The controversy over Ken Livingstone's suitability for a third term as London Mayor persists. In his Standard column this week, Nick enscapsulated his own dilemma: "Give it to Ken Livingstone? A man who has had unaccountable power for far too long, who presides over a bureaucracy against which there are far too many accusations of corruption and who broke the worthwhile Left-wing taboo against doing deals with the far Right when he embraced the Muslim Brotherhood? Boris Johnson, then? For someone from my background there's the small problem that he's a Tory. I accept that many readers won't see that as a problem, so I'll move to a larger difficulty: he's a useless Tory."
I don't know Boris Johnson, but I suspect his bumbling exterior is partly for show. Nonetheless, a carefully cultivated impression need not be a deceptive one, and the evidence is strong that Johnson is politically clueless. A clueless holder of executive office and a large budget is a risk to the quality of public life. Stephen Norris was a capable Conservative candidate in the previous Mayoral elections (and ironically gave up his ambitions to stand again so that the party could present a more diverse image to the electorate). His successor is clearly not worthy of support even against a Mayor who is manifestly unfit for public office.
There is one public figure who I hope will consider running against Livingstone and whom I would like to see as Mayor. This is Oona King, former MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. I have my political differences with Oona (who is a family friend). One of the first blog posts I wrote was in consternation at her commenting in The Guardian, after a 2003 trip to Gaza: "The original founders of the Jewish state could surely not imagine the irony facing Israel today: in escaping the ashes of the Holocaust, they have incarcerated another people in a hell similar in its nature - though not its extent - to the Warsaw ghetto." (The only sense I can make of this Delphic remark is that Oona believes the Jewish state is bent on razing Gaza but unaccountably has thus far stopped short of doing so. This sort of rhetoric - I understate on a grand scale - does not serve the cause of territorial accommodation between two competing and legitimate nationalisms.)
But foreign policy is not part of the remit of the Mayor of London. Oona knows that, whereas one of the reasons Ken Livingstone is unfit for office is his use of council taxpayers' money to make grandiose and inflammatory interventions in pursuit of an independent and bizarrely ill informed foreign policy. (Among many examples, see here, here, here and here.) I know from much anecdotal evidence that Oona was a dedicated constituency MP. One of the misfortunes of her former constituents in Bethnal Green and Bow is that, having replaced her with the absurd George Galloway, they are now in effect unrepresented at Westminster. Oona showed a good deal of dignity in defending her constituency against some ugly racist forces. I've no doubt she would be effective in dampening rather than inflaming communal tensions, which is the least one can require of the Mayor. London would benefit from an efficient, articulate and attractive figurehead in succession to a man who lacks the most rudimentary sense of public service.
One of Tony Blair's most cynical acts as Labour leader was to accept Ken Livingstone back into the Labour Party in a transparent attempt to salvage something from Labour's poor municipal election results in 2004. I also fault Labour's leadership for not giving Oona sufficient support against the extreme right-wing forces that opposed her election in 2005. There is no reason that Oona should be bound, merely on grounds of party label, to back Ken Livingstone, whom I would in no circumstances support for any public office. I hope that those with influence upon her will persuade her to stand, as the progressive alternative to either a squalid populist or a vacuous comedian.