The status quo in London is not an option

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

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26 Responses to “The status quo in London is not an option”

  1. Will says:

    I think this is misleading and looks like it’s trying to re-write history – yes Livingstone did win the union section by a large margin, but he also won the members section by 2:1. No matter who the union members voted for he still would have won overall.

  2. swatantra says:

    Good article, but we’ve seen its like before. For ‘Ken’ you could easily sub ‘Ed’ and perhaps that was the intention all along by Rob.
    The fact is the selection process stinks and in a democatic party it’s an absolute disgrace. Isn’t it about time we had OMOV?
    The present process is going back to the days of rotten boroughs and bought votes and muliplevotes of affilliates and patronage. Its stinks. Everytime I have to vote in a Selection Process like this, to use the popular lingo ‘I have to hold my nose’.

  3. Rob Marchant says:

    @Will: Sorry, but your comment doesn’t address any of the points, and is an exercise in moral relativism. It essentially says, “well, at least we didn’t stitch up the OMOV part of the ballot”. What am I supposed to do, jump for joy?

    In fact, even that’s not true. A fact which I didn’t mention owing to space was the fact that Livinstone got membership lists and could therefore direct mail or email members a number of times. King did not. You call that fair?

    The question is, are you comfortable with a selection process run like that? Because I’m not. It’s nothing to do with the political views of the candidate selected, it’s about whether it’s a free and fair process.

    Sorry if this sounds harsh, but we need to be intolerant of stitch-ups, and this was one. Whether or not Livingstone would have won under fair conditions, something which no-one will ever know for sure.

    @Swatantra: With you all the way.

  4. Ian Stewart says:

    I think that one of the initial problems with the 2010 selection was its timing. We were still adjusting to opposition, electing a new leader, and in London we were given the choice of just two candidates for Mayor.

    There was no need to hold the selection in 2010. Had we held it in late 2011 say, the the field of candidates could have been greatly enhanced. As it was, King performed badly at the hustings, and Livingstone seemed the most competent. I hate to dwell on what ifs, but even I would have relished campaigning for Alan Johnson, or Cruddas, or Val Shawcross.

    As a party, we have to also widen our vision – why is it that we seem to be considering MPs to the exclusion of almost everyone else for this kind of job? Are Labour Councillors all so unappealing?

    the Union Ballots should ALL have had Oonas leaflet in them, but in reality, holding the selection when we did ensured a Livingstone victory.

    To use Livingstone as a stick to beat Ed Miliband is a little unfair really, since it was not his decision. As for the “stitch up”, well I for one would like a better timetable, a wider choice of candidates, and fairness in the process.

    What I am not in favour of is severing the unions from this process.

  5. Rob Marchant says:

    @Ian: Agree timing was an issue, but – as the piece says – not the whole story. It’s too easy to let the unions off the hook and they (apart from the GMB) behaved very badly. In fact, if it had been thought through, Labour should never have agreed to a ballot where they did not have complete control of the process: in this process they effectively subcontracted part of it to the unions, and it was a mess (this may have also been because they were so strapped for cash that it made sense on a short-term view).

    What I would add is probably that the leadership vacuum of having a caretaker leader probably did not help in getting a good process formulated and agreed.

    Re widening the vision, I agree that we as members should consider others, but it’s not as if non-MPs are barred from standing. I don’t see how we can change this aside from encouraging good people to stand (I think Steve Reed would be good, for example). But they also, realistically, need to build national profile in order for the public to take them seriously.

    Finally, I don’t see anywhere I have “Livingstone as a stick to beat Ed Miliband”: indeed, although I am not slow to criticise where I think he’s got it wrong, this process was nothing to do with him. It *was* a stitch-up, because anything which is not transparently fair is a stitch-up; even if it does not guarantee success, it changes probabilities.

    I did not take a view on severing unions, or not, from the process, either. Frankly, anything’s better than the system we’ve got, be it primaries, the Scottish/Welsh solution or some third option, as long as it is fair I think we should consider it.

    My only other comment would be that if unions are to be involved they must play the game, like other parts of the electoral college have to. Things like this do little for their public standing, or the party’s for that matter.

  6. Dave Levy says:

    Are you seriously suggesting that

    1./ Oona King represented the will of the majority of London Labour
    2./ She would have beaten Boris

    If so you’re barking!

    Why did you people not have a credible candidate? (Which is a question you can ask us; but Oona wasn’t it!)

  7. Rob Marchant says:

    @Dave: Er, no. I say the process was deeply flawed and needs changing. I don’t make predictions about what might have happened, or pretend to second-guess what the “will of the majority of London Labour” is, something I think neither you nor I can say with much certainty.

    I don’t know who you mean by “you people”, you’ll have to explain.

  8. Ian Stewart says:

    @ Dave: I think you may have missed the point here, and I have to say I disagree with you about Oona King – given the swing to Labour this year, a comparatively fresh face may just have tipped the scales. It is not just about what Labour members want, it is also about what the voters want. The choice of the three major parties to re-run 2008 filled the electorate with inertia.

    @ Rob: The” Livingstone/Miliband/Stick” comment was more aimed at Swatantra, but then again, he thinks I am a delusional wrecker anyway.

    I agree that the whole process needs to be open and fair, my worry is that we may find that dissatisfaction with the London selection process, which has been flawed from the start, will be used to weaken rather than strengthen our links with unions in London.

    Historically, the London Labour Party has had these problems before – Morrison built up a highly effective electoral machine (and power base), but kept tight control. The ’70s Lefties took over the machine, but essentially it is still run as a machine. As someone to the left of you, I can still agree that the whole process has been shoddy, but the against was also shoddy in 1999, and when Livingstone was re-admitted in an act of expediency.

    i think it shows up the defects of having a Mayoral system, but thats just me…

  9. Rob Marchant says:

    @Ian: good points re Oona. I would add another thing: although it’s generally a bit futile to enter in long debate over what-ifs, it’s important to note that the process itself affects *which candidates are standing*, as well as how they fare in the vote.

    It is notable that only one other person decided to stand, and one without much national profile (although good profile in London). I think most of the big hitters took one look at the timetable and the way that Ken already had most unions in the bag, and thought “why would I put myself through that if I’ve no chance”? This then increased the vote for Ken by default (e.g. those on the left who didn’t like Oona had no left alternative to Ken, even if they didn’t really like him either).

    Moral: you can’t really draw any useful conclusions from the vote breakdown in *this* process about how it might have been in a *completely different* process. It’s just bad science. For this reason Dave’s comments are simply wrong. None of us can tell how the vote would have broken down under a different process.

  10. Ian Stewart says:

    Well Rob, as you know, as someone on the left, I still voted for Oona, and throughout the campaign made my reservations about Ken clear, whilst urging a vote for Labour at GLA and Mayoral level. Take your point on bad science, and on the tendency to play “what if” – guilty as charged! Now, what if I was a Councillor/Candidate… (perish the thought!)

    We can agree on a number of points here, but I have to take issue with one thing –
    Although not the subject of this post, why did you feel that it was justified to write that open letter to ES? You must have known that it would be hurtful to many of us who want to have an ongoing dialogue with you (after all, Ken didn’t need any more hurting by then…). I felt a little let down to be honest, as I have respected your viewpoint, although often disagreeing with it.

  11. swatantra says:

    Rather than seeing celebrities, MPs or others invited to stand for Mayor, it would be good to see perhaps an Assembly member or Borough Council Leader stand. Surey they would have more knowledge and experience of Local Govt. The Greens were the only Party that considered that sensible option. The Office of Mayor should not be one for failed politicians, just like the HoL should not be a retirement home for MPs past their sell by date.

  12. Roger McCarthy says:

    I also loathe Ken but the simple fact is that nobody serious stood against him (this is not to denigrate Oona but she was never in the same league) – so however the election had been configured he would have won.

    And only by his losing a real election fair and square could we be rid of him.

    So what if he wins re-election to the NEC? – this is a body that has now been stripped of most of its vesitigial powers and in any case to quote LBJ it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in…..

    This post just reads as rancorous and vengeful and does you and your fellow Blairites no credit.

  13. Rob Marchant says:

    @Ian: To answer your question, it was not my intention to be hurtful to anyone. The ES asked for a comment, I gave one (it was not unsolicited, btw, I didn’t get up one morning and think, let’s write them a letter). My comment, for the record, also criticised Boris as well as Ken. I don’t know if that part got edited out as they don’t publish letters online and I didn’t see a copy.

    Let me try and explain my view on this whole debate: if you are an officer or an elected representative, you need to toe the party line, and that’s right. However, as mere bloggers, we are different. It’s pointless for people like you or I to say things we don’t believe just to try and be nice. Mine is a broadly supportive blog, rather than a propaganda sheet (you can go to the party site for that, and that’s how it should be).

    Rather than ask bloggers not to give their true opinion, would it not be better to expect public figures like Livingstone not to behave in the way they do? It seems that rather than holding our politicians to account, we end up in the strange contortion of apologising for the awful things they do and then criticising those who speak their minds. It’s all topsy-turvy. Apart from being impractical in the age of the internet to try and muzzle people’s honest thoughts, with Livingstone we ended up acting like abused lovers who can never stand up to their abuser, as I wrote here:

    I honestly think the best thing for everything to do with the Ken episode is accept that a lot of people were stretched to the limits of what they could stomach. You may think I was unhelpful, but in fact I held my tongue a number of times out of respect for my comrades in London Labour.

    However, I agree with Anthony Painter, the peer pressure thing that went on over the final weeks to try and get people into line was quite wrong. I don’t blame people voting for Ken, but I don’t blame those who voted against either. It’s an awful situation for a party to be in, and that’s why we need to take steps to ensure this can never happen again.

  14. Ian Stewart says:

    @ Swatantra: Agreed – we really need to broaden out our options, and all of us have to try to at least consider candidates that have not been inhabitants of the Westminster Village.

    @Rob: The letter did read in the paper as being a simple denunciation of Livingstone from memory. I cannot hold you responsible for the editing, obviously. I don’t disagree with many of us being stretched, but you must know how many in the party, even those who would ordinarily agree with you, felt. I think that in some ways, this was not taken in isolation as being a Ken issue, but another instance of one wing of the party trying to sabotage the Leadership by proxy. Now I know that this is not what you were trying to do, but I think these actions may have had the effect of helping to create “loyalist” and “Insurgent” camps within the party, and I think it is unhelpful.

    We need the freedom to debate these issues, and I do not want an atmosphere where Labour bloggers of any stripe feel intimidated, and I accept your reasons as stated. There were plenty on the left who couldn’t stomach Ken as first preference, although I simply could not go that far. It was all in all a great shame that some of our best voices felt that they had to spend more time opposing Ken than attacking Johnson, Malthouse, Coleman et al.

    I am sorry that this awful situation ever happened. I think that the left needs to take an honest look at itself, and try to make Ken’s retirement permanent.

  15. Rob Marchant says:

    @Roger, it is you who uses the words rancorous and bitter, not I. I am sorry you feel that way. Personally I rather prefer to debate issues on their merits, than insult the person raising them.

  16. Ian Stewart says:

    @ Pretty much everyone: Can we please at least try to keep our debates civil with each other? I had no time for Tony Blair, and after his first time less and less for Ken Livingstone, yet I don’t think it helps us to go beyond civilised discourse.
    A lot of heat, fire and smoke can be produced arguing the toss over personalities, but I find smoke tends to obscure our objectives – winning back power and changing society for the good of the many.
    @Rob: you and I certainly have a difference of both analysis and of where we want the party to go, but I think we can still keep up a healthy argument. It is a shame that people on both sides cannot do the same.

  17. Mike Homfray says:

    A major contributor to the defeat were so-called Labour members who decided to do their best to sabotage Ken’s candidature. The time for that was at the selection, but given the best they could come up with was Oona King, who was on so many levels a far worse option, they really should have kept their mouth shut.

    Having said that, in hindsight there was a good case for moving forward with a newer, younger candidate – but where were they? Did anyone else want to come forward to stand? Someone without Oona King’s baggage on Iraq , and who didn’t have wildly pro-Zionist views, who could unite the party surely shouldn’t have been that difficult to find? Given that none appeared to be available, the behaviour of those who then threw a hissy fit at Ken’s selection – largely from the Friends of Israel faction – is simply unacceptable. I hope they are reported to the party for bringing it into disrepute and dismissed. Every last one of them.

  18. Rob Marchant says:

    @Ian: Hear, hear.

  19. swatantra says:

    I think I’d agree that Ken was really the only choice open to Labour members at the time, because nobody else of substance put up.
    We now have Alan Johnson reported as saying he would have stood, or will consider standing, next time round. Give us a break Alan! MP for Hull, not even London. You didn’t put up for Leader against Gordon; you didn’t turn down the Shad Chancellor role when offered, knowing you’d be ill equipped.
    I think we could all do with less MPs thinking they can just step into Local Govt because they’ve come to the end of a Parliamentary career.
    Local Govt Mayors and Police Commisioners should be for those who care passionaately about local politics and issues not ex MPs who’ve come to the end of the road.
    Thats why Ken was chosen; he’d devoted his whole life to local govt and wasn’t really that much interested in Westminster politics. Unfortunately he’d outsatyed his welcome and it was time he retired gracefully.

  20. Roger McCarthy says:


    You’re fundamental problem is that Labour’s electoral process produced a candidate who you (and I and a not insignificant section of the public) detest and who lost us a vital election.

    Your response therefore seems to be the Brechtian one that as the people have let us down we must elect a new people: i.e. radically change the selection process.

    But the real failure was from your side of the inner party divide which with a large number of right-wing ex-ministers and ex-MPs who can plausibly present themselves as Londoners to draw from could not persuade anyone more substantial than Oona King to stand nor organise anything more than a perfunctory campaign in her support.

    Put up a plausible candidate and campaign effectively for them and they might well win.

    Attempt to fix the system yet again to produce an ‘electable’ candidate and you will just create new internal divisions and in a worst case scenario produce a Ken Mark II.

    Better by far to just abolish the whole elected Mayor nonsense which like other New Labour ideas wasn’t intrinsically a bad one but which now been thoroughly tested and found wanting (what else can you say about any process that gives the population of one of the world’s great cities a choice between a Ken and a Boris?)

  21. Roger McCarthy says:


    So should ‘pro-Zionists’ should be banned from standing as Labour candidates?

    Does the NEC need to establish its own inquisition to weed out agents of the global zionist conspiracy?

  22. Rob Marchant says:

    @swatantra: On AJ, well, he is a Londoner. I’d like to see him there, but that’s just me.

  23. Ian Stewart says:

    @ Roger and Mike: The moment someone uses the word “Zionist” in a political discourse, I tend to switch off – mainly because the term, either “pro-” or “anti-” has been so debased as to become simply a term of abuse.

    I doubt that the admission of Israel’s right to carry on existing is really the same as being either a classical or a greater Zionist. Also, accepting the Palestinian’s national and human rights to their own democratic separate state should hardly be taken as a form of anti semitism.

    @ Rob: No, it’s not just you, not by a long chalk…

  24. uglyfatbloke says:

    Well said Swatantra. people who have been a failure as minisiters – and Alan Johnson was a miserable failure at the Home Office – are not what is needed. In a London Mayor election Johnson would suffer badly from some of his decisions when he was in office.
    J7ust because people have screwed up in national government is no reason to give them an opportunity to screw up in local government Same applies to the House of Lords; it is a comfy club for people who have done more than enough damage already. If we can’t have an elected upper house we should be ensuring that no former MPs are allowed to enter the lords. The ‘no elections’ camp in the lords debate (as far is there is a debate at all) hinges on the notion that a democraticallty elected house would challenge the ‘unlimited sovereignty’ of the commons, but that unlimited sovereignty has not existed since the Commonwealth acts of the 1920s/1930s – if ti ever really existed in the first place, and in any case simply ‘unlimted sovereignty does not apply in Scotland at all since it has no place in Scottish constitutional law. Besides, if the upper house was elected democratically – not FPTP – it would have every right (if not a duty) to challenge the commons. If a party can get 100% of the power for getting 38% of the vote there has to be something seriously wrong.

  25. Dave Levy says:

    @Rob There’s a group of people, mainly still in the Labour Party, who feel that the 2010 Leadership election chose the wrong candidate. They have developed a narrative that a group of people who have over many years contributed financially to the Labour Party, let’s call them supporters, shouldn’t be permitted to participate in elections for Leadership positions, and should be replaced either by a supporters organisation consisting of a group of people who won’t join the Labour Party, have never demonstrably supported it financially. Some even more bizarrely propose “Open Primaries”, where people who won’t even declare a support for the Party, let’s call them opponents, get to choose.

    By arguing the selection mechanism was the problem, (particularly when you suggest its because there were too many trade unionists voting), I suggest you support this narrative, if I have drawn the wrong conclusion from your article I apologise.

    To me the problem was the choice, Oona King would not have won, and in my mind let herself be used. If the selection mechanism was the problem, which dynamic winning candidate failed to put themselves forward. The bigger problem was the choice of candidates and will remain so.

    The unity conversation is about building an effective opposition in the Assembly, the Boroughs and the community and selecting a winning candidate in 2014, with a winning programme.

    @webmaster: Boo on you for not taking trackbacks

  26. Mike Homfray says:

    Roger: I think that someone with very strong views on either side of that particular debate would probably end up in the same position as Ken did for his pro-Palestinian views. It would be very unwise to select a candidate with a strongly pro-Israel stance unless we wanted the issue to end up dominating what should be a local election. Like it or not, its an issue which does divide.

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