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Labour failed to take on Boris properly in London, twice. We never got a handle on how to fight him properly, and we allowed him and his campaign to define the terms of the election. He’s bested –twice – one of our political superstars (and one of our few single-name recognition politicians). Yet some in the Party still consider Boris just a joke and fail to see the threat his leadership of the Tories could be to us.
So I’ve done the inevitable London postmortem, and got the worst news out of the way (I will do a final piece tomorrow on turnout, which is the biggest fly in the Labour ointment). London is stuck with Boris for a while longer. But so is David Cameron, which is better news.
Boris continues to be extremely popular among the Conservative grass roots, but polling (which come with heavy caveats) suggests that Boris may be just a bit more “Marmite” than Cameron, and therefore not an overall vote winner.
But Cameron is deeply unpopular with his backbenchers, and not just the usual headbangers like Nadine Dorries. The Tory right have taken the opportunity of electoral battering to loudly promote a more traditionally Tory policy platform, and some indications show it may be working, as gay marriage and Lords reform seem set for the very long grass.
Of course, Cameron’s popularity doesn’t – for the moment – mean there will be an actual leadership challenge. There isn’t an obvious challenger, and because of this, Dorries is likely to fail in her mission to replace Dave. But that doesn’t mean that Cameron’s leadership won’t be challenged, regularly, loudly and increasingly angrily from many quarters of the Tory party and their supportive press. And this matters deeply to George Osborne, widely seen as the man behind Cameron’s modernisation strategy. The more the Tories are seen to fail politically, as his nearest rival Boris soars from strength to strength, the worse it gets for Osborne.
Last year’s election results were a mixed bag not because of the Labour performance, which in England and Wales was excellent, but because of the performance of Tories and the collapse in Scotland. This year neither of those things happened.
The Tories suffered at the worst end of their predictions and also failed to properly dampen Labour victory. Their expectation management prior to the elections were trying to push Labour as having to get 700 seats and that Glasgow and London were the ones to watch. In the end, Labour got well over 800 seats, an overall majority in Glasgow and increased our grip on the London Assembly, despite losing the Mayoralty. And no one is blaming Labour or Ed Miliband for a loss widely attributed to Ken.
This inability to understand the game of expectation management is just one symptom of a malaise that should be much more troubling to the Tories. It is becoming increasingly obvious that from around the time of the unravelling of the Veto that never was the Tory leadership significantly lost their ability to do politics well.
Forget the individually bad polices for a moment, forget even the meta-narratives building up that the Tories are both incompetent and out of touch, forget the omnishambles, forget Jeremy Hunt, forget all the individual difficulties that are assailing the Tories. The fact is, that if the Tories had decent political instincts, the individual mistakes and unpopular policies would not be allowed to build up into the narratives, and the narratives would not be allowed to be so sustained in the public imagination, until they are close to defining this government. But the Tory strategists, led by George Osborne, have been like rabbits caught in the headlights. They’ve had simply no understanding of how to manage a narrative in challenging times.
Perhaps they had it too easy for too long and got lazy, got complacent or got out of practice. From the 2010 election campaign onwards, I’ve often said that I thought David Cameron was lazy and either unwilling or unable to do the heavy lifting. But he has surrounded himself not by people who can fill the gaps, but by those who reflect his best and worst qualities back at him. He’s surrounded by people like him, who are not necessarily the people he needs to help him reach the whole of the country.
This matters to Osborne, who wants to be seen as Cameron’s natural successor. If he can’t turn the tide on the Tory omnishambles; if he can’t shift the blame for that narrative from his disastrous budget and the subsequent handling of it; if he can’t lose the narrative that the Tories biggest problem is that they are “out of touch” he will never lead his Party.
The next big narrative that is building up around the Government is based around the 2015 election. Ever since Alexander signed the Lib Dems up to committing to cuts in their next manifesto live on Newsnight talk of a potential electoral pact between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats has intensified. Cameron chucked a giant can of gasoline on that fire when in an interview for the Evening Standard last week he said of the 2015 election “When it comes to the next election, do you want a Conservative-led Government…”, indicating that he may not be planing to attempt an outright Conservative victory at the next election.
I never used to believe that the Lib Dems would go for either a coupon election or a permanent pact. I thought the worst they would go for would be to prop up a minority Tory Party using a deviation of their standard branch of twisted electoral math.
But I’m increasingly believing it will be possible. It explains Clegg’s continued relaxation about his failure to differentiate his Party from the Tories. It follows the Lib Dems ever-increasing willingness to trade nominal power for their few MPs for their local electoral base, for their principle and for the prospects of their long-tern survival.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the ways in which the Lib Dems were and weren’t proving that coalition works. If they allow themselves to be seduced into a coupon election or an electoral pact in 2015 for their short-term gain, they will regret it immensely in the long term. It will be the end of their democratic values. It will see them hemorrhage support in the North and it will ultimately prove to everyone watching once and for all, that coalition doesn’t work. That doesn’t seem like a price worth paying, but it is a price I can see Nick Clegg easily sacrificing. His Party can and must stop him for thier own good.
Labour had a good win on Thursday electorally. People with newly elected Labour representatives have people on their side against the Government, ready to do what they can to help. This is the main prize. But the exposure of the political weakness of the Tories, and the continuing exposure of the Lib Dems to the reality of their Faustian electoral pact is not to be dismissed.
It is a truism that oppositions don’t win elections, Government’s lose them. I don’t believe this. Labour still have a lot of work to do, a fact rightly recognised by Ed Miliband. But the Tories are being exposed not just for the inept government, but for the increasingly obvious fact that they have little strategic ability, and less understanding of how to do politics in tough times. Long may that continue.
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.
Ken Livingstone has been very stupid. In a tight election that he was managing to make about fares and living standards, he’s managed to once again become the story. It was the very opposite of what his campaign needs, and what Londoners expect and deserve from their mayoral candidates.
The tax issue should have been cleared up ages ago by releasing his tax returns. While allowing it to fester, he’s also allowing public imaginations to run wild, and the numbers being guessed at by disreputable sources like Andrew Gilligan remain in the vacuum.
The Jewish question is much more complex. I don’t – for one moment – believe that Ken is an anti-Semite. But I do think he sails too close to the wind in too ill-informed a manner too often. Equally, it isn’t important what I think. I’m not Jewish and I don’t feel personally attacked when Ken talks about Zionism. But Ken does have a long history of interest in the middle east issues and he can hardly disavow that now. When he is being questioned not just by those who have always loathed him at Labour Uncut and Gilligan, but by committed Labour activists and supporters who are also Jewish and find Ken’s behavior alarmingly off-putting, Ken cannot simply write this off as a media conspiracy or the right out to get him.
Yes, of course this is being whipped up by the right. Of course Ken’s enemies in the Labour Party and outside of it are continually fanning the flames. But Ken, you’ve been a divisive figure in politics for forty years now, so the question is “what did you expect?”. Of course they were always going to leap on any frailty and leverage any advantage. But why do you keep letting them? Why present them with open goals?
Ken needs to apologise to the Jewish Community and he needs to do so today. Were I him, I would offer the following letter to the Jewish Chronicle immediately*:
As someone who has spent my life fighting prejudice, I am horrified that I have been the cause of such consternation in the Jewish Community. I deeply apologise for any and all upset I have caused. I, like many of you, have strong feelings about the politics of the Middle East. It’s a topic that all too often fosters false divisions between communities in our country and our city.
I don’t apologise for the views I hold about the rights of the Palestinian people, nor do I recant my belief that that Israel is not always a benign actor. I respect you too much to recant my firmly held beliefs for the sake of my own political advantage.
But I sincerely apologise for the way that I have clumsily expressed those views at times. I guess even when you’ve been in politics as long as I have, there is a great deal to learn. Perhaps especially when you have been in politics as long as I have.
If Ken were to do that, he could put the issue behind him and start again to campaign on the issues that matter to all Londoners – Jews and Gentiles, Muslims, Sikhs, Rastafarians and everyone else in our wonderfully diverse city. If Ken were to do that he would be going a lot more than half way (and rightly so) to meet his left-leaning critics.
But here’s the thing. Whether or not Ken does anything like what I’ve suggested, the choice for London in May is still clear cut. The playground politics of division aside, Londoners are going to wake up on 4th May with either Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson as Mayor. This is not a choice between Ken and a fantasy Labour candidate of your choice.
While I cannot dispute the offence that has been caused to writers like Jonathan Freedland, I found his column a bit disturbing. Not because it questioned Ken – I’ve read columns doing that from writers I respect across the spectrum – but because it seemed to openly acknowledge a hierarchy of offence where Ken’s offence to the Jewish community ranked higher than Boris’ offensive remarks to the black and Muslim communities mentioned in the article. That can’t be right. I am assuming the hurt that Freedland is feeling has blinded him to the way that could be read, but it should not blind more dispassionate readers.
I predicted some time ago that it was a problem for Labour if we continued to frame our campaign as Ken Vs Boris. Not we are faced with two candidates with remarkable similar personal flaws. Both have made remarkable insensitive remarks about minority communities. Ken with the Jewish community, Boris with the black community, the Muslim community and more recently the Irish community. Both have brought people to City Hall with them who are less than reputable. Both have questions about their financial arrangements (Ken on his tax arrangements, and Boris on his Part-time mayoralty). Both are funny, silly, exasperating, daft and a nightmare for their respective Party managers.
So in the end, the choice facing London isn’t about which candidate is flawed and which isn’t. It can’t be, as they both are. So it must be about which mayoral philosophy you believe will be the best for London. For me, I want an activist Mayor who is in touch with the concerns of ordinary Londoners and will spend the next four years – in-between embarrassing gaffes (because we’ll get more of those whoever is elected) – working every day to make the lives of Londoners better. For me, that has to be Ken.
I hope that when it comes to it, others who have rightly expressed their anguish at the worst aspects of Ken’s behaviour, will also see that in the end, that is the choice that needs to be made. It may not be the choice you want, but life doesn’t always give you the choice you want. As grown ups, we have to accept that and do what is best for our city.
Update: Jonathan Freedland has responded to me on twitter to say “Just seen your very thoughtful blog on Ken, Jews etc. To clarify: I was not arguing for any hierarchy of offence. Key point is that [Boris Johnson's] key offences predate his becoming Mayor. [Ken Livingstone] has just kept on making them.
*Update 2: I am pleased to say that Ken has today (29/03/2012) done just this and written a long and effusive apology to the JC.
Marcus Roberts wrote a convincing ten point planon what Ken needs to do to win. I agree with nine and half of his points. Not bad going. However, I also slightly disagree with the premise as a whole. Because I think it buys into the half a point I disagree with – that this is a contest of Ken Vs Boris.
If we allow this to become a Ken Vs Boris contest, we’ll lose. Ken may have been the big personality of London once, but he isn’t anymore. In 2000 even I voted for him against Labour. In June a poll had him trailing the Party by 20 points. Things have changed, Ken’s campaigning style needs to change too.
You would not know this to look at his website or his otherwise excellent Fare Deal video. In fact you’d barely know that Ken is running for Labour. This is a huge strategic mistake. It’s a mistake because Labour poll ahead of Ken, but more than this, it cedes the ground of the debate. It gives up a Tory Vs Labour fight we have a chance of winning to a personality politics bun fight. That puts the game firmly on Boris’s turf, allows him to flirt with his Tory rebel image (without actually ever actually living up to it) and these days, Ken is no match for this
I like Ken. I’ve grown up with him as a permanent fixture of my political life. The GLC were an intrinsic part of my childhood, and that of every child who ever sailed up the Regents Canal on the Jenny Wren or tried in vain to use one of their square rubbers as a bouncy ball. But Boris is the bigger personality. Just as Ken was a household name in the 80s, now Boris is known and – we must accept liked – by millions.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t highlight Boris’s incompetence, dilettantism and complete inability to empathise with the lives of ordinary Londoners. But we should equally be framing this better. It’s not just because Boris is rich that he considers his wages “chickenfeed” while raising the fares of ordinary Londoners. It because he fundamentally agrees with the path the Government is taking which is hurting ordinary Londoners.
Boris doesn’t want to fight this campaign as a Tory but as Boris. I accept that we can’t simply repeat the fact that he is a Tory, but actually being a Tory is one of Boris’s big weaknesses. Not to at least attempt to capitalise on that would be insane.
Ken and London Labour should adopt most of the advice Marcus has given them. But I’m concerned about “meeting voters where they are on Boris”. Because where they are at the moment is that they like him and they’re inclined to vote for him. Labour have to come out swinging as a team. We have that strength in London that the Tories don’t. It’s going to be difficult because this contest has never really been fought on a Party political basis. But we need to shift the frame of the debate if we are going to win back my beautiful city. London deserves better than Boris and a lot better than the Tories. We have to make it clearer to the electorate, that by electing BoJo, you get Osborne, Cameron, and Brian Coleman. But by electing Ken, you get a Labour candidate ready to take the fight for London to the Government.
This post first appeared on Labour List.
Do you remember the stories that came out of the Whitehouse in 2000 about vandalism, theft of property and other misdemeanors of the outgoing Clinton Government? Turned out to be complete tosh of course.
So forgive me if I take the “Scorched Earth” line as so much spin (yes Lib Dems, you do it too, oh and negative and permanent campaigning). Especially since the thing they seem to be holding up in evidence, is a clearly well-intentioned jokey letter.
So much for new politics.