by Kevin Meagher
Ken Livingstone used to be that rarest of things on the left of Labour politics: a popular populist.
The left is full of unpopular would-be populists, who, while capable of galvanising a following of the liker-minded, cannot translate that appeal into actual votes at election time. Even Tony Benn was hopeless at convincing actual voters, (famously losing his own seat in 1983’s electoral calamity).
Other left-wing firebrands like Nye Bevan, recognised the limits of protest and put away such childish things, going on to make their peace with high office. The NHS is his abiding epitaph for so doing. (Benn’s ministerial career left us with Concorde).
So Ken has been afforded incredible latitude by successive Labour leaders. Even after he quit the party to stand as London Mayor in 2000 (following, admittedly, some of the most cack-handed fixing of the New Labour years) Tony Blair was still more than willing to bend party rules to readmit him early and allow him to run for re-election in 2004 wearing Labour’s colours. He was a winner, pure and simple.
Blair, ever the pragmatist, recognised that Ken was a round peg in a round hole when it came to London. He was the perfect fit for a role that was two-parts cheerleader to one-part executive leader. So Ken could safely dial-up his rhetoric, implement his signature policy on congestion charging and campaign for the Olympics. It was all low-risk, consequence-free stuff.
But the electorate’s patience eventually wanes and in 2008 he was well-beaten by Boris Johnson. Ed Miliband, in a characteristic misjudgement, then gave him another go at fluffing it in 2012, which he duly did.
A few quiet years followed, but, short of True Believers, (or genuine big beasts on the hard left) Jeremy Corbyn appointed him to co-chair Labour’s defence review last month. It was an open invitation to smash the crockery, which he has now just done.
Yes, Ken is an inveterate lip-flapper and runs away at the mouth. But his remarks about Tony Blair being responsible for the July 2007 bombings in London and the imputation that the July 2005 jihadi bombers were anything other than brainwashed lunatics, was a step too far.
They are a provocation at a time when every sane person in the party is trying to bite their lip. Adding, for good measure, that British troops who died trying to defend women’s rights in Afghanistan and uphold free elections in Iraq were “discredited” (despite what you may think about the legitimacy or overall success of those missions) is unforgivable political stupidity.
And it should not be forgiven this time. The Labour MPs Ian Murray and Angela Smith – who both called for him to be removed his role at Monday night’s meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party were right to do so. Labour’s credibility with the public is at rock-bottom as it is.
A YouGov poll last month asked voters whether they trusted Jeremy Corbyn to take the right decisions on defence. The gap between those who trust him and those who don’t ran 54/20 against.
Even faith-based Corbynistas can read graphs.
Ken is a destructive and undisciplined influence whose every utterance will make that gap wider. His monstrously over-inflated opinion of himself means he simply cannot work in a collegiate way. He is laughably unsuited to navigating the sensitivities over defence policy in such a divided party.
It’s now time for him to offer up at least one selfless gesture in his political life, and, for the sake of party harmony, make good on his 2012 pledge to retire from frontline politics for good.
As Denis Skinner noted of him back in 2000, “The personality cult of the ego does not work down a coal mine and it does not work in the Labour party.”
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut