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Wednesday, April 16, 2008 

The Evening Standard and the London Mayoral election.

Not living inside London, I hadn't quite realised just how nasty, bitter or personal the Mayoral election, or as it would be more accurately described, the Mayoral battle, had become. I'd read a few accounts of how the Evening Standard seems to have turned itself into little more than a propaganda sheet for Boris Johnson in the past few weeks but didn't quite believe that it could be all that bad.

Taking a short trip on the train to the next town (I went to see the Long Blondes, who were excellent. Their lead, Kate Jackson, came out afterwards and was letting everyone take photographs with her, which is always nice to see) means you can always pick up the discarded detritus left behind by the commuters, varying from those wastes of paper which are the free celebrity scandal sheets (Metro, London Lite, TheLondonPaper) to if you're lucky a decent broadsheet. As well as an Independent, I picked up an Evening Standard. Today's headline? SUICIDE BOMB BACKER RUNS KEN'S CAMPAIGN.

Score one for being misleading, as a suicide bomb backer is not running Ken Livingstone's actual re-election campaign, as many would doubtless think the story implies. Instead, the report relates how an "Evening Standard investigation" has discovered a group calling itself "Muslims 4 Ken". Again, the Standard's main problem is not with "Muslims 4 Ken", which has been set-up by Anas Altikriti, but rather with one of M4K's backers, who happens to be none other than Azzam Tamimi, the Hamas apologist who has suggested on a number of occasions that he's willing to become a suicide bomber in Israel/Palestine and also said that "[F]or us Muslims martyrdom is not the end of things, but the beginning of the most wonderful of things".

Again, fair enough you might think. Tamimi's another of those brand of Islamist gobshites that are all mouth and no actual action, justifying murder and apologising for Hamas while failing to attempt to build for a lasting peace in the Middle East, but this is hardly new information. Despite their attempt to build links between Livingstone and the Muslims 4 Ken organisation, the connections are tenuous at best. What's more, the list of those who signed the Muslims 4 Ken original declaration were posted up on Comment is Free back in January, and it seems with little apparent acknowledgement back then. Salma Yaqoob, the Respect councillor in Birmingham and one of the signatories, is also one of those mentioned in the article, declaring the 7/7 attacks were "reprisal events". Much as I disagreed with Respect's failed attempt at communalism with Muslim organisations on the political right, something that was always doomed, Yaqoob has been a forceful campaigner and to smear her in such a fashion is wholly unfair. It seems to be even further clutching at straws by connecting the "Islamophobia Watch" blog into the campaign. IW, ran by Martin Sullivan, who may or may not be aka Bob Pitt, according to Johann Hari, and described by Indigo Jo as either a Marxist who runs the "What's Left" journal, or a Labour party member (Martin Sullivan appears as a contributor to What's Left, which hardly helps clear up the confusion), is more an aggregator of which mainstream media article MS (or BP) decides are Islamophobic or err, not, as he also links to articles which are friendly towards Islam. The Evening Standard also links Anas Altikriti to the Muslim Association of Britain, and while I'm not going to dispute that entirely, it seems more likely he's associated with the British Muslim Initiative, both of which are alleged by the Harry's Place crew to be "clerical fascist" offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Perhaps more pertinent to the publication of the article today is something mentioned right back in the opening paragraph:

A year-long strategy to mobilise the Muslim vote for Ken moves into overdrive this week, accompanied by a campaign of vilification aimed at Boris.

Happily, today was also the day that Soumaya Ghannoushi, the world's worst commenter on Islam, blessed the Grauniad with this flimsy to say the least article attacking dear old Boris, linking him directly with the BNP after they advised their voters to give him their second preference, right in line with the Evening Standard's claims of a coming campaign:

Given Johnson's record on minorities, his endorsement by the far right as a second-preference candidate seems understandable, shocking though it may be. This signifies a worrying precedent in the history of the BNP - notwithstanding Johnson's claim that he has no wish "to receive a single second-preference vote from a BNP supporter". Never before has the BNP felt sufficiently fond of a mainstream mayoral candidate to lend him or her its support.

Ghannoushi, just in case you didn't notice, was a signatory of the CiF piece back in January. Her article today is nonsense of course, as has much of the campaigning against Boris been on the basis of his ill-advised and clearly racist, if not intended maliciously remarks about "piccaninnies" with "watermelon smiles", which Boris must surely know is almost a direct quotation from Enoch Powell's notorious "rivers of blood" speech, and indeed, it seems likely he was alluding to it, even if he was writing about those meeting the Queen during a visit to Africa. In any event, he's apologised for any offence caused, something that Ken Livingstone failed on numerous occasions to do when he compared Oliver Finegold to a concentration camp guard, even if he was drunk and being doorstepped after a friend's party.

Just for a moment, let's take the Muslims 4 Ken group seriously, or rather the Evening Standard seriously in their suggestion that they could help up to 200,000 Muslims vote for Livingstone. Even if we give them credit in persuading just a quarter of them to vote for Ken, the British National Party vote in 2004's election was 58,000 strong, and if anything seems likely to increase this time round. Instead, we ought to take the Muslims 4 Ken group as something approaching an embarrassment, as David T from Harry's Place does in this typical piece of Decent Left demanding that others condemn a group whose support they didn't ask for in the first place. He writes:

This endorsement by the MAB/Muslim Brotherhood is utterly worthless. This group has little traction in this country, and few voters, if any, will be influenced by their support.

Quite so. The same goes for the entire Muslims 4 Ken group. Condemning them is an utter waste of time; they're simply not worth the bother, while condemning the BNP certainly is, although banning them from advertising does nothing whatsoever to help a genuine democratic process.

This sniping and personal targeting of both Boris and Ken is a result of two factors: firstly, that regardless of what the candidates say and all their clever, shiny manifestos on what they'll do on crime etc, their powers are comparatively slight; and, because of this, the contest has instead moved on to personalities. Ken is at a disadvantage because of his period in office, which according to your various predilections, has either been a triumph or an absolute disaster. The one policy which resonates out from his two terms is the congestion charge, which again can be either celebrated or dismissed according to your personal preference. Everything else tends to blur: hence why his gaffes, or ill-thought through or stupid decisions that have amounted to incitement, like his invitation of the vile Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is moderate in the Azzam Tamimi sense that he denounces terrorism against the West while justifying and even providing fatwas allowing Palestinian terrorism, at least while he's not also supporting the murder of homosexuals or female genital mutilation, and his wholesale support for Iain Blair and apologia for the Met's execution of Jean Charles de Menezes, are so uppermost when deciding who to plump for.

Johnson's various faux pas' have been equally played up accordingly, but his biggest advantage or disadvantage is just that, his bumbling, upper-class foppish persona. How much of it is an act has always been difficult to say, but it's obvious that if he was as genuinely haywire as he seems when he appears in public that he wouldn't have risen to edit the Spectator, or even become an MP. I might seem reasonably gregarious and self-aware writing here, but meet me in real life and you'd probably find that I'm a shy, introverted, monosyllabic moron, because I err, am. This is why attacking him for just that has always been so dangerous: Michael Portillo called on him to either be a comedian or a politician, but that's a false dichotomy; without the charm Boris wouldn't be Boris, and no one would be interested, yet that's exactly what he doubtless is like when he actually gets in the editing chair or in the Mayor's office itself. If behind the clown or comedian's mask there's actually someone crying or desperate for help, then Boris is no different.

Considering the only other issue constantly raised is the seemingly arcane debate over bendy buses or Routemasters, it's little wonder that the debate has turned to personalities. Despite all the other candidates, the fight is between two disguised clowns, with a straight man in the shape of a former police officer also resorting to nasty personal attacks trying to battle his way into the fray. If I had a vote I'd be tempted to say sod the lot of them and waste it entirely by voting Green and Left List or vice versa, despite my misgivings over both of those as well. The lesser of two evils, despite all his failings, does appear to be Ken, but the noise reverberating especially from the Evening Standard makes it even more difficult to tell. As Michael White writes, the ES has published some excellent journalism investigating Livingstone and his funding of suspicious organisations, not to mention Lee Jasper, but it's also carried some utter nonsense, like today's article seemingly out of a vendetta or obsession to get rid of him. This wouldn't make much difference if the London media market was more open, but it isn't; the ES is the only paper distributed across the capital with a solid political message and agenda. The result itself will go down to the wire, but politics in the capital as a whole looks increasingly grubby.

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It's sad that this otherwise excellent blog is so unquestioning in its acceptance of the anti-Muslim left's propoganda. What you say about Qaradawi is just plain wrong, and the term 'Islamist' and the 'Muslim right' are so essentialising as to be meaningless.

The point about the bus 'controversy' is that it germinated in papers like the Telegraph and ES and neatly serves to exclude any discussion of the rest of the candidates' transport policies. This is bad for Ken (because it's a big strength for him and he's actually got some policies) and good for Boris (because beyond some desultory car-friendly changes he has no policy worth the name other than the Routemaster idiocy).

As an example of how this works, focusing (inaccurately) on the bendy bus accident rate means no one focuses on the large drop in child fatalities in road accidents (as a parent I've received a blizzard of TfL branded stuff teaching children road safety, which is part of the nanny state I can go along with).

To further illustrate this effect, a CiF article by Christian Wolmar yesterday explicitly trying to move on from buses by making some good points about Metronet resulted in 8 out of the first 14 comments trying to take the subject back to Routemasters. Hmm. Do I smell astroturf or am I being overly suspicious here?

This wouldn't matter if it was a fringe issue, but transport is a key area for the Mayoralty and indeed all of London, and there's a long list of key transport projects for which 'edited the Spectator and appeared on telly' isn't a sufficient qualification and neither is 'simplifying London's transport policy into a silly row over bus designs'. In no particular order:

* DLR extensions currently being built and proposed
* East London line first phase, second phase and proposed Clapham extension
* Tramlink nationalisation and extensions
* Metronet nationalisation, reorganisation and contract renegotiation while simultaneously trying to resignal and reequip most of the tube network
* London Overground station upgrades and new trains
* Crossrail
* Extension of Oyster to overground rail, particularly south of the river where we're currently at a disadvantage
* Possible bringing of some more privatised rail services under TfL control in South London
* Cross-river tram
* Winning an esoteric but increasingly expensive argument with the DfT about smartcard ticket technology and accepting both the DfT's ITSO and TfL's Oyster on the same lines.

The thing about those projects is that Boris is going to have to get a handle on them on *day 1* - there's no time to get acclimatised as most of them are happening right now. Given that, however bright he is (and I suspect he is) everyone agrees he's completely incapable of organising even his own office, how's he going to get his head round that lot before the plates stop spinning and we're surrounded by broken crockery? The fact that he's not said whether he'll keep the existing excellent TfL team (doubtful, many of them would probably leave if they can't persuade him to change his mind on the bus question) or named whom he wants to appoint (apart from an extremely rich banker called Bob Diamond) also sets alarm bells ringing. In any case, he's likely to need a TfL Chairman, since Ken does that job at present (it's optional for the Mayor), so there's an indeterminate period of time when the Board will be rudderless.

The real scandal in the election is that the Tories didn't put up a decent candidate. David Davis, while a nasty right-winger, is at least smart, competent, well organised and a proper Londoner to boot, and could have been a great asset to the Tories as Mayor. Boris, I suspect, will be a great liability (and not a few Tories agree - almost fearing winning as much as losing), not least because Livingstone, of all people, won't need to readjust to a world where free market capitalism isn't always the answer.

Yakoub: If you have sources that contradict what I wrote about Qaradawi then I'll be happy to consider them and then clarify if necessary. From what I can tell the only thing I might be slightly exaggerating is his position on female circumcision: I realise that it's a cultural rather than a doctrinal issue in Islam, but Qaradawi wasn't one of the clerics that recently called for it to be declared haram, instead he sat on the fence. Again, if you can suggest some different labels for Tamimi than "Islamist" and for the likes of MAB, BMI and the MCB as Muslim right or conservative organisations then be my guest.

Tom: I quite agree, just that as I write living outside London the transport issues inside it aren't at front of my knowledge or my general interest. I also more than concur about "astroturfers" seemingly go around, as despite how bad that Ghannoushi article was, it didn't quite deserve some of the bashing it got, some almost certainly also led by the far-right, which seems to be increasing on CiF.

'Quite so. The same goes for the entire Muslims 4 Ken group. Condemning them is an utter waste of time; they're simply not worth the bother'

My dear sir that is what Oona King MP thought in East London a few years ago...until the Muslims help choose George instead. I am sure the profressionaly orchestrated campaign with hundreds of activists and thousands of multi-lingual emails, postal mail-outs, tele-texts on the day, blogs, Mosque leafleting, announcements, voter ferrying and door knocking and Mayor visits will make all the difference and prove that the Muslim community is a equal, powerful and integrated section of this great city we call home.

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