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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.

New Statesman
Ken Livingstone speaks after the announcement that Boris Johnson had won the London mayoral election. Photograph: Getty Images

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