Has Livingstone blown his chances?

Ken Livingstone has been accused of running London like his own fiefdom. Matt Cartmell asks four experts to divulge his likely comms strategy now.

Ken Livingstone
Ken Livingstone

Ken Livingstone arguably thrives on controversy. But the past couple of weeks have brought the kind of troubles that could trip up even the streetfighter of London's City Hall.

Last week's Dispatches programme's allegations of drinking alcohol during London Assembly sessions and an accusation that he runs London like his own ‘personal fiefdom', may have harmed his chances of gaining a third stay as mayor of London. It is a far cry from 2000, when - running as an independent - he was welcomed with open arms by Fatboy Slim and thousands of clubbers at the London Astoria.

In the programme, Martin Bright, political editor of the New Statesman, also accused Ken of
financial profligacy, cronyism and links to a Trotskyite faction conspiring to transform London into a ‘soc­ialist city state'.

He also alleged that Livingstone's race adviser, Lee Jasper, had paid a consultant to prepare a dossier to help smear the former head of the Commission for Rac­ial Equality, Trevor Phillips.

Livingstone's response was typically robust - he appealed to Ofcom to forbid Channel 4 from airing the programme, claiming ‘lack of balance'. But the broadcaster was all­owed to air it after making clear that Livingstone had been given a full right to reply in sufficient time but had failed to res­pond.

He subsequently app­eared on last Thursday's Today programme, where he def­ended himself in typically gutsy fashion.

Answering the acc­usation that his style is too dictatorial, he said: ‘That is exactly what Tony Blair - and I was opposed to the idea at the beginning - set out to create. If we did not have that [system], I could not have got the congestion charge through... It is a much better mechanism to deliver change.

‘I do not work through endless layers of Sir Humphreys and Yes Ministers. Staff at City Hall work to deliver the agenda of the mayor. If they (London voters) do not like it, they can get another mayor and that is the best form of accountability,' said Livingstone.

One senior public sector PRO says of the appearance: ‘I thought that was typical Livingstone at his best. He tackles it head on. I think people will give him the benefit of the doubt.'

Livingstone's new press manager Victoria Collins says the next step will be to focus attention on transport, policing and the environment. The mayor will also make some new policy announcements such as extensions to the Freedom Pass.

PRWeek asked two PROs with experience on the London political scene, plus a former mayoral, and parliamentary candidate, how Collins could manage Livingstone's profile to see off Boris and Lib Dem rival Brian Paddick.

Andrew Hobson
Insight account manager
Media manager for Livingstone's re-election in 2004

The line he is taking now - that his executive powers are good for London - seems like a tacit admission. I thought he was quite on the defensive [on the Today programme]. He seemed to get himself in a corner.

That is not the Ken I know. He needs to move on to issues where he can attack Boris. I do not think it is his strongest weapon to just label Boris a buffoon. He needs to start talking about him in terms of being a serious and dangerous person, who is right wing.

I think his relationship with the Evening Standard is long gone. He is going to focus more on local papers.

Justine McGuinness
PR consultant
Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in 2005 general election

In the past two campaigns Livingstone clearly has known what he wanted to
do, if, and when, he won. That is a great motivation for the candidate's team and, if promoted strongly, plays well with voters. In this campaign, he needs to get the sense across that he has a vision for London's next decade and knows how to make it a reality.

But it is a mistake fighting in public with a newspaper (the Evening Standard) and other media. It opens opportunities for Brian Paddick and Boris Johnson that they should maximise. It is a mistake Livingstone may well regret.

Mike Granatt
Luther Pendragon partner
Former director-general of the Government Information and Communications Service

Ken's masterstroke was playing the anti-establishment line in 2000 against Tony Blair. He basically said: ‘I am the only candidate who cares about London.' He was very practised at playing that card after his years dealing with Thatcher.

I am not sure he can do it this time - these propriety issues could bite him. If I was Livingstone I would be making damn sure people understood the changes that he brought to London's transport, housing and the environment. Boris's team will now be looking into how they can question his achievements and use the Dispatches revelations.

Steven Norris
Chairman of Jarvis
Mayoral candidate in 2004
Livingstone's greatest PR move in the first election, in 2000, was when he promoted himself as a martyr. This time, he knows that the electorate is weighted against him.

Boris will keep bringing up the embarrassing resignation of Rosemary Emodi, deputy to chief race adviser Lee Jasper, who admitted to a free luxury trip to Nigeria despite an earlier public denial.

If I was Livingstone I would have portrayed Boris as something generally not worth bothering with. Instead he embarked on a very serious campaign, trying to portray him as a racist, a bigot and a nutter.

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