Sunday, 6 April 2008

Tony Benn: Ken Livingstone is the greatest Londoner of his generation

I'm sitting on a bench next to Tony Benn as we wait for the mayor to arrive. It's an unseasonably cold April day and on Islington Green shoppers are bearing their heads down against the wind. Benn himself is wrapped in a scarf and wooly hat, but as I turn to him he takes out his pipe and greets me with a smile. I ask him how he thinks Ken is doing:

"Of course Ken is having a hard battle but I think he should be confident. People remember that it was the Conservatives who abolished democracy in London and people aren't stupid. I have lots of confidence in the intelligence of Londoners."

Later on in a speech he describes the mayor as "the greatest Londoner of my generation," but I wonder if his optimism is misplaced. With Boris ahead in the polls and with almost daily attacks from the Evening Standard, it is unlikely that Benn's friend Ken can be as cheery. I ask him what he makes of the press coverage so far:

"Well if you want to elect the editor of the Evening Standard to be chief of staff then it's up to you, but I think most people know what the paper thinks of Ken."

That may well be so. At the recent Time Out hustings Brian Paddick complained that the press had been ignoring him. Ken Livingstone turned to him and said: "Brian, let me help you out. You can have all of my coverage in the Evening Standard." The joke got the biggest laugh of the night.

As we continue to talk, our conversation is broken off by the arrival of the mayor. He sweeps in to applause from the group of activists. He then goes on to make a short speech and to introduce his old friend to the crowd. 

The focus of the day's campaigning is peace. The message is that Boris Johnson backed the Iraq war and George Bush and Ken and Benn backed peace and dialogue. Boris is for division and Ken is for diversity and tolerance. It is a straight-faced appeal to the peacenik vegetarians of North London. 

But for Ken's campaign this is just one part of a bigger picture. If Ken is to be successful he must show himself as a Londoner and as the man closest to majority opinion.

In today's Telegraph, Boris complains that Livingstone is smearing him by quoting from his articles, but for the Livingstone campaign it is precisely these articles that show the man behind the mask. And as Boris' image is kept on a tight leash, it is Ken who wanders freely through the crowds. And as Boris is eagerly watched by minders, it is Ken who speaks openly in front of the Evening Standard reporter.

Because despite all of the battering that they give him, Ken is as abrasive and outspoken as before. And if Ken is to be successful in these elections, it is these traits that he must make the greatest effort to show.

You can watch Tony Benn's speech on Dave Hill's excellent blog Mayor and More.


asquith said...

I think you're a bit too close to Labour for comfort. I obviously enjoy burning the Tories, but the pro-Ken/Brown stuff is a bit much for my liking.

Still, I appreciate what you're doing in general :)

The Tory Troll said...

My dislike of the Tories is much bigger than any good feeling towards Labour. The party as a whole I have very mixed feelings about, but as a Londoner I think Ken has done a good job overall and is infinitely preferable to Boris.

I don't think you will find much pro brown stuff on this blog though.

asquith said...

Hmm. Perhaps I, myself, am biased towards the Lib Dems ;)

Anonymous said...

I would have thought that someone as principled as Tony Benn, would've had more sense than to back a turn-coat like Ken.

Saying that, it takes all sorts I guess - as is proved by the Mayoral incumbent.

ToneyTony said...

I would have thought a supporter of Boris Johnson, ex SDP, ex journalist ex libetarian would have had no problems with turncoats.