It was around midnight on Friday night, when I heard Boris Johnson’s plummy Etonian tones intone his acceptance speech, that it was finally brought home to me that Labour had indeed lost the 2012 mayoral election. I felt suddenly depressed and infinitely sad. The polls had said we would for weeks. But in the final cliff-hanging hours of Thursday night I wanted to believe that somehow, defying all reason, Ken could just inch ahead on second-preference votes.
No sooner had the returning officer announced the result than the airwaves and the blogosphere were flooded with people analysing why Ken lost. But much of this punditry says more about the undying enmity towards Ken in some sections of the Labour Party than about the facts. And the most popular analysis so far is that “It’s Ken wot lost it”
The people that would blame Ken, and Ken alone, for his defeat like to point to the allegedly huge gap between his vote and the vote for Labour GLA candidates. But this analysis shows that the average gap between the two was one per cent. What Ken’s detractors always forget is that he brings with him his own loyal vote, going back to his glory days at the GLC, which compensates for any missing Labour voters.
But Ken’s enemies also ignore the fact that the Tories fought a ruthless American style campaign designed to destroy Ken as a person. And they were aided and abetted by an Evening Standard which was more rabidly pro-Tory than ever. With the benefit of hindsight maybe Ken’s tax affairs could have been managed better or the rebuttal more effective. But the Tories, and their little helpers at the Standard, zeroed in on the issue. David Cameron raised it three separate times in one session of Prime Minister’s Questions. They knew smearing Ken as some kind of money-hungry, tax dodging plutocrat went to the heart of Ken’s brand. In that way, the campaign on Ken’s tax affairs owed a lot to the equally unpleasant and dishonest 2004 Republican “swift boat” campaign against the Democratic nominee John Kerry.
The allegations of anti-Semitism which dogged Ken’s campaign were also a smear. And, when challenged, the people hinting this always denied that they were making any such allegation. In fact the origins of the differences of opinion between Ken and some on the right were really about his long-standing support of justice for the Palestinians. But these political differences morphed into an allegation of anti-Semitism, which was all the harder to rebut because it was never spelt out. However it undoubtedly had an effect. Although the average difference between Ken’s vote and the Labour vote was only 1 per cent, in Barnet and Camden, covering a big Jewish community, it was 3 per cent.
But the main reason for the undying enmity between Ken and the Labour Party establishment was that on so many issues he was right and they were wrong. It was Ken who argued for troops out of Northern Ireland and he supported the cause of the Birmingham Six when the Labour Party front bench wanted nothing to do with the issue. Ken stood up for gay rights when you got abused for it. And as Mayor of London he introduced civil partnerships and proved to Tony Blair that he could bring them in nationally without risking the wrath of the Daily Mail-reading classes.. He argued the feminist case (and promoted women) long before it was a mainstream issue in the Labour Party. And he fought for racial justice and cases like the Stephen Lawrence campaign, when mainstream Labour Party figures would not touch these issues with a barge pole.
And there is no corner of the capital where you cannot see the consequences of Ken’s vision as a political leader in London. Too many people forget that was it the money and the new objectives Ken gave the South Bank arts complex that turned it into the hugely popular destination for ordinary people it is today. First as leader of the GLC and then as London mayor he masterminded huge waves of investment in public transport. Umpteen stations were upgraded, new bus routes were introduced and new lines built including the East London line. Ken was passionate about bringing the Olympics to London. The congestion charge was his personal decision. On the environment and green issues he was genuinely forward thinking
In a long career in politics, Ken accumulated all too many enemies. And there is no doubt he had his faults. But on his worst days he was a better and braver politician than all the people currently pontificating on his character flaws. Ken he will go down in history as one of the great big city leaders like Fiorella La Guardia in New York. As we move into the worst slump since the 1930s, London will soon have buyer’s remorse about Boris Johnson. But, in a Latin tag that Boris would appreciate, you can say of Ken and his leadership in London “Si monumentum requiris circumspice”
Diane Abbott is the shadow public health minister.