Confessions of a Political Animal

March 6, 2009

Sugar, and spice, and all things nice…

alansugar…that’s what an Evening Standard non-story is made of.

There’s a series of books doing the rounds with the generic title ‘I Never Knew That About [London/ England/ Scotland/ Ireland/ Wales etc]’. I’m hoping to find out who the series’ commissioning editor is and that I can convince them to issue a new one. It’ll be entitled ‘I Never Knew That About the Labour Party’ and will, I hope, by compiled by pro-Tory, right-wing populist journalist (and therefore expert on all things Labour) Andrew Gilligan.

Because this week, Mr Gilligan has taught me something I never knew about my own party. It’s an amazing fact; it will shock you to your very core and is definitely worthy of being the centrepiece of a major comment piece such as this one, or this one. Are you ready for this? Some people in the Labour Party don’t like Ken Livingstone very much and don’t want him to be the Mayoral candidate in 2012.

OK, and irony switched to ‘off’. To my mind, this could only possibly count as news if you are under the age of 12 or have spent the past thirty-five years in a suitably remote location in Papua New Guinea. It may have temporarily slipped Mr Gilligan’s mind that there was a rather significant ‘Stop Ken’ campaign in 1998-9, headed by little-known figure Tony Blair, which achieved precisely 50% of its aims.

Of course, the Animal remembers it all too well, right down to recalling his teenage self ostentatiously and irrelevently wearing a ‘Let Ken Stand’ badge at his Labour branch meeting in Leeds. And ten years on, why should anything have changed? Livingstone is on the soft left of the party: those who Gilligan claims are in opposition to his 2012 candidacy (Tessa Jowell, Nick ‘Boris Island’ Raynsford, Tony McNulty, Steve Reed, Kate Hoey) are on the soft to hard right of Labour. These are people who, had they thought they stood the slightest chance of success, would have campaigned for an alternative candidate in 2008. And, from a Labour perspective, thank God they didn’t. I don’t think it is stretching credulity too much to suggest that had they prevailed, the mayoralty would have been lost by 20 points and the party would have at least two fewer Assembly members.

So, people from one wing of a party aren’t too keen on people from the other wing of the party being a candidate for a major role, eh Andrew? Well, hold that front page. However much Gilligan tries to spin it (and Tory Troll’s account of the same Progress meeting that was the basis of Gilligan’s second piece suggests he’s trying quite hard) he isn’t witnessing a mass turning against Ken on the part of the London Labour Party, simply the inevitable positioning by the various factions that takes place in any party where a candidate needs to be chosen for a position that party doesn’t currently hold.

Now why would Andrew Gilligan and the Standard be going to such efforts to spin the line about an alleged ‘Stop Ken’ campaign? There is, I think, a very simple explanation: they’ve effectively given up on Boris. Yes, just ten months into his first term, and the Mayor’s chief cheerleaders have come to the conclusion that he isn’t cutting the mustard. The turning point can, I think, be identified as February 2nd 2009 (or ‘snowday’, as it will henceforth be known). The almost complete shutdown of TfL’s networks was, in Standard land, the sort of thing that was supposed to have been banished when the politically-correct, loony left, health-and-safety gone mad Livingstonites were kicked out of City Hall. Johnson’s failings on that day led to this outpouring from Gilligan which presented real criticisms of the Mayor, despite being wrapped up in the usual whinges about TfL bureaucrats.

But this was the opening of the floodgates, although the advent of new owners at the Standard no doubt helped. Suddenly, the paper seemed to have picked its candidate for 2012 – and it was going to be the Labour candidate! Unfortunately, this was only on the condition that the Party picked a cantankerous old businessman with very limited connections to the Party or its core principles.  In fact, the Standard made clear, we will support a Labour mayor, just so long as the candidate is to the right of the incumbent. Step forward, Surallun Sugar! [Cue Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet, shots of London skyline, images of the plutocrat in his helicopter, the Labour Assembly members walking purposefully across Millennium Bridge and then voiceover: ‘Eight politicians have come to Brentwood in search of a mayoral candidate’]

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for Boris. Gilligan bigs up Sir Alan; another former cheerleader Simon Jenkins pens a column piece entitled ‘Compared to Boris, Mayor Sugar would really mean business’ and the Standard effectively prints an endorsement of the genius behind the Amstrad E-m@iler on its billboards across London. The message is clear: “Johnson isn’t getting the vision thing, he’s not that much cop as a municipal manager and frankly there’s only so much kudos you can get from completing (hopefully) a few of the projects started by your predecessor. We think there’s a real danger that that predecessor might stand a good chance at getting back in come 2012, so we’d best find someone more to our liking who can stop him. That Gilligan chap’s quite good at making a handful of carefully selected facts into a story that suits his agenda isn’t he? Get him to make up a candidate for us.”

The Animal would like, in his usual generous way, to offer some free advice to the Evening Standard and the Labour right. If you want to make absolutely sure Livingstone gets the 2012 Labour nomination, run Alan Sugar against him for it. Firstly, Sugar effectively neutralises two of the key arguments against a Livingstone re-run: his age (Sugar is less than two years younger than Livingstone) and character defects (even as a loyal supporter, I’ll admit Ken has a few, but SurAllun trumps them in spades). Now, consider the electorate. Contrary to the impression given by Gilligan’s articles, Labour’s candidate for 2012 won’t be selected through a process of the Party’s Regional Director ringing up Alan Sugar. Rather, the decision will be made by a one member one vote election of party and affiliated union members.

Livingstone is no shoe-in for this electorate. However, what if his only competition is Alan Sugar, a man with no discernable links to the Labour Party (beyond a few cheques) or the labour movement; who endorsed the Conservative candidate for Mayor in 2008; who has publicly professed himself opposed to key tenets of Labour policy, such as maternity leave and equal rights in the workplace; and who is the shameless embodiment of the ‘greed is good’ mantra of the 1980s and 90s? Well, I think the bookies would pay out on that race today.

Let us add to this the abysmal record of businesspeople in British politics – does anyone remember Archie Norman, one-term Tory MP for Tunbridge Wells who was going to turn round the Hague-era Tory Party with his Asda magic? No? About once a decade, someone comes up with the great idea of getting tycoons and entrepreneurs into the political arena. Elected mayors were Blair’s way of doing exactly that, but it never worked out. Leaders in business aren’t going to take the pay cut, or indeed the power cut, that comes with elected office. It is no criticism of either the public or the private sector to say that the skills needed for top level management are completely different. Has Sir Alan ever considered a planning application, or thought through the implications of policy on land use, transport planning, economic equalities or diversity? I doubt it. Not a personal criticism: after all, Livingstone never marketed an Amstrad computer.

There are a number of candidates who could give Livingstone a run for his money for the 2012 nomination, but I’m not saying who (my free advice only goes so far). Immediately after the elections in 2008, The Animal was something of an agnostic as to whether Livingstone should re-stand. Nine months on, I am now in little doubt that he should. Ken is practically alone in presenting an intelligent, logical and coherent critique of Johnson’s failings as Mayor. There is at least one Assembly Member who also ‘gets it’, but for some reason the London Assembly has never emerged as a launch pad for mayoral candidates from the major parties. But of one thing I’m certain: Sir Alan isn’t the man for the job, and the Standard’s support confirms that to me. If Ken isn’t acceptable, give Jon Cruddas a call (although I suspect he may be frying bigger fish by 2012). The Party leadership mustn’t play The Standard’s game, or it’ll simply lead to a re-run of the fiasco of 2000.

Oh, and for full disclosure, I love The Apprentice. When’s it on again?


  1. […] Not, of course that that should mean adopting the desperate measure of attempting to draft the eminently unsuitable Sir Alan Sugar, regardless of current polling […]

    Pingback by Satisfying the masses…or not « Confessions of a Political Animal — April 29, 2009 @ 3:47 pm | Reply

  2. Hmm, you suspect Cruddas will be gunning for a post-general election defeat Labour leadership challenge between 2010 and 2012? It wouldn’t exactly be like Foot being elected Leader in 1980, but I suspect that your party’s upper echelons won’t take the lesson from next year’s probable defeat that Labour needs to be more left-wing. I know Cruddas is soft left, but I predict after 2010 Labour will do what they did between 1994 and 1997: try to out-Tory the Tory government in order to shut down criticisms that they are too “soft” on crime, etc. And pray the Tories mess up whilst in power, which might mean a long wait.

    Ken might be miles better that Surallan, but there’s no way he could beat Johnson in 2012. Either you play the long game and take aim at 2016, and in the mean time build up a progressive alliance of London councillors, AMs and MPs to solve London’s problems without the help of the Mayor; or you start finding someone else in Labour who CAN articulate a critique of Johnson’s Mayoralty. My bet would be someone young and different: current London MP like Sadiq Khan or David Lammy, both of whom are good speakers and Khan at least is well loved in his constituency. But I think if you don’t start now, Johnson will be unbeatable in 2012, if he isn’t already. In the spirit of inter-party progressive brotherhood, all the best!

    One thing: Ken might be a good critic of Johnson, but the polls on your most recent post suggest that his critique hasn’t got a very wide audience. A lot of that, I’d wager, has to do with his failure to cultivate a network of grassroots supporters beyond some elements of the London Labour Party during his eight years as Mayor: now that he’s not in power, I don’t think most Londoners want to listen to him. Indeed, if as I occasionally do, you read those rubbish freesheets, you’ll see many comments indicating that people want Ken to move on: any effective critique of Johnson is going to have to come from someone new.

    Comment by Rayyan — May 2, 2009 @ 8:01 am | Reply

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