by Michael Faulkner
May 4, 2008
The unthinkable has happened. With only a few hours to go before the count is completed, all the indications are that the right wing Tory candidate, Boris Johnson, will be elected Mayor of London. This great cosmopolitan city with its diverse ethnic communities and vibrant cultural life will be represented nationally and on the world stage by a man who is about as unrepresentative of this city as anyone could possibly be. Make no mistake; this result is a disaster for Londoners, for London and for its international reputation.
The defeat of Ken Livingstone, London’s mayor since 2002, follows yesterday’s rout of the Labour Party in the local government elections in England and Wales. The electoral defeat, which has seen previous Labour strongholds in Wales and the north of England go down to the Tories, is the worst suffered by the party for four decades and its share of the vote, at 24%, is the lowest since records began in the 1970s. The party has been pushed into third place by the Liberal Democrats who have taken 25%. This is a disastrous result for the Labour Party. It almost certainly means that the next general election will be won by the Conservatives. Until today it was still possible to hope that Ken Livingstone, who was semi-detached from the party, would be able to buck the trend and defeat the Tory challenger. But such hopes have been dashed. It only remains to be seen by how big a margin Johnson has won. As I wrote in my last column, a few months ago such an outcome would have been unimaginable. How could this have happened?
Livingstone stood as the official Labour candidate. As such, he has shared the fate of the party nationally, but this doesn’t adequately explain why he has been defeated. By whatever margin he loses to Johnson (and the final results will be announced as I write) it will be far narrower than the massive losses suffered by the party up and down the country. Ken Livingstone, during his thirty years of prominence in the political life of the city, has aroused both intense affection and loyalty and deep hatred. At the risk of oversimplifying, he has had strong support from working class and ethnic minority Londoners who live in poorer parts of the inner London boroughs. He has aroused the hostility of wealthier Londoners who are less dependent on public transport and tend to live in the more salubrious outer London suburbs. His vote has apparently held up well in his inner city heartlands, but it is in the wealthier suburbs that the voters have turned strongly against him. His own credentials as a Londoner are impeccable. He lives in a working class area of north London, uses public transport and does not drive a car. Needless to say, this has not endeared him to those opposed to the congestion charge.
The outcome of the mayoral election has been strongly influenced by the scurrilous campaign against Livingstone waged relentlessly by the right wing press in London and nationally over the past months. This has been quite extraordinary. I described this press campaign in my last column, but more can be said about the part played in it by certain journalists, some of whom have built their reputations as left wingers.
The London Evening Standard has run a ceaseless diatribe against Livingstone, penned largely by Andrew Gilligan. Gilligan, a former BBC journalist was fired by the corporation in 2004, following a rebuke by the judge, Lord Hutton, whose inquiry into the intelligence used to justify the Iraq war, produced a report whitewashing the Blair government. Gilligan had accused the government of “sexing up” the intelligence in order to justify the war – an accusation which proved to be correct. For a time unemployed, he later emerged on the staff of the Evening Standard to launch his campaign to unseat Livingstone. It seems that he was determined to live down his reputation for anti-government bias by building a new reputation as a paid hack in the service of Associated Press. He wants to be remembered as the man who brought down Livingstone.
Two other journalists with left wing credentials have been prominent in the anti-Livingstone witch-hunt. Martin Bright, political editor of the left-of-centre weekly New Statesman and the Observer’s Nick Cohen have both written in a similar vein, ludicrously claiming that Livingstone is “unfit to hold office.” These writers are only the latest in a growing band of those who have trodden the weary path from left to right. The most notable is Christopher Hitchens, the role model for Nick Cohen who went rapidly from being scourge of the New Labour establishment to ardent and unapologetic supporter of the Iraq war.
3rd May. 7am. The realization this morning that Boris Johnson is the Mayor of London is like waking to a bad dream. Before adjusting to the reality it is worth reminding ourselves just who this person is. To treat him as a buffoon – which he is – trivialises the matter, in rather the same way that treating Bush as an idiot and a joke can detract from the terrible damage he has done to the US constitution and reputation in the world. Johnson is not an idiot. His own jocularity is a cover for a very right wing political agenda. Let’s consider some of his views.
He is homophobic. The fact that his sentiments are expressed in the style of a stand-up comedian render them no more acceptable. Consider this:
“If gay marriage was OK – and I was uncertain on the issue – then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men as well as two men; or indeed three men and a dog.”
In 2002, when Blair visited the Congo, he said: “No doubt the AK 47s will fall silent and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will break out in watermelon smiles to see to see the big white chief touchdown in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.” His description of black babies as “piccaninnies” is well known.
During the election campaign he has been kept on a tight rein by his minders. Lynton Crosby, (the Australian Karl Rove) who masterminded the campaign has succeeded in controlling the gaffe-prone Johnson. The fact that he has no experience at running anything has been lightly brushed aside. The absence of any serious policy proposals has been ignored. Johnson’s elitist disdain for almost everyone who does not share his own class background and prejudices has been kept hidden. Six of the nine leading national newspapers, claiming between them most of the national readership, have been unremittingly hostile to Livingstone and uncritical of Johnson. This morning the victor claimed “I will govern as new Boris – or whatever the phrase is.” We shall see.
What does this result – and the wider Labour debacle – signify for the future? The scale of the damage done to Brown’s government is clear this morning. Throughout England and Wales (there were no local elections in Scotland) Labour has lost 331 local council seats; the Tories have gained 256. If this result were repeated in a general election the Tories would have a parliamentary majority of over 100 seats. Brown’s government is in more or less the same position as John Major’s Tory government was in 1995 – two years prior to Blair’s stunning victory. All the pundits are opining that a Tory victory is more or less inevitable. They are probably right.
When one takes into account some of the factors operating against the Labour Party, namely the deepening crisis in the financial markets, falling house prices, increasing food and fuel prices, and, particularly the abolition of the 10% income tax rate which has hit some of the poorest people, it is hardly surprising that many of its core supporters have deserted the party
But this is only part of the story. The tide had turned against New Labour before Blair resigned last year. It is all but certain that the result would have been much the same had he still been in office. The deeper reason for the collapse in support is the widespread disillusionment with the New Labour project. The government, under Blair and Brown, has followed a neo-liberal, right wing agenda in domestic policy and been completely identified with the Bush administration in its foreign policy. New Labour has abandoned social democracy and become in most respects indistinguishable from the Conservatives. Until last year the decline in support for New Labour was not matched by any significant increase in support for the Tories. After a very brief honeymoon Brown was seen to be little different from Blair, and, given the economic downturn that started late last year, support collapsed.
Is there any hope of a change in Labour’s fortunes? It is probably too late this side of an election. A new leader, even in the unlikely event that his colleagues should decide to jettison Brown, would be unlikely to turn things around. Anyway, there is no obvious alternative to Brown. If there is to be a change it will have to come from a rebellion of the rank-and-file membership, and this will only make itself felt after a general election defeat. Who might, in such a situation, emerge as a leader of the Left, capable of restoring the party to its social democratic roots and challenging the neo-liberal consensus amongst the political elite?
It is not too fanciful to assume that such a person might be Ken Livingstone. He could seek to return to Parliament as a Labour MP. As a nationally and internationally known figure with a strong and successful record of public service behind him it is not inconceivable that he could be elected leader of the Labour Party in a few years time. A pipe dream? Maybe, but who knows.
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