The real reasons Boris won and Ken lost

Both sides have drawn the wrong lessons from the result.

“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.
 
Ken Livingstone, Green Party candidate Jenny Jones and Boris Johnson listen to the results of the London mayoral election. Photograph: Getty Images.

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue