Centreground Political Communications

London without Livingstone

Written by on May 5th, 2012

Ken Livingstone has dominated London Labour politics since before I was born.   Ed Miliband was eleven when Ken Livingstone became the leader of the Greater London Council. Today, Kennism (to rhyme with Bennism) stands twice-rejected by the voters. Labour members in London, for the first time in thirty years, will now have to reinvent what the party offers to the city.  In no other region or nation of the UK is there such a spectrum of political views and cultures within the same party, from Livingstone on one hand to proud Blairites like Tessa Jowell on the other.  The last decade involved a lot of pretending those ideological differences didn’t exist.


By 2012, that habit of staying quiet had turned into a blanket tolerance of anything Livingstone said or did. In that climate, he felt able to say things that even his previous supporters or those sympathetic to him – such as The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland – just couldn’t stomach.


The Party chose Livingstone in 2010 by overwhelming vote but underwhelming debate.  Reeling from General Election defeat, distracted by the leadership contest, the re-selection of Livingstone was seen as almost a piece of minor bureaucracy: “let’s get it out of the way and save a bit of cash by having it at the same time as the leadership vote.”  That fact was crucial to his defeat: because there was no real spotlight, he never had to answer the questions during his selection – like the apparent contradiction between his statements on tax and reports of his own tax affairs – that got him into such trouble later on.


He also never really needed to come up with an answer to the first question for any party trying to come back from defeat in just one term: why should anyone vote for Livingstone this time if they didn’t last time?


Now there is space to have the debate and the best way of ensuring that a debate happens is by Labour’s leaders immediately setting a late selection date for the 2016 Mayoral Election.  When would that be? Autumn 2014 will be in the run up to the General Election. The summer of 2015 will either be during Ed Miliband’s dramatic first hundred days as Prime Minister or in the middle of a painful inquest as to how Labour managed to lose against a Government it believed to be so incompetent.


If Labour choses its candidate for January 2016, all its potential candidates would be scrutinised and one would go into the mayoral contest straight from a high profile victory.  The actual process could be made tougher too – either by involving London politicians in the electoral college, as happens for Leader of the Labour Party, or by throwing it open as a public primary like the one that selected Francois Hollande as a French presidential candidate – in which an astonishing 2 million voters chose to take part.


As someone who’s lived here for nine years but still answers “Yorkshire” when people ask where I’m from, I’m a resistant to “as London goes, so goes the nation” in political debate.   But the interpretation of this defeat will be significant for the future of the whole Labour Party because London is so heavily represented in it. For example, in the last Labour leadership election, Scotland and London had roughly similar numbers of votes in the MPs/MEPs section – but while one in five of the party membership electorate lived in London, one in twenty lived in Scotland.   Next time there is such a contest for leader or deputy leader, London may be even more pivotal: boundary changes are likely to have reduced the number of non-London Labour MPs and I’d wager that Ed Miliband’s membership drive will have been disproportionately successful in the capital.


Having a – probably quite heated – internal debate, culminating in a close fought selection will undoubtedly be difficult.  No one starts with a complete diagnosis of what’s wrong or what should be done. The easiest thing would be for Labour members to put this defeat down to a candidate past his prime, with a discrete set of idiosyncratic weaknesses – a few miscommunications with London’s Jewish community, a few queries about his taxes.  But the easiest thing was to let Livingstone have the second chance he wanted so much – and Boris Johnson was the one who gained from that decision.


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