We London Labourites have to do a lot of decision-making this summer. Not only do we have to decide which of the Big Five we want for party leader; we also have to select a candidate for the 2012 mayoral election. Lucky us!
With this in mind, I went along to Thursday’s mayoral hustings in Hackney to witness the two prospective candidates – Ken Livingstone and Oona King – as they tried to show us what they’ve got.
Unlike party members proudly wearing the stickers of their favoured candidates, I was entirely undecided. As far as I was concerned both Ken and Oona came with both strengths and weaknesses. Attending the hustings was therefore a genuine opportunity to help me make my mind up.
I liked how Oona walked across the room before the event making (awkward) chit chat with everyone. While we were still waiting for things to get started, I had a quick argument with my friend over the merits of Oona’s proposal for a mayoral term limit. I tried to posit that this would help encourage fresh political talent to come forward so that we would not be so reliant on veterans like Ken hogging the limelight. I really did want to give Oona a chance.
However, as the proceedings got underway and the candidates began to give us their respective spiel it soon became clear that Oona was the weaker of the two.
Her outpourings of meaningless guff were unimpressive. In an apparent effort to turn the hustings meeting into a Waffle House, she at one point essentially said that she would win the election by appealing to people and getting them to vote for her (like, duh!) and at another descended into gobbledygook about the importance of promoting social capital in London (i.e. nice things).
Perhaps I’ve got the wrong idea about the public speaking skills of MPs, but for someone who spent quite a few years in the Commons she was remarkably incoherent. I noted her seemingly claiming to have repealed Thatcher’s anti-trade union legislation, inaccurately saying that the Labour Government had successfully got 50% of school leavers into university, and mistakenly telling the audience that Labour had only enjoyed 12 years in power during the 20th century.
To be harsh but honest, she at times sounded like someone applying to stand as a councillor, not a former MP wanting to run for a position which would make her one of the most powerful Labour politicians in the country.
Admittedly she spoke well on the need to tackle knife crime but promptly ruined it by, whilst hinting at her unproven ‘yoof’ appeal, verging dangerously close to crying out ‘won’t somebody please think of the children?‘ or ‘the children are our future!‘.
Oona criticising Ken for losing the 2008 election when her own biggest claim-to-fame is being defeated in what had been a fairly safe Labour seat was frankly embarrassing.
Say what you like about Ken, but from the very start of the hustings he was impressive. He demonstrated masterful command of the issues which the mayoral election should really be about – transport, policing, housing, the Olympics, etc. Plain speaking and authoritative, there was no guff from the former mayor.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when Ken is banging on about practical matters of London governance rather than defending obnoxious regimes in Venezuela, Cuba and Iran I agree with just about everything that comes out of his mouth. Listening to his conviction on things such as securing funding for sewerage system upgrades made me realise that I trust him to deal effectively with the unglamorous but nevertheless important aspects of London politics.
The hustings came to an end and I approached Ken to let him know that he’d won me over. He seemed pleased and asked what exactly had done the trick. I gave an honest appraisal and made clear that whilst he had come across as the stronger candidate I still vehemently disagreed with him when it came to his views on Islamism and multiculturalism.
This prompted a clearly oft-used defense of Sheikh al-Qaradawi – apparently he’s a nicer bloke in the flesh than the nasty right-wing press makes out. According to Ken, al-Qaradawi is a progressive Muslim scholar who only defends suicide bombing in Israel because it’s a war zone. Gulp.
Whilst I listened on in bemusement, Ken explained his theory that Islam was 700 years behind Christianity and so naturally was not going to be very progressive on questions such as gay rights. Anyway, surely it was better to engage with the relatively moderate Islamic scholars rather than let Al Qaeda present themselves as the sole representatives of Muslims, Ken suggested.
Ken was friendly and seemed up for a comradely debate on this. I dearly wanted to point out that al-Qaradawi was a reactionary old religionist rather than an elected representative of Muslims or indeed any other human beings and therefore Ken was under no obligation to give him the time of day.
Of course, I would also have liked to have said to Ken’s face that I was disgusted by his working with Iran’s Press TV and some of his other weird dalliances into foreign policy.
But by this point I was becoming nauseous and wanted to get away from Ken before he turned me into a devoted member of the Oona campaign.
If only there was some way Ken could be persuaded to focus his considerable talents and energies entirely on improving London and standing up for the values of municipal socialism.
If only his tendency to indulge dodgy regimes and his bizarre soft spot for Islamism could be expunged.
I would then be enthusiastic about supporting him.