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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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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