Livingstone failed because his old tactics no longer work

The Labour candidate is a casualty of the modern media, but not in the way he thinks.

One day they will write books about the result of the 2012 mayoral election. Politics students will marvel at how, with a respectable national lead in the polls, an experienced, household-name candidate managed to throw the campaign with a series of mistakes, compounded with denials which only exacerbated those mistakes. In the process, he would manage to alienate whole communities and draw heavy criticism from across the left-right spectrum of his own party.

If the vote was relatively close, his personal polling points to this being despite the candidate, not because of him (in the last poll, he was six per cent behind the Assembly vote and nine per cent behind the national vote for Labour). How else could it happen that he ended the campaign with the ignominy of his name being stripped from leaflets? That there remained a mere handful of senior politicians who would actually sign a letter of support for Labour (not, note, for him)? That the party’s chief campaigner could reach the point of saying, on record, “hold your nose and vote for Ken”?

It's not that Boris Johnson was so unbeatable after four mediocre years in office. No, Livingstone sabotaged himself so often, both during and in the years before the campaign, that even close supporters fell out of love with him. The question is: why now, not twelve years ago?

The facts are simultaneously both well-known, yet somehow, in a supreme act of cognitive dissonance, forgotten by Livingstone’s supporters. Not just the wheels spectacularly falling off the campaign itself – the tax controversy, the falling out with the Jewish community – but, since his last election win in 2004, he has gone almost wilfully scattering hostages to fortune: the stories of Lee Jasper, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Oliver Finegold, Press TV, Lutfur Rahman, the Chávez oil-deal-that-wasn’t, the Reuben brothers and the advisors from Socialist Action, all of which would have killed the careers of the less cunning. But it’s not as if he has suddenly changed: Livingstone has always done this kind of thing.

And neither has the public changed: what has changed is the way they interact. He is a twentieth-century politician who succeeded brilliantly in adapting his message to what people wanted to hear; but one who failed miserably to adapt his tactics to the new ways in which they take in information about their politicians.

It comes down to something very simple: as a public figure in the twenty-first century, you have to behave; if only because the technology of communications means that it is so much easier to get caught. You could say, with some accuracy, that the internet has done for Livingstone.

Livingstone’s are the tactics of the old left: do something indefensible and, when there is an outcry, deny everything. They were tactics that stood him in good stead during the 1980s at the GLC, because only a select few could be bothered to pick up his inconsistencies in the detail of the print media, and by then the news cycle would have moved on. Negatives could always be blamed on the prejudice of the Tory press, anyway.

But, over the last decade, no longer. Ordinary people - not to mention journalists - can now check these things very easily. In seconds, a name Googled, a quote confirmed, a video watched, and: "hang on a minute, that's not right." And, in 2012, we see the result. Harsh criticism, not just from the usual suspects, but from normally supportive quarters of the left: the Jonathan Freedlands and the Mehdi Hasans.

So, when Livingstone claims that he never knew anything of al-Qaradawi’s repugnant views on homosexuality, wife-beating and Jews, up pops a video clip of al-Qaradawi saying repugnant things on just those subjects. It is simply not credible any more that one of your staff didn’t research him. When you say that your tax affairs are entirely consistent with your previous denunciations of tax avoidance, thousands of amateurs can download a PDF file of your accounts and realise in a blink that that is not the case (and, incidentally, that neither do the accounts seem to be certified by an accountant).

The free-and-easy availability of information makes it easier to catch politicians out: and if you speak as carelessly as the Labour candidate always has, you will be caught out not once but repeatedly; which is what has happened. Trust, or the lack of it, is what stopped the Livingstone bandwagon in its tracks. That’s the beauty of twenty-first century politics: it requires politicians who say the same to everyone.

In short, it is perhaps Livingstone’s failure to adapt to this new world that has most contributed to his astonishing achievement: of gifting a campaign, which should really have been won, to his enemies, on a very good night for Labour.

In the end the modern, interactive media have helped achieve, too late, what Labour could not through its selection process: it filtered out what people did not want. And if that statement strikes you as glib, you might just reflect on this: how flawed must be the Labour Party’s selection process, if it can select a candidate that not only the public do not want, but that so many of its loyal members and supporters could not bring themselves to vote for.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

Ken Livingstone speaks after the announcement that Boris Johnson had won the London mayoral election. Photograph: Getty Images
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In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”