Those looking for clues as to why he is not the favourite to win the May 3 elections could see one or two signposts during his speech and subsequent Q&A.
Livingstone is still a larger-than-life character, for sure, with a fun turn of phrase. He has an enviable track record – with arguably more achievements by far than his rival Boris Johnson.
But in several areas Ken’s demeanour was less “let sunshine win the day” than “let it rain, let it rain, let it rain.”
1] He predicted a London with 9m people in the next decade, creaking at the seams, with not enough housing and a public transport system collapsing under the weight of the over-population. This dystopian vision may turn out to be true, but it is far from positive.
2] He tried to present himself as the “ugly” candidate who wants to concentrate on the “boring” issues. Britain is going further down the US-style presidential system, he warned. Boris Johnson was merely a comedian who made people laugh – and what was the good of that? (“If I wanted to make you laugh I’d have become a comedian.”) The whole argument ignored the fact that Ken is himself a one-man brand who – until Boris came along – thrived on being an outsider, a joker, a rebel. It sounded a little like sour grapes.
3] He tried to shoot the messenger. In the good old days there used to be regular journalistic coverage of the GLC, he recalled. But when he announced his housing strategy in Kilburn there was only one journalist there. He cited “Flat Earth News” to paint the entire journo profession as a bunch of churnalists failing to carry out detailed research. Whether or not this is true – and perhaps an audience of hacks wasn’t the best place to make the argument – it sounded a tad bitter.
4] He criticised the political system, MPs with no life experience, the fact that most money is concentrated in central government. Most weirdly of all he attacked the job of mayor – the one which he is asking Londoners to elect him to.
“I’m still not persuaded of the mayoral system because it concentrates a lot of power in one person’s hands,” he said. “It’s easy to avoid serious scrutiny because the mayor always gets the last word at every assembly meeting.”
He also complained that local government had been hollowed out and was no longer like the old days – when he had managed to achieve results at Lambeth council. This sounded less like an objective critique than the whinge of an old-timer.
Boris Johnson was asked at the same event what he had to offer: “optimism” was the answer. Ken may still have plenty up his sleeve; but it’s not that.