Ken Livingstone divides opinion like no one else. To those who despise him, it’s simply impossible to imagine why anyone could ever have supported him, but I always have. Until now. We have surely reached the final curtain of Ken’s career and it is one many people will be greeting with glee. It makes me sad. But it also highlights the importance of electing Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London on Thursday.
When I joined the Labour party eleven years ago at the age of 22, I was ambivalent about the government but I had been genuinely impressed by the record of the then-Mayor of London, recently brought back into the party after another period in the wilderness. There was an incredible buzz throughout the city at the time and a sense of optimism and excitement about the future that is easy to forget amid the fears about housing, inequality and air pollution that grip the city now. Of course, much of that was to be expected in the midst of an economic boom but Ken deserves his share of the credit too. Transport, public spaces and the environment all improved massively on his watch and, ironically, he also did a massive amount to combat prejudice, discrimination and disunity in the capital. Even his strongest detractors tend to acknowledge that, when 52 Londoners were killed on their way to work on 7th July 2005, our mayor, who was in Singapore at the time as part of the team securing the 2012 Olympic Games, went on TV and spoke for us all..
I’m not qualified to say if Ken has been antisemitic this week. I’m not Jewish, I’ve never been to Israel or Palestine and my understanding of the issues involved is simply not great enough for me to add anything useful to that particular debate. I know many Jewish people are genuinely upset by Ken’s remarks, especially in the light of other questionable incidents in the past, and I hardly think I have any business telling them, as some others seem to think they can, how upset they’re allowed to be about it. I also know there are other Jewish people who have a different interpretation of the week’s events. The Jewish Socialists’ Group released this statement which offered a different take on what has happened. I know many of the views in this statement are shared by one of my great heroes: the children’s author and education campaigner Michael Rosen, who is also from a Jewish background. I’m simply not in a position to make a judgement about who is right or wrong and I will leave it to those better-informed than me to do so.
Besides, whatever the answer to that question, it doesn’t change the fact that Ken’s remarks were appallingly ill-judged. I’m not going to link to them. If you’ve been on the moon and you want to find out what he’s been up to this week, just start typing his name into google and you’ll be hit by a barrage of unflattering headlines. Why on Earth would anyone think it was a good idea to debate the intricacies of one of Hitler’s early policies as part of a discussion of antisemitism live on air? Why would you do that? I just don’t understand what he was trying to achieve and, with all his experience, he must understand our media well enough to know the headlines that sort of outburst would generate. The main news headline on the BBC website as I write this is “Ken Livingstone stands by Hitler comments.” Now, for my money, that’s just not a particularly good look.
I have met Ken several times, I once gave him a lift in my car to and from an event at a school where he was speaking and I have always campaigned for him in mayoral elections. He is a good man, he loves London and he has done a great deal for our city. But, to my great regret, I can’t defend him anymore.
For me, one of the saddest aspects of what happened this week was that Ken left his likely successor Sadiq Khan with no choice but to denounce him. Attacked by an utterly disgusting Tory smear campaign for weeks, Khan has worked extremely hard to build relationships with all of London’s many cultural and faith groups during this election, including our Jewish communities, and there is no reason why he should have to take any of the flak from Ken’s comments. In his pomp, Ken was one of the best political operators in the business but forcing this move from Khan was surely a terrible and probably terminal mistake. As recently as September, Khan was seen posing for photos with Ken, happy to be associated in voters’ minds with his predecessor’s achievements. Not anymore. Required to give a response to the media in the midst of an election campaign, Khan had no choice but to distance himself utterly from what had been said and call for Ken’s expulsion from the party. Where Ken might otherwise have been welcomed back to City Hall after a Khan victory and given the chance to offer the new mayor the benefits of his advice and experience, he now finds himself isolated. That’s not just sad for him personally; a Khan mayoralty, and therefore London, could have benefited greatly from Ken’s input. The government of London, first at the GLC and more recently at City Hall, has defined Ken’s career. He now finds himself effectively ex-communicated from that operation, probably for good and entirely as a consequence of his own actions. They say all political careers ultimately end in failure and this is one I find particularly poignant.
So we must turn the page utterly in London. The Livingstone years are over and we have a chance to start afresh. If someone can show me a more forward-looking, open-minded, tolerant place in Britain than its capital, I’d be delighted to see it. But until that day I will continue to hold up my home town as a beacon demonstrating better than anywhere else the ability of people, however different they may be, to live together respectfully and in peace. We Londoners have got used to this being so, maybe even come to take it for granted somewhat. But these hard-won aspects of London’s character will last only as long as we protect them. Over the last couple of years, as I’ve traveled around the city and watched my fellow Londoners going about their business, I’ve become aware of the faint whiff of decline. Stretched to the limit by the cost of living in and aware at every turn of the ever-greater inequality between its citizens, uneasiness has started to nibble away at the edges of London’s usual exuberance and self-confidence.
As ever, of course, we’ve been more fortunate here than elsewhere. The Tories are destroying our services, our schools, our health service and our environment and there are places in the country where the effects have been far worse than they have been here. But the callous disregard for the plight of the poor and vulnerable on the part of both the government and the outgoing mayor, and their total inaction on the issues that most affect Londoners’ lives, have surely taken from them any right to demand another four years in City Hall. Electing Sadiq Khan on Thursday won’t make all these problems go away overnight and it won’t get rid of the government in Westminster but it will be, at long last, one small but important step back in the right direction. The journey of 1,000 miles, they say, begins with a single step.
For eight years we’ve have had a Tory mayor who has done barely anything but cut the ribbons on a few projects started before he came to office. In 2008, the mayor’s office was handed an enormous budget and new powers to tackle the housing crisis that the Brown government could already see brewing. Yet Boris Johnson has done barely anything of significance to address what has become the fundamental problem in our city at the moment. The only person who can even begin to change that anytime soon is a Labour mayor.
Whatever your views about the events of the last few days, nothing that has happened in the Labour Party has come close in its ugliness to the divisive campaign run by Zac Goldsmith against Sadiq Khan, using terms such as “radical” and “extremist” over and over again in a very deliberate way that can barely even be described as “dog-whistle politics.” It has been blatant. There has been an almost Orwellian effort to create vague and unspecified associations in voters’ minds between Khan and their worst fears about Islam. I hope, for all our sakes, that Friday’s result will show this approach to have failed. Once second preferences are counted, this election is a choice between Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq and, for me, to elect Zac Goldsmith, would be to betray everything that makes me proudest to be a Londoner.
Sadiq Khan has run a campaign promising to be a “Mayor for all Londoners.” Whatever you think about the other figures in the Labour Party and their silly squabbling, be they from the “Livingstone Left” or the “Blairite Right”, a vote for Sadiq Khan is not a vote for any of them. It is, I believe, simply a vote for London. The torch has been passed on (utterly so now, as a result of a dramatic and bewildering political faceplant by the previous torch-bearer) and the chance to retake City Hall for Labour has fallen to the Muslim son of a bus-driver. There’s work to be done and Ken can’t do it anymore.
But Khan can.
That’s why I’ll be voting for Sadiq Khan on Thursday.