by Atul Hatwal
The phrase was memorably used by Alan Clark to describe the shambolic command of British infantry in the First World War. In the wake of Ken Livingstone’s defeat, ‘lions led by donkeys’, captures the essence of what happened to Labour in London’s mayoral election.
Thousands of Labour activists ordered over the top in the cause of a flawed figurehead, as part of a doomed campaign that the top brass had privately written-off several months ago.
In the carnage of a London loss, where Labour’s candidate under-performed his party’s Assembly vote by 43,480 votes or 5% on first preferences, it can be hard to disentangle the reasons for defeat.
But three distinct reasons stand out: the suicidal candidate selection process, Ed Miliband’s judgement and, of course, the candidate himself.
At the root of Labour’s London problem was a ludicrous decision on the timetable for candidate selection
In the aftermath of the general election defeat in May 2010, while the party reeled, the NEC decided that this was the best time to pick a mayoral candidate – 24 months before the election.
Gordon Brown’s resignation forced the timetable for a leadership election. Running the mayoral selection in parallel was entirely voluntary.
It meant potential candidates from the front bench such as Alan Johnson were unprepared. The selection process was railroaded through just days after the general election, before many MPs could collect their thoughts after a bruising election contest, let alone raise the funds to fight.
It didn’t have to be this way. In 2000 the Labour selection wasn’t concluded till three months before the election, while Boris Johnson only got the nod just seven months before the 2008 election, and that didn’t seem to do him any harm.
But when the NEC made their decision, sanctioned by acting leader Harriet Harman’s team, they knew all of this.
It was part of the charade of democracy Labour frequently conducts on its candidate selections. This was a stitch-up, pure and simple to help Ken Livingstone – the candidate who had been running since he lost the mayoralty in 2008.
It was Livingstone’s pay-off for committing his personal machine in London to the cause of re-electing Gordon Brown at the general election.
His chief of staff, Simon Fletcher ran Labour’s London campaign in the general election and the price of their grandiose and futile promises to deliver gains in London for Brown was a mayoral timetable that virtually guaranteed Livingstone’s re-selection as candidate.
The rushed selection of Livingstone was clearly not Ed Miliband’s fault. He had to accept his party’s mayoral candidate as a fait accompli when he became the leader in September.
But Ed Miliband does not escape culpability.
He failed London just a few weeks after taking office, in October 2010. The occasion was Ken Livingstone campaigning for Lutfur Rahman for mayor of Tower Hamlets, against Labour’s choice, Helal Abbas.
On the face of it, this should have been a simple case. Should have been. The rules are clear. Campaigning for someone against the official Labour candidate means automatic expulsion.
But Livingstone’s calculation was simple. He wanted access to Rahman’s Tower Hamlets vote banks for his own election and Ed Miliband was an ingénue leader with a wafer thin mandate.
Livingstone knew the rule-book. He just decided to challenge the leadership and dare them to expel him.
Ed Miliband blinked. The leader was scared of a battle so early on in his leadership and feared a vote splitting independent Livingstone candidacy, re-running the disaster of 2000 when Livingstone beat Frank Dobson.
Shame. If his advisers had taken the time to look back a bit more carefully they would have seen that 2010 was very different to 2000.
In 2000 Livingstone had been blocked from the Labour selection by the union and MPs section of the tri-partite electoral college, overturning the will of the members whose backing he had emphatically won. When he rebelled, Livingstone had right on his side.
In 2010, Livingstone was publicly campaigning against a Labour candidate having just been selected via a fixed selection process almost egregious as the one which unfairly barred him in 2000. Right was not on his side and as a candidate he was much diminished after his 2008 loss.
Expelling Ken in October 2010 might have prompted an independent candidacy, but so what? Ed Miliband would have seemed a strong leader, Labour would have got a better candidate and London’s proportional voting system would have helped neutralise the electoral impact.
A different Labour candidate would likely have polled in line with the party rather than behind it, and forced Ken into third, harvesting his second preferences.
But in October 2010, Ed Miliband didn’t think it through, took the path of least resistance and just did nothing. It was a critical turning point.
From this moment on, Livingstone ran Ed Miliband, not vice versa. From this moment on, the election was going to be a referendum on Ken Livingstone regardless of Boris Johnson’s record.
Much has been written about the flaws of Livingstone and his performance in the campaign. There’s no need to recount the individual detail of his relations with the Jewish community, his evasions on tax and poor campaign judgements such as the scripted tears.
Suffice to say, in the end, his tendency to dissemble took its toll despite David Cameron and George Osborne’s best efforts to alienate the entire country.
For Labour there is much to be frustrated by in this campaign: mistakes and missteps that could so easily have been avoided. Livingstone’s half-truths and baffling decisions like that blue aliens poster.
But perhaps the most exasperating aspect will only come in the next few days.
Because as sure as night follows day, various members of the shadow cabinet and front bench will make it known that they were never happy with Livingstone’s candidacy.
Only once the race has been run and London is lost, will voices of sanity be publicly raised.
The reality is that virtually none of the parliamentary Labour party ever believed Livingstone would win. At the last count almost 10% of London’s Labour MPs (4 out of 44) couldn’t even bring themselves to vote for Livingstone in the privacy of the polling booth.
More than Ken Livingstone’s disastrous campaign, this hypocrisy, this abject political cowardice by Labour’s senior political figures will be the real travesty.
While members kept delivering leaflets, knocking doors and manning phones, Labour’s leaders acquiesced to living a political lie. They encouraged, cajoled and pressed members into service in a futile cause.
Money was spent, hopes were raised and the bitterness of inevitable defeat was tasted by thousands of Labour activists.
Labour could have won London and saved the capital from four more years of Boris Johnson. The party could have committed its members to work in a campaign that the leadership genuinely believed in.
But instead Labour’s leaders chose to sacrifice the time and effort of members and give up on the future of London to avoid the difficulty of undoing a mistake made in May 2010.
If Labour’s mayoral choice had polled at the level achieved by the assembly candidates, they would now be mayor.
Lions led by donkeys indeed.
Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut