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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

Better off without Ken?

May 3rd 2012 could have been a real Red letter day for Ed Miliband.

The list is impressive:  More than 700 council gains. Sweeping to power in Birmingham, Southampton, Plymouth. Clinching key Southern marginals such as Harlow and Thurrock.  Turning the Lib Dems into a rump in key northern seats. Seeing off the SNP in Glasgow. Building on its Welsh comeback by retaking Cardiff.

And yet the better Labour does, the more striking will be the impact of a headline-grabbing Boris Johnson victory in London.

In an echo of Ken Baker’s famous Westminster and Wandsworth tactic back in 1990, David Cameron will be mightily relieved if the blond bombshell can defy the national trend and keep the capital in Conservative hands.

If indeed Ken Livingstone does lose (and if still is an ‘if’ - I’m old fashioned about not calling a result until it’s in*), it will be worth asking just how Labour ended up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, at least in PR terms.

And many in the party may want to amend the Livingstone 2012 campaign slogan - Better Off With Ken - to wonder if they would have been Better Off Without Ken.

It all stems from the fateful decision by the party’s little-known NEC organisation sub-committee back in the summer of 2010.

It’s worth recalling the context. Labour had just suffered a shattering general election defeat. Gordon Brown had quit, Harriet Harman was the interim leader.  The party was dithering over which timetable to choose for its leadership election. David Miliband and many in the Shadow Cabinet wanted a short, sharp contest, while Ed Miliband shrewdly wanted the longer haul to conference.

Amongst this chaos, Ken Livingstone’s allies spotted their moment. Ken supporters saw a neat way of getting their man the selection for London mayoral candidate: by arguing that both the London and leader races should be held on the same day to cut costs. This was a very powerful case given that the party was flat broke at the time. So, the plan was hatched to announce both Mayor and leader results at party conference in September.

Ken backers wanted the London selection fast-tracked. He had the profile and organisation on the ground and knew he had a great chance. But Ken sceptics wanted to delay the selection to 2011, knowing that Boris was only selected a mere 6 months before coming from nowhere to win City Hall.

Harriet Harman and party general secretary Ray Collins could have vetoed the faster London timetable. Yet they were persuaded that the London Labour Party – which has many Ken backers in its number – needed to be rebuilt and that it would take two years to do so.

But just imagine if this NEC sub committee had decided to separate out the two races. They could still have finalised the leadership race in September, but perhaps decided to hold off the London selection until the following year. That way, bigger names than Oona King (who was thrashed by Ken) could have had a chance to stand, same some insiders.

Alan Johnson, who was mooted by some as the perfect candidate to take on Boris (great backstory, former London postman and former Home Secretary, utterly likeable), had only just been re-elected to Westminster in May 2010. He was literally and mentally knackered, a friend tells me. He couldn’t let down his Hull constituents so soon. 

But his admirers believed he could possibly have been persuaded to stand with more time. Especially once the chaos of a party leadership race was out of the way. “Any prospect of AJ standing was completely negated by the faster London selection,” says one.

Tessa Jowell too had supporters urging her to take on Ken. In the end, though sceptical of his ability to win, she threw her support behind the former Mayor.  Just as she backed Gordon Brown, whom she also believed to be deeply flawed in the eyes of the voters, her loyalty won out.

Some on the left say that this is just sour grapes, arguing that it proves once again that the right of the party can’t get themselves organised. They may argue that Boris is such a canny politician that perhaps no one could have beaten him.

Others say that given the nature of the London Labour Party it was inevitable Ken would get it. "It's a kind of pre-ordained tragedy," one insider says. "It's fanciful to think it could have ended up any differently."

One factor in the minds of Ken's potential opponents was whether, even if they'd beaten him in the selection, they would have then had to face him running again as an 'independent' candidate. "His whole Progressive London crowd could easily have put the purple colours on again and mobilised for him," one party source says.

Another factor was AJ's appetite. Many blamed his lack of energy for not winning the Deputy Leadership (against a certain H Harman, as it happens).

I asked Ken directly about the Alan Johnson question recently when I interviewed him for The House magazine. His reply was dismissive: "You've got to really want it. And I don't think Alan..I mean, Alan's about the only person I've met in any Cabinet who's said 'Oh, I don't really want to be Prime Minister'. Everybody else says they've been dreaming about it all their lives..."

It’s certainly not Ed Miliband’s fault that Ken Livingstone ended up as his candidate for London. And as I said, this year’s London result is not in. Ken could have pulled off a remarkable comeback.

But if he doesn't, the blame game over that summer of 2010 may begin in earnest. 

And all those pictures of Red Ed with egg on his face may look all too apt.

 

SATURDAY UPDATE: Well, he did indeed lose, though narrowly.  Asked on LBC for his greatest achievement, Ken just said:"Surviving for 40 years...in the political snakepit".

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