Livingstone pays the price for “triangulation”

Issue: 119

Charlie Kimber

In broad terms the story is easily told. Labour’s Ken Livingstone was defeated as Mayor of London by Conservative Boris Johnson because the Labour Party is on the slide and the right in British politics has got its act together.

Livingstone’s percentage of the first preference votes for mayor was virtually unchanged compared to 2004. But the Conservative share was up more than 14 percent.1

The central issue was that Livingstone was a Labour candidate—an unashamed and proud Labour candidate—at a time when Labour was increasingly unpopular. He therefore could not motivate a real movement to beat off the threat from the right. In 2000 hundreds of thousands of Londoners believed the way to hit New Labour was to vote for Livingstone, and they voted for him with some enthusiasm. In 2008 they thought the way to hit New Labour was not to vote for Livingstone, and either stayed at home or voted for somebody else.

In 2000 he was widely seen as the radical who Labour had expelled. The result was first preference scores of 39 percent for Livingstone, 27 percent for the Conservative’s candidate, 13 percent for Labour and 12 percent for the Liberal Democrats. The final total after transfers was Livingstone 58 percent, the Conservative 42 percent.

By 2004 the warning signs were clear. Having rejoined Labour, and with Labour on a sharp decline as Tony Blair waged war on Iraq and pushed through measures that attacked working class people, Livingstone was far less popular. In 2000 the combined first preference vote for Livingstone and the Labour candidate was 52 percent. Four years later Livingstone as Labour candidate could secure only 36 percent. The final totals were 55 percent for Labour and 45 percent for the Conservatives.

So there was always likely to be a close contest in 2008, unless the replacement of Blair by Gordon Brown in June 2007 had decisively revived Labour’s fortunes.

For a long period Livingstone was ahead in the polls. In November 2007 he headed Johnson by 45 percent to 39 percent. But even then the detailed results showed that key elements of Livingstone’s policies were not shared by his supporters.2 For instance, a third of those who said they were going to back Livingstone also said that Sir Ian Blair should have resigned as Metropolitan Police commissioner over the police killing of Jean Charles de Menezes. And a majority (46 percent to 41 percent) of Liberal Democrat voters also agreed that Ian Blair should have gone. Yet Livingstone, of course, had steadfastly backed the commissioner.

On 24 January 2008 Livingstone was still ahead in the polls by 44 percent to 40 percent,3 and he was still four points ahead on 12 February. It was not until 21 February that Johnson moved to the front. After that Livingstone was behind Johnson in almost every poll.

These trends were essentially a delayed version of the general Tory-Labour poll ratings.4 Hard though it may be to remember, Labour was ahead of the Tories in polls from June 2007 to October 2007 (the “Brown bounce”). At one stage the lead grew to 13 percent. Since 24 October 2007 virtually every poll has put the Tories ahead.

Being associated with Brown and the Labour government became a drain on any candidate, not a benefit. And yet Livingstone never appeared to recognise this. Despite the growing evidence that voters were turning ever more sharply against neoliberal policies as the economic crisis grew, Livingstone stuck doggedly to the very New Labour strategy of “partnership” with big business and the City of London. He also embraced Gordon Brown himself, just as most people were rejecting him. On 20 March the two toured East London, with Brown, who had repeatedly and publicly clashed with him in the past, now describing Livingstone as “inspirational”.5 Even more disastrously, on 24 April the Guardian revealed:

Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell have both been giving advice to the campaign working for London mayor Ken Livingstone’s re-election. The former prime minister and his media strategist had been among Livingstone’s most trenchant critics in the past, and he had derided them for being the architects of the New Labour project. However, with the race against the Tory candidate Boris Johnson on a knife-edge, Livingstone’s team has sought their expertise, and also the advice of Philip Gould, New Labour’s pollster and focus group adviser.6

What gems were the war criminal and his court dispensing? Blair’s advice was that “Livingstone cannot win solely on the basis of his record, and must be unambiguous that he will continue to attract private sector investment to the capital”—precisely the wrong direction to go in.

The article added, “Livingstone campaign sources said the 10p tax rate abolition was the only national issue intruding into the mayoral campaign and they were relieved that Brown yesterday defused the issue by promising to recompense most losers this year.” This delusion—that the issue that had come to focus the anger with Labour’s pro-business policies had somehow gone away, or that the backlash against it would not stick to Livingstone—was to be rudely shattered a week later.

Perhaps aware of the danger of aligning too closely with such unpopular duds as Blair and Brown, a Livingstone source, quoted in the article, said:

Ken welcomes the support he has had in his campaign from anyone including Alastair Campbell, Phillip Gould, and particularly the strong support he has had from government ministers. At the same time, you only have to see the importance his campaign gives to issues like opposing the war in Iraq and bringing the maintenance of the Tube back into public ownership to understand the character of his campaign.

Which might have been interesting, if Iraq or Metronet’s fate had featured at all prominently in Livingstone’s propaganda.

Throughout the campaign Livingstone tried to hold together a creaky alliance which stretched from big business and London’s financiers to sections of the “progressive left” and George Galloway MP. This was not a wholly new idea; indeed in 2004 he had already won the endorsement of the Economist, a business magazine. And he pursued a pro-business strategy ruthlessly in his second term. In an interview in April 2007 Livingstone said:

There isn’t a great ideological conflict any more. The business community, for example, has been almost depoliticised. One of the first people to lobby me when I became mayor was Judith Mayhew, from the City Corporation. She came and said, “We’ve all changed; it won’t be like the last time; there’s so much we can do together.” I didn’t believe a word of it, but it turned out to be true.7

Livingstone’s love affair with the City was such that he even found himself to the right of New Labour. When chancellor Alistair Darling proposed some paltry taxation of the “non-doms”—people who live in the capital but are registered abroad and pay no tax—Livingstone waded in to support the billionaires. He “hit out at Darling’s plans warning it could drive investment away from London. He argued the government could ‘not afford to get it wrong’. In a speech at ‘The Global Capital’ conference the mayor said concessions made so far by Mr Darling had not gone far enough to satisfy London’s financial sector”.8

So strong was this pitch that a few days before the election the Financial Times wrote:

Livingstone has won the tacit support of the City in his bid to be re-elected as London mayor. Leading business organisations, while stressing their apolitical nature, praise the Labour mayor’s “good track record” in running the capital. The City’s backing for Mr Livingstone might appear counter-intuitive, given his “loony left” tabloid characterisation during his 1980s leadership of the Greater London Council. However, his actions as mayor have not conformed to this simple stereotyping—witness, for example, Mr Livingstone’s recent criticism of the levy imposed by the government on wealthy non-domiciled foreigners in the City. “Big business, big developers, see Ken as a relatively safe bet,” said Tony Travers, director of the greater London group at the London School of Economics. “Ken’s vision of urban priorities is in its way Thatcherite—he’s an über-Blairite who believes in London’s rapid development [with] lots of tall buildings, and business success.” The CBI employers’ organisation praised Mr Livingstone’s “good track record” with business.9

Bizarrely Livingstone continued to boast of his business support even after his defeat. He wrote in the Guardian:

Labour’s campaign in London gained major support from business. The Financial Times concluded that the majority of big business in London supported my re-election. There is no way to check that, but I know from meetings that very large sections of big business supported my campaign.10

Throughout his term of office Livingstone has tried to use a version of New Labour’s “triangulation” strategy. This means claiming to stand above and between the “old left-right divisions” and stealing the ideas of your opponents in order to prevent them attacking you. When the left adopts such a strategy it means adopting pro-capitalist policies, to disastrous effect. It also doesn’t work. The assumption that working class people will always vote overwhelmingly for the traditional left because they have nowhere else to go ignores the fact that they can always not vote at all, or vote for someone else.

It is, of course, important to look at the right as well as the left. One factor often ignored is that disarray on the right has previously masked Labour’s decline. Across Britain Labour lost four million votes between the general elections of 1997 and 2005. Normally that would mean electoral defeat. But Labour hung on to office because the Tory vote also declined by a million from its appalling result in 1997. But now the right is more organised. Tory leader David Cameron has also been lucky that competitors, such as the anti-Europe, anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which took nearly 10 percent of the vote and won two seats in the 2004 London elections, have imploded. Many of their votes will have gone to Boris Johnson.

Johnson also benefited from a slew of articles in the Evening Standard attacking Livingstone. Night after night the paper dredged up material which claimed to show corruption in City Hall. Much of this was linked to questions of race. The paper alleged, among other things, that the London Development Agency may have been intimidated by threats of gang violence by black people into giving out grants to organisations in which black people were the majority.

It alleged that an organisation in Brixton, for which London Development Agency funds had been given, was “a vibrant hub for criminals”. The mayor’s equalities adviser, Lee Jasper, was vilified over corruption allegations, even though he has never been charged with an offence.11

And then on 16 April its headline read “Suicide Bomb Backer Runs Ken’s Campaign”, based on a claim that “an advocate of suicide bombing is among leaders of a group trying to mobilise Muslim voters to back Ken Livingstone… For the past year, the group has been working on a strategy to win an estimated 200,000 Muslim votes in an effort to re-elect the mayor. It is being waged by Muslims 4 Ken, led by 39 year old lecturer Anas Altikriti and Palestinian-born Azzam Tamimi, a supporter of Hamas, the militant group dedicated to the creation of an Islamic state of Palestine”.

Elsewhere New Statesman editor Martin Bright presented a Channel 4 Dispatches television programme, charging the mayor with (as the Guardian put it) “financial profligacy, cronyism and links to a Trotskyite faction conspiring to transform London into a ‘socialist city state’.” Bright wrote a piece in the Evening Standard saying, “I now believe Ken is a disgrace to his office. I feel it is my duty to warn the London electorate that a vote for Livingstone is a vote for a bully and a coward who is not worthy to lead this great city of ours.”

However nasty these attacks may have been, the left is never going to get very far if it is surprised or demobilised by an assault from such sources. The key question is to rally working people to defeat such assaults. This Livingstone failed to do. This is hardly surprising as his policies have hit working class people across London. Livingstone told union members on the tube to cross picket lines during a strike, failed to use planning controls to promote genuinely affordable housing and presided over a transport system that penalised workers.12

Overall there was an average swing of 7.4 percent (on first preferences) across London from Labour to Tory compared with 2004. But this was far from uniform. Most boroughs and wards where the Conservatives are strong in local government recorded big swings to Johnson. In Havering it was 15 percent, in Bexley 14.9 percent, in Bromley 14.2 percent, in Hillingdon 12.1 percent, in Kensington & Chelsea 10.7 percent, and in Wandsworth 10 percent. In general Conservative voters turned out enthusiastically for Johnson and were motivated by his campaign.

This was not true of Labour’s efforts. In Brent the swing to Johnson was kept down to 1.3 percent, in Hackney, 1.4 percent, in Waltham Forest, 2.6 percent, in Haringey, 3.6 percent and in Harrow, 4.6 percent. But why were there swings against Livingstone at all in these areas? This was a high profile election where all the focus was on the two major candidates (making it very hard to persuade voters to vote for lesser-known candidates such as those from the Left List). These are working class areas with large numbers of black and Asian voters. Far from the Tories closing the gap, Livingstone should have been able to motivate a swing towards him. His closeness to Labour prevented him doing so. He didn’t head up opposition to the removal of the 10p tax rate, he didn’t make declining living standards an issue, he didn’t champion the six million public sector workers who face Brown’s pay cuts, and he didn’t visit picket lines or the magnificent demonstration through London on 24 April when teachers, lecturers, and civil service workers struck (indeed I can find absolutely no comment he made about the strikes).

When, as the election campaign began, Labour announced the closure of 171 post offices in London the Tories and the Liberal Democrats took to the streets organising local protests, but Livingstone merely called for a judicial review of the consultation period (and nothing seems to have happened even on that).

There was absolutely no class campaign, no hounding of Johnson for his racist comments in the past, no appeal for activity and action to defend workers’ living standards. And that could not happen because Livingstone remained imprisoned in the alliance with the rich and powerful he and Labour had created.

Given Livingstone’s defeat, some on the left have reiterated the argument that it was wrong to stand against him. Strong pressure was applied against the Left List for standing Lindsey German as a radical alternative to Labour. George Galloway, for example, argued, “It would be self-indulgence, a luxury the left can no longer afford, to stand a candidate of the left against Livingstone for mayor…a left candidate opposing Livingstone really could aid the Tories and risk handing the keys to City Hall to the rancid reactionaries around Johnson”.13

There is no evidence that this happened. Instead the campaign made more people aware of the election and generally raised the left vote. And in any case the London mayor is elected on a supplementary vote system where you can transfer your vote if your first choice is eliminated. The Left List called on its supporters to transfer to Livingstone.

But there is a much bigger question here. Is the left going to be held captive by the threat from Labour that “you will let in the right”? Livingstone spoke out against the Iraq war, and has opposed Islamophobia. He has strongly supported anti-racism. But so have some Liberals. And Livingstone has also backed the City rich, told workers to cross picket lines, backed the killers of Jean Charles de Menezes and called for more police.

The left had to stand in such circumstances.

With Johnson in City Hall and the Tories resurgent, everyone on the left must unite in action to support every workers’ struggle, to fight the British National Party, to defend services and jobs, to combat racism and Islamophobia, to keep up and extend anti-war agitation and to strengthen trade unions.

That will mean socialists of all types working together, and left of Labour supporters working with those who supported Livingstone. But while uniting in this way it is also necessary to discuss the lessons of Livingstone’s defeat. It is a confirmation of the failure of wooing the right and of trying to appease big business. It is another argument for the need to build a stronger political alternative to Labour.


1: Results are available from the London Elects website at

2: YouGov poll, available from

3: YouGov poll, available from

4: See

5: “Livingstone Inspirational Says PM”, BBC News, 20 March 2008,

6: “Livingstone’s Unlikely Secret Weapons: Tony Blair And Alastair Campbell”, Guardian, 24 April 2008,

7: Parker, Goodhart and Travers, 2007.

8: “Axe Non-dom Tax Or City Will Suffer Says Livingstone”, Evening Standard, 22 February 2008, available from

9: “Livingstone Wins City Support For Re-election”, Financial Times, 28 April 2008.

10: Ken Livingstone, “Yes, I Lost. But Still Labour Must Learn From London”, Guardian,
9 May 2008,

11: Having resigned from his post on 4 March 2008 after the publication of a sexually explicit email exchange, Lee Jasper has not, at the time of writing, faced any charges.

12: For a full analysis, see Kimber, 2007.

13: George Galloway, “Why I Back Red Ken”, Guardian, 25 January 2008,


Kimber, Charlie, 2007, “Ken Livingstone: The Last Reformist?”, International Socialism 113 (winter 2007)

Parker, Simon, David Goodhart and Tony Travers, “Interview: Ken Livingstone”, Prospect, April 2007,