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

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.