No one is born to rule

To call Ken Livingstone to account is not to attack Labour, or support the Conservatives - quite the

There is nothing more unattractive than a politician who thinks he is born to rule. This is as true of Boris Johnson as it has been of so many Conservative politicians in recent memory. David Cameron and George Osborne try their hardest to hide it, but Eton, Oxford and a tidy independent income make it difficult not to believe that the world owes you an oath of fealty. Even with his new haircut, Johnson, who shares the same pedigree, still has the look of a man accustomed to service from the lower orders.

This is why Labour politicians must never become so arrogant that they think they are no longer answerable for their actions. This is why Ken Livingstone's reaction to the allegations in the Channel 4 Dispatches, The Court of Ken, screened on 21 January, is so disappointing. Livingstone risks becoming as arrogant in power as his historic adversaries in the Tory party, by systematically refusing to answer the questions we have raised about the way he spends public money and the electoral activities of his close circle of advisers.

Right up until the point of transmission, the mayor attempted to browbeat Channel 4 executives into dropping the film by suggesting that it was being shown too close to May's mayoral elections. Over the weekend, his office tried to smear the reputation of Atma Singh, a brave whistleblower who appeared in the film, for being a threat to national security. His crime: objecting to the mayor's policy of support for radical Islam and refusing to meet members of the Metropolitan Police who feel the same way.

Claims conceded

On the morning after transmission, the mayor changed tack. At his weekly press conference, instead of dismissing the central claims in the film, he conceded they were all true. He admitted that he did indeed drink whisky at Mayor's Questions at ten o'clock in the morning, but as a form of self-administered treatment for bronchitis. Yes, he said, his staff would not be allowed to do the same, but that was not his decision, but the London Assembly's. He then alluded to Winston Churchill's wartime drinking, a sure sign that he is beginning to have delusions of grandeur. Believe me, Ken, you are no Winston Churchill.

He also admitted that a campaign was conducted against Trevor Phillips's candidature as head of the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights from within City Hall, just as we said in the programme. But he saw no problem with that. Most seriously, he admitted that his advisers, paid from the public purse, had worked on his personal campaign for re-election in 2004. Just to be clear, that's public money from tax payers of all political persuasions being used as a de facto donation to the Livingstone campaign. At first, he justified the campaigning, writing of articles and fundraising because he claimed it took place outside office hours. But Glen Goodman, a reporter from ITV's London Tonight, pointed out that emails he has seen had been sent from the "KenforLondon" campaign to the mayor's advisers during the working day. Livingstone then shifted his ground again by saying that it was impos sible to define when his advisers were technically at work, because they worked such long hours.

The mayor has created a problem for himself here, and his advisers will not be thanking him for his candour. Perhaps Livingstone believes it is perfectly proper to use advisers earning more than £100,000 from the public purse to work on his election campaign. Such behaviour would be completely unacceptable in Westminster, but then City Hall has few of the checks and balances of our national political institutions.

It is now for the Electoral Commission and the Standards Board of England to decide whether Livingstone and his advisers breached the rules. At present, it looks as if the mayor believes he is untouchable. The institutions designed to hold him to account must prove they can do their job - and that includes the London Assembly, which has so far failed to rein in the mayor's excesses.

Legitimate investigation

It has been suggested that the political editor of the New Statesman should not have become involved with a project that could have a grave effect on the electoral chances of Labour's candidate. I do not accept this. Labour politicians should not receive special treatment The Channel 4 documentary was an entirely legitimate investigation into the office of Mayor of London. The only incumbent of that office is Ken Livingstone. We found serious structural weaknesses in the mechanisms designed to hold the mayor to account. This would apply to anyone elected to that position. The point is that Livingstone has a unique position in the British political system and he should not be immune to scrutiny.

Livingstone needs to get real and so does the Labour Party. Attempts by the mayor's office to distract people from the damning claims contained in The Court of Ken have not washed. This was not a party political broadcast for the Boris Johnson campaign; I am not driven by a personal dislike of Livingstone, although as a result of our investigation I now think that he is unfit for office. It is not a campaign led by the Daily Mail and the London Evening Standard: the Guar dian and the Observer have both run leaders calling on Livingstone to justify himself.

He has now accepted that the claims in the film are true. His latest attempt to shrug them off will not wash. It is not just pro priety, but the appearance of propriety that matters. No one is born to rule.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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