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March 13, 2011

Ken flounders on the Politics Show.

I’ve just got around to watching the interview with Ken Livingstone on today’s Politics Show. I’m hugely heartened by his performance. He was as evasive and deceptive as ever, he refused to acknowledge failures from his time in office, he laid the entire blame for his 2008 defeat at the door of  the former Labour government, he performed a Balls-esque denial of the deficit and he disputed the need for any cuts. Frankly – and I don’t mean this as a hugely partisan point – he just seemed old and tired. He certainly didn’t come across as a man who could be energetically running the capital in five years’ time. Anyway, let me highlight some of the things he had to say…

“This will be a very different election. I don’t think people will be looking back, even at what Boris Johnson’s done.”

Of course, Ken wouldn’t want Londoners analysing his record in office, would he? Tax rises, cronies, divisiveness and extremism probably aren’t the kinds of things you want the electorate to remember when they decide whether to re-elect you. Furthermore, the last thing he wants is for anyone to compare Boris’ record – the freezing of the mayoral precept, a huge drop in crime, winning the fight for London’s funding etc. – with his own.

“One really good thing is that I don’t hit the ground and have to spend two years working out how to do the job. I’d go straight in, knowing what to do.”

Three points to make here. Firstly, is he really saying that one of his biggest attributes is that he’s done the job before? As far as key selling points go, that’s pretty weak. Secondly, his performance of the job the first time round was the very reason that he was kicked out of office! Thirdly, in case he hadn’t noticed, Boris has also done the job before – he’s doing it right now – and he’s done it far better.

“In a sense, it’ll be a mid-term election, like they have in America. It’s the first chance for Londoners to say ‘We think the cuts have gone too deep and too far’. If I win this election, it will be a body-blow to this government.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Just as he claims that he was kicked out of office due to national politics, so he hopes that he’ll be re-elected due to the new set of national politics. He’s hoping that the government’s cuts programme will help him sneak into City Hall via the back door. You can’t blame him for taking that approach – it’s clever politicking –  but it displays a serious lack of fresh ideas. Londoners need a mayor whose priority is fighting for their interests, not trying to damage the government.

“I think I’m a great uniting figure.”

This is the point where I actually laughed out loud. Coming from one of the most deliberately divisive politicians around, this is a spectacularly brazen suggestion. He can’t truly believe it, but full marks for effort.

“I did have the misfortune to be facing an election just as the British economy went into recession. That didn’t help. And internal polling the party did showed that Labour’s figures and mine went off a precipice after the budget when the 10p tax band was wiped out.”

Ah, the beautiful irony: in a Brown-esque denial of fault, he blames his electoral defeat on Brown himself. None of which explains why he is currently polling far below the national party (the most recent YouGov poll showed he was 2 points ahead of Boris, while Labour are 16 points ahead of the Tories in London). So while the national party has apparently recovered electorally since 2008, he’s completely stagnated.

“I don’t spend my time agonising about the past. If you get defeated, you pick yourself up and get on and come back.”

The ability to pick oneself up from falls is commendable, but so too is the willingness to learn from one’s mistakes. Despite being pushed a number of times to reflect on his errors, or to suggest ways in which he’s changed in his time out of office, he resolutely refused. Londoners don’t want the old Ken back – if he can’t show that he’s changed, 2012 will surely see a repeat of the 2008 result.

“Every day of my life, I’ve lived in Zone 3, or Zone 4.”

This was his desperate attempt at a rebuttal of the suggestion that he did very little for outer-London when mayor. Clearly, residency of an area isn’t proof that you helped said area! It was outer-Londoners who voted Ken out in 2008 – not by some coincidence or vagary, but because they felt completely unhelped during his tenure as mayor.

“I’m not going to go into a whole load of promises.”

That’s quite a vision you’ve got going there, Ken. Of course, he did make some promises. He promised to freeze transport fares – a populist and (no doubt) popular policy, yet entirely unaffordable and completely against the advice of respected transport advisors. He also promised to freeze the mayoral council tax precept – something he failed to ever do during his eight years in office, but which Boris has done every year since he became mayor.

“There’s all of those people tax-avoiding…”

Could someone – perhaps one of his well-documented cronies? – explain to him that tax-avoidance is perfectly legal, and isn’t something to attack bankers for, however much his innate socialism encourages him to abhor them. What’s more, unless he’s never used an ISA, never haggled over the price of a car, never bought something in the sales, never given to charity through GiftAid (the examples are endless), he too is a tax-avoider.

“We need a mayor that’s prepared to stand up to the government and say ‘London’s not getting its fair share’ and you won’t get that from a Tory mayor.”

He truly saved the most ridiculous till last. The idea that a hostile, divisive, factious Labour mayor is more likely to obtain concessions and help from the government is just absurd. One simply can’t imagine Ken Livingstone engaging in fruitful talks with George Osborne on the big issues that affect London. By contrast, there is already firm evidence that Boris has done exactly that. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how he was told by senior ministers that Crossrail and the tube upgrades wouldn’t be happening due to funding constraints. Boris deemed that to be ‘complete madness’ and refused to stop advocating the schemes. He fought the government on both measures – and won both arguments. Both Crossrail and the tube upgrades were protected in October’s Comprehensive Spending Review. So in that one statement, Ken’s made three mistakes – he wouldn’t be able to stand up to the government, London is getting its fair share, and Boris has successfully stood up to the government himself.

If this interview is a sign of things to come, and an indication of the kind of campaign that Ken intends to pursue, Boris will sleep well tonight.

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