by Rob Marchant
This week’s revelations about Ken Livingstone’s tax affairs are not shocking. They are not even very surprising. But they are important in another sense: in the direct contradiction they highlight between word and deed.
Now, as many readers of Labour Uncut will know, its contributors are not generally renowned as class warriors. But, as a politician, it is simply staggeringly unwise to show yourself in the light that Livingstone has just done. As Nick Cohen notes in the Observer:
“Livingstone…is now the champion of the suffering 99% and enemy of the despised 1%. “Cameron’s problem is too many of his team have become super-rich by exploiting every tax fiddle,” he cried. ‘No one should be allowed to vote in a British election, let alone sit in our parliament, unless they are paying their full share of tax.’ He was talking about himself.’”
Let’s be clear: tax avoidance is not tax evasion. It is not illegal. Some people may even call it smart financial management. But don’t tell everyone it is morally reprehensible and then do it yourself. It’s not the tax avoidance itself, it’s the hypocrisy that will kill you, because people will cease to believe that you do not simply think that it’s one rule for you and another for everyone else. Or that you tell one thing to one person, and another to another
Livingstone’s 1999 failure to be endorsed by Labour’s NEC as its mayoral candidate was, frankly, badly handled. Unlike other countries where regional devolution has a long history, Labour was too green to realise that there are limits to how much you can get a regional politician to toe the party line. They have their own electoral base and can merely pay lip-service to the party, while doing just as they like. As Ken duly did, and as Boris is now doing. Fair enough.
But what was illuminating about this moment, for those of us who spoke to people coming out of the meeting, was the fact that he said one thing inside the meeting and quite another to the waiting media. Inside, the cocky, pugnacious, “you-can’t-touch-me” individualist of the left, running rings around the NEC. Outside, the downtrodden, rank-and-file victim of the brutal New Labour machine.
He has neatly divided opinion in the party almost since he emerged as GLC leader in the 1980s, and since when has largely dominated the left of it. He is either Labour’s last great hope, or the devil incarnate. No in-betweens.
But the truth does lies in between. Livingstone is a talented politician, and not a bad administrator. He did some good things as Mayor, like providing affordable and better public transport, along with the highly questionable things.
Politically, he has one essential trait in which he surely beats all other politicians: that extraordinary, teflon-like quality which means that the kind of scandals which would do for the careers of most mortals do not stick to him (a piece of advice: if you ever have the misfortune to be involved in a scandal of any kind, the first volume you should surely reach for is Livingstone’s autobiography. To look for tips). He has always an alibi, a story, a well-run media operation and a support network of people who will back him through thick and thin.
But I feel sorry for Ken’s supporters within the party. They seem – mostly – a well-intentioned bunch of people who prefer not to dig too deep into his denials, to maintain the happy fiction that it is those awful people in the media who delight in twisting the truth against him. But, as a result, they must constantly find themselves having to make the most threadbare excuses.
Stockholm Syndrome was originally used to describe the effect of hostages feeling sympathy for their captors, but it’s come to mean pretty much any abusive relationship where the abused party keeps making excuses and coming back for more. And, let’s face it, you would have had to come up with some pretty inventive excuses over the last decade.
Ah, but the reason for the London Mayoralty to do an oil deal with Venezuela – well, ok, it wasn’t really for oil but for money – wasn’t to make a political point, it was in fact…
Ah, but the Yusuf al-Qaradawi is a perfectly reasonable feller for a Labour politician to be supporting. He didn’t mean all those things about Jews, killing homosexuals, genital mutilation or wife-beating, he meant…
Ah, but it was quite legitimate to campaign with Lutfur Rahman, backed by the obnoxious Islamic Forum of Europe, against the official Labour party candidate in Tower Hamlets, because…
Ah, but the obvious reason for calling a Jewish journalist a “concentration camp guard” was…
Ah, but when he works for Iran’s Press TV, he’s doing it to engage with different points of view, not to get paid by the mouthpiece of an oppressive regime…
And so it goes.
Unlike Cohen, voting against Labour is something most of us could not bring ourselves to do. We know that we need the momentum of winning London if we are to have much of a chance of winning in 2015. That said, in the event of a win, that momentum could easily be cancelled out by a slew of bad stories emanating from London over the next three years, as they did during Livingstone’s second term.
So we vote, and we campaign. But we do so without enthusiasm. It is stretching that loyalty an awful lot to ask us to continue to support a man who, in his recent history, has shown precious little to us.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left