Ken Livingstone has been quick to assign the reason for his defeat to the Mayoral election being a "personality contest". Many others have joined him in this analysis (or have said the same thing already).
I think there's more to it than that.
After all, in 2008, Ken Livingstone significantly out-polled the depressed Labour vote. Presumably then his personality was an asset, and Boris Johnson's was something of a liability. Much has changed in the intervening four years, but the basic personalities of the two men appear fairly similar, at least to this observer.
If people's perceptions of the two men have changed, then perhaps there are other issues at play than their personalities?*
One argument might be that Ken Livingstone endured a more negative media environment in 2012 than 2008. I'm afraid I don't buy that at all. The 2012 Standard, which is what people mean, was much less negative than the 2008 version. Yes, Andrew Gilligan was relentless in the Telegraph, but he was no longer at the Standard, and frankly, the negative stories about Ken (notably the Tax issue) were entirely self inflicted. So I don't think media bias works as the differentiating factor.
Perhaps the most effective case for the "Personality" argument was made by Adam Bienkov in an excellent article in the New Statesman.
Adam takes issue with a tweet of mine in which I said that Ken's "Message, tone, strategy and agenda" were wrong. Adam points out that
"In all the polling that was done, Ken’s policies of lower fares and his measures to reduce the cost of living, were overwhelmingly supported by the public, with Johnson’s main policy of small cuts to council tax barely registering. The problem was not Ken's agenda, but the fact that it was Ken calling for that agenda"
There are two points to make here. First, I don't think there's any argument that Ken's policies were unpopular. As Adam rightly says, all of the polling makes that clear. 36% of people thought that Ken's policy was the best one for them. Note, however, that 36% would not represent a plurality of voters. Nor is it of much significance that Ken was 'Left wing". Ken has been left wing for decades, and has won elections by a landslide before. London is a now a more "left wing" city than the rest of Southern England, and I don't doubt that a left position can work politically in a city like London, but there are more complex factors than "personality" and "policy" at play in an election.
Message, tone, strategy and agenda are some of the most important of these, which is why I mentioned them. My issue with Ken's choice of policy priority is not that it was "too left wing" or insufficiently Blairite. I'm not quite sure to what extent lower tube and bus fares is left or right wing, at least in Labour party terms. I'd quite like lower bus fares too, you know! Nor is Ken particularly "left' when it comes to policing.
My critique is not that Ken's agenda was that it was too left wing in policy terms, but that it did little to help Ken win the election. Ken did not seek to persuade voters he had changed, listened and learned from his previous rejection, but rather that he had been right before, was still right, and would do what he did before in office. In effect, his message was "If you liked my last Mayoralty, you'll love my next one". I suppose one could argue that this is an aspect of personality, but I think it's something more. It was a conscious political choice to appeal to those who were already receptive to Ken's messages.
I assume, though I don't know, that the thinking behind this was rooted in an analysis that Ken did not actually lose the last Mayoral election, Gordon Brown did, and that the election of Boris Johnson did not represent a repudiation of Ken Livingstone, but of an unpopular Labour government. In effect, Ken wanted a re-run of 2008 with a better political backdrop providing the votes needed to win.
There is some truth to that analysis, but not enough. Labour and Gordon Brown probably did lose Ken the 2008 election. The trouble is the politics of the London Mayoralty changed in the intervening years.
It struck me that Ken ran against a caricature of Boris Johnson, not the real Boris Johnson mayoralty Londoners have lived with. His campaign message was effective in 2008, when Johnson was an unknown quantity as a politician actually running things. This time, however, Johnson had been in office for four years, and while he has achieved little, he also done remarkably little to conform to the image of him that Labour painted in 2008.
As Adam astutely notes: "Under Boris, spending on infrastructure, and the wages of Tube workers has risen whilst the mass bureaucracy at Transport for London has barely been touched. The multicultural festivals, diversity agendas and environmental projects have all continued whilst Boris has stretched every sinew to persuade Londoners that he is not the mad swivel-eyed Tory that Labour had tried to persuade them he was."
As Owen Jones puts it : "there was a lot of continuity between Boris and Ken’s reign: the Tory Mayor simply carried on with most of Ken’s projects. The fare hikes were his greatest injustice, but you can’t get as worked up about them as, say, trebling tuition fees, privatising the NHS or slashing taxes on the rich". This leads to an odd dissonance. Boris's victory is due to his policy continuity with Ken, yet the election was merely a personality contest. Perhaps it might be instead that Johnson's policy continuity was a deliberate strategy to prevent London Labour voters being able to "get worked up"?
In my view, this is not personality politics, but a veneer of Borisisms and Tory populism overlaying a reality of centrist political strategy designed to disarm the negatives Boris Johnson carried into the last Mayoral election.
The fact that Labour failed to address this strategy was a political choice, not a consequence of political personality.
This explains why Labour voters in London thought Boris Johnson was a better candidate for middle class Londoners and for cyclists. It provides a rationale for the fact that when one looks at those identified by YouGov as "Ken deserters", (ie Labour voters not supporting Ken) they preferred Boris Johnson on issues as varied as helping homeowners, leading London out of recession and fighting crime. These are not mere personality issues.
I suggest that if Ken had focussed more of his campaign on issues like this, issues that concerned Labour voters who were susceptible to the reality of a fairly inoffensive and unambitious Tory mayor, he might have had a chance of both changing their minds about the policies of both candidates, and reducing the hostility that they expressed to Ken.
This hostility was real. The counter argument to mine (that this was about people not being willing to listen to Ken) has some evidence to support it. If you look at "Ken deserters", 65% of them gave disliking Ken as their main reason for not voting for him. Only 23% said they voted Boris because they liked him. In addition a full 61% of the deserters described Boris as charismatic. This might be a telling point in favour of the "personality" question. But my argument is that this was an addressable issue, through a different strategy, a different set of political priorities and a different campaign tone. Ken chose not to ask for a second chance to be heard.
In my view, Ken generated dislike and scepticism because he appeared to have not changed from his earlier defeat. He campaigned on the same issues, used the same rhetoric, deployed the same attacks on the media and his opponent and ultimately, looked like he sought the same coalition of support. In the end, that's exactly what he achieved, to within 4,000 first preference votes. Yes, his policies were popular, but were they interesting for those who Ken needed to persuade?
If those who rejected Ken last time disliked him this time, it surely has to be related to the fact his campaign made little or no effort to persuade them otherwise.
Instead, he chose to tell the electorate what they already knew about him. I suspect this did him little good. Even "Ken deserters" still regarded Ken as better for commuters, for the poor, ethnic minorities, and even, by a slim margin, as "better for people like them". It just wasn't enough for them to support him. So constantly telling them that he would address the issues they thought he was best on was going to change few minds.
When I discussed this with a member of Ken's campaign team, it was pointed out to me that Ken went out to outer London repeatedly in this campaign. Indeed he did- but what did he tell them when he was there? Did he talk about car drivers? Did he talk about voluntary groups, or try to outbid Boris Johnson's outer London fund? No, he talked about tube fares, infrastructure and EMA. Even when his campaign talked about crime, it was always in the context of cuts, of spending, of long lists of numbers.
For Ken to have won, he did not need to be more right wing, or more conservative, or more Blairite (though I confess, I would have been amused to see him try the latter!).
Instead, he needed to emphasise the concerns of those who had rejected him before, more willing to approach the campaign with new priorities, a different tone, and a fresher, less KenClassic agenda.
London knew Ken stood for lower fares, for London's working class and for Ethnic minorities. Voters agreed with him on that. I argue they needed to know much more than that if he was to gain the additional support he needed to win.
Full disclosure: I voted for Ken because I thought his policies on Housing, transport, crime and the economy were superior to that of his opponents, and because I felt a Labour administration in City Hall would be superior in all respects to a Conservative one. Yet I was one of those concerned by Ken's position on a variety of non-Mayoral issues who felt that it would be difficult to display the needed enthusiasm to go on the doorstep for him: I confess too, the number of times he has expressed disdain and loathing for my brand of centre-left politics sapped my enthusiasm. I've campaigned for people far more left wing than Ken, though, and will do again. It's just that I tend to feel party loyalty works best when it is reciprocal. With Ken, I don't think it is (To be fair, the blame here is not one sided. The party should have let Ken be Labour candidate in 2000. Either you believe in One member, One vote in internal selections, or you don't.)
In any case, I doubted I could express enthusiasm well on the doorstep. So I focussed my campaigning activity on elections outside London. I'm pleased to say that Labour won every ward I campaigned in, though that had precious little to do with my efforts! I mention this because I expect I will called an armchair critic.
*This raises the question of what we mean by "personality". If we mean the personality "as perceived by the electorate", as I suspect most of us do, a political personality is something that can be shifted by a multitude of factors, and is well within the ability of a campaign to address. To take a ludicrous example, if a campaign managed to organise a series of events where a candidate appeared to rescue small children from burning buildings, I suspect that candidate's ratings for charisma, bravery, and courage would go up. If this was then exposed as a fix, the ratings would crash. The candidate would still be the same basic personality, but our perception of it would have changed with the information available. This suggests that if one of the barriers to your election as a candidate are personality issues, these are not unfixable. You just have to choose to fix them, and not by altering your candidates personality, but by altering the perception of such. Does this then no longer make them personality issues in any meaningful sense? It all gets rather metaphysical.