Tuesday 19 October 2010

How do you solve a problem like Ken?

UPDATE: 3.45pm.

Ken has been persuaded to make clear his strong support for the Labour candidate Helal Abbas, and his second preference for the Independent Rahman (contrary to many reports which had somehow got the idea that he preferred Rahman).

His statement reads:

Ken Livingstone said:

"I am disappointed by the way the NEC handled the selection in Tower Hamlets and I am sure that under Ed Miliband's leadership things would have been handled differently.

'However, my position is clear: I fully support Labour candidates in all elections and I am calling for Tower Hamlets residents to use their first preference vote for our candidate Helal Abbas.

'A second preference should be used for Lutfur Rahman to keep the Tories out."


London's Mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone has set the cat among the London party pigeons by choosing the week of Thursday's Tower Hamlets Mayoral Election to campaign alongside Independent candidate Lutfur Rahman, having earlier suggested he was neutral between Rahman and the official Labour candidate Helal Abbas.

The London Labour party is rightly focusing on the Tower Hamlets election itself.

But, by the end of the week, what (if anything) might the party decide to do about Ken?

Here are five possible options for Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman and the Labour party National Executive Committee.

1. Apply the rules to Ken in the same way as to anybody else

Prima facie, this would mean suspending Ken as a candidate to investigate whether he has backed a candidate against Labour. And, should the NCC found he has indeed done so, reopening nominations to seek a new Mayoral candidate.

Rather inconveniently, several councillors and party members have been suspended for backing the Independent candidate who Ken gave every impression of backing too. As that is what would almost certainly happen to a Tower Hamlets council candidate or GLA candidate who had done exactly the same thing (if to less public or political effect), this approach would have the virtue of the rules being applied equally to everybody, and nobody being bigger than the party, even Ken Livingstone.

Many may think that those are important principles for the party. David Prescott for Labour Uncut sees no alternative.

But there are two difficulties, which are likely to be insurmountable political obstacles to such an approach. Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy cogently describes this option as political suicide for Labour.

One issue is the history of Ken, the Labour party and the Mayoral selection: one would be removing the candidate who was the clear choice of London members. The leadership (though the issue is hardly of their making this time) would be accused of returning to the bad old days of top down New Labour which (unfairly) would not allow Livingstone a fair shot at the candidacy in 2000.

And the 2012 political fallout would probably see Ken running as an independent. Deja vu all over again, though quite probably with a different result as, this time around, it is probable that both Ken and an alternative Labour candidate would struggle. Boris Johnson's chances of being re-elected would be boosted.

2. Pretend Ken has not broken the rules

This is perhaps the most likely approach. It might indeed be the most sensible way for the party leadership (which did not invite this problem) to seek to make it a 72 hour wonder, and to avoid turning a London and twitter/party blogosphere story into a very major national political issue.

A sophistic defence of Ken is available - as Sunny Hundal outlines: that inviting a rival candidate and TV cameras for a walkabout three days before the election did not entail endorsement. That could be argued, on a technicality, even if the intention of the action was to give the opposite intention to any sentient voter in Tower Hamlets.

Perhaps Ken was just suggesting (in this 'new politics' world of pluralism) that Rahman was well worth considering for a second preference (though it is unfortunate that he is, on camera, dissing the official Labour candidate).

This could simply involve pretending nothing ever happened in Tower Hamlets involving Ken. An alternative approach may perhaps involve a (tepid) statement of support by Thursday from Ken for the Labour candidate (perhaps along with praise for his other favoured candidates too), again perhaps focusing on their joint efforts to avoid (the hypothetical and implausible) threat of the Tories and LibDems prevailing in the Mayoralty.

These would be a face-saving device to make the best of the situation now, albeit leaving some egg on everybody's faces.

(A stronger and less apologetic version of this "Ken did nothing wrong" defence involves arguing that Rahman is "a Labour candidate". That is the position of Jon Lansman of the Left Futures blog, but it could hardly be the position of the Labour NEC, which suspended Rahman. Nor does this have any basis in party rules. However, Adam Bienkov at Tory Troll makes the valid point that nobody comes out of the Tower Hamlets selection "shambles" well, excepting defeated candidate and stalwart GLA member John Biggs).

3. Admit Ken has breached the rules; acknowledge a political choice to overlook this

This may be somewhat more candid than option (2), though amounting to much the same thing in terms of its practical consequences.

This approach could facilitate the opportunity for the leadership to disapprove of Ken's actions in the Tower Hamlets election, which have gone down badly with local party members and London party activists, though perhaps also stating the "let Livingstone be Livingstone" reality (which Labour surely knew when it took Ken back into the fold) that Ken is always going to have a defiantly independent streak.

That makes him a difficult colleague, when he is in the party, but it is also part of his political strength and appeal. The defence would primarily be a largely political rather than principled one: that doing otherwise would damage the Labour Party's Mayoral campaign and help the Conservatives, and that Ken is ultimately an asset to the party.

Some sort of token sanction might be applied. This may depend on the candidate's willingness to cooperate. Any sort of apology to activists and members is unlikely, particularly if a half-hearted statement would not seem sincere. The Livingstone campaign may have some longer-term interest in building bridges to mobilise their activist base.

4. Reopen the Mayoral selection - allowing Ken to run as a candidate.

This would be a dramatic (and extremely unlikely) move.

This would have the virtue of both applying the rules, yet also avoiding a 2000-style stitch-up, by suggesting that it would be for Ken to show he still has the confidence of London party members.

Such a contest could be Ken against Oona King again, and perhaps a broader field too. All of the usual credible - Karen Buck, Jon Cruddas, David Lammy - and non-credible names could be discussed once again. This would risk being a distraction for the party, with the Tory candidate already in the field as well as City Hall.

Another reason it won't happen is the financial cost, which is largely the reason that the Mayoral campaign was held alongside (and so overshadowed by) the party leadership contest.

5. Sanction Ken on the NEC - but allow him to remain as the London Mayoral candidate

Like (2) and (3), this again involves explaining why the rules do not apply equally to all party members in this case. This requires an explanation of why a lesser sanction is preferred to a greater one, though again the explanation is a political one.

The most plausible sanction might be for the NEC to decide to suspend Livingstone's NEC membership, perhaps for a year of his two year term.

The NEC principle would be a "rule-makers shouldn't be rule-breakers" one. (Again, in this scenario, Livingstone certainly ought to be allowed him to stand at the next NEC election to gauge if he retains the support of members, even if the CLP section is intended primarily for lay party members more than frontline political celebs).

Again, there would have to be a "Ken is Ken" acknowledgement of the strengths of running a de facto "Independent Labour" candidate under party colours, as the most likely way for the party to defeat the Conservatives in London.

This approach might be the toughest of the realistic (non-nuclear) scenarios open to the party leadership. Again, it might be difficult to apply in practice if the candidate was resistant.


So those would seem to be the party's options. (Unless you have another to add to the selection).

So who would want to be Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman, apparently facing a series of no-win imperfect choices?

And, if you were, which option would you choose?


Unknown said...

It's worth noting that the party has precedents for turning a blind eye to breaches of this rule by sufficiently senior figures that it would be awkward to enforce.

For example, Denis MacShane publicly endorsed tactically voting Lib Dem in Sheffield Hallam and no action was taken.

Unknown said...

It occurs that I should probably source that - Observer, 23 Dec 2007, column by Denis MacShane entitled "An open letter to Nick Clegg":

"Before the 2001 election, I
urged Labour voters in seats
where Lib-Dem candidates
were best placed to beat off
Conservatives to vote
tactically. I said that in
Sheffield even though a good
friend, one of the best young
Labour Muslim politicians in
Yorkshire, was trying to win
your seat."


I don't really see that Ken's position is hugely worse than that in terms of the party's rules but no action was taken against MacShane.

Jimmy said...

So this is about tactical voting is it?

Thanks for clearing that up.

Chris said...

The excuse is even worse and very dishonest.

Rahman and Abbas are the very clear front runners so second pref votes for them won't be counted.