A big boost for Labour in London: Mehdi Hasan on the battle for mayor

Ken v Boris just got very interesting. The former mayor has much more than a fighting chance come May.

Back in November 2010, I wrote in my NS column:

One of the most frustrating aspects to writing a regular column on British politics is having to challenge the conventional wisdom in which so many of our leading broadcasters, reporters, columnists and now bloggers seem to bathe. Groupthink abounds inside the Westminster village. Lazy assumptions proliferate like weeds.

Take the run-up to the general election. For much of 2009, political correspondents and pollsters, columnists and commentators queued up to predict the size of the impending Tory landslide. Would it be double-digit? Or triple-digit? The idea that the Tories might fail to win the election outright was, to put it mildly, considered "unconventional".

I also noted how I had been

mocked by some of my peers for daring to suggest on these pages, in June 2009, in the wake of Labour's humiliating defeat at the European elections, that the Tories' poll ratings were "soft" and Labour still had "a fighting chance of a hung parliament at next year's general election".

So I couldn't help but smile when a press release from YouGov, with the results of their latest poll on London's forthcoming mayoral election, dropped into my inbox this morning.

It revealed that Ken Livingstone had overtaken Tory incombent Boris Johnson in the race for City Hall, with the Labour candidate taking a narrow 51-49 lead.

Ken takes lead over Boris in race for Mayor

announced the headline in the Evening Standard.

Refreshingly, YouGov president Peter Kellner openly confessed:

The facts have changed, so I have changed my mind.

Throughout last year, I regarded Boris Johnson as the likeliest winner of London's coming mayoral election. YouGov and other pollsters showed consistently that around one-in-five Labour supporters would desert Ken Livingstone and vote for Boris. From Labour's viewpoint, London began to look alarmingly like Scotland, where Alex Salmond won his stunning victory last year because one in five normally Labour voters switched to the SNP.

Our latest poll tells a different story. We find a five-point swing from Boris to Ken. Last June, Boris enjoyed an eight-point lead (54-46%); now Ken is two points ahead, by 51-49%. Allowing for sampling error, the race is too close to call.

Will others in the Westminster village and the commentariat now join Kellner in "changing" their minds? Will they now admit that Ken Livingstone has not just a chance but a fighting chance, a good chance, of winning May's mayoral contest? Up until this point, the "lazy assumption" - even among some centre-left journalists - has been that Boris Johnson will walk it, that he has the election sewn up. (Remember all those journalists and columnists who were so keen to crown Cameron as PM in 2009 and January-April 2010, and assume a landslide majority for the Tories was in the bag?)

YouGov's latest poll suggests that those of us who were sceptical about such claims had good reason to be. Admittedly, it's a single poll and there's all the usual stuff to note about outliers, rogues, sampling errors and the rest, but I suspect more and more polls will start reflecting Ken's start-of-the-year "surge" in the coming weeks.

As the Standard notes:

Moreover, the three issues that Londoners regard as most important are those that Mr Livingstone has campaigned hardest on: tackling crime (picked by 42 per cent), improving transport (41 per cent) and easing the cost of living (33 per cent). Only four per cent think promoting London abroad, a regular Boris theme, is a priority.

The energetic and focused Livingstone is hitting the right issues - and hitting them hard. There is a lesson for his party leader here: Ed Miliband shouldn't be trying to cover and campaign on every issue, in detail, all the time, but picking those few issues that voters care about and that Labour has leads over the Tories on - for example, jobs and the NHS - and hitting them hard, in speeches, interviews, photo-ops, etc, again and again and again.

There's also the intriguing issue of Livingstone's personality, his authenticity: in the modern political era, few candidates for high office are harmed by being themselves. In fact, the reverse is true.

Speaking of Ed Miliband, this latest poll will provide a much-needed boost for him and his aides too, after a horrid start to the year. If Livingstone wins against the odds in May, and London goes Labour, expect Miliband and his supporters to spin it as a victory for his leadership and his political agenda - and vote of no-confidence in David Cameron. If Ken loses to Boris, however, expect whispers about the future of Miliband's leadership to get louder. Much louder.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot