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Ken Livingstone’s 30 year itch

10:37 am - July 19th 2008

by Sunder Katwala    

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Ken Livingstone has effectively begun a four year campaign to be London’s next Mayor, having turned himself into a one-man unofficial scrutiny committee of the new Johnson regime. He says that he will confirm his decision to run once Labour opens the nomination process in 2010 (though he has shown before that this might not be his only possible route to City Hall).

It is not difficult to see why running again appeals to Ken. It offers not the prospect of avenging his defeat to Boris Johnson and being back in office for the 2012 Olympics too. Were Livingstone to win the Mayoralty again, it would demonstrate political stamina and bounce-backability which might well be unparalleled in democratic politics.

But there’s the rub for Labour. Livingstone may now have his sights set on outlasting both Thatcherism and New Labour. But will the party want to run a candidate in 2012 who would not just be re-fighting the election of four years before, but who first held the leadership of the Greater London Council more than three full decades before?

Should Livingstone maintain his interest, he would certainly prove a formidable opponent for anybody else in a contest to be Labour candidate. Right now, he must start the favourite, not least because it will probably remain difficult to guess who the other candidates will be until after a General Election in 2010.

Livingstone would not be popular with the party leadership but his distance from New Labour combined with executive experience could add to his appeal to many London party members. His early declaration of intent could prove smart tactics, not least if it leads to a repeat of the history to half-draft a revolving series of unwilling ‘anybody but Ken’ candidates to joust for the Labour banner.

The experience of 2000 provides a warning to the Labour leadership of how trying to block or outmanouvere Ken could backfire. However, Labour does not need a stitch-up over its candidacy – but quite the opposite approach. Holding an open primary could help to maximise the party’s chances in the next Mayoral race.

There is little reason to fear that such a vote could in practice be sabotaged by political opponents. And, with the preferential voting system, Labour will need votes of progressives from other parties and none to regain the Mayoralty. While this would be new territory for the party, it could help the party to start facing out to the electorate earlier.

This could prove an idea which Livingstone supporters would have reason to welcome. He would start with a strong advantage in name recognition, which could prove an even stronger asset with a broader franchise than in a party-only ballot. And, if a high turnout could be achieved, it would help to test the electorate’s view of a Livingstone third act in an attempt to select the candidate with broadest appeal.

But Livingstone’s combination of high positives and negatives is a reminder of how, while both candidates were successful in mobilising their own vote in the London race of 2008, ‘stop Boris’ did not have the potency to outweigh the calls of ‘time for a change’ and an ‘anybody but Ken’ feeling among the voters who decided the election. Even if Johnson is perceived to have struggled or failed in office, offering a re-run of the 2008 race could again play into the Conservatives’ hands.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Environment ,Events ,Labour party ,London Mayor ,Westminster

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Reader comments

This is a BAD idea. I really wish Ken wasn’t talking all this talk of him running seriously again. I also don’t agree with this idea that the left-grassroots will support his candidacy.

Will write more on this soon. I think this piece is spot on, but it doesn’t go far enough. Ken cannot run. We need someone who will win.

Open primaries? First Lammy now the head of a Labour party organ advocating what the Tories are already doing?

Is this primary talk really gaining that much traction within the Labour party??

3. Mike Killingworth

Labour won’t go for Ken again. Why give Boris all those free hits?

I can see him running as an independent and getting humiliated. All very sad.

This all rests upon the assumption that Boris will want to stand for a second term. That is not guaranteed by any means.

I think a lot of assumptions are being made here about the London electorate. We all know from the get go what an idiot BoJo is, and he took LOTS of flack over that clownliness, but he still got elected. I think you can’t underestimate just how people will vote to change away from the current situation. Does that mean they have short enough memories to vote back Ken? I think that also does disservice to just how many people were ready to re-elect the man.

Labour has always been a necessary but insufficient vehicle to campaign for fairness and equality for all. Many people might now wonder if it is even still necessary and we need to consider that in between a likely general election in 2010 and mayoral election in 2012, Labour may be in opposition. At best even if listens and recaptures the popular spirit, it usually takes about two years for an opposition party to reclaim its credibility.

There was a “progressive premium” of 12% for Ken over the national party score. In other words, a third more people voted Ken than they would have done Labour. That can explain itself through different reasons, the trust people had in Ken to continue to deliver policies that brought us closer to equality and empowerment, whether on transport, housing, environment or the living wage and the unique message and coalition that he had built that spanned the liberal (and admittedly not so liberal) left.

Open primaries are a great idea in theory, the French PS, Italian PD and US Democrats have tried it and using different approaches, what they have in common is that they all used it to bring different groups together around a competition of ideas that everyone could feel some ownership around.

Let’s learn from how Ken built his coalition, the good and the not so good. Let’s also remember that he had a unique story to tell, not only through having delivered as Mayor, but having been at a forefront of fighting the worst excesses of the reactionary right in the 80s, which many people can relate to, not just those in the Labour party.

Do we have someone who has a unique story to tell about how he/she can build a liberal-left coalition that reaches within & beyond political activists into local communities, while being able to deliver policies in the global multicultural city that London is and maybe even test out ideas that can challenge the neo-liberal status quo at the national level?

Ken polled 14 points above labour because he delivered for London – he could not outmanoeuvre the worst day for the labour party in 40 years, but he can certainly trump the mess that boris is making of london less than 3 months in the job – dont see anyone else in Labour offering any hope of doing the same…..

There are four more years to go until the next London mayoral election. Any thing can happen In that time period and way to early to say whether Ken will be the right candidate or not. The fact is though that Ken polled around 14% more vote than Labour, there were a lot of people in London who voted for him but not for Labour in GLA elections.

I very much doubt how Labour can find a candidate apart from him in the foreseeable future that is capable of carrying Londoners’ vote.

Alan Sugar, anyone?

Ken cannot run. We need someone who will win.

Name someone – anyone – who could concievably be the Labour candidate and do better than Ken. Name any Labour figure apart from Ken who could actually win, who would stand any chance of beating Boris. Most of the people whose names have been put in the frame so far would struggle to come second. And look at it from the other side: If Ken had been running as an Independent back in May, rather than as the Labour candidate, do you honestly believe he’d have lost?

10. Mike Killingworth

[9] Yes, he would have lost as an independent. Boris had a suburban strategy feeding on the resentment of Tory voters in the Barnets and Bromleys of London that Ken had been a Mayor for inner London. It was sentimental, rather than shrewd, of Ken to rejoin the Labour Party at all.

[8] Of course we can’t yet foresee the circumstances of the 2012 Mayoral Election. The Labour Party might even have fallen apart by then. It certainly won’t have more than 150 MPs in the next Parliament; it won’t have a plausible Leader; it won’t have a plausible sense of what it exists to achieve – and there’s no guarantee whatsoever that it will be in even second place in the polls, let alone within 20% of the Tories. The world may well be a very different, and for lots of reasons a far more scary place in four years’ time.

I don’t think you can say that Boris’ strategy, rather than Labour’s unpopularity, was behind Ken’s loss – for the reasons highlighted above.

Another 4 years of Boris and voters may well be looking back at the Ken years with fondness – and Ken may have learned from his mistakes.

13. Sunder Katwala

[2] An open primary seems to me to make considerably more sense in a Mayoral direct election – perhaps especially in London-

And I think it would be a good thing to try to build support for this before there is an established field of candidates, at that point, the discussion becomes much more strongly who in particular does/doesn’t this favour. The broader point is that it should be part of a different Labour approach to progressive political campaigning in London.

– it would be a way to try to pick a candidate with broad appeal, and this is particularly relevant given London’s preferential voting system.

– But beyond that, this could be part of an effort for Labour in London to ‘face out’ and try to build links and engage more people in campaigning with or alongside Labour groups, for example against specific Johnson measures. That might also help to recruit party members in some cases, but it could probably do more to fill the current gap whereby those who might want an looser involvement short of membership are offered little practical engagement, and that all or nothing offer leaves lots of people out.

There are various objections to an open primary. It would be important to try to get a sense among party members that this could be a positive approach (as some will fear a dilution of the rights of ‘insiders’) which is in the longer-term interests of the party as a campaigning force. Some in the party – perhaps especially at the top – would fear ‘entryism’ or capture by special interests/extremes: I am very sceptical that any such move could have much weight to affect the outcome in any substantive way, and rather see this as showing how strong some of the spectres and ghosts of the 70s and 80s are. (Even a declining Labour party membership is easily more than strong enough to see off the few hundred people who I think could be organised in that way, say from the SWP-left: this could only be a problem if the efforts to engage members and/or genuine external participation absolutely failed and fell flat).

In fact, my main doubt about the proposal is is a different one: the worry would be that this could be done and make very little practical difference, ie not many more people than are the usual participants in a party ballot would actually take part.

To do better that that, I think an open primary would need to be just one part of a much broader package of activities to broaden the base of Labour politics and links with progressive campaigning in London. There would be tensions in such an approach (on all sides) but I think it is a the type of experiment we need, and this is the obvious opportunity to try it, so it would be a missed opportunity not to.

The fact that the Conservatives tried this last time out doesn’t seem to me particularly problematic/important, other than in showing why such an approach could make sense for this type of election. (I am not sure how far they broadened participation in practice beyond the symbolism of being seen to try to open it up; but with more time I would like to see us do more than that. We have the time to do this if we were to plan early for this).

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  1. You read it there first at LondonSays

    […] there are others in Labour expending energy over the prospect of Ken standing again, such as the Fabians’ Sunder Katwala. Katwala raises an open primary as one way to thwart open up a Livingstone candidacy to wider […]

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