The North West London area of Harlesden was host to a Labour mayoral candidate hustings last night, with Oona King and Ken Livingstone both trying to convince Labour members and supporters why they should choose them as their candidate to stand against Boris Johnson.
No surprises that Boris was the immediate topic of debate to a question from the audience on personality. A smirking Ken pointing out that politicians tend not to go through borough councils to learn the ropes anymore, very often politicians are parachuted in, being no different with Boris.
“Boris never run anything in his life,” Ken reminds his all-agreeing audience, as he wryly cites Boris’ limited political achievements before beating Ken to the job in 2008.
Oona King, who did well to heap praise on her Labour opponent with dignity pondered on how if only political networking was as popular as social networking, which may remedy the ‘not what you know, but who you know’ state of current politics.
King, not having the same calibre of anecdote as Ken, who has obviously served as a London-wide politician and was popular to boot, took to explaining her reasons for going into politics.
She noted that she “joined the Labour party at age 14 out of disgust at Thatcher’s action on housing”. Housing, in fact, is one of King’s key focuses, supporting the re-introduction of 50% social housing policy and return to regulation of private housing associations. The barrier to this move is that it is mostly shared by her opponent, as is a great deal of other policies.
Both are committed to making London safer for cyclists, in response to Boris’ dilly-dallying and what Ken described as his “blue-lines” – to refer to the very uncommitted achievements of Boris on making on-road bike riding safer.
Both candidates agreed that the return of the routemaster is a vanity project for Boris, pointing out that the number 18 bendy bus, which runs from Euston to Sudbury, made it easier for people to travel around on, while not labouring too much on the questioner’s original observance whether money should continue to pay for the bus or pay towards cutting crime on buses.
King apologised to the audience and those in the Labour party who oppose electoral reform because, as she pointed out, “your two candidates for London both support reform of the electoral system,” met with a grins from an audience seeking rebellion in the ranks.
The first point of real contention was on the subject of the Iraq war and winning back voters who gave their vote to a Liberal Democrat candidate, particularly Sarah Teather, the member of Parliament for many in the room, who has taken a Ministerial post in the Department for Education. Ken was at his most brazen here, promising that Labour can take back those voters who may have voted liberal, but certainly didn’t vote for the package of swingeing cuts to their public services.
He laboured over the decision to go into Iraq and how that affected Londoners.
Ken, mincing none of his words, noted that: “that invasion [into Iraq] took the lives of 52 Londoners” – referring to the 7/7 bombings.
King was keen to stress that we will be debating Brent not Baghdad with Liberal Democrat voters during the election, making efforts not to take the same narrative as Ken on the Iraq war, which she voted for, but has since turned her back on.
After both agreeing that Boris needs to get his act together on rape crisis centres, after it emerged that one of just two in London will face a cut of £30,000, another point of division between the two had been brought up on the subject of freedom passes, which drifted into a conversation on the progressive way on benefits. For Oona, it doesn’t make sense to provide a freedom pass for everyone, stating: “Prince Philip wouldn’t get free travel in London”. That he does receive what is effectively taxpayer funded travel around London and beyond is far from the point for Ken, who jokingly told an amused audience that he hopes Philip will travel by bus around town.
Ken maintains the old Labour mantra of universal provisions for everyone, saying that those people above the means test are often not millionaires, but are the comfortable middle classes who should also enjoy child tax credits and the like, pondering also on the cost of bureaucrats doing the means testing.
Many of the questions from the audience gave ample room for the respective candidates to score points against their opponents, the most agreeable being the amnesty for immigrants, which both Ken and Oona praised the uptake of; the most amusing being the question on whether the candidates felt there should be a two-term limit on how long a mayor can stay in office for, which King, unsurprisingly, jumped to her feet to affirm.
King was able to be strong on the point of youth boredom in the capital, citing this as another personal reason to get involved in politics, and pledging that if she became mayor kids would not be at a loose end, adding that she is not someone to promise something she couldn’t deliver, making an exception for this issue.
Nearing the end both candidates were asked to make a statement about why they should be the Labour mayoral candidate. King illustrated herself as the person to oppose ideological Tory cuts, and a supporter of the “Labour way” of investment not job losses, as well as not just being on behalf of diversity, but reflecting diversity.
Ken decided to draw parallels between himself and King. After wrongfully accusing Oona of supporting a 40p tax rate for high earners (she corrected this by saying she juggled between supporting 60p and 40p to the pound in working out which option accrued the most money for services) Livingstone, enraged, identified King as being part of the New Labour machine, voting for the war in Iraq and raising little surprise from the support she is receiving from Peter Mandelson.
This was an undignified way to end the hustings, but it should be remembered that Ken takes Oona’s running for candidacy very personally, much in the same way as when Boris won – Ken is clearly hurt that he is not going unopposed.
Though Oona can’t shake off the link between her and New Labour; even tonight she spoke of “modernising the Royal Mail” and turning to a “new politics” – both epithets out of the Blairite textbook.
The evening offered clear insight, and clarified distinction between both candidates, but none the less the first question on personality seemed to be the most important by the end. Both candidates were keen to stress many of the concerns in the questions were slightly out of the remit of the mayor, though they could offer opinion on the matter – and that they did. But what must be remembered in choosing the candidate to represent the Labour party in London is how they intend to be ambassador to it, while controlling a budget that mobilises London and ensures nobody is left behind. On this, both candidates crossover somewhat; this is where personality politics is at its most applicable.
Update: Adam Bienkov has verified that Oona King did say express support for the 40p rate at the Eltham hustings.
Update 2: ‘B’ in the comments thread has provided the exact quote of King at Eltham, it is as follows: “On tax, money that brings in most for the exchequer… the IFS showed how much can be raised and they said top rate should be 40%, I think that is the right level, any more and you deter people, if it’s too high.”