Why did the Labour Party indulge Ken?

Frederick Cowell

Image © Amplified2010

If you are a Labour party member and disappointed at Ken Livingstone’s second defeat, go to a mirror, look at yourself – you are looking at one of the people responsible for his defeat.  Now, this article comes out before the official result; the Sack Boris campaign and the get out the vote drives undertaken by many local Labour parties could have helped turn the tide. But it is unlikely. So go and look at yourself in a mirror. If you are Labour you should use this as an opportunity to learn how to find a credible winning candidate – but then if you were part of the delegation that booed the mere mention of Tony Blair’s name last year you are a lost cause.

 In the primary election to be mayor two thirds of all London Labour members voted for Livingston over Oona King. Deep structural reasons and problems that go to the heart of the Labour party explain why this happened. King started her primary campaign late in mid- May 2010 when all the political action was focusing on the novelty of coalition government, whereas Ken had been unofficially campaigning the day after he was ejected from office in 2008. The primary also fell in the middle of the most contested Labour leadership contest for 30 years. Blame acting Labour leader Harriet Harman for that one – it is difficult to accept that someone of her political experience could not have foreseen that this would effectively make it a one horse race. King also had voted for the Iraq war in 2003 although, like many other Labour MPs, it was a decision she thought was wrong in hindsight and may have been less pertinent had she not lost her seat to George Galloway in the 2005 General Election. This gave a sense of permanence to her pro-war vote back in March 2003 so much so that seven years later it stuck with her as she tried to reach party members in the mayoral primary. Blame Tony Blair for that one – Blairites who bemoan the current state of the Labour party often have an attack of amnesia about the toxicity of the Iraq war and don’t seem to understand how much harm it did to an entire generation of centrist Labour MP’s. For example it did David Miliband’s leadership campaign no favours when he penned an article effectively asking people to ‘get over the Iraq war’.

As even the Economist noted at the time King was a good choice; her background reflected London’s nature as modern dynamic city, her policies were centre leftish and she was unencumbered by Livingstone’s foot-in-mouth tendency. Yet canvassing in the primary some workers for King noticed that a large numbers of Labour party members seemed to have a rose-tinted view of the race; a Tory PM promising cuts was in Number 10, wasn’t it time to get Red Ken back in city hall so he could fight them just like he fought Thatcher? Except this wasn’t 1981 it was 2012, and Ken lost to Maggie the first time round and is set to lose to Boris second time around. This is the answer to Dan Hodges, a Labour journo who took pride at voting Boris, but did quite sensibly ask the question – why does the Labour party indulge Ken? The new leadership aren’t really to blame; Ed Miliband was lumbered with him and as consequence had to defend him.  Instead party members decided to ignore the fact that in spite of a very strong first term record as mayor there were several features about his last two years in office, in particular his proximity with extremists, and the 2008 campaign that made him basically unelectable. This was known in 2010 yet members backed him – if you did that in 2010 look in the mirror today; you are responsible for giving the Conservative party a boost nationally in what should have been their worst election in a decade.

It is reasonable to protest that the average voter should not be expected to be a political clairvoyant; the income tax affair, for example, was unforeseeable and the press was on the warpath for Ken with a fury that hadn’t been seen for some time – the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard sunk some considerable resources into making sure every gaff, smear, rumour and uncomfortable detail stuck to Ken like a limpet, whilst barely touching Boris. Equally, back in 2010, King was a highly flawed candidate with numerous weaknesses and could well have lost to Boris. But that shouldn’t let Labour members off the hook – they chose a candidate that was yesterday’s man and prone to blurting nonsense that verged on outright racism. As Andy McSmith argues in “No Such Thing as Society”, Ken is the last remnant of the 1980s based solidarity movement’s against racism, where the Labour-left combined anti-racism, fighting poverty and inequality against the clearly defined enemy of the Tory Right. The problem is that the forces of progressivism and anti-racism no longer rely solely on being anti-Tory as they did in the 1980s – but Ken acts as though none of that ever happened and somehow his friendship with Yusuf al-Qaradawi and anti-Semitic jokes just simply don’t matter. Ideological nostalgia may have gotten a boost after George Galloway’s by-election win in Bradford West, when Galloway claimed that by running on a programme of aggressive nationalisation he was representing real labour values.

If the Livingstone’s loss tonight shows anything it is the sheer stupidity of going on adventures into retrofitting 1980s ideological opposition; it is the equivalent of hugging a comfort blanket in order to avoid the horrors of the real world. It may be tempting to blame the party hierarchy on these matters but they are bound to follow their members. It is also tempting to blame the candidate – but weak as he was it required people to put him there in there first place and it is they who should take some of the blame. To paraphrase Neill Kinnock in 1983 – Labour members should remember the 4th of May 2012 and say never, ever again.


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