Why Livingstone lost to Johnson
Boris Johnson's victory over Ken Livingstone in the election for mayor of London ought to have come as a surprise, but in the end it didn't. By any normal standards Livingstone's eight years in office, in the biggest directly elected political job in Britain, were remarkably successful. The improvements in London transport, especially in the buses and the marked easing of traffic congestion in central London, have been very significant; there has been a big increase in visible policing; a very high proportion of new housing has been in the "affordable" category; whatever you think of the Olympics coming to London, the opportunity has been seized to allocate very large amounts of money to the regeneration of a big area of London badly in need of it; and unexpectedly large amounts of money have been extracted from central government for other London needs as well. Every one of these achievements has depended heavily on Livingstone's personal political following and the clout this has given him in his dealings with his sworn enemies in the Labour Party, Blair and Brown, the latter both as chancellor and as prime minister. He has exploited this clout with immense skill, a politician to his finger-tips.
So why did he lose to an amateurish Tory politician who has never run a big organisation in his life, who was a failure on the opposition front bench, who's disaster-prone and has an undisciplined tongue, whose views as expressed in many newspaper columns have been offensively illiberal, insensitive, sometimes verging on racist, whose background as a product of Eton and the Oxford University's Bullingdon Club sets him apart from ordinary people, and who is widely regarded as an amusing buffoon — an image he has taken much care, until the last four or five weeks, to cultivate?
There are several reasons for this result, all of them coming together in a fatal merger at the worst possible time for Ken Livingstone:
1. Any candidate representing the Labour Party was bound to be badly damaged by the deep unpopularity of Gordon Brown and his government, itself attributable to the economic downturn, a series of blunders dating from the non-election after Brown took office, Brown's uncharismatic personality and inability to communicate an impression of humanity, continuing casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan and the abandonment of Brown's initial undertaking to bring most British troops back from Iraq by around now, his obstinacy in ploughing on with such widely opposed measures as the extension of the period of detention without charge to 42 days, ID cards and their obtrusive national data-base, the renewal of Trident, and so forth; and the general absence of a sense of purpose or direction. Brown, once seen as tough and decisive, is now widely perceived as a ditherer, obsessed with detail and micro-management at the expense of any strategic vision.
Against such a background, it's striking, not that Livingstone lost, but that he won a so much bigger share of the total vote than the national average won by Labour in the simultaneous local elections across much of the country. He still commanded a remarkable personal following, continuing to run ahead of his party. But this time it wasn't enough. No Labour candidate could have won this time.
2. The obverse side of Livingstone's personal following is the visceral dislike of him felt by substantial numbers of otherwise perfectly rational people. Individual criticisms of him almost all prove, on close inspection, to be either unfounded or relatively trivial. He has always enjoyed indulging his sometimes rather puerile itch to épater les bourgeois (probably in the process gaining as much delighted approval from some Londoners as prim condemnation by others); he has surrounded himself with cronies of whom some have seemed fairly shady, and sometimes prolonged his loyalty to them beyond their sell-by dates, although there seems precious little evidence that their advice to him has led to identifiable failures on his part; and he has been badly hurt by revelations that some of the more questionable social and other development projects funded by the London Development Agency have failed, more or less expensively, although the proportion of total funding represented by the failures is probably considerably smaller than in many other comparable institutions that finance small-scale start-up projects. A general air of sleaze, even corruption, has been sedulously fostered, although even Livingstone's bitterest critics haven't suggested that he has gained personally from any misspent funding or that he has ever had the slightest interest in the fleshpots or ceremonial ego-trips that sometimes seduce those in high political office.
3. There has been a widespread feeling that eight years as mayor are enough and that it's "time for a change", that lethal slogan used by those long excluded from office: some have assumed, although without any obvious supporting evidence, that Livingstone must by now be tired, have run out of energy and ideas, begin to personify the adage that "all power corrupts" (as Lord Acton didn't, as we all know, actually say). The doctrine that high political office should be distributed upon the principle of Buggins's turn seems to me fundamentally absurd: whether it's time for a change in any particular case depends entirely on what the change will consist of. The sole issue for London voters last week was, or should have been, whether Livingstone or Johnson, on the available evidence, was the likelier to do a better job for London as mayor. And the evidence unmistakeably pointed to Livingstone as the better bet. But the itch for change conquered reason. This is politics as entertainment, bread and circuses for an electorate with a severely limited attention span. It might even be said that in his defeat by Londoners who had hitherto elected him, he suffered the fate of Aristides the Just .
4. Livingstone was the victim — the only adequate word — of an almost unprecedentedly vicious campaign of slander, innuendo and mendacity waged unremittingly against him by London's only paid-for evening newspaper, the Evening Standard, owned like the far right-wing Daily Mail by Associated Newspapers which in turn had a commercial interest in backing Johnson (as the likelier candidate to renew Associated's franchise for distributing its free news-sheet outside London Transport Underground stations: Livingstone had encouraged a rival enterprise). The author of the most wounding smears and accusations has been Andrew Gilligan, himself the victim of Alastair Campbell's campaign against the BBC at the time of the Hutton Iraq Inquiry. Gilligan owes a debt of gratitude (and personal friendship) to Boris Johnson who employed him after his ejection from the BBC; the result can be seen in a long row of Gilligan's scabrous headlines directed at Livingstone in the Standard. There's no possible doubt that this single-minded campaign inflicted terrible wounds on Livingstone: those who didn't buy and read the Evening Standard, or who bought it but never got beyond the headlines, were inevitably influenced (perhaps subliminally) by seeing those same headlines plastered all over news-agents' billboards right across the capital. The treatment, and destruction, of Neil Kinnock by the right-wing press in the 1980s was positively benign by comparison.
5. Lastly, there has been much misunderstanding (and some misrepresentation) of the nature of the office of mayor. This is intended to be a much more personal form of authority than the familiar British pattern of the first among equals, the prime minister or committee chairman who owes his position not directly to the electorate but to his own colleagues who have chosen him, continue to assess his performance, and can get rid of him and substitute someone else if they like. By contrast, the London mayor is directly elected and is directly accountable to those who elected him, not to the London Assembly (dominated by the opposite party) except in the most general terms: the Assembly has no power to depose him in the way that the house of commons, and in practice the Cabinet, can depose a prime minister. Unlike a prime minister or committee chairman, the mayor appoints his own senior staff, including the heads of London's main agencies: they are not appointed from the ranks of the elected Assembly. They are responsible to the mayor and not principally to the Assembly. The comparison is with elected mayors of cities, towns, villages and communes in France and the United States, not with Chairs or Leaders of County or Borough Councils, still less with prime ministers, in the UK. This profoundly democratic system is what has made possible the radical changes and reforms introduced by Ken Livingstone, which could never have been piloted through a maze of collegiate committees, councils and assemblies in the old county council system. But when Livingstone has exercised this unique personal authority in precisely the way that the system envisages and requires, he has been commonly, and wrongly, perceived as dictatorial, as abusing his powers to an almost corrupt degree, and as misusing his position to act without the consent at every point of the elected Assembly.
So Livingstone's defeat came, in the end, as no great surprise. If he had won against such enormous odds it would have been a major sensation. Some have suspected that his heart wasn't anyway in it: that he was tired, wanted a rest, secretly didn't mind having the huge burden of governing London transferred from his shoulders. Personally I doubt if this is really what he wanted. As I have noted in response to a comment on an earlier post, I saw Ken Livingstone at a local meeting (attended by about 70 to 80 people, predominantly Asian and including many OAPs such as me) three days before the election and was reassured to find him vigorous and fluent as ever, concentrating on his plans for the future (if re-elected) rather than on the past. He paid tribute to the Labour Party which had given him the fullest possible support: "I couldn't have asked for more." I gather that earlier in the campaign he had been suffering from bronchitis and had largely lost his voice. At this meeting he seemed to have fully recovered and was his usual relaxed, informal, energetic self, the absolute opposite of arrogant, full of ambitious plans and ideas. He would only predict that the result would be very close and that it could go either way: but I think the subtext was that by then he expected to lose, for all the obvious reasons. Whether deep down, on an almost subconscious level, he was actually quite happy to lose, it's impossible to know. I don't think anyone in whose blood politics runs as richly as it does in Ken Livingstone's ever really wants to lose an election, although I suppose on a certain level the prospect of some leisure time must come as something of a relief. He's over 60….
I realise that this overwhelmingly positive view of Livingstone will arouse strong opposition from many of Ephems's regular readers, including several close friends and at least one even closer relation. The Comments facility below this post is, as ever, open to them, as well as to those who like me take a more charitable view. Let a thousand flowers bloom! But on such a subjective issue I shall try to abstain from responding to hostile comments here, relying on this post to define my views. I shall of course enjoy reading comments, caustic and all, and may even profit from some of them: who knows?
 "In one anecdote about Aristides, known as "the Just", who was ostracised [sent into exile from Athens for ten years by a vote of the people registered on an ostrakon, or shard of pottery] in 482, an illiterate citizen, not recognising him, came up to ask him to write the name Aristides on his ostrakon. When Aristides asked why, the man replied it was because he was sick of hearing him being called "the Just". Perhaps merely the sense that someone had become too arrogant or prominent was enough to get someone's name onto an ostrakon."