Being young-ish and dull, I have a Salieri-like disposition to beat up on those who appear to be young and bright. This colours my view of the world in a rather unpleasant way, so what I’m about to write needs to be viewed in that context.
Learning that Oona King was indeed running for the Labour nomination for the London mayoralty is rather like getting confirmation that Lord Lucan is dead: something that most people have accepted for some time. This meant I had a partially formed opinion already of what I felt about her candidacy, but the past week has crystallised that for me. I am now more convinced than ever that if the Labour electoral college was to nominate King, then Boris Johnson might as well start writing his speech for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.
Over the past 5 days, there has been a concerted effort in sections of the Labour-leaning blogosphere and Twit-osphere to convince nay-sayers such as myself that King has ‘changed’; that to attach too much credence to her past as a committed Blairite is in some way unfair. Now, I’ll accept that people change. I even accept that some politicians change, although that list is mainly limited to Napoleon Bonaparte and Tony Benn.
This narrative is at least honest – it accepts that Old Oona, the undissenting New Labour MP simply does not fit the settled London view of what its Mayor should be like – basically, it wants independent-minded mavericks. It also accepts that the Old Oona, unbending in her support for a morally questionable invasion of Iraq, who achieved the unthinkable of losing a super-safe inner London seat on a swing of 26%, does not have the kind of electoral record that would appeal to the party and affiliate members who will select the candidate.
But the narrative has one key stumbling block: the lack of any evidence base for that change. Since the 2005 defeat, King has been pretty much absent from frontline public life – this is no criticism, it is understandable and is her prerogative.
But in that case, by what can we judge her? I’ll come onto King’s utterances from this week in a moment, but let us also consider her past judgement calls, as these are vitally important in deciding whether someone is fit for high office. We all know about Iraq – and yes, the failure to get that call right would disastrously haunt any King Mayoral campaign – but what of specifically London issues? A good example of where an independent voice for London demonstrates itself would have been in relation to the Public Private Partnership for London Underground, a scheme that can probably be ranked as Gordon Brown’s biggest mistake. The last Mayor opposed it in court; the current Mayor commendably brought down the curtain. Oona King sat in Parliament throughout the passage of the legislation that enabled it. Her response? Not, so far as I can tell after some lengthy searches, a squeak. A London MP whose constituency is heavily reliant on the Underground makes no interventions whatsoever on the most radical changes to its funding arrangements since nationalisation. I think we can take this as being tacit consent. Not a great record to be defending when you are seeking to be a doughty champion of Londoners. And no, this is not all about (in King’s words) ‘refighting the battles of the past’. It is about using history as a good guide to the future.
Nor do King’s more recent utterances fill me with any great comfort. Her pre-campaign launch interview with LabourList is, not to be deliberately unkind, toe-curlingly awful. Well meaning in terms of sentiment, yes, but composed almost entirely of the sort of wonk-speak from Generation SPAD that threatens to make the party leadership contest so dull. Talk about ‘new mutualism’ and street parties all you want, but this is to massively misunderstand the nature of the Mayoralty – a mixture of strategic oversight and nuts-and-bolts big spending. If you want to spend your time with grass-roots level community groups and youth mayors, run to be a councillor: in terms of subsidiarity that is where those agendas are rightfully set. Call me a stick-in-the-mud advocate of ‘the old politics’ if you like, but people vote for the mayor based on their policies on transport, policing, housing, planning and climate change – the big ticket spending and strategy-setting in the Mayor’s gift. Not one of these gets any mention in Oona’s interview. Am I a cynic when I think that parts of the Labour right use the Obama-stardust of ‘community organisation’ to destract from their dislike of an activist state? Probably, but it doesn’t stop niggling somewhere at the back of my mind.
Adam Bienkov reports that King’s campaign launch figured knife crime as its key theme – a serious issue, but how does she differentiate herself from Johnson, who majored on that issue in 2008? Then we have Dave Hill’s report of his interview with her in which he managed to broach some transport issues. It is, apparently, ‘her instinct’ to support congestion charging. This sounds worryingly luke-warm support for one of the greatest achievements of the last mayoralty. King then declines to provide a firm opinion on the Western extension of the congestion charge, a key issue in the months ahead as the consultation on its removal takes place. For a contender for Mayor to have no thought-through position on such a major environmental, transport and financial issue is deeply worrying to say the least. Indeed, King’s only transport policy seems to be ‘a radical overhaul of transport use’. Uh-huh?
Taking on Boris Johnson in 2012 is going to be a real challenge for Labour. The party cannot rely on mid-term government unpopularity to unseat him – Boris will distance himself almost as successfully as Livingstone did from the unpopularity of Blair and Brown. I can understand a degree of reluctance to let Livingstone run again – and I certainly don’t believe he should be unchallenged (bad for him, bad for the Party, bad for London), but if the calibre of the alternatives to Livingstone is that of King, then this ought to be a foregone conclusion. Labour needs a forensic mind, steeped in the intricacies of London politics, who can identify and drill down on the many and complex failures of the Boris mayoralty and who can stand proudly by their own record. I see nothing in King’s words or actions to date that suggest she has those abilities.
I’m pleased to see such a wide range of Labour support coming out for a Livingstone candidacy in the Guardian’s letters pages today. Someone is going to have to come up with a better answer to the question “Who, if not Ken?” than “Oona King” to stop me, anonymously, joining their ranks.