Ken versus Oona

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.”

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It should be very difficult to support Ken Livingstone again

Tonight is the Labour mayoral candidate hustings, taking place in Neasdon, North West London, and will see Ken Livingstone and Oona King argue the case for why Labour members should back their candidacy.

It’s not an easy decision to make between the two; they’re both good people, they’re both key figures of London politics and anyone is better than Boris.

As a socialist it should be a no-brainer that I root for Ken, the candidate more to the left, but it certainly isn’t that simple.

Oona has since turned her back on support for the war in Iraq (despite this being trvially due to the US government’s reaction to Hurrican Katrina), and has pledged to make 50% of all housing development in London social housing .

Ken is of course a veteran of the left, which is why it is hard to be dubious of him. But, of course, there was the incident.

I’m not talking about the phone call with the Jewish hack from the Standard, for me, that Ken was called to question on that was trivial in itself, clearly he was not being anti-Semitic towards the journalist, or even being personally offensive to him, but made some wild statements towards the newspaper, owned by the Daily Mail, which did suppot Oswald’s Blackshirts in the 1930s.

I never ever felt that because some journalist took this comment personally, despite Livingstone’s ignorance of the racial background of the man he was speaking to, that Ken should have been in the doghouse.

Further, it is not because of the connections with Socialist Action that I am not jumping with enthusiasm for Ken.

The incident is inviting Muslim Brotherhood figurehead Yusuf al-Qaradawi to speak at a conference about a woman’s right to wear the hijab.

As Peter Tatchell pointed out in protest at Livingstone’s decision, al-Qaradawi has in the past openly pledged his support for “female genital mutilation, wife-beating, the execution of homosexuals in Islamic states, the destruction of the Jewish people, the use of suicide bombs against innocent civilians and the blaming of rape victims who do not dress with sufficient modesty”.

But Livingstone was not just inviting al-Qaradawi to add to the debate, he had invited him because, in Ken’s words, of his “eminence as “one of the most authoritative Muslim scholars in the world today” who “has done most to combat socially regressive interpretations of Islam on issues like women’s rights and relations with other religions”.”

It’s very nice of al-Qaradawi to assert a woman’s right to wear something that signifies her as a second class citizen, and worse the right to wear something that has nothing to do with her religion, but an awful, patriarchal and prohibitive interpretation of the Koran’s insistence that women dress modestly.

Alexandra Sokolowski, writing for the Centre for Social Cohesion blog, notes a couple of other opinons by al-Qaradawi. She notes that:

This is the same cleric who declared that Hitler was a divine punishment against the Jews:

“Allah has imposed upon the Jews, people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler […] he managed to put them in their place. […] this was divine punishment for them.”

The same Islamist who called for jihad against Jews and their “allies”:

“Deal with the arrogant tyrants and aggressors against Muslims, oppressive Zionists and arrogant Americans. O God, deal with every oppressor of Muslims. O God, deal with them powerfully.”

“The Israelis might have nuclear bombs but we have the children bomb and these human bombs must continue until liberation”

Interestingly for a Labour politician, and following from a blog post I penned yesterday, al-Qaradawi inspired a blog post by Azad Ali (which, it seems, can only be opened through a cached version) suggesting that Muslims should participate in European politics through “approach” and not through theological endeavour, that is, as an entryist.

The post, as Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens explains, “is also critical of Hizb ut-Tahrir for distributing a leaflet which states that the recent IFE episode shows the futility of political participation and that “Islam does NOT allow joining secular political parties, especially when they promote policies that directly contradict Islamic values…” ”

Not critical in the way one would hope, but critical becasue Hizb ut-Tahrir’s position doesn’t allow for entryism, to influence decision making from inside.

This approach was thusly taken by Lutfur Rahman and the Islamic Forum Europe (IFE), whose aims at entryism within the Labour party were rejected for the third time yesterday, and hopefully for the last.

One of the MPs most perceptive of these incidents was Jim Fitzpatrick -who just happens to be backing Oona for mayor.

Ken could have apologised for his decision to invite al-Qaradawi by now, but instead chose to stand by his decision on the basis that he should listen to all community leaders, even if he doesn’t agree with them.

Two problems with this; firstly Ken invited al-Qaradawi as an expert voice and a representative of Islam, which should be challenged, and secondly it does little to curb the image of the radical Muslim as a representative, that, since Ken is a multicultural man, should be in his interest to promote.

This incident, for me, should not be viewed as a one-off, but part of Ken’s blind spot, which is why I may throw my eggs in Oona’s basket.

The new Speaker and the Poles: Another bad night for the Tories

Its been on the cards for a bit, but the Tories, and David Cameron, are going to lead a new right-wing fringe group known as the European Conservatives and Reformists, the Guardian reports.

The Tories have taken themselves out of the centre-right EPP on a anti-federalist ticket, while Cameron has told other conservatives not to listen to Ken Clarke – known for his Europhilia –  who told BBC1’s The Politics Show that: “If the Irish referendum endorses the treaty and ratification comes into effect, then our settled policy is quite clear that the treaty will not be reopened.”

As the article in the Telegraph explains “Mr Clarke’s comments confirms that there is a serious shadow cabinet split on Europe”.

But this Tory split will not be the major focus for the next couple of days, since Conservative candidate John Bercow has tonight been voted new Speaker of the House of Commons, beating his nearest opponent Sir George Young by 322 to 271 votes.

Tories have been hard-pushed not to express their disgust at the winner. Already rumours are circulating that “Tories have been muttering about running a candidate against him at the general election, or trying to vote him out of office at the next election.”

Further in the above Guardian election run-down by Andrew Sparrow, he notes that “My colleague Michael White, who was in the chamber, says it was striking how little applause Bercow had from the Tory benches.”

And Michael Crick for the BBC, re-told this story;

A Labour MP was standing in the House of Commons gents and found himself standing next to David Cameron.

“For the first time in my life,” admitted the Labour MP, “I voted for a Conservative today”.

David Cameron inquired which of the Speaker candidates he meant.

“John Bercow,” replied the MP.

“He doesn’t count,” said Mr Cameron.

Is this the anti-Tory vote, as Sparrow asks?

The New Statesman attests to the Bercow vote as being, against all odds, a vote for the “most progressive candidate …. [s]tate-educated, and someone who sends his own children to state schools, he is no longer regarded as “one of us” by his party colleagues”.

But in an Guardian editorial, also on the left, and also against all odds, seemed to back Young, saying “His background will put many off and he shared his party’s opposition to freedom of information when Labour brought it in. Against that he has a dry resilience that could make him a tougher and more radical Speaker than his grandee status suggests.”

As for me, I was with Bob Piper and the anybody but Young vote (I do believe he was being sarcastic).

I suppose part of me didn’t want to see London oust another member of the working class in a political role for an Etonian that has a history of saying twatish things (when Housing Minister Young once joked that ‘the homeless are the sort of people you step over when you come out of the opera’.)

But I suppose at the end of the day the right person won. His Monday Club history well behind him, his willingness to reform the commons, and especially, his ability to get co-Tories all worked up.

So while Cameron mourns the Tories defeat (too far?) to a moderate, William Hague makes his position clear on the new European friends of his party;

“Hague dismissed “out-of-date and ill-informed” criticisms that Poland’s Law and Justice party was homophobic. “The Law and Justice party is a party committed to be against discrimination, for equality under the law,” he told the BBC.”

The same party that, in the run-up to 2005 elections, “accused gay and lesbian couples “of being a cultural and even biological threat to the Polish nation, lowering the birth-rate, and imperiling (sic) what ultra-conservatives lovingly call “natural law marriage and family.”

It seems that in an odd reversal, the Tories are reinvigorating a cross-European Monday club.