Leader: Livingstone is a poor candidate but this is still Labour’s moment

Our leader on Livingstone's flaws.

New Statesman
Cartoon by David Young.

Editor's note: The New Statesman always argued that Ken Livingstone was a deeply flawed candidate. Here's our leader from the week before the election.

Rupert and James Murdoch came to town this week to sit before the Leveson inquiry, and reminded everyone once again that something is rotten in what Tom Watson, the campaigning Labour MP, calls Britain’s “mafia” state. Here, our most senior politicians act in collusion with media moguls and our highest earners are given tax cuts, while the poorest are cleansed from their homes. Meanwhile, because of the coalition government’s wrong-headed deficit-reduction programme and its failure to use Keynesian fiscal stimuli to increase aggregate demand, the economy stagnates. The latest output figures released on Wednesday 25 April showed that the economy shrank by 0.2 per cent in the first three months of 2012. There was a contraction of 0.3 per cent in the final quarter of last year. The United Kingdom is officially back in recession.

As we predicted long before the 2010 general election (see our cover of 29 March 2010, right) austerity economics would result in a “double-dip” recession. And so it has come to pass. There has been no expansionary fiscal contraction. Unemployment has continued relentlessly to rise. The creation of jobs in the private sector is not compensating for those lost in the public sector. Fortunately Britain is outside the eurozone and its central bank is free to set its own interest rates, keep monetary policy as loose as possible and to devalue the currency to boost exports. Countries such as France, where the strutting Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated in the first round of the presidential elections by François Hollande, leader of the Socialists, and the Netherlands, where the coalition government has fallen apart in disagreement over austerity measures, have no such freedom.

On 3 May there are elections in many parts of the UK. The Labour Party is expected to win up to 600 seats as well as councils including Birmingham and Cardiff, though they seem set to lose the former stronghold of Glasgow City Council to the SNP – a defeat that would be symbolic of Labour’s deeper struggles in Scotland.

In London, where the party polled well in the general election, Labour is 19 points ahead (50 to 31). But its candidate for mayor, Ken Livingstone, is proving to be less popular than his party. The latest polls show he is 2 points behind Boris Johnson, the Conservative incumbent.

It has been a dismal and uninspiring mayoral campaign, defined by personal animosity between the two main candidates and populist sloganeering. A city as great as London deserves better than this circus.

In a repeat of his old “Fares Fair” campaign when he was leader of the GLC, abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986, Mr Livingstone is promising to reduce the cost of travelling on the Tube and buses as well as to restore the Education Maintenance Allowance, cut by the coalition government. He promises to protect “ordinary” Londoners from the severity of the government’s cuts. He strives to caricature Mr Johnson as a champion of the super rich and of the City elite: a Bullingdon boy “out of touch” with the realities of everyday realities. Indeed, the charge that the Mayor is more interested in promoting himself than in tending to the needs of the capital is essentially true.

The trouble for Mr Livingstone, who is 66 and arguably the most successful left-wing politician of his generation, is that he increasingly seems like a man out of time – a maverick and narcissist who was radicalised during the culture wars of the late 1970s  and whose populist rhetoric no longer impresses an electorate that has grown ever more sceptical of him. Plus, Red Ken, the scourge of tax evaders, has been humiliated by the revelation that he has been avoiding income tax by paying himself through a service company. This has led even some of his leftist supporters to denounce him. In addition, when accused of insensitivity to the concerns of London’s Jewish community, Mr Livingstone has responded with arrogant dismissal that aggravates the offence. Such selective engagement showcases the least attractive side of his character.

Labour is consistently running at between 6 and 8 points ahead of the Tories in national polls and Ed Miliband has earned the right to a second audition – to be seriously listened to as he repositions his party as a force prepared at last to challenge vested interests and offer a new economic dispensation. For this reason, Londoners should vote for Mr Livingstone, not only because Mr Johnson deserves to be beaten but because he is Labour’s representative at a time of profound crisis for our capital city and for the nation.