London's Vaudeville act must cease

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have been a great double-act. London now needs the act to take its

Neither Boris Johnson nor Ken Livingstone are fit to lead London.

It's a shame, because their double act has been engaging. They developed a nice chemistry; each taking it in turns to be the straight man to the others clown.

But now we have no room for clowns. The world's greatest city needs serious leadership, not a vaudeville routine.

Ken Livingstone has lived his dream. He will always be London's first mayor. He may also prove to be its most iconic. "Red Ken" will forever be as a much a part of the capital as red telephone boxes and red double deckers.

But his time has gone. To look at him is to stare into the past. He is physically old, and slightly frail. But not as old and frail as his statements. A measured response to the riots could have been the making of his mayoral candidacy. Instead, he sullied it.

It wasn't just the cheapness and transparency of his politicking; the Conservatives, the cuts, Cameron. Nor the tasteless way he used the London bombings to frame his suitability for tackling the London riots. It wasn't even the crass stupidity and simplicity of his analysis; blame the bankers, EMA, the fact that 14 and 15 year old rioters are enraged at their inability to provide for their wives and children.

London needs unity. And Ken Livingstone is divisive. He cannot help himself; divide and conquer, opponents and supporters. It is his way. Try as he might he cannot embrace, only attack. He cannot bind, only drive apart. Ken looks for factions to nurture and manipulate, when what we need is someone who can bring London together.

But crass though Ken Livingstone's comments were, at least he was in a position to make them. Cometh the hour, cometh the man? That man was not Boris Johnson.

Hindsight is a great gift. But it does not require hindsight to understand that the mayor of a major western capital city needs to be at his post, and seen to be at his post, when major public disorder strikes.

Those asking what operational impact could Boris have had miss the point. While Londoners sat imprisoned in our homes, with that strange awareness that a call to 999 would go unanswered, what we were looking for was leadership -- a sense that someone was in control.

There was none. We had a void. It wasn't that the Mayor was asleep at his post. It's that he wasn't at his post at all.

Kit Malthouse is an eloquent mayoral spokesman. But no one voted for him -- they voted for Boris Johnson. And where was our mayor when his city needed him most? Absent without leave. He picked up his broom too late.

A crisis reveals the true metal of our leaders, and when the moment came, both prospective leaders of London were found wanting.

But in truth, that shouldn't really surprise us. Neither Ken Livingstone, nor Boris Johnson are leaders. Nor are they really politicians. They are characters, political entertainers, colorful personalities who leap out from the parade of the bland.

But leading London is not a game. Nor is it the prize awarded to the winner of a game of Celebrity Political Big Brother.

There are serious people in our country, and outside it, who have run things -- big things, like corporations, institutions and even cities. They know how to manage. To procure. To plan. To lead.

London needs that now. We need serious leadership, not symbolic or colorful leadership. The world's greatest city now needs great statesmanship.

I've loved the unkempt blond locks. And the newts. I laughed at the Beijing "ping-pong" speech, and at the audacity of calling for the Saudi Royal family to be hung from lamp posts. But quirky humour is no longer enough. Nor are free bus travel for under sixteens and community bicycles.

I want vision, I want drive, I want imagination. Above all, I want professionalism. Someone who will grab my city out of the hands of the rioters and the speculators and the city spivs and the gangsters, and give it back to the people who deserve it.

I don't care about the politics. I don't care if Labour wins in London, or if the Tories get a good hiding. All I care about now is that Londoners win in London.

I'll vote Tory. I'll vote Green. I'll vote independent. I still hope and pray I'll be able to vote Labour.

But I'm not helping place my city back into the hands of a clapped out revolutionary or an Etonian comic. Not after this week. Not ever again.

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have been a great double-act. London now needs the act to take its final bow.

Photo: Getty
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Hyper-partisan Corbynite websites show how the left can beat the tabloids online

If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Despite their best efforts during the election campaign, the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express failed to convince voters to give Theresa May a majority, let alone the landslide she craved. Instead, Labour made inroads thanks partly to increased turnout among younger voters who prefer to get their news online and from social networks.

The centre of power in the media has been shifting to the web for years, but during the election we saw just how well a crop of hyper-partisan left-wing news sites are using social media to gain the kind of influence once restricted to the tabloid press.

Writers for sites such as the Canary or Evolve Politics see themselves as activists as much as journalists. That frees them to spin news stories in a way that is highly attuned to the dynamics of social media, provoking strong emotions and allowing them to address their audience like a friend down the pub “telling it how it really is”.

People on Facebook or Twitter use news to tell their friends and the wider world who they are and what they believe in. Sharing the Canary story “Theresa May is trying to override parliamentary democracy to cling to power. But no one’s fooled” is a far more effective signal that you don’t like the Tory government than posting a dry headline about the cancellation of the 2018 Queen’s Speech.

This has long-term implications for the right’s ability to get its message out. Research by BuzzFeed has found that pro-Conservative stories were barely shared during the election campaign. It appears the “shy Tory” factor that skewed opinion polling in previous elections lives on, influencing what people are prepared to post online. If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Distorted reality

Television was once the press’s greatest enemy. But its “newspaper reviews” now offer print titles a safe space in which they are treated with a level of respect out of all proportion to their shrinking readership. Surely this must change soon? After all, the Independent sometimes gets a slot (despite having ceased print publication last year) for its digital front page. How is it fair to exclude BuzzFeed News – an organisation that invests in reporting and investigations – and include the Daily Express, with its less-than-prescient weather predictions?

Another problem became apparent during the election. Because the press is so dominated by the right, coverage from the supposedly impartial broadcasters was skewed, as presenters and guests parroted headlines and front-page stories from partisan newspapers. Already, some political programmes, such as BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, have experimented with including news from outside Fleet Street. One of the newspaper industry’s most reliable allies is looking for new friends.

Alternative facts

The rise of sites spreading the left-wing gospel across Facebook may be good for Labour but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the public. This was illustrated on 16 June in a post by a relatively new entrant called the Skwawkbox, which claimed that a government “D-notice” – now called a DSMA-notice – might be in place restricting news organisations from reporting on the number of casualties from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The claim was untrue and eventually an update was added to the post, but not before it was widely shared. The man behind the blog (who gives his name in interviews only as “Steve”) insisted that because he had included a couple of caveats, including the word “if” in the text of his article, he was justified in spreading an unsubstantiated rumour. Replacing an irresponsible right-wing tabloid culture in print with equally negligent left-wing news sites online doesn’t feel much like progress.

Blood and bias

Narratives about the corrupt, lying mainstream media (the “MSM” for short) have become more prevalent during the election, and it’s clear they often hit a nerve.

On 17 June, a protest over Theresa May’s deal with the DUP and the Grenfell Tower fire made its way past BBC Broadcasting House, where a small group stopped to chant: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands!” Hours later, in the shadow of the burned-out tower, I heard a young woman complain loudly to her friends about money being used to fly BBC news helicopters when it could have gone to displaced victims.

The BBC cites the accusations of bias it receives from both ends of the political spectrum as evidence that it is resolutely centrist. But while many of its greatest critics would miss the BBC if it goes, the corporation could do a better job of convincing people why it’s worth keeping around.

Grenfell grievances

Early reports of the attack on a Muslim crowd in Finsbury Park on 19 June exhibited a predictably depressing double standard. The perpetrator was a “lone wolf”, and the Mail identified him as “clean-shaven”: phrases it is hard to imagine being used about an Islamist. Yet the media don’t just demonise Muslims in its reporting; they also marginalise them. Coverage of Grenfell contained plenty of references to the churches in this part of west London and its historic black community. Yet Muslims and the relief work carried out by local mosques received comparatively little coverage. Community issues such as Islam’s requirement that the dead are buried swiftly were largely ignored, even though a large number of those killed or made homeless by the fire were Muslim.

I suspect this may have something to do with outdated ideas of what north Kensington is like. But it also must reflect the reality that just 0.4 per cent of UK journalists are Muslim, according to a study by City University in London. The lack of diversity in the media isn’t just a moral issue; it’s one that affects our ability to tell the full story.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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