by Rob Marchant
As the post-election dust settles, we must hope that the party is, somewhere, currently holding a quiet post-mortem, to take away the lessons for next time. There are many positives we can take away, of course: that the locals went swimmingly and so did the London Assembly. And that we held Glasgow, that vital first step in turning around the Scottish party, a task which is, in turn, a sine qua non for preserving the very Union.
However, in a post-mortem, the biggest lesson to learn – and the easiest to forget if, as in this case, things have gone well – usually comes from what went wrong, not what went right.
In this case, it’s staring us in the face: we lost the mayorals to a mediocre candidate whose party was fairly unpopular, while our London result overall was a resounding win. And what went badly wrong was not the policy offering or the party’s campaign tactics, but the Livingstone candidacy itself.
What is the long-term lesson for Labour, then? How should we be fine-tuning our London strategy? There’s no need to go through again how the election was thrown by the candidate (although, if you need one, there’s a summary here). But he is just one man, and now he is gone. So, job done, right?
Well, no. Labour’s pressing task now is to ensure this can never happen again. And, by the way, he is not gone.
Some people are already asking the right question: how could we end up with a candidate whom so many members disliked so much, they could not bring themselves even to vote for him?
The facile answer is to dismiss the need for change by saying Livingstone is a unique person who aroused unique emotions. It’s also wrong: had Diane Abbott been the candidate, the result would almost certainly have been the same.
The real answer lies, of course, in the selection process. A number of people, including our own Atul Hatwal, have remarked that it should never have been run in parallel with the leadership contest, because it made the process too short: true, that certainly didn’t help. But it’s also not enough to justify the result on its own. It seems difficult to believe that even a process twice as long would have produced a candidate other than Livingstone.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room. Why was Livingstone elected by a process which, as a Progress editorial says, “effectively put the choice of the candidate in the hands of eight union leaders”?
Yes, individual union members got to vote. But let’s not forget that, apart from the GMB, none of the unions who supported Livingstone actually included Oona King’s leaflet in their pack to voters. A practice worthy of the former Soviet Union, not a modern trade union. In short, it wasn’t a block vote, but it wasn’t exactly a free vote, either: being the labour movement, it seems we couldn’t resist a stitch-up.
Aside from that, union members who help choose the candidate are not necessarily the same people who knock on doors, leading to a disconnect between the candidate chosen and the motivation required to get members campaigning for them. Selecting someone who so radically divided the rank and file of the party was never going to result in a strong campaign.
No, what is clear is that the selection process must change. And there is a window to change it now, in time for 2016. It will not be easy, but important things rarely are. It may be primaries, as Peter Watt and others are advocating, it may be something else; but the current system – also inexplicably different from the Scottish and Welsh systems – is unsustainable.
And there is a little matter which may influence the outcome of that change.
One might be forgiven for thinking, on reading his numerous political obituaries over the last couple of weeks that Livingstone will, from now on, focus on developing his already-lucrative media work and retire from politics altogether. But that view, really, fails to understand the character and motivations of the man.
In more than forty years in politics, possibly the longest time he spent neither in elected office nor campaigning for it, was about a year, between his defeat in the 2008 mayoral race and deciding to run for mayor in 2009. He is deeply wedded to the limelight. And media exposure with office, however modest, is preferable to media exposure without office: without it, you are just another ex-politician. An office means that you are guaranteed coverage when you criticise the party.
The words “this will be my last election” was Ken being cute: he is still standing for the constituency section of Labour’s NEC.
Unencumbered by either an electorate or a party whip to please, and with a strong media profile, there are already signs that his presence there post-election is likely to cause much more trouble for the leadership than before. But there is something else. It will allow him to retain some influence over the running of the London and national parties, as the de facto representative of London. Whilst mayor, or campaigning to be mayor, he has lacked the time and the motivation to rock the boat; now he has both.
It is hard to see Livingstone backing the party reform which Labour desperately needs; and in particular, any change to the mayoral selection process which might allow a more mainstream candidate to win.
We have the choice, in these NEC elections, to give London a fresh start, away from the man who has dominated it for the last thirty years. Whether to choose, in the words of our old campaign slogan, the future, or the past.
It’s up to you, Labour.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left