Friday, 25 April 2008

London election: more than just a mayor

The big London mayor election is less than a week away now, and the whole of the UK seems to be  focused on the event. But the race between the current Labour mayor Ken Livingstone and his Conservative challenger Boris Johnson is receiving so much attention not only because polls show them neck-in-neck, but also because the result will be a harbinger of what may come when prime minister Gordon Brown finally has to call a general election.

It is quite different to be in a country that essentially only has one major global city. It would be hard to imagine any city’s mayoral election in the US attracting national attention, even New York’s. In fact the Mayorship of the US capital, Washington DC, is one of the more irrelevant positions because DC is technically run by congress.

But the London Mayor is without a doubt the most powerful directly elected position in the UK (since the prime minister is not directly elected but rather chosen by his or her party). Amazingly, the position was just created in 2000, and Ken Livingstone has held the title since its creation, and he has largely shaped its definitions and parameters.

London is the center of UK government, high culture, popular culture, finance, commerce and industry (whereas in the US those things are spread out between DC, NYC, LA and Chicago). So the person leading this city is vitally important to the rest of the nation. Livingstone, a Democratic Socialist by background who didn’t join the Labour Party until his second term as Mayor (mostly to get more funding for London from the government), has made many dramatic changes. These include instituting the congestion charge which charges cars a fee to enter central London (which Michael Bloomberg in New York has been trying to do for that city), expanding the number of buses and bringing in new “bendy buses,” driving London’s Olympic bid, and expanding the number of minority outreach programs, just to name a few. Many of these have been highly controversial, and over the years he’s developed a reputation as “King Ken,” with many Londoners believing he’s built himself a position of absolute, unchecked power. The British press is extreemly hostile to him, and he's just as hostile in return.

Boris Johnson is a former journalist and a bit of a colourful character. In the past he’s written some fairly inflammatory and borderline racist columns, and he has a habit of saying unfortunate things which have made him extremely unpopular with London’s minority population. But his conservative views have struck a chord with the current mood in Britain about immigration and crime. He’s not very popular and most people seem to agree that he’s not very impressive, but such is the widespread dislike of Livingstone in this city that there is a growing “anyone but Ken” movement. Of all the people I know who are voting for Johnson, none of them seem to actually like him. But they just hate Ken that much.

There is also the Liberal Democrat candidate, Brian Paddick, a former chief of police and head at Scotland Yard who is openly gay. Originally the conservatives had wanted him to be their candidate but in the end he didn’t go for it. Coming from the US it is truly amazing to me that you could be an openly gay Conservative party candidate for a major office in this country. But of course as the Lib Dem candidate he could never win, there seems to be some unwritten yet accepted rule here that everyone likes the Lib Dems but they are not allowed to actually hold any position of power.

Labour Death Knell?

Beyond the fact that it could for the first time bring in a London mayor who is not Ken Livingstone, the election is significant because it is being viewed as a harbinger for the general election Gordon Brown is going to have to call in 2009. Brown’s approval rating has plummeted over the past several months, and his Tory rival David Cameron is now enjoying a double-digit lead in opinion polls. If the Labour Party were to lose the UK's most powerful directly elected position now it would be a fatal psychological blow and could be the ‘death knell’ for the Labour government. For this reason Brown has been campaigning furiously for Ken Livingstone over the past weeks, and this enthusiasm has been matched by Cameron’s campaigning for Johnson. This is quite amusing to watch because it’s no secret that Brown and Livingstone hate each other, as do Cameron and Johnson. If Ken can hold on to his seat then Brown will be seen as safe, for now. If he loses, all eyes will be on Westminster and people will already be forming a Tory government in their heads.

Last night there was a special 'Question Time' debate in the contest on BBC1 (you can watch it here). I have to say having just watched the ABC News Clinton-Obama debate last week it was very amusing to once again see how different British and US politics are. The format for the debate was that audience members asked questions, and every single question asked was more substantive, articulate and thoughtful than any asked by Gibson or Stephanopoulos at the ABC debate. And yet again it was amazing to see how much more confrontational British politics is. My jaw dropped several times in response to some of the questions being asked by audience members, questions that even debate moderators in the US would never have the audacity to ask (not because they were salacious, but because they were tough). The audience questioners were even calling the candidates by their first names! And the questions were really specific, going to the heart of policy. There was nothing that even bordered on the inanity of asking a candidate about flag lapel pins.

It will be interesting to see what happens. Regardless, after a year and a half of living here it’s become clear that whinging is a favourite pastime of Londoners, and no matter who the mayor is they’re going to have a go at him. So they might complain about Ken now, but when they step into the voting booth (or whatever it is they do here to vote) they may be singing a different tune. Over the past week Ken seems to be sending the signal "I got the message," letting himself be seen reading material about Boris on the tube and admitting that he may lose the election next week. If people just wanted to send Ken a message that he's not king by making him sweat a little, they've achieved that goal. Will that be enough for them, or are they really serious about dumping the only mayor they've ever known?


Mark T'Mark said...

This mayoral race has seen the growth in London of what we think was previously a US phenomenon - online grassroots campaigning. My favourite examples are the anti-Boris ones (especially the very catchy 'Reputation' - ), trying to get across messages that the candidates' own campaigns won't.

Dave Keating said...

Ha ha, that is quite amusing. It will be interesting to see if the closeness of this race and the bit of grassroots activity will mean a higher turnout than the dismal 38 percent of four years ago!