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The real reasons Boris won and Ken lost

Both sides have drawn the wrong lessons from the result.

New Statesman
Ken Livingstone, Green Party candidate Jenny Jones and Boris Johnson listen to the results of the London mayoral election. Photograph: Getty Images.
“His message, tone, strategy and agenda was wrong. This should not have been close” tweeted one Blairite critic of Ken Livingstone as it became clear he had lost. “It's not a victory for the Tories, it’s a victory for The Evening Standard and their relentless anti-Ken propaganda” tweeted one of Livingstone’s supporters, whilst Ken lashed out at “media bias” during his concession speech.
 
In reality both analyses contain some truth but fundamentally miss the mark. It is true that the coverage of this campaign, especially from the Evening Standard was unremittingly hard on Ken and easy going on Boris. As the results came in last night, even one of Boris’s biggest supporters told me privately how surprised they’d been at the sheer scale of fawning the paper has done over Johnson in the past few weeks.
 
But after four decades in politics, Ken should not be surprised at being attacked by newspapers. At every election he has stood in, the right-wing press has attacked him and at most of those elections, Ken has won. That he failed to do so this time is not because of what he describes as the “smears” against him, but because he was simply no longer able to overcome them.
 
Similarly the Blairite’s claim that Ken’s agenda had turned off voter’s does not stand up to much scrutiny. In all the polling that was done, Ken’s policies of lower fares and his measures to reduce the cost of living, were overwhelmingly supported by the public, with Johnson’s main policy of small cuts to council tax barely registering.
 
The problem was not Ken's 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.
 
However much we might like London Mayoral elections to be about the future of the city or “a referendum on the government”, they have never been about policies or political parties. They have always been about personalities. In 2000 Labour were running high nationally, and Tony Blair was still very popular. Yet the Labour candidate he imposed on London came a humiliating third in that election whilst Ken came first, even with a split Labour vote.
 
Similarly in 2004, Labour had a disastrous set of local and European election results and the Tories did well. Yet in London, Ken managed to romp home for the second time against the Conservative candidate Steven Norris. In both cases it wasn’t the political party of the candidate that decided the result, but the personalities of the candidates themselves.
 
In a personality contest between Ken and Norris, Ken won both times. In a personality contest between Ken and Boris, Ken lost both times. If you keep on asking the same question, then the chances are you will keep on getting the same answer.
 
The Conservative Party are also showing signs of taking all the wrong lessons from last night’s election results. Already the case is being built by many Tory-supporting commentators and politicians that Boris won because he is a “real Conservative” in favour of tax cutting, personal freedom and an aggressive attitude towards Europe.
 
But what this fails to grasp is that while Boris preached all of these things to Daily Telegraph readers, he has not practised any of them in his main job as London Mayor. Far from being a radical Conservative reformer, Boris has almost entirely accepted the settlement left for him by Ken Livingstone at City Hall.
 
Under Boris, spending on infrastructure, and the wages of Tube workers has risen whilst the mass bureaucracy at Transport for London has barely been touched. The multicultural festivals, diversity agendas and environmental projects have all continued whilst Boris has stretched every sinew to persuade Londoners that he is not the mad swivel-eyed Tory that Labour had tried to persuade them he was.
 
Some of the more unhinged elements of the Tory party believe that David Cameron’s support for gay marriage has cost them at this week’s elections. Yet in the one election where the party has done well, they have done so with a candidate who has not only championed gay rights but who actually led London’s Gay Pride march whilst wearing a pink Stetson.
 
If the Conservatives use these election results as an excuse to drift even further right then they will suffer far worse results in the years to come. Similarly if Labour use Ken’s loss as an excuse to follow the Tories in the same direction, then they too will suffer at the polls.
 
Boris Johnson did not win last night because of any “real Conservative” agenda and Ken Livingstone did not lose because of a failure to sign up to the Blairite cause. 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.