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24 January 2008

No one is born to rule

To call Ken Livingstone to account is not to attack Labour, or support the Conservatives - quite the

By Martin Bright

There is nothing more unattractive than a politician who thinks he is born to rule. This is as true of Boris Johnson as it has been of so many Conservative politicians in recent memory. David Cameron and George Osborne try their hardest to hide it, but Eton, Oxford and a tidy independent income make it difficult not to believe that the world owes you an oath of fealty. Even with his new haircut, Johnson, who shares the same pedigree, still has the look of a man accustomed to service from the lower orders.

This is why Labour politicians must never become so arrogant that they think they are no longer answerable for their actions. This is why Ken Livingstone’s reaction to the allegations in the Channel 4 Dispatches, The Court of Ken, screened on 21 January, is so disappointing. Livingstone risks becoming as arrogant in power as his historic adversaries in the Tory party, by systematically refusing to answer the questions we have raised about the way he spends public money and the electoral activities of his close circle of advisers.

Right up until the point of transmission, the mayor attempted to browbeat Channel 4 executives into dropping the film by suggesting that it was being shown too close to May’s mayoral elections. Over the weekend, his office tried to smear the reputation of Atma Singh, a brave whistleblower who appeared in the film, for being a threat to national security. His crime: objecting to the mayor’s policy of support for radical Islam and refusing to meet members of the Metropolitan Police who feel the same way.

Claims conceded

On the morning after transmission, the mayor changed tack. At his weekly press conference, instead of dismissing the central claims in the film, he conceded they were all true. He admitted that he did indeed drink whisky at Mayor’s Questions at ten o’clock in the morning, but as a form of self-administered treatment for bronchitis. Yes, he said, his staff would not be allowed to do the same, but that was not his decision, but the London Assembly’s. He then alluded to Winston Churchill’s wartime drinking, a sure sign that he is beginning to have delusions of grandeur. Believe me, Ken, you are no Winston Churchill.

He also admitted that a campaign was conducted against Trevor Phillips’s candidature as head of the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights from within City Hall, just as we said in the programme. But he saw no problem with that. Most seriously, he admitted that his advisers, paid from the public purse, had worked on his personal campaign for re-election in 2004. Just to be clear, that’s public money from tax payers of all political persuasions being used as a de facto donation to the Livingstone campaign. At first, he justified the campaigning, writing of articles and fundraising because he claimed it took place outside office hours. But Glen Goodman, a reporter from ITV’s London Tonight, pointed out that emails he has seen had been sent from the “KenforLondon” campaign to the mayor’s advisers during the working day. Livingstone then shifted his ground again by saying that it was impos sible to define when his advisers were technically at work, because they worked such long hours.

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The mayor has created a problem for himself here, and his advisers will not be thanking him for his candour. Perhaps Livingstone believes it is perfectly proper to use advisers earning more than £100,000 from the public purse to work on his election campaign. Such behaviour would be completely unacceptable in Westminster, but then City Hall has few of the checks and balances of our national political institutions.

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It is now for the Electoral Commission and the Standards Board of England to decide whether Livingstone and his advisers breached the rules. At present, it looks as if the mayor believes he is untouchable. The institutions designed to hold him to account must prove they can do their job – and that includes the London Assembly, which has so far failed to rein in the mayor’s excesses.

Legitimate investigation

It has been suggested that the political editor of the New Statesman should not have become involved with a project that could have a grave effect on the electoral chances of Labour’s candidate. I do not accept this. Labour politicians should not receive special treatment The Channel 4 documentary was an entirely legitimate investigation into the office of Mayor of London. The only incumbent of that office is Ken Livingstone. We found serious structural weaknesses in the mechanisms designed to hold the mayor to account. This would apply to anyone elected to that position. The point is that Livingstone has a unique position in the British political system and he should not be immune to scrutiny.

Livingstone needs to get real and so does the Labour Party. Attempts by the mayor’s office to distract people from the damning claims contained in The Court of Ken have not washed. This was not a party political broadcast for the Boris Johnson campaign; I am not driven by a personal dislike of Livingstone, although as a result of our investigation I now think that he is unfit for office. It is not a campaign led by the Daily Mail and the London Evening Standard: the Guar dian and the Observer have both run leaders calling on Livingstone to justify himself.

He has now accepted that the claims in the film are true. His latest attempt to shrug them off will not wash. It is not just pro priety, but the appearance of propriety that matters. No one is born to rule.