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Mehdi Hasan liked Ken Livingstone - but he was his own worst enemy

Defeat for Livingstone can't be pinned on Miliband.

So Ken Livingstone lost. Depressing, eh?

But perhaps not surprising. He had a bad press from start to finish (step forward, Evening Standard!) and, let's be honest, he ran a bad campaign. Then there's the fact that, as Adam Bienkov points out, in an excellent blogpost on Staggers, it wasn't Ken's (popular) policies that cost him the election, or his particular political agenda

. . . but the fact that it was Ken calling for that agenda. The sad truth is that after 41 years in London politics, too many Londoners have simply stopped listening to him. Every politician has a shelf life, a point where voters look at them and coldly decide to give another product a go. For Ken that happened in 2008 and he has spent the past four years failing to come to terms with it. . . Boris won because Londoners saw him as the most charismatic and likeable candidate. Ken lost, because after 41 long years too many Londoners have simply had enough.

In fact, I'm amazed that Boris's victory was so narrow in the end. Remember: Ken lost by just 62,000 votes out of the two million votes cast. Not bad, huh? 

Of course, the counter-argument is that Ken should have won by a mile, given the unpopularity of the Tory government and its austerity programme, Boris's buffoonish tendencies and Labour's big lead in London over all the other parties (as illustrated by the Opposition's impressive gains on the GLA). I don't deny this. I'm merely pointing out that in the various post-election post-mortems, we shouldn't exaggerate Ken's unpopularity or pretend "London" as a whole rejected him. I also refuse to believe that Oona King would have beaten Boris if she'd been chosen as the candidate instead, and I've seen no evidence to suggest that former Home Secretary Alan Johnson could have been persuaded to stand down from the frontbench and from parliament in order to run against Boris - had the Labour Party agreed to a slower selection process. 

I have to say, while I have my own criticisms of Ken and his campaign, the astonishing level of enmity and hatred expressed towards the Labour was out of all proportion to any of his missteps and misdeeds, both real and imagined. And it wasn't just the usual suspects in the right-wing press - the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph. There was also the collection of (usual?) suspects on the "left": Nick Cohen, Martin Bright, Dan Hodges, David Aaronovitch et al. Even normally sensible centre-left commentators, like the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland, couldn't bring themselves to back the Labour candidate. "I don't want to see Boris Johnson re-elected," wrote Freedland, "but I can't vote for Ken Livingstone." 

I responded to Freedland, who I consider to be a friend, in a Guardian column of my own:

This is an evasion, pure and simple: if you don't want to see Boris re-elected then you have to vote for Ken. Sorry, there are no two ways about it.

Actions, as they say, have consequences. Whatever Ken's faults, were they really that bad or unforgivable that these lefties were willing to allow Boris, the arch-Thatcherite, back in for another four years? Really?

Freedland's particular gripe with Ken was over the latter's relationship with the Jewish community. Personally, I don't think that's what cost Ken the election - it was the tax avoidance, stupid. 

Ken handed his opponents a club with which to beat him, day after day, and did little to defend himself, with aides foolishly dismissing the row as a "non-story". But, as I wrote in a column in the New Statesman in March:

Principles matter. And so, too, does perception. So what on earth was Team Ken thinking? Why did none of the former mayor's aides raise any objections to his legal yet dodgy tax arrangements? The simple truth is this: you cannot run as the populist, banker-bashing candidate, the one who backs higher taxes on "rich bastards", if you're quietly channelling hundreds of thousands of pounds of your own earnings into a company jointly owned with your wife. You just can't.

Or as the headline warned:

Sorry, Ken — own up or accept the consequences

I so wanted to be proved wrong on this - but I wasn't.

Still, the silver lining: David Cameron won't be smiling this weekend. His party lost more than 400 seats across the land while the biggest threat to his leadership of the Conservative Party was re-elected in London. Right-wing backbenchers are getting more and more frustrated with his leadership - and, in particular, his partnership with the hapless Nick Clegg and the imploding Lib Dems. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband's Labour Party gained more than 800 seats, making in-roads in the south of England at the same time as holding off the SNP in Scotland. The Labour leader can't be blamed for Ken's defeat - Labour's mayoral candidate was elected, fair and square, the day before Miliband's own victory in the party leadership election in September 2010. Ed inherited Ken and did his best to help get him elected.

So far in this parliament, Miliband and Labour have been defeated only by Alex Salmond (in the Scottish Parliament elections last May); by George Galloway in Bradford West; and by Boris Johnson in London. None of those three men, of course, will be competing with Ed Miliband for the keys to Number 10 come 2015. The man who will, however, is proving to be a serial loser. As I point out in my column this week, the Don't Overestimate Cameron Association is growing in size. 

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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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

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“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

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“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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