Source: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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