Labour’s top team believed Ken Livingstone was destined to lose the London mayoral election well before polling day. A not entirely subtle distancing operation followed that conclusion.
The message was an each-way bet. If Livingstone lost, it was his fault alone. If he won, it was the Labour leadership that dragged him over the line by persuading the party’s wavering voters to come out.
Yet, for all the pre-election pessimism, there was a brief flutter of hope in Labour’s HQ as exhausted campaigners waited for the results. Labour had polled better than they had dared hope in the local elections and had won well in councils across the south. As votes were slowly fed into voting machines an absence of information led to a frenzy of speculation. Could Livingstone actually win?
In the end, it was not particularly close. The percentage share of the vote was about the same as François Hollande’s victory in France. But given Labour’s significant success elsewhere the former mayor’s defeat was not the oft-predicted crisis for Ed Miliband, merely a minor whirlpool in a sea of triumphs.
Indeed, Livingstone’s departure creates an opportunity for the Labour leadership. For decades, London Labour politics has been dominated by one man. Whether you are a fan or not (and, for the record, your insider is decidedly not) Livingstone was both popular and politically effective.
Unfortunately, his flourishing meant that few other London Labour voices grew alongside him. With all due respect to Oona King, the fact that she was the only other Labour figure prepared to run for one of Britain’s top political jobs suggests few others thought they could beat Livingstone.
So, where next? Well, Livingstone has not gone. His tight-knit organisation and popularity within the Labour party means he could still play the role of unofficial Labour spokesman for London. He may even have an official basis upon which to do it. Livingstone’s soundbite that his defeat represented his last election is not the whole story. Readers will again see his name on a ballot paper very soon, this time as a candidate for Labour’s National Executive Committee.
If he wins, Livingstone will be on the NEC until September 2014, giving him a powerful platform from which to offer his views on London politics and a way for those close to him to stay on top of London Labour’s political organisation. This matters as Labour’s NEC will have big choices to make over how Labour’s next London mayoral candidate is chosen.
The first is whether to widen the selectorate, either to a primary or to include ‘registered supporters’. The wider the franchise, the less control London Labour’s powerbrokers will have over the result – and the greater the importance of both name recognition and campaign organisation.
The second is when to hold the selection. The later the selection, the more time new candidates have to become public figures.
Why is this politically significant? Because if the success of Livingstone and Boris Johnson teaches us anything, it is that mayoral politics rewards politicians who make news, even if that means having a looser grip on the greasy pole of national preferment.
So who is prepared to gamble their career to be Labour’s next candidate? Right now, no one is in pole position. You might look to local leaders like Lambeth’s Steve Reed or Hackney’s Jules Pipe; Labour’s bright young parliamentary things like Stella Creasy or David Lammy (who is still young, but now quite experienced); or prominent Labour activists with a high public profile, like Eddie Izzard. On the left, Diane Abbott might be the most recognisable London Labour politician, has expressed an interest before, and could run a strong campaign.
All of these, and many others, could be credible candidates, but only if they really want it. Want to know who really wants to be Labour’s next mayor? Then look for a politician brave enough to take big risks.
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