To understand Ken Livingstone’s loss, we need to look back to his selection
By Wes Streeting
—There is no need for a protracted postmortem on the effectiveness of Labour’s London campaign: Labour won, Ken Livingstone lost. Whereas Boris Johnson’s personal popularity provided the Tories with their only boost on election day, Livingstone threw away Labour’s national poll lead to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in London. But probing questions need to be asked about the thinking behind the former mayor’s selection that led to a defeat that was both foreseen and avoidable.
Having dominated the London political scene over four decades, Livingstone has many great achievements under his belt. Big policy ideas like the congestion charge, investment in London’s creaking transport infrastructure and the key role he played in securing the Olympics are just some of his lasting achievements. His speech in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings was one of his greatest, capturing as it did the spirit of all Londoners in a way that few others could. But this was Livingstone’s record when he was rejected by the voters in 2008.
Livingstone’s acceptance of responsibility for his defeat this time, in a dignified and moving speech in City Hall, was too little, too late. Had he understood the reasons for his loss in 2008, and expressed some uncharacteristic humility, he might have avoided repeating them.
Party staff, volunteers and activists ought to be proud of the campaign that they ran. The policy offer was strong and focused on issues that matter to Londoners. Volunteers and activists hit the phones and pounded the streets in huge numbers. This defeat was not theirs.
Strong messages about transport fares, housing and policing were undermined by the self-indulgence and self-inflicted wounds of the candidate. His colourful jibe that he would hang a banker a week as a tax avoidance measure may have resonated with voters had he not been drowned in accusations of hypocrisy over his own tax affairs. He could have rebuilt relations with large sections of the Jewish community who felt abandoned by his flirtations with the extremist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi and his lack of remorse at comparing a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard. Instead, he made crass generalisations about their voting behaviour and wealth. When he should have united the London Labour party, whose members overwhelmingly endorsed him in the selection, he strode into Tower Hamlets to give his backing to an independent standing against the Labour candidate.
We were promised that Livingstone could reach out beyond the Labour vote to deliver a ‘Ken bonus’, but polling showed that one in 10 Labour voters said they were backing the Tory candidate and another one in 10 said that they would back someone else entirely. We may wonder what might have happened if our candidate had been able to mobilise and inspire more Londoners to vote. As it was, the rematch between Livingstone, Johnson and Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick saw the majority of Londoners stay at home.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice while expecting a different result, London Labour should be reflecting on the collective madness of fielding the same candidate, for the same position, against the same opponent. Instead, comments from senior figures suggest they have yet to absorb the voters’ message. Hackney MP and Labour frontbencher Diane Abbott claimed that Londoners would soon experience ‘buyers’ remorse’ for re-electing a Tory mayor in such troubling times. Questioning the voters’ judgement will not place Labour on the path to victory in 2016. Instead, we need to accept that we made a mistake and move on.
Tottenham MP David Lammy, who chaired Livingstone’s selection campaign, has said Livingstone was the right candidate in 2010. If true, this is either a damning indictment of Labour’s talent pool or a points to a lack of self-confidence on the part of the credible alternatives who lined up to support Livingstone in the belief that the best way forwards was to look backwards.
In 2010, party members in the capital were robbed of the debate in the selection process that a serious office like the London mayoralty deserves. The selection race was held too soon and, as a result, Oona King was the only candidate with the courage to put herself forward. She had no access to party membership lists, receiving only one direct mailing to members. Hustings were poorly organised and attended. In any case, the attention of the media was inevitably focused on the leadership contest. London members deserved better than that.
While King secured the support of Usdaw and Community, the majority of unions directed their members to vote for Livingstone. To its enormous credit, the GMB gave King the opportunity to write to their members even though they had endorsed her opponent. This is a precedent that all trade unions should follow in the future.
We now have a strong Labour team in City Hall, one that is better placed to hold Johnson to account. Many Londoners will be counting on them, but this is no substitute for a Labour mayor. In Havering and Redbridge we came stunningly close to scalping its Tory assembly member. Long since written off as ‘true blue’, the suburbs are full of voters who backed Labour in 1997 and 2001, but who have long since been overlooked by a Labour party concentrated in inner London. In places like Redbridge, the fightback has already begun ahead of crucial local elections in 2014.
The Labour party in London needs a new leader and renewed confidence to develop a vision for our city and a plan for the most powerful directly elected executive office in Britain. We must take time to select our candidate and encourage the widest possible field of contenders to step forward. We are not short of talent, nor is that talent confined to parliament. Candidates should include our most successful leaders in London local government, social entrepreneurs and people with a record of strong leadership, capable of running the capital city in a way that transforms lives and makes London even better.
This is a great city and it deserves a great contest. With the choice put before Londoners twice in a row it is small wonder that so few of them bothered to turn out to vote. Labour has now only won one out of the last four mayoral elections. We need to rethink the way that we do politics. The search for a new mayoral candidate should be the start of that process.
Wes Streeting is deputy leader of the Labour group in the London borough of Redbridge
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