Thursday, 24 April 2008

Kindred Spirits

It should hardly have come as a great surprise when the Guardian reported today that Ken Livingstone's faltering campaign to keep his job was being supported by two of Tony Blair's finest. Pollster and strategist Philip Gould is advising the arch-lizard along with celebrity diarist Alastair Campbell, while the erstwhile PM himself is said to be giving Ken the benefit of his great experience and wisdom. According to Tessa Jowell, another unlikely Livingstonian, people "right across the Labour party" were committed to the cause. "We sought advice from people who were in place as part of the New Labour team in the past," she said. "Alastair Campbell and Philip Gould. They are the best in the business and of course you go for the very best advice."

On the face of it this might seem an unlikely conjunction of talents. Before he swept to victory as an independent in 2000, Blair predicted that Livingstone would be "a disaster for London". The Guardian report quotes Alastair Campbell as admitting that "I amaze myself going round talking up Ken, because I used to think he was dreadful". Which comment is followed up with a paean of praise: "He has done a really good job and he is one of the reasons why London is effectively now the capital of the world."

Spin, of course. The not-so-subtle message is that Livingstone is a mayor so spectacularly and unarguably successful that even former sworn enemies are happy to help his campaign. Although the story might suggest some degree of difficulty, even desperation, in camp Ken: after all, why should Livingstone, if he's a shoe-in, be going cap in hand to his former detractors? The other message being conveyed is that, whatever his maverick reputation, Ken has now been utterly embraced by the Blairite machine, whose aid for the troubled mayoral campaign may seem to some in contrast with their distance from the equally troubled Gordon Brown. As Jowell herself put it, the involvement of these Blairites is "a measure of how everybody who has been part of New Labour wants to see it go forward and wants to see Ken win in London."

The Guardian quotes Blair himself as saying that the contest is "very winnable" (implication: if you take my advice; otherwise you're doomed). Blair also "privately" (one of those words, like "frankly", that is always used in journalism to mean its precise opposite) described Ken as "a man who can transcend traditional politics in a way that few others can." Few, indeed. Some might think that Boris Johnson was also such a man. There's little doubt, however, who else Tony Blair had in mind when making that assertion. Tony Blair was thinking of Tony Blair.

It is part of the Blairite mythology, of course, that it was Tony who elevated Labour to power, rather than Labour electing and promoting Blair. While most independent analysts are sure that, had he lived, John Smith would have become prime minister in 1997 with a healthy majority, such thoughts are akin to heresy among the true believers. It was New Labour that defeated John Major; and (despite the deep involvement within it of Gordon Brown) New Labour was Tony Blair.

Livingstone can certainly claim his own mandate, distinct from the party in which he achieved prominence. Thanks to the blundering of Blair and his allies, he stood and was elected as an independent, and a few years later the humbled prime minister had virtually to beg him to come back. And while in many ways he is a quintessentially Labour figure - far more so than Blair - he has always presented himself, rather than the party agenda, as being the main reason for electing him. This disdain for their own party, treated as little more than a vehicle for their own ambitions, is then the most obvious trait which Livingstone and Blair have in common.

But there are many more. Another is a pronounced tendency to surround themselves with a coterie of (usually) unelected cronies and advisers. Where Blair had, in addition to Campbell and Gould, Lords Levy and Falconer, Ken has such figures as Redmond O'Neill, Peter Hendy and, most controversially, Lee Jasper. Both, too, have shown a willingness of which Machiavelli himself would have approved to abandon their sidekicks when it becomes politically expedient to do so. And both have displayed a mastery of political manoeuvring. Livingstone's putsch against GLC leader Andrew McIntosh in 1981, which first brought him to prominence, has interesting parallels with the way Blair skilfully sidelined Brown in 1994.

Tony Blair was notorious for his disregard of Parliament and Parliamentary proprieties, and for his impatience with traditional ways of doing things. He preferred sofa government and informal understandings, which unkind opponents thought contributed to political sleaze. Ken Livingstone for his part has been openly contemptuous of the Greater London Assembly. "Almost nobody is aware of who any member of the assembly is," he said, rejecting their vote of no confidence in Met Commissioner Ian Blair. "They make members of parliament look like household names."

Loyalty to, and enthusiasm for, that hopeless and discredited policeman (described by Livingstone as "the leading police officer of his generation")is, in itself, a telling point of contact between Livingstone and Blair. So is an obsession with grand and unnecessary projects: for Blair the Dome, for Livingstone his own lavish new offices. (And, of course, the Olympics, the vast cost of which will give Ken's successors headaches for generations to come.)

If forced to choose one thing, though, I would nominate the paradoxical nature of their political positioning as their most remarkable shared characteristic. While Blair surrounded himself with billionaires and made loud noises about law and order, he presided over a thoroughgoing socialisation of British society. And while Ken posed as the champion of the underdog, he supported the police over the Stockwell shooting, happily shared a platform with Yusuf al Qaradawi - and surrounded himself with billionaires.

I wonder, though, if Qaradawi is still Ken's favourite associate. It was reported the other day that the cleric thinks Mecca should replace Greenwich as the hub of the world's timekeeping. He "said modern science had at last provided evidence that Mecca was the true centre of the Earth; proof of the greatness of the Muslim "qibla" - the Arabic word for the direction Muslims turn to when they pray."

It's unlikely he shares Ken's estimation that London is "the capital of the world".

1 comment:

Olive said...

From the BBC article
One geologist argued that unlike other longitudes, Mecca's was in perfect alignment to magnetic north

He's not much of a geologist, then- Magnetic north isn't a fixed position.