by David Talbot
You would be forgiven for thinking that the only segment of the United Kingdom that is to vote this May is London. But on May 3rd elections will take place in 180 councils across the country, with 5000 seats up for grabs. Over the Easter break I duly volunteered to distribute leaflets in my home CLP back in rural Warwickshire. Amidst the endless open countryside, hamlets and villages I could not have been more removed from the hectic London political scene.
Until, that is, I stopped in the hamlet of Ardens Grafton and frequented the sole shop. A picture of Ken Livingstone weeping greeted me as I picked up the front page of the Guardian. Much has been said about the authenticity, or not, of the performance since. But with accompanying prose underneath the picture spilling over to page two, and a double-page spread adjoining pages seven and eight, it confirmed, if nothing else, just quite how London-centric our media is. It also focused the mind on the London mayoral election ahead – and what those with serious doubts about Livingstone should do come that Thursday in early May.
I am seemingly in a large rump of Labour voters who do not view Ken Livingstone favourably. YouGov put the figure at 31%, ComRes 17%. In a tight election these numbers are more than enough to secure significant defeat for the Labour candidate.
The charge sheet against Ken Livingstone has been heavily trailed in recent weeks. Commentators ranging from Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, Philip Collins in the Times, Nick Cohen in the Observer and, more troublingly, the Jewish Chronicle have voiced serious concerns about our candidate. Coupled with the usual antagonists; Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph is his usual obsessed self, and the Evening Standard, who have effortlessly slipped back to where they left off in 2008; vast swathes of the media, and ordinary Labour members, are, to put it politely, at best lukewarm about Livingstone.
Ken Livingstone is the problem of this campaign. To pretend otherwise is to, wilfully, miss the point. At a time when Labour has opened up the biggest lead over the Tories since the aftermath of the general election, Livingstone is trailing the London Labour vote by 6%, whilst Boris Johnson is outperforming the Tories in the capital by 10%.
In a contest where the two main combatants have deliberately made it presidential, with all the narcissism that entails, Johnson has clearly won this key battle.
Livingstone doesn’t deserve the automatic support of Labour members, let alone the wider left, just because he is the main challenger to Johnson. Rather than deriding us doubters, he and his team should seek to understand why such a significant number of otherwise loyal Labour party members and voters can’t bring themselves to support his fight. Appeals to toe the line are, ironically, displays of machine politics that used to be levelled so critically against the Blairite right.
The myriad of accusations levelled against Livingstone are serious, and as a party they deserve our consideration.
And yet, what is ultimately so disappointing is that Livingstone’s policy platform is basically sound. The pledge to cut transport fares, to restore EMA, to focus on London’s housing and many more beside are ones that all Londoners should be able to rally around.
Johnson will win if most of his voters turn out and Labour’s don’t. His low, policy-free, populist campaign shows exactly what kind of administration he would run if re-elected. Voting Labour, and by extension for Livingstone, is the only way to keep Johnson out. Those who think they can’t vote Labour should think again. There is nothing moral about letting Johnson win: consciences that forbid a Labour vote because of Livingstone should consider the consequences.
So, in the spirit of Polly Toynbee’s 2005 campaign, the nose peg is coming out. Toynbee offered a free nose peg to any reluctant Labour voter who went to the polls because they knew it’s what they must do. If the nose pegs aren’t enough for the hardened few, dig out the smelling salts, take a glug of brandy and head to the polls.
It’s not a game. The people who always, without fail, get hit hardest by Conservative administrations are the powerless, the weakest, the voiceless – and they may not even vote. Boris Johnson’s priorities are not my priorities.
On 3rd May, with my nose peg on, I’ll vote for Ken Livingstone.
David Talbot is a political consultant