The labour leadership race was dismissed as an exercise in political positioning last night as Oona King and Ken Livingstone clashed on substantial ‘Old Labour’ v ‘New Labour’ territory. Following a piece in Saturday’s Guardian, both candidates referred to the ideological differences between them.
Ken spoke about his record opposing the Iraq war and tuition fees, and his “clear ideological perspective, combined with an ability to drive through change”; this is in contrast to Oona’s self-proclaimed practical approach:
“People say I am more right wing than Ken. If being more to the right means practical politics that delivers for people in the real world in their real homes then ok.”
A central policy difference to which this philosophical gulf gives rise is their respective approach to cuts. Ken wants to use the time between Labour endorsing its candidate in September and the mayoral election in summer 2012 to build a mandate in London to fight the cuts when elected as mayor.
He claimed that the cuts proposed by the coalition government are twice as deep as those he fought in the 1980s. Oona talks in less stringent terms, arguing that while cuts should be fought, we live in the real world which requires creative solutions to smaller budgets. The pair have been appearing at hustings events across London since they were confirmed as rivals for the Labour candidacy in June.
Like the leadership race, the candidates have remained on good terms, keen to avoid providing ammunition to the opposition for the election in 2012. However, substantial differences between the two are clear in policy and philosophical terms – on funding council housing, on taxing the city and on tackling inequality – and they have both found ways to highlight their opponents’ weaknesses.
On her campaign literature Oona pledges to end cronyism in City Hall, a dig not just at Boris Johnson, but also at Ken. She makes frequent references to her appeal to young voters and to voters of the future in an attempt to cast Ken as yesterday’s politician. And she also talks about the need to win back the outer boroughs of London, which lost Labour the 2008 contest.
Ken is keen to highlight his record, and to contrast it with Oona’s lack of executive experience. Every major scheme that is now underway or that Boris Johnson has opened was started by Ken, he claimed: the East London Line, the North London Line Upgrade and Crossrail. And between 2000 and 2008 police numbers were up, London was the only city in the world to shift people from their cars onto public transport with the introduction of the congestion charge and improvements to the bus and tube.
The issue of Iraq is also cropping up at hustings events. Picking up on some audience hostility towards Oona’s support of the war in 2003, Ken last night questioned whether Londoners would vote for a pro-war mayor. Oona made a strong defence of her position at the time, arguing that it was in line with her anti-genocide campaign which she began five years previously.
Having campaigned on behalf of Iraqis since 1998 she saw the war as an opportunity to remove the only dictator in the world still in power having committed genocide against his own people. However she admitted that the Bush-led war was a mistake, saying: “Was I right? No, I was not.”
Both candidates display some of the passion that drew them into politics. Oona wants the focus of crime-fighting to be on prevention not cure, and having met young people fearful of knife crime has changed her stance on stop and search, now arguing that it is preferable to being “stabbed and shot”.
Across the public sector – in schools, hospitals and the police – she stresses the importance of fostering good human relationships between public servants and the people they serve. And in areas where the mayor has no official powers she says she would use “the agency of mayor” to campaign for change, for instance in rallying all Londoners in the fight against inequality.
Ken was at his most passionate in his closing statement, when talking about the fight against climate change:
“This city should be at the head of low-carbon economy, creating good jobs, even in manufacturing. It’s easy to think after these 13 years that the best of Labour is behind us, that we can never be as relevant to the future as we can to the past – but climate change requires coordination and cooperation among nations. Free market solutions won’t work.
“This mayoralty should put London at the forefront of that debate – we change the world together, or we see the extinction of the human race together. Setting a new global agenda, so that when this century ends there is a good life for people on this Earth.”