The next London mayorals are upon us already and strewn with elephant traps for Labour
The parliamentary silly season has suddenly turned not so silly, thanks to events in Syria. Nevertheless, party leaders are still inevitably embroiled in the immediate concerns of reshuffles and conference speeches.
It seems strange, therefore, to be considering an election that still lies three years hence. However, in the last two weeks, both Diane Abbott and George Galloway have broken cover in “considering” running, and their timing is right. And Boris Johnson hinted last month he may reverse his decision not to stand again.
Thinking about London is an easy thing for leaders to put on the long finger. Let’s face it, if they get through the next general election still being leaders of their respective parties, that’s probably a big enough win for most.
But they might also reflect that they are the first-ever leaders to experience a London mayoral happening one year after a general election. As a result of this odd timing, they have to resist the temptation to keep their heads down and try to pick the ball up again the other side of 2015, assuming they are still leading their parties by then.
In fact, it's impossible to do this: each party will need to select their candidate before the general election, Labour and the Tories almost certainly before the end of next year.
And Labour’s selection is surely the trickiest of all. Recent attention on Labour’s party reforms has focused on the overhaul of its relationship with unions. But a key part which has been less commented is that Miliband has nailed his colours to the mast of a US-style “primary” for selecting its candidate in London. In this he will have to succeed, or risk a serious blow to his credibility.
So, if Miliband loses that battle at the special conference in the spring and the unions get to keep some version of the current selection process, there will be consequences.
First, Miliband’s poll ratings, self-evidently, are likely to tank.
Second, through a heavier union influence, he may well end up saddled with a candidate entirely against his wishes. One imagines that, despite having her attend Shadow Cabinet as a token representative of the radical left, Miliband might not be delighted with an Abbott candidacy, but that would be a fairly likely outcome of losing the battle on London primaries.
Third, a win from the party’s left could also cement into the London Labour Party a continuity with the bunker mentality of the Livingstone years – “we don’t care if people think we’re loony left, this is London” – when what it desperately needs is a new start. And if you don’t think London Labour needs a new start, I invite you to look at the turmoil in Tower Hamlets over the last decade or so that led to the election of a highly controversial independent mayor, or the five local parties in “special measures”, after irregularities in their selection processes.
Now, let’s suppose Miliband wins his battle; that doesn’t mean his troubles are over, by any means. A primary might give him the chance to get a sensible candidate. But there may also be recalcitrance on the part of Labour’s big hitters to take up the challenge; it does not require much thought as to why.
The last person other than Livingstone who stood for Labour was the decent, but unlucky, Frank Dobson more than a decade ago. Dobson ended up taking the fall for a party which fumbled the selection process and ended up with Livingstone running as an independent. It is easy to see a poisoned chalice rather than an opportunity.
It is also difficult for someone who is not already an established name to make headway, in a contest which has already set a precedent for its presidential nature. Comedian Eddie Izzard has said he intends to stand, but only for the 2020 mayorals.
So, short of the seemingly unlikely return of, say, a Johnson or a Darling, the only other obvious and well-known candidate is Diane Abbott, the darling of the TV studios. Assuming – which seems likely – that Labour retains positive discrimination for women in the selection, it is difficult to imagine Abbott failing to make the shortlist, at least – even if the primary does materialise.
At the same time, she also cuts a figure arguably as divisive as Ken Livingstone, within the party at least. On previous form, it is hard to imagine much divergence from the famous “rainbow coalition” strategy of the man himself; an appeal based on a patchwork of ethnic, religious and other interest groups.
And then there is George Galloway. With Livingstone no longer presenting him with competition, Galloway could well stand, to pull in the vote of the radical left away from Labour, in one of its few remaining strongholds in Britain. While his total vote would undoubtedly be small, he would surely assiduously court Muslim votes and benefit from disillusionment with politics in general, as he did in Bradford.
With Galloway standing, Miliband could be tempted to allow London Labour to tack to the left so as not to lose votes to Galloway from that side. He may even come to see Abbott as the least worst option, for that very reason.
Both would be disastrously wrong conclusions: a candidate from the left would merely free up the centre for the Tories and provide a renewed power base for a resurgent left within his own party. All at a time when, fighting for a new settlement with the unions, he least needs that.
In short, Miliband needs to be considering the London elections right now, and very carefully. If he secures a good result in them, he will truly deserve a medal, not just a shot at Number 10. But along the way, the elephant traps he has to avoid are many.