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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The NS leader: Cold Britannia

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. 

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. The polls suggest a series of grim election defeats across Britain: Labour is 10 points behind the Conservatives even in Wales, putting Theresa May’s party on course to win a majority of seats there for the first time in a century. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the psephologist John Curtice expects the resurgent Tories, under the “centrist” leadership of Ruth Davidson, to gain seats while Labour struggles to cling on to its single MP.

Where did it all go wrong? In this week’s cover essay, beginning on page 26, John Harris traces the roots of Labour’s present troubles back to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs, on 1 May 1997, when it returned 418 MPs to the Commons and ended 18 years of Conservative rule. “Most pop-culture waves turn out to have been the advance party for a new mutation of capitalism, and so it proved with this one,” Mr Harris, one of the contributors to our New Times series, writes. “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”

Jump forward two decades and London is indeed now far too dominant in the British economy, sucking in a disproportionate number of graduates and immigrants and then expecting them to pay £4 for a milky coffee and £636,777 for an average house. Tackling the resentment caused by London’s dominance must be an urgent project for the Labour Party. It is one that Mr Corbyn and his key allies, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, are not well placed to do (all four are ultra-liberals who represent
London constituencies).

Labour must also find a happy relationship with patriotism, which lies beneath many of the other gripes made against Mr Corbyn: his discomfort with the institutions of the British state, his peacenik tendencies, his dislike of Nato and military alliances, his natural inclination towards transnational or foreign liberation movements, rather than seeking to evolve a popular national politics.

New Labour certainly knew how to wave the flag, even if the results made many on the left uncomfortable: on page 33, we republish our Leader from 2 May 1997, which complained about the “bulldog imagery” of Labour’s election campaign. Yet those heady weeks that followed Labour’s landslide victory were a time of optimism and renewal, when it was possible for people on the left to feel proud of their country and to celebrate its achievements, rather than just apologise for its mistakes. Today, Labour has become too reliant on misty invocations of the NHS to demonstrate that it likes or even understands the country it seeks to govern. A new patriotism, distinct from nationalism, is vital to any Labour revival.

That Tony Blair and his government have many detractors hardly needs to be said. The mistakes were grave: the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, a lax attitude to regulating the financial sector, a too-eager embrace of free-market globalisation, and the failure to impose transitional controls on immigration when eastern European states joined the EU. All contributed to the anger and disillusionment that led to the election as Labour leader of first the hapless Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time rebel backbencher.

However, 20 years after the victory of the New Labour government, we should also acknowledge its successes, not least the minimum wage, education reform, Sure Start, a huge fall in pensioner poverty and investment in public services. Things did get better. They can do so again.

The far right halted

For once, the polls were correct. On 23 April, the centrist Emmanuel Macron triumphed in the first round of the French election with 24 per cent of the vote. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen came second with 21.3 per cent in an election in which the two main parties were routed. The two candidates will now face off on 7 May, and with the mainstream candidates of both left and right falling in behind Mr Macron, he will surely be France’s next president.

“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” said Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Parti Socialiste, who had strongly criticised Mr Macron during the campaign. “This is deadly serious now.” He is correct. Mr Macron may be a centrist rather than of the left but he is a democratic politician. Ms Le Pen is a borderline fascist and a victory for her would herald a dark future not just for France but for all of Europe. It is to Donald Trump’s deep shame that he appeared to endorse her on the eve of the vote.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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