Ken this time around far more difficult. I understood their plight and they recognised the weakness of my position. People like Luke Akehurst were better placed to reach them, and all credit to Luke for trying and campaigning so hard. I was a lot younger in 2000. When I look back now, my remembrances are sound tracked by Dylan’s excellent My Back Pages – I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
However, I wasn’t that naive. In 2000 we were in a very different situation than we are now. We had a Labour Government with an enormous majority. One I felt at the time were being occasionally too timid and who could use a well placed shove from the left on occasion. The Tory candidate was a no-hoper who wasn’t going to win. And finally the electoral system gave me an insurance policy. By voting Ken 1 Frank Dobson 2, I was confident I would be supporting a candidate of the Left over the Tory. All that remains true. But if I had my time over again, I would reverse those votes. I owe Frank Dobson, the Labour staff and most of all the Labour activists of 2000 an apology. I offer it now, unreservedly. It doesn’t change the fact that the choice this time was different – it was always going to be Ken or Boris.
This time around, Labour’s campaign started to go wrong from the moment of Ken’s concession speech in 2008. Ken immediately made it clear he intended to seek the Labour nomination again, as was his right. Ken firmly positioned himself as the Labour voice for London and for two years (until the formal nomination process) he held this position unchallenged. No one else came forward to be a voice for Labour in London in those two years, and I strongly suspect Ken made sure of that. So instead of a plurality of Labour voices and figureheads for London, increasingly we had just one. This meant of course that when it came to the Labour contest to choose a candidate, there was one front runner, and next to no one with the background, positioning and machine to challenge him.
The timing of the contest was ridiculous. There was no need to run it alongside the leadership campaigns. it became sidelined. Run a year later we could have had a real contest. As it was we didn’t.
I was looking for someone to support who wasn’t Ken. Not because I disliked Ken. I didn’t then and – despite his many flaws – I don’t now. As I said above, I’ve been a strong supporter of Ken in the past. But I was concerned that Ken was no longer the strongest candidate Labour could and should offer. When I went to see Ken speak, it seemed more like a history lecture than a forward offer. He seemed more interested in telling us of his past than the future he offered London. I didn’t think that running a candidate who had lost to Boris against Boris was the best plan.
So going into the selection for London’s mayoral candidate I was open-minded. But like many, many other Labour activists I was more wrapped up in the Leadership contest, so it got little of my focus. I wasn’t convinced by Oona King at the beginning of the campaign, but as it became clear she was the only other option, I wanted to give her a chance.
But Oona and her team ran a dreadful campaign. They allowed themselves to boxed into a “continuity Blairite” corner. Allowed is perhaps wrong: they revelled in such a position. They were not simply robust in their defence of an unchanging and unchallenging New Labour position, they were aggressive about it to the point that dialogue quickly descended into argument. Not the way to convince waverers like me. They were also disorganised and cliquey.
In the end, I was faced with a choice between two imperfect candidates. I opted for the one who was polling better, whose campaign had made an effort to reach out to me and who seemed to have an understanding of campaigning politics. I suspect I wasn’t alone in this half-hearted decision.
Sadly, my loyalty to Ken was tested almost immediately after he was selected. Ken’s campaigning for Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets not three weeks after he was chosen was a disgraceful act. It was a slap in the face to every Labour member who had voted for him. It was incredibly disrespectful to Oona King, being in the Constituency she had lost to Respect. I know several people in Tower Hamlets who were incredibly hurt by the actions of a candidate they had only just voted for. Once again, Ken was testing the loyalty of Labour members for seemingly little more reason than because he could.
Ken has always been a factional member of the Labour Party. He has always dedicated at least as much time fighting his own party as fighting the Tories. His decision to run for Labour’s NEC during the mayoral contest was a clear signal of this. I was dismayed by the signal this sent to the wider electorate about Ken’s priorities. While we rightly attacked Boris’ “part time” attitude to the mayoralty, I felt this was diminished somewhat by the idea that Ken wanted his fingers in more than one pie. The constituency positions on the NEC are for ordinary members like the marvellous Johanna Baxter. They shouldn’t be for MPs, Mayors or candidates. I hope that the language and rules around those NEC slots will be tightened up to protect these places as a genuine space for the voice of members, especially as more high profile elected positions open up with the introductions of a few more city mayors and police commissioners. I said during the campaign that I wouldn’t be voting for Ken for the NEC, and despite there no longer being a potential conflict with the mayoral role, I stand by that. I think it diminished the left of the Party to run him, and I think it would therefore diminish me to support him now.
The two biggest mistakes Ken has made during the campaign have been well covered elsewhere. The despair of the Jewish community at Ken’s behaviour was real and was extraordinarily badly handled. As was Ken’s position on taxes and the failure to put this long-running story to bed with either full disclosure or mea-culpa.
So Ken was far from an ideal candidate. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some questions to be asked about the campaign too. While many of the despairing voices I have heard in private have been about Ken, many others have been about aspects of the campaign.
The 2008 campaign was incredibly nasty. We were obviously going to be attacked and attacked hard this time around. Our rebuttal to such attacks was not anything like swift or hard enough. Both the charges of tax hypocrisy and anti-semitism were allowed to linger throughout the whole campaign period. Yes the Evening Standard is a disgrace of a newspaper. But that’s no reason to gift them such open goals. Our rapid rebuttal needs a lot of work.
The Labour Party have a marvellous and potentially revolutionary new system for running volunteer events, contacts and activities. But we are not yet using it well. As I had cause to say in an email to the campaign:
The Labour Party is belatedly but enthusiastically starting to explore the things we can do with Social Marketing and I’m all for that. But, and forgive me if I sound too Blairite (something I’m not often accused of!), we’re in real danger of confusing outputs with outcomes. What matters is what works.
In an outputs focused campaign, this looks like a success. Yesterday I followed a link in one email to sign up to a campaign action, and within 24 hours had a response – certainly an improvement on the Labour Party of old!
But the impact of this message on its key audience does not seem to have been evaluated at all. So a communication that – I presume – was supposed to make me feel more engaged and valued has left me deflated and confused as to the actual action I’m being asked to take. And I’ve been doing this stuff for well over 25 years.
If this is a new manifestation of broadcast politics, where we have simply replaced the demands of the leadership with the demands of the technology, then we’re missing the point of what that technology is for, what it can do for the party at all levels.
Many, many people have heard my complaints about Membersnet, and I’m sure you’ve heard it all. At the heart of every complaint I’ve ever made or ever received is that it seems to have gone through the entire design process without any user input. So what has come out is a site driven by the needs of a small cabal at the top who instinctually hoard information, not a resource tailored for the audience it professes to serve.
The campaign had an amazing success at the beginning of January with the Fare Deal campaign. The mass leaflet drop just as fares were going up and while Boris was out of the country was inspired, and it put us right back in the game. It was a great idea, and fares were an important theme for the campaign.
But it seemed that after that, the campaign became a victim of its own success. The campaign needed an equal focus on at least two other themes. Ken had good strong policies on crime, education and housing, but while there were half-hearted attempts to bring them into focus, there was never the resources or the time and energy devoted to them as there was to fares. I was asked to leaflet the same commuters on the same topic week after week. I was desperate to be more innovative, but as I worked with others to offer the Party materials, lines to use and attack possibilities around housing, we found it harder and harder to engage with the campaign team. In the end there was a limited run of 5000 leaflets with none of the key messages in them. A promised day of housing action (where the plan was to get activists out onto the estates with targeted materials) never happened. In an election that was all about turnout, that was a real mistake. That was my experience, I know from conversations with others it was not unique.
Fares lost their impact as an issue over time. But instead of responding to that by opening up new fronts, we found new ways to talk about Fares. In leaflets, in adverts, at rallyies and from the top of a bus.
Finally, beyond a relentless focus on fares, the campaign did not seem to have a coherent strategy. One week, we’re sending people dressed as chickens (or Boris Johns-hens) to chase Boris around the city, the next we’re trying to take the high road promising a non-negative campaign. Both of these are decent campaign strategies – both together look a bit chaotic. Offering Lynton Crosby the chance to run a high-minded campaign seems naive.
In the end, we were playing with the hand we were dealt. We have some amazing staff and volunteers and they worked incredibly hard. With all of the flaws of Ken’s candidacy, along with Boris’ continuing popularity, to have run a campaign that ended so close was an incredible achievement and Luke Akehurst is right that those in charge deserve enormous credit for it. This post is not to denigrate that achievement or to blame those involved – not at all. I applaud their work, their dedication and their passion with everything I have.
But in the end, we did lose, and we did make mistakes, ones which offer real and important lessons for Labour in London and nationally. Let’s make sure that in our appreciation for the exceptional sacrifice of our staff and members, the opportunity to do so is not lost.