London Special - Ken's friends

Few doubt that the Mayor of London has been successful in promoting the capital as a major global fi

His enemies have always thought Ken Livingstone rather fancied himself as a left-wing dictator of a Latin American state. The Mayor of London's latest forays into foreign policy will have done much to confirm them in their views. His oil deal with Hugo Chávez's Venezuela is a classic piece of Livingstone political theatre, designed for maximum impact. But quite how he will square the import of Venezuelan diesel with his latest pledge to cut London's carbon emissions is yet to be explained. It also suggests a mayor who sees himself as an alternative focus of foreign policy to the national government.

As elected leader of a major world capital, he can claim political legitimacy for using his limited powers to develop policies in the best interests of Londoners. As a result of the Chávez deal, 250,000 poor Londoners will benefit from half-price travel. But as the Conservatives have point-ed out, the deal means that one of the poorest countries in the world is effectively subsidising the transport in one of the richest.

The mayor will argue that it is a mutually beneficial arrangement: London will advise on redeveloping Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, as a modern international city. He might also point out the novelty of the Conservative Party taking an interest in the slum-dwellers of Caracas.

His interests extend beyond South America. Livingstone has just hosted the mayors of Paris, Moscow, Berlin and Beijing in London. And now there are reports that his officials have been "scoping" links with Brazil's left-wing president Lula da Silva. While the Blair government parades its close relationship with the Bush administration, Livingstone is developing a network of alliances with the US government's opponents in its own backyard.

To his critics, Livingstone's Latin American approach is the perfect complement to his Middle East policy - fiercely anti-American and anti-Israeli. (Livingstone supports the radical Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has applauded suicide bombing of civilian Israeli targets, female genital mutilation and the execution of homosexuals.)

John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington who is standing as a left-wing candidate for the Labour leadership, worked with Livingstone on the GLC. The two have not always seen eye to eye, but McDonnell believes the mayor's foreign policy is consistent with a lifetime commitment to international causes: "He's had a genuine interest in Latin America for years and wants to demonstrate solidarity for the Chávez regime."

But it is not only Conservatives who are critical of Livingstone's new initiatives on the world stage. One former Labour Party colleague from his GLC days said Livingstone risked becoming a figure of ridicule: "He's had one really good idea, congestion charging, but that doesn't give him the licence to become a world statesman."

Oddly, Livingstone's policy on South America did not figure in a recent statement on "Globalisation and the International Promotion of London" presented to the London Assembly. This concentrated on the importance of developing links to the emerging economies of China, Russia and India (the GLA has "embassies" in Shanghai and Beijing and plans to open two more in Delhi and Mumbai).

According to figures from the mayor's office, London now has over 60,000 foreign students, of whom 7,300 are from China and 4,300 are from India. Tory attacks on Livingstone for wanting to make 2007 the year of promoting London in India rightly backfired, as did attacks on the quality of London's universities and the wisdom of attracting foreign students. But critics have noted a disjuncture between the pragmatic politics of representing London's interests in a changing global economy and some of Livingstone's more ideologically driven initiatives.

The veteran left-wing journalist Nigel Fountain, who first met Livingstone in the early 1970s and has taken a close interest in Venezuela, believes the mayor was wrong to take up Chávez as a radical cause: "The left has always loved a man in uniform who claims to be left-wing. Chávez is a populist authoritarian sitting on an oil well. Ken Livingstone gets incredibly enthusiastic about things. But he doesn't have any idea what Venezuela is really like."

Livingstone would do well to at least address some of the concerns of Chávez's left-wing opponents in Venezuela itself. Take, for instance, Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual. Petkoff, a former resistance fighter who founded the democratic left-wing party Movimento al Socialismo in 1971, has called on the international left to expose the contradictions of the Chávez regime. Asked by the website Harry's Place to describe the country, he provided the following useful pen-portrait.

"Venezuela is a racially mixed [mestizo] country and you can find white and dark-skinned people on both the pro-Chávez and anti-Chávez sides . . . It is true that Chávez's social programmes have reached the broad masses of poor people, but his economic policy has increased poverty by 10 per cent since 1998 according to official figures from the National Institute of Statistics."

Livingstone has already been rightly criticised by those on the traditional left for his dalliance with the Islamic religious right. There remains a distinct possibility that his alliance with Chávez will prove equally difficult to justify as a genuinely progressive political strategy.

A senior adviser said the mayor's office had examined and rejected claims about the authoritarian nature of the Chávez regime. "We prefer to deal with a government that spends its oil revenues on health and education rather than exporting it to banks in Florida," he said.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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