13 April 2012

Ken Livingstone, dinosaur machine politics, and the case for change in London

I have spent rather too much time towards the back end of this week following an entertaining, but at the same time philosophically deep, Twitterspat between the erst-while uber-Blairite Telegraph (and ex-New Statesman) blogger Dan Hodges and various other Labour bloggers and Twitterati from the left, right and centre of the party (including Owen Jones, Eoin Clarke, Mehdi Hasan, Luke Akehurst and Hopi Sen) concerning the merits of Ken Livingstone's campaign to win back the London mayorality from Boris Johnson. And specifically, whether Ken should be supported just because he's the Labour party candidate even if you have serious misgivings about him as a candidate.

Unusually, I find myself in a certain measure of agreement with Dan Hodges on this issue... in that I don't think Ken deserves the automatic support of Labour members, let alone the wider left or centre of London politics, just because he's currently the main challenger to Johnson.

We need to get something straight about what Ken isn't, first of all (and I'm speaking as someone who voted for, and donated money to, Ken in his independent mayor bid of 2000 - the last time I was eligible to vote in a London election - and who was also an enthusiastic supporter of his re-election bids in 2004 and 2008). He is not a "hard-left" Labour candidate; if anything he is a maverick centrist, who enthusiastically endorsed most of the New Labour agenda while he was mayor. That's not to say his two terms as mayor were particularly bad; on the contrary, he made many good innovations, including congestion charging, low public transport fares (at least on Oyster cards), the Oyster card itself, and the rather nice red "ON" in the "MAYOR OF LONDON" posters. But this was back in the day when he was mainly focused on policy, rather than making an increasingly bizarre sequence of unforced errors, for example:
  • making ludicrous, borderline anti-semitic allegations about London's Jewish voters (as Jonathan Freedland has pointed out in an excellent article in the Guardian).
  • emulating George Galloway by hanging out with a selection of reactionary and homophobic religious leaders (as pointed out by Nick Cohen, for example).
  • making unwise remarks about denying the vote to tax avoiders - unwise because on some definitions Ken is a tax avoider himself (I will be devoting a specific post to this as it is important to clear up confusion about what "tax avoidance" consists in, but suffice to say for now that the right-wing arguments that Ken is a tax avoider DO have some validity, and the issue is a time bomb which has exploded in his face at just the wrong time).

The sad thing is that Ken's policy platform is basically sound - on transport policy, reinstating EMA, and many other areas. But he's become an electoral liability to the Labour campaign. I've been arguing for several months now that Ken was going to win this election - albeit narrowly - because he only lost by 6 percentage points in 2008, and Labour was at least 10 points down in the national polls then. Logically, with Labour now 5 to 10 points ahead
in the national polls, Ken should be in front of Johnson by at least 10. But instead he's around 5 points behind. I think if Labour had chosen Oona King to be selected as mayoral candidate in 2010 rather than Ken, she'd be kicking Boris Johnson's ass (and god knows, that bastard needs to have his ass kicked).

Some people - notably the brilliant left-wing Labour commentator Owen Jones - have argued that there is a right-wing media conspiracy against Ken. And yes there is, but the Tory press EXISTS to put the boot in to Labour candidates by means fair or foul. Labour's failure to reform the media to make it more balanced despite several opportunities to do so from 1945 onwards ensures that - at least until the next Labour Govt - Labour candidates are going to have to struggle against a tidal wave of lies, bullshit and smear operations. So, given that we know that, isn't it a hostage to fortune to put Ken Livingstone -a very articulate politician, but also a guy who is often the rhetorical equivalent of a cluster bomb - in the hot seat? Why not go for someone less gaffe-prone?

There's then the final line of defence, which is to say that Ken should be backed just *because* he's the Labour candidate. One of the reasons I'm not in the Labour party is this kind of dinosaur machine politics, which has in recent years been mainly been the preserve of the Blairite right, but which elements of the Labour left are now showing they can do just as well. My view on this is quite simple: supporting Labour candidates who aren't worthy of the role is a bad idea. It degrades, and in the end is likely to destroy, the Labour party. Tony Blair wasn't worthy of being PM by 2005 and no way would I have advised people in Sedgefield to vote for him then. I'd have backed Reg Keys. Likewise, I don't believe Ken Livingstone is worthy of being mayor in 2012. I don't have a vote so this matters not a jot to the election itself, but if I did, I would be voting Jenny Jones of the Green Party as 1st choice on the ballot.

And who knows? If Ken continues to disappoint in the next couple of weeks it's quite possible that Jones, the Lib Dem Brian Paddick or the indepedendent candidate Siobhan Benita could start to move up in the polls. And then things might start to get really interesting.

01 April 2012

EXCLUSIVE: Introducing Beige Labour

Following high-level discussions between several antagonistic factions across the Labour Party, which have been kept out of the news over the last few days due to Pastygate, Petrolgate, the Granny Tax and Bradford West, I can now reveal that the leaders of Blue Labour, Purple Labour, Red Labour, Green Labour, "In The Black" Labour and "White Flag" Labour have agreed to bury the hatchet and combine forces to fight the ConDem government on a unified basis.

"Beige Labour", as the new grouping will be called, combines the best of all six strands of Labour thinking for a truly progressive alternative.

Well-known Telegraph blogger and Labour party commentator Dan Hodges welcomed the move, telling us:

What we have here is an end to the bitter factionalism which has marred Ed Miliband's first eighteen months. I've been as guilty as anyone of putting the boot into Ed - you could almost say I've been earning a living from it - but when we got the leaders of the various factions of Labour into the same room, it was clear that beating this wretched Tory-Liberal coalition was the priority. And to do that, everyone has to pour their best ideas into the mix.

Dan was generously forthcoming about the fascinating process behind choosing the name "Beige Labour" for the party's new combined popular front.

We wanted Labour to be seen as relevant to the kind of hard-working people who go shopping on a Saturday afternoon, so Ed Balls suggested why don't we all get the tube down to Homebase at Ealing (Ed knew that particular store because Neil Kinnock used to live down the road from it), choose a tin of paint for each Labour colour, get the work experience guy on the 'paint station' to mix them all together into one big tin and see what comes out? Lord Glasman was particularly enthusiastic about a nice shade of cobalt blue he'd found from Farrow and Ball, as I recall.

When we did that we needed a pretty big paint tin because we had six separate colours going into the mix. And I think Eoin Clarke from Red Labour got some paint splashed on his deck shoes, but he was pretty relaxed about that.

So what was the result of this meeting of minds and colours in a West London DIY store? Dan suddenly looked enthused as he described the outcome:

What we had, in the end, was beige, which I have to say was pretty much optimal. If you'd set out to choose a colour off-the-shelf you couldn't have done better than light brown. It's an everyman colour - a working class but aspirational living room colour. What we have here is Dulux Paint Labour - it won't appeal to your average university lecturer, but the suburbs in the south east will lap it up. I think this is the day Labour painted over its differences once and for all. It means I'm going to have to find something different to write about in my columns from now on, but so what? It's worth it if it means we win the next election.

The ICI Corporation, which produces Dulux paints, was reported to be in conversation with Labour Party HQ at Victoria Street last night about a "sizeable donation to party funds", possibly in exchange for launching a range of new brushes inspired by Ed Miliband's "tough but functional" haircut.