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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All 27 things wrong with today’s Daily Mail front cover

Where do I even start?

Hello. Have you seen today’s Daily Mail cover? It is wrong. Very wrong. So wrong that if you have seen today’s Daily Mail cover, you no doubt immediately turned to the person nearest to you to ask: “Have you seen today’s Daily Mail cover? It is wrong.”

But just how wrong is the wrong Mail cover? Let me count the ways.

  1. Why does it say “web” and not “the web”?
  2. Perhaps they were looking on a spider’s web and to be honest that makes more sense because
  3. How does it take TWO MINUTES to use a search engine to find out that cars can kill people?
  4. Are the Mail team like your Year 8 Geography teacher, stuck in an infinite loop of typing G o o g l e . c o m into the Google search bar, the search bar that they could’ve just used to search for the thing they want?
  5. And then when they finally typed G o o g l e . c o m, did they laboriously fill in their search term and drag the cursor to click “Search” instead of just pressing Enter?
  6. The Daily Mail just won Newspaper of the Year at the Press Awards
  7. Are the Daily Mail – Newspaper of the Year – saying that Google should be banned?
  8. If so, do they think we should ban libraries, primary education, and the written word?
  9. Sadly, we know the answer to this
  10. Google – the greatest source of information in the history of human civilisation – is not a friend to terrorists; it is a friend to teachers, doctors, students, journalists, and teenage girls who aren’t quite sure how to put a tampon in for the first time
  11. Upon first look, this cover seemed so obviously, very clearly fake
  12. Yet it’s not fake
  13. It’s real
  14. More than Google, the Mail are aiding terrorists by pointing out how to find “manuals” online
  15. While subsets of Google (most notably AdSense) can be legitimately criticised for profiting from terrorism, the Mail is specifically going at Google dot com
  16. Again, do they want to ban Google dot com?
  17. Do they want to ban cars?
  18. Do they want to ban search results about cars?
  19. Because if so, where will that one guy from primary school get his latest profile picture from?
  20. Are they suggesting we use Bing?
  21. Why are they, once again, focusing on the perpetrator instead of the victims?
  22. The Mail is 65p
  23. It is hard to believe that there is a single person alive, Mail reader or not, that can agree with this headline
  24. Three people wrote this article
  25. Three people took two minutes to find out cars can drive into people
  26. Trees had to die for this to be printed
  27. It is the front cover of the Mail

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