Sunday, 1 August 2010

Time for Red Ken to head into the sunset

Voice for 2012: Oona best represents modern Londoners

Pin there, done that: Livingstone's campaign is a throwback to the 1980s

Ken Livingstone may have lost his grip on power, but he hasn’t lost his chutzpah. The former London mayor was full of chirpy bluster a week ago in Southall, west London, when I popped over to listen to him debate with his rival for the current Labour nomination, Oona King.

The contrast between two candidates couldn’t be more striking. Oona is chic, whereas Ken is pure cheek. She talks passionately about the threat posed by gang warfare which currently divides kids in her East London neighbourhood, while he waxes nostalgically about his working-class childhood in post-war council housing.

It’s clear that Livingstone has been cryogenically preserved and then defrosted. The only question is when exactly the wily old geezer was put in the freezer. The mid-1980s would be a fair bet, which is when I remember him on a stage in Jubilee Gardens on the south bank of the Thames, leading a crowd of well-meaning liberals and lefties (including myself) in a rendition of Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll meet again’. His continual references to Margaret Thatcher suggest that he has never really left this era behind. The GLC supremo has the political equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder and suffers constant flashbacks to the days of riots and ratecapping. I place him in my mind alongside Paul Hardcastle in n-n-n-n-n-n-nineteen eighty five.

The reason the Labour Party should embrace Oona King is not because she happens to know more about policy than Ken (he could bore for Brixton on most topics), or even that she necessarily has better policies than him (although I suspect, on balance, she probably does). King’s claim to the mayoral candidacy comes from the fact that she represents the future, whereas Ken represents the past.

Much has been made of King’s ethnicity (her Jewish mother and African-American father somehow make her very symbolic of the cosmopolitan spirit of the capital), but I would argue that she is more typical of the modern Londoner in almost every way. She understands, for instance, the importance of social networks and that fact that a whole generation of younger London workers have grown up in the age of the Internet and multimedia. Ken may be a master of old-school propaganda, but I struggle to imagine him updating his Facebook status. And if he did, it would probably be to express an opinion about the relaxation of planning policy or the size of Boris Johnson’s budgetary precept.

And then there’s the question of the sands of time. Oona is a child of the late sixties, while Ken was born at the end of the Second World War. I don’t think for one moment it’s ageist to suggest that there should come a time when one political generation hands over to another. To put things into perspective, Oona – very much like me – was an enthusiastic teenage cheerleader for Ken when he ran County Hall in first half of the1980s. Imagine taking a time machine back to that era and telling this politically ambitious young woman that in 2012 – over a quarter of a century later – her hero would still be refusing to step aside and let her generation take over the reins. When the GLC championed free travel for pensioners back in the Thatcher years, I don’t believe many people imagined Ken would be using his own OAP pass to travel down to City Hall.

The Labour Party has two critical choices to make right now. The London mayoral battle is being fought in tandem with the election for the Party leadership. Although it’s by no means certain, David Miliband still has perhaps the best chance of taking over at the top. If that is indeed the result, Labour will have made a politically astute and mature decision, as the cerebral former Foreign Secretary is clearly head and shoulders above the other contenders. Wouldn’t it be a terrible shame if while looking to the future nationally, the Party turned back to the past in the key political battleground of London?

David and his brother Ed make much of their comprehensive education a trendy north London school within shouting distance of their Primrose Hill homes. Coincidentally, another pupil walking through those gates at Haverstock was one Oona King. My feeling is that she deserves to be in the same set has her former classmates.