Labour's London problem comes into focus

Ken Livingstone is presenting this year's mayoral contest as a dress rehearsal for the next general

Ken Livingstone had a piece in the Guardian yesterday stepping up hostilities in what is certain to be one of the most important domestic political events of 2012 - the London mayoral election.

The poll is of most immediate significance to citizens of the capital, since it is their mayor being chosen. But the battle, coming as it does mid-term for the coalition, is bound to become a proxy for the relative national electoral prospects of the main parties. Livingstone actively encourages that interpretation. He writes about his ambitions to run London as if he envisages heading a pioneer administration for the "new politics" that, he believes, will inevitably emerge from the combination of financial crisis and rising disaffection with the existing political establishment.

"Labour will make this election about a real alternative," the former mayor writes. It should be, in other words, a referendum on the coalition, David Cameron and the whole direction the country is taking. Livingstone is ramping up the national significance of the poll, which is a problem for Labour and Ed Miliband since hardly anyone thinks Boris Johnson, the Tory incumbent, will lose.

Opinion polls (albeit fairly unreliable at this stage since few voters have yet focused on the race) show a significant number of Labour voters preferring Johnson to Livingston. In fact, the decision by Livingstone to try to frame the contest as a kind of referendum on the general state of the economy reflects a realisation that a re-run of the personality-based prize fight of 2008 would almost certainly yield the same result. In a beauty contest (or rather a least-ugly contest) between the two quasi-celebrity candidates, Johnson would walk it.

As I wrote in the magazine last week, very senior Labour party figures are already talking privately as if Livingstone can't win. Miliband aides are rehearsing their defence, which is that the contest is indeed a peculiar celebrity face-off between two old rivals and not necessarily an accurate reflection of the national mood. Labour are confident that local elections and the vote for the London Assembly (one of the least noticed governing institutions in the country) will depict a healthy swing away from the Tories. London usually has a solid Labour vote - an island bastion of red in the south-eastern sea of blue.

But the reality is that failure to unseat Boris will be widely interpreted as a sign that the whole Miliband project is failing to gather momentum. A senior shadow cabinet member recently told me the boss's team is braced for a round of leadership speculation in the wake of Ken's defeat.

Ken might win, of course. Almost anything is possible. But it is hard to overstate how firm the consensus in Westminster is that Boris will prevail. One former member of the Livingstone team in London - and no fan of Johnson - confidently predicts his former boss will be "thrashed and humiliated". That would certainly not be a good outcome for Miliband. Downing Street is intensely focused on securing a Tory win in the capital precisely because of the effect it would have on perceptions of Labour electability. (Besides, if Johnson loses he'll be after a seat in parliament where he could cause no end of mischief for his old rivals Cameron and Osborne.)

MIliband didn't select Livingstone and the old veteran of London politics runs his own operation in the capital, so in theory the Labour leader could distance himself from a defeat. But that gets trickier if Ken's strategy is to advertise the whole thing as a dress rehearsal for the next general election, which his Guardian piece implies. Livingstone seems to think he can present himself as an outsider battling an elite establishment, bearing the flag for a different kind of politics. That is a pretty far-fetched campaign given that he has been around in London politics since the late 1960s and has already done the job of Mayor once before - not so much yesterday's man as the day before yesterday's man.

Miliband also wants to present himself as the outsider, "ripping up the rules", smashing the cosy consensus. That too is a bit far-fetched coming from someone who has never had a job - or, it would seem, much of a life - outside politics. But at least Miliband is young and unknown enough to carve out some new identity for himself. The last thing he needs is a well-known, battle-scarred veteran of old left politics road-testing his campaign lines and driving them into a ditch.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The UK must reflect on its own role in stoking tension over North Korea

World powers should follow the conciliatory approach of South Korea, not its tempestuous neighbour. 

South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in has done something which took enormous bravery. As US and North Korean leaders rattle their respective nuclear sabres at one another, Jae-in called for negotiations and a peaceful resolution, rejecting the kind of nationalist and populist response preferred by Trump and Kim Jong-un.

In making this call, Jae-in has chosen the path of most resistance. It is always much easier to call for one party in a conflict to do X or Y than to sit round a table and thrash through the issues at hand. So far the British response has sided largely with the former approach: Theresa May has called on China to clean up the mess while the foreign secretary Boris Johnson has slammed North Korea as “reckless”.

China undoubtedly has a crucial role to play in any solution to the North and South Korean conflict, and addressing the mounting tensions between Pyongyang and Washington but China cannot do it alone. And whilst North Korea’s actions throughout this crisis have indeed been reckless and hugely provocative, the fact that the US has flown nuclear capable bombers close to the North Korean border must also be condemned. We should also acknowledge and reflect on the UK’s own role in stoking the fires of tension: last year the British government sent four Typhoon fighter jets to take part in joint military exercises in the East and South China seas with Japan. On the scale of provocation, that has to rate pretty highly too.

Without being prepared to roll up our sleeves and get involved in complex multilateral negotiations there will never be an end to these international crises. No longer can the US, Britain, France, and Russia attempt to play world police, carving up nations and creating deals behind closed doors as they please. That might have worked in the Cold War era but it’s anachronistic and ineffective now. Any 21st century foreign policy has to take account of all the actors and interests involved.

Our first priority must be to defuse tension. I urge PM May to pledge that she will not send British armed forces to the region, a move that will only inflame relations. We also need to see her use her influence to press both Trump and Jong-un to stop throwing insults at one another across the Pacific Ocean, heightening tensions on both sides.

For this to happen they will both need to see that serious action - as opposed to just words - is being taken by the international community to reach a peaceful solution. Britain can play a major role in achieving this. As a member of the UN Security Council, it can use its position to push for the recommencing of the six party nuclear disarmament talks involving North and South Korea, the US, China, Russia, and Japan. We must also show moral and practical leadership by signing up to and working to enforce the new UN ban on nuclear weapons, ratified on 7 July this year and voted for by 122 nations, and that has to involve putting our own house in order by committing to the decommissioning of Trident whilst making plans now for a post-Trident defence policy. It’s impossible to argue for world peace sat on top of a pile of nuclear weapons. And we need to talk to activists in North and South Korea and the US who are trying to find a peaceful solution to the current conflict and work with them to achieve that goal.

Just as those who lived through the second half of the 20th century grew accustomed to the threat of a nuclear war between the US and Russia, so those of us living in the 21st know that a nuclear strike from the US, North Korea, Iran, or Russia can never be ruled out. If we want to move away from these cyclical crises we have to think and act differently. President Jae-in’s leadership needs to be now be followed by others in the international community. Failure to do so will leave us trapped, subject to repeating crises that leave us vulnerable to all-out nuclear war: a future that is possible and frightening in equal measure.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.