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 [1].

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.  

Ken LivingstoneSo 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?

[1] "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." 


7 Responses

  1. Tony H says:


    Strange how, during his valedictory speech, Ken found time to remove the "Brown Factor" as cause for his own failure. If memory serves, he took the blame entirely on his own shoulders..!
    Now it’s off to France.

  2. Rob says:

    Although I think all five of your reasons are significant, unfortunately I actually think that Johnson really made a difference for the Tories. Labour did better than last time in the Assembly elections, yet managed to lose the Mayoralty. That indicates that the Tory candidate was substantially stronger than last time. That, that a buffoonish, racist incompetent toff can be elected by Londoners as their mayor, is what is particularly distressing about this. I thought Martin O'Neill's piece in the New Statesman on this was particularly good, and not just because I happen to know him.

    Brian writes:  It's true that Labour won one more seat in the Assembly than last time, but the Tories won two more (all three at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, which may suggest that defections from the Lib Dems will be 2:1 in favour of the Tories elsewhere too).  As Phil points out in his comment above, Livingstone actually won more votes than in 2004, but presumably a smaller percentage on a bigger turn-out this time.  He certainly did considerably better than the average of other Labour candidates in the other local elections on the same day, despite the (meretricious) attractions of  Johnson as celebrity entertainer and cheerful chappie, which seem to have done the trick for the toff.  Distressing, I agree.  I also agree about Martin O'Neill's New Statesman article, which says it all.  It's available online at http://www.newstatesman.com/200804300002.

  3. Phil says:

    A buffoon is the last thing Johnson is, and a toff is probably the least important thing he is. He's cultivated the image of being both as a way of gaining name recognition as a celebrity – and I think it's that factor, together with the kind of sympathy for an outspoken underdog which Ken used to benefit from, which really got the Tory vote out. (I think the return of the Tory vote to the Tory Party, after dalliances with UKIP, the LDs and abstention, is the big story of this election – the vote for Ken was actually up on 2004.)

    Brian writes:  I entirely agree that the apparent return of former Tories to the fold is significant, and extremely ominous for Labour.  The earlier successes of New Labour under Blair in winning over a good many Middle England votes (our equivalent of the Reagan Democrats) don't seem to be repeatable under Gordon Brown, even though he's evidently fully as willing as Blair was to pay a heavy price in Labour principles and policies to get them and keep them.  So we're getting the worst of all worlds:  Labour principles abandoned and Labour abandoned by Middle England!  

  4. Rob says:

    Whether or not he is a buffoon, it’s central to his appeal, as I think is his unashamed class status. His underdog status depends on both, since he at least appears to articulate a kind of uncalculated common sense which relies on both to legitimate it. If he were just Eton educated and unapologetic about it, then he could come across as distant and aloof, whereas with added verbal and attitudinal incontinence, he’s both a kind of victim of that background and a tribune for all those people terribly oppressed by not being able to articulate the ways in which concern for the worse-off denies them their legitimate privilege. There’s a kind of nostalgia to him, a return to an age before deference, since he gets away with stuff that otherwise wouldn’t fly precisely because of his class status. I’m sure there are other things to be said about the election, but I’m pretty certain that Johnson and the features of his public persona I’ve mentioned were significant.

  5. robin says:

    Brian, you display too many of the sad reactions of those – particularly those on the left – who lose elections: a) blame the electorate ("…the itch for change conquered reason…bread and circuses for an electorate with a severely limited attention span"); b) blame the Press.

    I rarely read the Standard (or its hoardings), nor have I (or you?) conducted a survey of those who do to assess its effects. I would have thought its readership was well biassed towards those who were unlikely Ken-voters anyway.

    O.K., let's accept it probably had an effect. The current state of the Labour Party certainly had an effect. But what is surely unreasonable – particularly from such a normally reasonable man – is to categorise those who disagree with you about the balance of Ken's qualities/defects, and who might have voted, or abstained, on the basis of their assessment of that balance, as irrational ("otherwise rational"), and, by implication, dupes of the Standard. Indeed it's more than unreasonable, it's also arrogant and insulting.

    Of course, the proper fate of those who are irrational, or who have a severely limited attention span, is to be medicalised, sectioned, and deprived of the vote (among other things) as happens in other places where people have a strong conviction of their own rightness, and everybody else's wrongness. I know that's not what you want, but it is where your language leads you. Some modesty, please?

    Brian writes:  I'm wholly unapologetic, Robin.  There's nothing either insulting or arrogant in observing that a voter in this election had only one judgment to make, and extensive evidence on which to base it:  on past form and the record, which of Livingstone and Johnson was likelier to run London better for the next four years?  Visceral dislike of (or fascination with) either candidate because of what either has got up to in their private lives or their amusing performances on television, or how ruthless or untruthful either has been in their political careers (and both have been both on occasion), or self-interested smear campaigns in the media against one or the other candidate, or negative feelings about Gordon Brown's government, ought to have been set aside and subordinated to that single, easy question.  That a plurality of London voters gave it an answer which could not be reconciled with the evidence is indeed properly described as irrational.  It was a surrender to prejudice, ignorance, squeamishness or frivolity, or a combination of the four.  That's my view, and I stand by it!  (And no, I wouldn't propose medical treatment, still less any of the other "proper" fates you propose, for people just because on occasion they behave irrationally: indeed to section them or deprive them of their votes on that account would be manifestly contrary to a raft of laws and instruments of fundamental rights.  I'm surprised and disappointed that you should even suggest such a thing….<s>)

  6. From robin

    May 12th, 2008 at 9:02 am

    Your response, Brian, illustrates my point to perfection. Most voters in most elections (including this one) firmly believe that they do not have "only one judgment to make". The political process is a great deal more complex than that. Most voters that I know who voted in the London Mayoral election – certainly including myself – are far from certain that the choice they made between a number of seriously unattractive alternatives was the best – or even the least worst – one. Only you are blessed with a degree of certainty which, were I in the habit of so categorising my friends, I would be tempted to label irrational. But that’s your business: what is wrong – and actually counter-productive – is to attempt to bludgeon others into accepting not just that your choice is the right one, but that yours is the only possible basis for making a choice.

    Brian writes:  I am replying to this in a new comment — see below. 

  • Brian says:

    Robin, your comment above is less than just.  The electoral system for mayor of London was such that all but two candidates would be eliminated after first preference votes had been counted — the two survivors being those who had won the most and second most first preference votes.  It was unmistakably obvious that these would be Johnson and Livingstone.  Assuming (correctly, as it did and was bound to turn out) that neither of these would win more than 50 per cent of the first preference votes, those second preference votes which had been cast for Johnson or Livingstone and attached to the first preferences of the candidates now eliminated would be allocated between the two contestants, and whichever now had the greater total of first and redistributed second preference votes would be, and was, elected.

    It follows from this, not as a matter of opinion but as a matter of fact, that those voting in this election with the intention of influencing which of the candidates would become mayor of London had a simple choice — a choice between two candidates.  In order to influence the eventual outcome, it was necessary to cast either a first or a second preference vote for either Johnson or Livingstone.  Casting a first preference vote for one of the other candidates and a second preference vote for another of the other candidates had precisely as much effect on the outcome of the election as not bothering to vote at all — i.e. none.   In that remarkably simple choice between Johnson and Livingstone, the only legitimate and practical criterion was, clearly:  which would run London better for the next few years?  Applying that criterion required an assessment of the available evidence:  principally, which of the two candidates had a record of experience of running a major city or comparable organization with a degree of generally acknowledged success, and which had none? 

    I'm curious to know what you regard as irrational or over-simplified about that description of what had to be done? What constituted this "number of seriously unattractive alternatives"?  What were the additional judgements that the voter had to make, and in what ways was "the political process … a great deal more complex than [the one I have tried to describe]"?  

    Of course some voters might conceivably have chosen to forgo the opportunity to influence the outcome of the election and the decision on which of the two leading candidates was to become mayor, preferring instead to make a self-gratifying gesture by supporting another candidate with no hope of winning the mayoralty (and casting a second preference similarly);  or deciding to record a vote for a third party (the Greens, or the BNP, or whatever) so that its tally would look more respectable in the final statistics.  Others may have abstained from voting out of a fastidious distaste for both the front runners and an inability to decide which of the two was the less undesirable — the kind of decision frequently demanded by democratic politics — leaving it to others of a more robust temperament to make the decision for them.  It's a free society, more or less, and no-one can be prevented from throwing away a precious vote in that way, or any other.  My remarks have assumed that most votes would be and were cast with the specific purpose of having a say in the choice of candidate to be the next mayor.  I can only repeat that this was a remarkably simple, straightforward matter.   For once it really was a multiple-choice question with a choice between only two boxes to tick and only one plausible answer.