UK Politics

Goodbye, King Newt

BBC News: 22:59 GMT, Friday, 2 May 2008 – Johnson wins London mayoral race

When I was a boy, I had a salamander as a pet. A European fire salamander, to be precise. The very same species that Ken Livingstone, famously, had also taken care of. It was doubly infuriating to hear the jibes about Ken and his newts: first, because they were not newts, and secondly because the jokes implied that those of us who cherished these unusual, but delightful creatures were in some way weird.

Ken came to my school to speak when I was 13. After his address was over, I went up to him. I started to ask him a question about amphibian husbandry. He turned to me and said:

“Oh, shut up!”

I am sad to say that I was pathetically crushed. I replayed the moment in my mind. Ken was a great man. He must have thought that I had come to tease him. He couldn’t really have intended to slap me down. If he’d known of our shared love for these little black and yellow spotted beasts, he would have spoken more kindly.

You see, the thing is, I have always really liked Ken. Yes, I know all about his dodgy past: how he came to power by way of a coup, his foolish association with the worst parts of the far Left, and all that. But he has star quality.

Ken Livingstone’s finest moment was in that first election campaign, of 2000. Here was Ken at his absolute best. Up against the Labour machine, to be sure, but presenting a modern, moderate, clean-shaven face. A face you could trust. I was charmed by his unfeigned passion for London, our beloved city. I voted against the Labour candidate for the first time in my life.I wasn’t disappointed. Ken Livingstone’s first four years were magic. I don’t drive, but I do take buses, and I liked the idea of road pricing. He turned the South Bank into a beach, with fire jugglers and samba musicians on the sand. We felt like citizens of a capital city again. I voted for him a second time.

I wanted to support Ken. It is just that he didn’t want my support.

So, Ken has gone. You know why I, and many people like me, found we couldn’t support him. The taxpayer funded attacks on Peter Tatchell and Trevor Phillips. The corruption. The drooling over the Cuban royal family. The championing of Qaradawi, and the disgraceful attempt to represent this reactionary advocate of terrorism and theocracy, as a modern and progressive voice. The association with Socialist Action. The attempt to forge an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. The unapologetic racist slurs. The leveling of the charge of racism against those who merely questioned his politics. The weirdness. The nastiness.

But that is not why Ken lost. At least not directly.

If you’re looking for an analysis of the reasons for this defeat, you couldn’t do much better than this short Guardian piece. A certain part of it is the general tiredness of this Government, after 11 years of rule. Northern Rock was a mess. Soaking the poor with the abolition of the 10% tax band was poison. And it doesn’t help that it is led by a man who seems to want to be Prime Minister, but who can’t articulate precisely why he was so desperate to occupy that position.

But still, Ken could have won. Some of my Labour HQ pals reckon that he could have had that third victory, if only the supporters could have been urged out of their armchairs. A Tory blogger put it to me this way, a few months ago. “Just as Ken turns Labour supporters off, he energises us Tories”, he said. “You’ll stay at home, and we’ll come out to vote”. And that was precisely what happened.

The fact is, I should have taken yesterday off work. It wasn’t that busy. I’m due some holiday. In fact, I was asked by my old ward secretary to come out and help. But I just couldn’t. Ken spent the last few years, reminding me again and again that he didn’t want my help. I know it isn’t just me who feels like this. I know lots of people who did go out canvassing for Labour, who knew that Ken, in power, would continue to dismay. The pull of party loyalty is very strong, but for the sake of a man who showed no such discipline himself, it was not enough for me.

Ken is a tragic figure, in the true Shakespearean sense. Like Coriolanus, his fatal flaw is arrogance. Just as Coriolanus would not please the mob by showing them his war wounds, Livingstone stubbornly rejected us, again and again. He didn’t need to. None of these issues really mattered all that much. The far Left’s love affair with Islamism is a bit of a side show. Politics is a rough and tumble game, and Tatchell can take the odd knock. But the thing is this. How can you place your hopes and ideals in a man who cares so little for them?

So Ken has gone. And now we have Boris. There are two scenarios for the next two years: both equally dismal for Labour supporters. The first is that Boris will bring the doleful Tory politics, which we saw off in 1997, back to our streets. The second, and more likely future, is that Boris will be charm personified: a moderate, friendly Tory who will dance in a thong on a float at Pride, erasing the memories of the days when the Tories were the Nasty Party. If Boris takes the first route, perhaps we’ll win back London, and retain the country, come the next set of elections. If Boris takes the second route then, unless he impregnates another heiress, he’ll probably end up ushering Cameron into No. 10.

The funny thing is, though: my pet salamander was called Coriolanus.