UK Politics

The tamed revolutionaries of City Hall

For those of you who think we’re being overly harsh on Ken Livingstone, Paul Anderson has posted his Tribune column on his blog – and he sees both sides of the coin.

All right, I know this makes me sound like a Guardian leader-writer, but I can see both points of view in the gigantic spat that has erupted of late between Ken Livingstone and his media critics, most recently the makers of Monday’s Channel Four Dispatches programme on the London mayor (available through Channel Four’s on-demand service here: registration and so on take a couple of minutes).

On one hand, Livingstone is, as the Dispatches programme’s presenter, Martin Bright, puts it, an entirely legitimate subject for journalistic investigation – and some of the material Bright and others have dug up on him and his administration does not cast Ken and co in a favourable light.

The Dispatches programme showed conclusively that Livingstone has indulged in serious cronyism, with a coterie of old mates, many of them veterans of the Trotskyist groupuscule Socialist Action, occupying key positions at City Hall and getting very well paid for it. And one of Ken’s buddies, Lee Jasper, the mayor’s senior policy adviser on race, is alleged (by the Evening Standard rather than Dispatches) to have engaged in serious cronyism himself: projects run by his pals are said to have received a disproportionate share of financial support from City Hall. These are precisely the sorts of things that journalists should probe, and Livingstone’s dismissal of the Dispatches programme as a “hatchet job” and his attempt to get the programme pulled at the last minute were way over-the-top.

On the other hand, Livingstone does have a case against the media coverage he has been getting of late, including parts of the Dispatches programme – so what if he drank whisky in the morning at a public meeting and is sometimes rude to people? The Evening Standard has undoubtedly been running a vendetta against him (although it gave him space this week to respond to his critics) and the misdemeanours of which he is accused (although not all the allegations about his advisers) are trifles, particularly when set against the GLA’s achievements since he was first elected in 2000: the congestion charge, all the new buses, the Olympics and so on. The fact that Livingstone has a tight-knit group of Trots as his core team is certainly noteworthy and deserves to be in the public sphere – but isn’t it weird rather than chilling?

While we’re here I will post this as well from the Evening Standard. It raises the same nagging questions about Livingstone and his closest advisors and large sums of money. A whistleblower who exposed a key part of the City Hall scandal is now suing Livingstone for libel after the Mayor claimed on BBC radio that Brenda Stern was sacked for bullying her staff.

Stern, is a former London Development Agency manager, who was forced from her £70,000-a-year job after she complained about serious irregularities in a project run by a friend of the Mayor’s equality adviser Lee Jasper.

“Ms Stern was programme manager for the LDA’s Diversity Dividend, an interactive website allowing companies to assess their diversity performance. Before she arrived, the £295,000 contract for the website was given to a company called Diversity International, run by Joel O’Loughlin, a longstanding friend of Mr Jasper’s, even though DI had no expertise in computers and was based in Liverpool.

“The website never operated properly. Mr O’Loughlin deceived the LDA about his company’s financial health and overcharged it by more than £50,000. In emails and letters leaked to the Standard Mr Lewis threatened in writing to sack Mr O’Loughlin and claw back the money, but within days performed a 180-degree turn following an intervention by Mr Jasper.

“After Mr Jasper became involved, the threats to sack Mr O’Loughlin were withdrawn and he was offered a further £250,000 and a lucrative consultancy. Ms Stern was forced out after she voiced strong internal objections to the volte-face and the deal, calling it “extortionate”, “outrageous” and “against the public interest”. Mr Jasper had the final say on her fate.

“Mr Livingstone also claimed on the Today programme: “The moment that management [of DI] was shown to be defective, we made certain that the company was wound up. It was brought much more in-house and is now thriving.” In fact, DI was wound up by Mr O’Loughlin in a bid to keep his grant, and the Diversity Dividend website is now defunct.”

David T adds

Oh dear.

George Galloway has endorsed Ken Livingstone:

“And gay rights hyper-activist Peter Tatchell plunged the knife into the mayor – the country’s longest-serving gay-friendly politician – because of Livingstone’s support for Muslims”

Er. Not quite, George.