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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.