Saturday, May 03, 2008 

Why Ken lost to Boris.

There's only one thing that's less attractive than gloating, and that's petulance and sulking. While some Tories are gloating, some on the left are throwing their toys out of the pram, and most of all, it comes back to two separate but connected ideas: that Boris is a joke and some of those who voted for him did so directly because of this; and secondly, that Boris will be a disaster. Watching Boris over the weeks leading up to the election proved that he is not a joke, a buffoon, or an idiot, if he ever was. He was not a match for Ken in my eyes, but well over a hundred thousand other individuals thought different. Moreover, those performances persuaded a huge number of voters that he would not be a disaster, and what's more, despite his stewardship of the Spectator through the more rough times, his constituency work shows that although the job of London Mayor is a huge step up, he ought to be a match for it. Pretending that he was otherwise was the first major mistake, and one that a lot are still making.

Apart from not taking Boris seriously, why else did Ken lose?

1) The 8 years factor. If 8 years is long enough for the US President, then it's enough for the London Mayor. It would be different if, like in the national election, you were voting for a party rather than an individual, but this was a battle primarily fought on personalities. Ken was always going to suffer from the "change" factor. Ken doesn't deserve any blame for trying for a third term, but it was always going to be a uphill struggle.

2) The assiduous work of Lynton Crosby in targeting the suburbs worked fantastically well, the turnout rising while Ken's constituencies were more apathetic. Ken's people worked extraordinarily hard, but in the end they just couldn't match it.

3) Genuine distaste for Ken. This went far beyond the cliched stereotypical few who hated him from the beginning -- his lack of humility up until he finally was beaten made it ever more difficult to sympathise with him. Calling a Jewish Evening Standard journalist a concentration camp guard and not apologising for it? Urging businessmen who weren't Iranian to take their chances with the Ayatollahs? Not dispatching Lee Jasper until the damage had been done, while alleging that all those who were questioning him were racist? His complete and utter, disgraceful defence of Ian Blair? All of these things hurt, and they added up over time.

4) The festering sore which was the Evening Standard's coverage. If this had been the equivalent of the Sun in 1992, then it wouldn't have made any difference. Instead this was the constant drip-drip-drip of real scandal, hyperbole and smear, going on over a number of months. As Toynbee said in one of her rare moments of clarity, those voting may not actually read the paper, but they do so the billboards all over London, and they get under the skin.

5) Lack of real difference with Boris over policy. Yes, Ken's policies on transport and housing were significantly different, but elsewhere Boris was forced over time as Sunny argues onto Livingstone's territory. This further forced the emphasis onto the personalities, and Johnson in contrast to Ken was fresh and worth a gamble on.

6) The monumental cock-up over the Olympics' cost. Londoners are going to be paying for this millstone around their necks for years to come, and while Livingstone was at least more honest about it than the obscurantist which is Tessa Jowell, he was still partly responsible.

7) Transport. As much as Ken had success on transport, for those without an Oyster card £4.00 for one trip on the Tube is obscene, while bendy buses, although seemingly an arcane issue for those of us outside London, also hurt, even if Johnson's numbers on Routemasters were ludicrous. Then we have those still angry about the congestion charge, not to mention the justified but obviously controversial £25 fee for the most polluting vehicles, then finally the low emissions zone.

8) Connection with Labour at large. Although Livingstone has always been separate from New Labour, he couldn't help but be lumped by some in with Brown and the polls in the local elections showed how this must have hurt him at least slightly.

9) Ken's friends. Sigh. Where to begin on this one? Al-Qaradawi, Jasper, Muslims 4 Ken, all must have put some voters off. The Guardian's article on the day by Zoe fucking Williams also didn't help.

10) Ken himself. At times during the campaign he looked utterly worn out. The allegations about his "drink problem" also must have had some impact.

11) And finally. Not courting second-preference votes persistently enough, or even explaining the system repeatedly and properly so that everyone realised how it works. The alliance with the Greens was a smart move, but the Left List vote collapsed so didn't help as much as it might have done. Not enough was done to court the Liberal Democrat voters' to go for Ken second, although Paddick's performance was poor in any case.

This isn't a time to be despondent. 4 years is a very long time in politics, and by then, with a different, fresh and representative candidate, the left could very well win the position back, especially if Johnson does turn out to be not up to the job. Ken's time had passed, and up against such a strong insurgency, he couldn't match up. This is the message to take, not that Londoners are morons, voting for an idiot and deserve everything they get. Don't despair; it's time to build again.

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Friday, May 02, 2008 

"We're all fucked. You're fucked. We're all completely fucked."

However much spin Labour loyalists and supporters put on last night's local elections results, and the very likely victory of Boris Johnson in the London Mayoral contest, whether it's Gordon Brown's "disappointing" to Hopi Sen's "pretty bad", none of them can surely really see this as anything other than the last gasp of Labour in power.

The threshold for a "bad" Labour night was to lose 200 councillors; they managed to beat that by another 131, losing control of 9 councils in total. Despite the Conservatives still offering very little in genuine difference to Labour except Blairism/neo-Brownism with even less pity and crocodile tears, they grabbed an astonishing 44% of the vote, Labour receiving their worst result since, appropriately, 1968. This isn't just the sort of result that would give the Tories a election victory, it would give them a landslide akin to New Labour's in 1997, the sort of result that no one, not even the most slavering sycophantic Conservative could claim that they would deserve.

Yesterday's vote also exposes another of the myths that has built up around the most ghastly of the Blairites. Those who argue for the ever more assiduous targeting of the so-called "super marginals", courting the "aspirational" voters especially in the south-east and elsewhere have just had their entire world turned upside down. Their whole plan rests on those in the Labour "heartlands" turning out whatever the weather, political or otherwise. Yesterday Labour lost 6 councils in Wales, were turned out in Southampton, and also took a battering in Nuneaton and Harlow, the voters either staying away or going elsewhere. These are the people that New Labour has taken for granted, in some cases perhaps stealthily helped, as La Toynbee often argues, but who have had the 10p rate show just how much Brown really cares for them when he needs a short-term political boost. Along with the fuel bills and food prices hitting at the same time, they were already being walloped, and then their pay slips came through. How could the doubtless hard-working activists persuade them to turn out or stay loyal? Labour can't win in the super-marginals anyway; to pursue such a policy now would be suicide. Sadly, don't rule out such madness when Brown has decided that the solution to all his problems is to get ever more PR advisers.

Prior to the vote, Labour were making all the usual noises about this being a disaster, hoping that like 2004 and last year that the results would actually turn out to not be as bad as they first briefed. This time round the results were even worse than they had predicted, yet they still went through with the plan, picking on the slightest good result, like almost taking back Liverpool, which they couldn't even manage despite an Audit Commission report which gave the Lib Dem-led council the worst rating for financial prudence in the country. It was painful watching a succession of both the worst and least worst in Labour trying to put on a brave face, from the egregious Tessa Jowell and Geoff Hoon through to the likeable and affable John Denham. The only two who spoke honestly were John McDonnell and Charles Clarke, one an actual leadership candidate and the other a rumoured possible one.

None of them however have any real idea where to go from here. The response is the same it has been over the last 3 years: that "we" will listen. Blair promised to listen after the last election; he instead went knowing for certain that he was doing the right thing and everyone else was wrong. Brown promised change and to listen; he has done neither and has no intention of doing either, except to those opposed to the very values he is meant to represent. Ruth Kelly is currently on Newsnight trumpeting how the great unwashed (i.e. the public) will come back to Labour because they'll find the Tories out for being nothing more than a marketing exercise with no policy behind it. How on earth does she expect anyone to be able to tell the difference?

Over on Justin's they've been discussing what might turn the tide. The truth is that nothing will now. While Labour's share of the vote couldn't possibly be as bad at a general election as it was yesterday, if the Tories don't at least get a workable majority then they might as well, to turn Tony Blair's comment on its head, get out of politics completely. The hope will have to remain that either Brown turns it around somewhat or that the Tories don't manage completely to convince, resulting in the almost mythical hung parliament that might finally force PR onto Westminster, the one thing that will help to re-engage and give a choice beyond the current staleness of two parties that have hardly a cigarette paper between them.

Similarly, Neal Lawson is convinced that this is the death of third way, for the same reasons I think it's the death of the fatal super-marginals thinking. He's wrong because he hasn't yet realised that the Conservatives under Cameron are the new third way, the inheritance of the same radical-centrist dead end, and that's why the likes of Simon Heffer so loathe what has gone on, striking out at Boris in lieu of going after the leadership itself. The only real difference between Cameron's third way and Blair's third way is that the Tories are going to do what Blair wished he could: raising the inheritance tax threshold, directly bribing the middle classes, further attacks on the trade unions, but all with the same kindly wet face that only a ex-PR man educated at Eton can provide.

In this, the real blame lies not with Brown, but with Blair. It was he and his acolytes that created this situation, and left Brown to pick up the pieces after he hung on for too long, Brown too cowardly and without courage to get rid of him when he should have done, far earlier. Brown has had a go, it worked for a couple of months, then it all went pear-shaped, the real Brown rather than the one the adoring Guardian columnists had created unable to pull it together. Now Blair's real heir is getting ready to take over. Labour can't say it hasn't had the chances to change. To paraphrase Richard Mottram, the party now really is completely fucked.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008 

Gordon Brown, politics and courage.

There are two rules in modern politics. Whatever you do, don't admit that anything you've done or said has been a mistake, unless it becomes absolutely necessary. If you are forced into admitting you've got or done something wrong, make certain that the word "sorry" doesn't cross your lips, and also, under no circumstances whatsoever do you use the word "lie". Hence Hillary Clinton, who claimed she visited Bosnia under sniper fire, something proved to be utter horseshit, simply "misspoke".

Likewise, Gordon Brown, that most proud of men, never knowingly undersold like the nation's finest department stores, wasn't bandying about such namby pamby stuff as apologising or being sorry for the abolition of the 10p top rate of tax. Let's be charitable though: after all, just a few weeks ago he was refusing to believe that anyone whatsoever would be losing out, triggering the mother of all rebellions led by Frank Field, the man who cares about the hard-working low paid poor, but not so much about those who aren't working who ought to be ushered into the workhouse, although I might just be slightly exaggerating his views on the unemployed and current benefit system.

To digress, Brown admitted that both those earning under £18,000 a year and who aren't eligible for tax credits "weren't covered as well as they should [have been]" and that 60 to 64-year-olds without higher pensioner tax allowance also suffered. This, as the removal of the 10p rate always was without shifting the burden from the poorest to those more than able to pay, is to not see the wood for the trees. As attractive and helpful as the tax credit scheme has been for the lowest-paid, all it has done is to lance the boil, while simultaneously and ironically leaving those who are meant to be working for themselves and not for the state dependent upon it almost as much as they would be if they were out of work. It's the classic example of giving with one hand whilst taking away with the other. Instead of risking the ire of the CBI and small businesses by raising the minimum wage to one upon which it would possible to live on alone, while simultaneously raising the tax threshold so that the poorest pay very little to no tax at all, Brown's final budget as chancellor was the most regressive of his tenure. He and his advisers must have realised this: if they didn't, then both he and they were either incompetent, grasping for a good headline or both. It was spotted almost immediately by the anoraks and those who actually cared, but for almost everyone else it wasn't until the first pay cheques under the changes were sent out that Brown's whacking of the poorest became the scandal it ought to have been from the beginning.

As certain female columnists have spent years banging into us, Brown is for nothing if he isn't for abolishing child poverty and helping the poorest. Even after the supposed u-turn, it seems uncertain whether all those losing out will be in any way compensated, Field and the Treasury coming out with different interpretations of how the help would be dished out. In any event, the bottom line itself is not up for discussion: the 10p rate, a manifesto pledge in 97, has gone and isn't coming back, and neither is the bureaucratic nightmare which is the tax credits scheme. If you're too proud or to confused to claim tax credits, then, well buddy, you can sit and spin. The inequity of this situation is stark: just as the credit crunch bites, a situation created by both bankers and governments living on the never-never and in complete hock to neoliberal dogma, the faceless cleaner that mops up the sweat and tears from the floor of the concrete conurbation in the centre of London pays a higher proportion of a tax than the testestorone fuelled junkies they wipe up after.

Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling offers a solution to the whole sorry mess: raising the personal tax allowance by £1,200, while putting 7 pence on the highest tax rate. It is though, like almost all the worthy proposals which deserve to be policy but are likely never in our lifetime to be, a fantasy. The right-wing press would howl, the CBI would bleat, the Financial Times would scream, and the Tories would, along with the tabloids,soon have everyone convinced that they would be the ones being clobbered, just as apparently many now fear that they were about to be/would have been hit by the 10p rate abolition. Like with so much else that Labour could have done had it been led by someone truly radical instead of just a radical centrist, the time to have done so was back in 97, when the original pledge on the 10p rate was made. It would also require courage, something that Gordon Brown can write about, but which it seems he doesn't actually himself have. Actually, that's unfair: Gordon does have courage, but it's the courage to ignore the opinion of those who actually know what they're talking about, and to instead give in to the most hysterical moralist campaigners in the land; it's the courage to shaft those cushy prisoners from getting an extra pittance this year; and it's the courage to try and buy off Grauniad readers with a "listening" scheme that will be just as centrally controlled as all the previous ones were, a day before the local elections. When it comes to having genuine courage, the magnanimous sort which allows an individual to admit they were wrong and also that they are sorry for being wrong, Gordon simply doesn't have it.

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