Friday, June 11, 2010
06/10/2010 Dave Hill

Former London mayor needs to exorcise his past mistakes

To a degree unusual even among politicians, Ken Livingstone gives a wide berth to the words, "I was wrong". I guess he has his reasons: over decades he's proved himself right by confounding conventional wisdom, from "fares fair" and gay rights in the 1980s to winning the London mayoralty as an independent in 2000 and introducing congestion charging in his first term. It's no surprise, then, that displays of contrition over his defeat by Boris Johnson in 2008 have not been a feature of the start of his campaign to take back the mayoralty in 2012. Look closer, though, and there are signs that certain lessons may have been learned.

Exhibit A is a launch piece he wrote for the London Evening Standard, which is once again a newspaper, as opposed to the unofficial Boris propaganda organ it had become. "I will speak for the whole of London," he declared, criticising Johnson for shelving transport schemes for Dagenham and Croydon. Both are examples of the outer London areas that swung behind the Tory candidate two years ago â€" and that Livingstone needs to woo back.

His peroration asked all non-Tory Londoners to get behind him and for "black, white, Jewish, Asian, straight [and] gay," to work together. The composition of that list is worth dwelling on: many Jewish Londoners have become furious with Livingstone over the years and while the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland was prepared to set aside the reasons for that fury two years ago, many others were not; a lot of gays (and Jews) have not let him forget his very public embrace of the Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Where Islam is concerned, Livingstone sometimes plays with fire.

Warm words about unity and protecting ordinary Londoners are only a start, of course. Livingstone will need imaginative yet practical policies too, especially on the core areas of mayoral responsibility and power. He should be careful about what he promises and has been so far. In his Standard article he pledged to "hold down" public transport fares, rather than freeze them. Transport for London's strained finances would make such a promise reckless. How, though, can he significantly resist the huge upward pressure on fares?

Linking his revived plan for an extra-high congestion charge for gas-guzzler vehicles to the wellbeing of voters in the outer London boroughs of Bromley, Barking or Barnet is a cute ploy, but can he be sure that the policy "would raise millions to protect the fare-payer"? If the higher charge deterred those motorists from entering the congestion-charge zone in substantial numbers, revenue would reduce accordingly. Would Livingstone bring back the C-charge zone's western extension, which Johnson is (reluctantly, if truth be told) seeking to abolish by Christmas Eve â€" a move that will cost £75m a year in precious revenue? Back in January he said he would.

In his Standard article he says nothing. That might be sensibly cautious for now, but the question will require answering before long. The issue of roads and road congestion in London is divisive and fraught, largely along inner-outer lines. The wrong move could cost him or any other Labour candidate dear.

On policing, Livingstone pledges to protect all safer neighbourhood teams, but while calling for a "halt" to the coming reductions in Metropolitan police numbers, he doesn't say how he'd secure one: doing so would mean getting more money from a budget-cutting government (unlikely) or raising the mayor's share of Londoners' council tax (unpopular). He is measured in a different way on a third core mayoral responsibility of housing, promising to seek powers from the government to raise money on the bond markets to build more homes. With housing minister Grant Shapps announcing that the public money for affordable house building has run out, Livingstone wouldn't be alone in looking for finance from such sources.

A judiciously pitched start then, shall we say. Importantly, it's one that seems to recognise while not, of course, admitting â€" perish the thought â€" that candidate Livingstone needs to replenish those parts of the voter coalition that carried him in to city hall in 2000 and 2004 and shrank on him in 2008. These crucially include the middle classes in general, many white working-class voters (whose four-year revolt against London Labour politicians was, encouragingly, ended at in the recent general and borough elections), and of course the residents of those outer London boroughs in general, a point well made by his campaign chair David Lammy.

Much of this looks fixable: some big reassurances about any future stewardship of public money, clear policies to show that his commitment to fighting inequality is not limited to London's ethnic minorities and a sustained love-bombing of the suburbs in partnership with Labour activists on the ground would go a long way to repairing Livingstone's appeal.

But there's another issue too: attitude. Perhaps the biggest barrier Livingstone faces is the feeling among London voters that he's old news and has "had his time". This is related to his being on the crinkly side of 60 but mostly, I suspect, it's a perception that he'd got ratty and weary inside Norman Foster's glassy orb. He needs to keep a sharp eye on his angry side.

Oona King's decision to play the age card has not gone down well with him, but the senior politician needs to keep smiling alongside her through the coming hustings. He should suppress any remaining urge to continue pointless feuds with critics â€" he gains nothing from them but trouble and avoidable strife.

The toxic parts of his history need to be remediated by Livingstone if he's to fully rebut King's case that it's time for a change and maximise his chances of a remarkable comeback in 2012. He should embrace this as an opportunity. That may be the sort of thing conventional politicians say, but in this case that wouldn't make them wrong.

Dave Hill ? Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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