The myths surrounding the London elections

By Joe Collins

Following Ken Livingstone’s defeat in the mayoral contest in London there have been a range of attacks on him from the usual quarters claiming that he underperformed the Labour Party and that on this basis that with ‘any other candidate’ Labour might have won.

The aim of the attacks is to discredit the progressive strand of politics that Ken Livingstone stood for, and to present any attempt to stand up to the offensive of the Tory-led government and its media backers as electorally suicidal.


Although the actual closeness of the final vote in the Mayoral contest has muted the anti-Livingstone voices, it is nonetheless important to set the true record on the outcome of the election. The case against Livingstone is not born out by the facts, and such attacks are obliged to rely on a series of falsehoods and inaccurate assertions.

For example, the unrelentingly right-wing and hostile blog, Labour Uncut’s analysis of the election result claimed ‘ “lions led by donkeys”, captures the essence of what happened to Labour in London’s mayoral election.’ In order to justify this claim it entirely falsely asserted that ‘Labour’s candidate under-performed his party’s Assembly vote by 43,480 votes or 5% on first preferences’.

In fact, rather than the 5% claimed by Labour Uncut, the actual difference between Livingstone’s vote and Labour’s was just 0.8% of the total votes cast, not 5%. Ken Livingstone gained 889,918 first preference votes, compared to 911,204 for the Labour London-wide List Assembly vote, 40.3% for Ken, 41.1% for Labour. Moreover the difference in number of votes cast for Ken Livingstone in the Mayoral election and for the Labour List in the Assembly elections was just 21,000 votes.

Finally, this negligible ‘Labour gap’ did not determine the outcome, as Johnson was ahead by 82,000 votes after the first round and 63,000 in the second round. The totals can be seen here.

Similarly, according to long-term right wing opponents of Ken Livingstone, like Luke Akehurst on the Labour List blog, ‘any other Labour candidate with less baggage would enabled us to join the rest of the country in celebrating a Labour victory’. This assertion is not at all supported by the facts. As already shown, there was in effect no ‘Labour gap’ at all. To have increased the vote beyond that of Labour would have required a candidate who had a large personal following, a ‘brand’, at least equivalent to Boris Johnson’s, and able to withstand the barrage of invective from the Evening Standard, and others.

In fact, despite that barrage Ken Livingstone’s share of first preference votes was the highest ever in 2012 at 40.3%, versus 36.38% in 2008 (when Labour was at 27% in the Assembly list section), 35.7% in 2004 (versus 24% in Assembly list) and 39.0% in 2000 (versus Labour’s 30% in Assembly list).

As a result, the 2nd preference transfers Ken needed to win outright on 3rd May was the lowest ever at 9.71% of the total vote.

Nor was the failure a result of some new inability to attract those transfers. Ken also got the highest number of transfers over his Tory opponent that he ever received, 20,000 more than Johnson in 2012, compared to 10,000 more in 2008, 18,000 more in 2004 and 9,000 more in 2000.

As with the national election turnout was a significant factor in the election, falling from 45% to 38%. The total number of votes in the election fell in every single seat. In total it fell by of 250,000 compared with 2.5 million in 2008, i.e. a fall of 10%.

Interestingly, Ken Livingstone’s total number of votes did not significantly fall (it was down by a mere 3,900 votes or just 0.4% versus its 2008 total). But Boris Johnson’s vote fell by 70,000 to 971,931 from 1,043,761 in 2008.

The figures show that the third parties were the most squeezed. The Liberal Democrat vote fell by 140,000 from 236,000 to 91,000 (61% of 2008 number of votes). Votes to the right of the Tories (BNP, UKIP, English Democrats, Christian People’s Alliance – For Traditional Marriage, National Front) fell by 71,000 (exactly 50% fall). The Greens increased their number of votes by 22,000

The die-hard opponents of Ken Livingstone’s politics such as Akehurst have decided that he has been ‘playing a destructive role in the London Labour Party for four decades’. This alleged destructive role includes support for lesbian and gay rights, defending all those oppressed by racism and xenophobia, and campaigning against the marginalisation of the Irish from British political life and support for their right to self-determination in Ireland. He supported women’s right to organise within the labour movement to combat the specific oppression they face and against the resistance of its male-dominated leadership. For all of these he waged a determined battle without much support from the labour movement leadership of the time and yet scored notable successes. Currently, that is exactly the situation he faced in defending the Muslim community. There were also the important matters of repeatedly cutting fares to help the poorest in London, building tens of thousands of affordable homes, combating racism in the police and bringing investment and therefore jobs to London.

There have been a range of more accurate appreciations of Ken Livingstone’s hugely positive legacy such as this example on Left Futures.

In their analysis of the outcome of the London elections, the anti-socialist forces within the Labour Party have to ignore a central fact – the relative success of the right in creating the ‘Boris Johnson brand’, which allowed the Tories a victory in London that they could not achieve elsewhere. As this letter in the Guardian correctly points out: Labour didn’t have a Ken problem, it had a Boris problem.

This can be seen in the fact that Boris Johnson outpolled the Tory’s Assembly list vote by 44% to 32% or in vote term by 972,000 votes to 709,000. The Tory candidate’s first preference vote was also the highest ever at 44.01% in 2012, an uninterrupted rise from 27.1% in 2000. Thus Boris Johnson’s vote held up better than the Tories. ‘Brand Boris’ is based on a combination of attracting voters who would never normally back a Tory on the basis he is ‘funny’ and not really a Tory, while scooping up votes from parties to the right of the Tories (UKIP, BNP etc) that see him, more accurately, as a flag-waver for the Tory right.

With both the Tory candidate and Ken gaining more first preference votes, despite an overall fall in turn out, it is clear that London has clearly become a more polarised city and a more Tory one since 2000. Ken Livingstone partially reversed the latter trend in 2012 as he added nearly 4% 1st preferences on 2008 compared to Johnson’s addition of 1.5%. This polarisation meant that, as outlined above, the proportion of transfers Ken Livingstone required to win was the lowest ever at 9.7%. But so too was the actual proportion of transfers received 8.17% compared to 19.7% in 2004.

This is a product of the squeeze on third and other parties who achieved a 36.1% combined vote in 2004 compared to just 15.7% in 2012. But there was definitely not a significant decrease in the proportion of transfers Ken Livingstone received from likely parties; Liberal Democrats, Greens and other social democratic ‘Labour’ forces (from Frank Dobson in 2000 to Siobhan Benita in 2012, who described herself as ‘traditional Labour’).

Assuming that Ken did not attract transfers from supporters of candidates to the right of the Tories, then he will have got 37.1% of the other potential transfers in 2012, compared to an average 36.4% over the 3 previous mayoral races. That is to say, these other transfers will have come voters whose first preference was either Liberal Democrat, social democratic, Green or far left. But it is worth noting that even if he had equalled the highest share of transfers that he have ever gained from these sources, (45.7% in 2004), it would only have added 23,000 votes – little more than a third of the transfers he needed to win in 2012.

Boris Johnson’s incorporation of racist and fascist votes has been central to his success. This can be clearly seen from the fact that since the high-point for the far right and fascist forces – their 11.2% combined poll in 2004 (UKIP, BNP, English Democrats) – this vote has been captured by Johnson. These small far right parties fell to 3.26% 1st preferences in 2012. This near 8% decline in their vote (5.4% in 2008) more than accounts for the margin of the Tory victory.

The Tories in London, through ‘brand Boris Johnson’, have successfully hegemonised both far right and fascist forces as well as some of the non-Labour, formerly anti-Tory forces. That tide was partly reversed in 2012 as Ken Livingstone closed the gap on the Tory candidate, achieving both the highest ever proportion of first preferences and a greater lead in transfers ever. In the vote, there was no ‘Labour gap’.

Rather than the ‘analysis’ of Labour’s hard-right that Ken Livingstone floundered behind the Labour vote, or that Labour could have won with another candidate, the margin of loss was such that it is clear that his campaign could have been successful if it had avoided some key errors as discussed here. And the lessons are that a determined fight for progressive policies defending the economic interests of ordinary Londoners was the route to victory, not defeat.